by Edward Porter
Zora Neale Hurston is a study in contradictions. In her own words, “I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” Her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the most commonly taught novels in American schools today, and yet few figures in American letters are as problematic, enigmatic, idiosyncratic, and egocentric.
She was a charter member of the Harlem Renaissance movement and the spiritual godmother of African-American studies, but her hatred of anything that smacked of paternalism led her to publicly oppose Brown v. Board of Education. She was a Republican, a conservative, and a critic of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and at the same time a key beneficiary of Roosevelt’s WPA writer’s project. She was a Columbia-trained anthropologist expert in the scientific method, an extraordinarily acute observer of language and behavior, and yet nearly everything she wrote and said about herself is suspect, up to and including the date of her own birth. Her folksy accounts of working class life feature encyclopedic use of slang and pervasive colloquial dialogue, but it would also be fair to call her a sophisticated modernist master of lyric prose. No other writer evokes female sexuality more eloquently and gorgeously, and yet a major theme of her work is the self-destructive nature of female desire. Her fiction celebrates male strength and virility, while indicting the tyranny and cruelty that accompany them.
As a literary figure Zora Neale Hurston was once the darling of her day, then consigned to the dust bin of history, then raised up again to take her place in the pantheon of American letters. Richard Wright thought she wrote for “a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.” For Alice Walker, she was an author, “wildly in love with her own people.” Few writers have written so directly from the heart, and few writers offer such a complex study in calculated self-creation.
Bloomer Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, was published in 1934 when Hurston was forty-three, although she publicly maintained an age ten years younger. Born in 1891 in Alabama, she spent most of her childhood in the all-black town of Eatonville Florida, a place she called, “the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America,” and a community whose verbal and cultural richness would permeate most of her fiction, in portrayals that would earn her both praise and infamy. In her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she speaks of a childhood beset by visions, of always feeling the artist’s sense of being different. “I was weighed down with a power I did not want. I had knowledge before its time. I knew my fate. I knew I would be an orphan and homeless.” Less melodramatically, her childhood was also marked by a keen hunger for books, from Norse legends to Rudyard Kipling.
Her education was uneven and peripatetic, interrupted by stints working as a nanny for her doctor brother in Memphis, as a lady’s maid for a touring Gilbert and Sullivan company, and a waitress in Baltimore. It is likely she began representing herself as younger than she was in order to attend Baltimore’s Morgan Academy in her mid-twenties. She earned an associate’s degree from Howard University in 1920, where she became friends with Alain Locke and began to publish short fiction. In 1925 she moved to Harlem to complete her undergraduate degree at Barnard. In New York, she met Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and became the protégé of renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, who convinced her to pursue graduate studies under his wing.
It is tempting to read Hurston’s association with Boas as the key to both her triumphs and troubles. The foremost anthropologist of his time, and a controversial figure, Boas opposed popular racial-essentialists, such as Herbert Spencer, who categorized all non-European peoples as being in an early stage of development. Boas argued that, “the data of anthropology teach us a greater tolerance of forms of civilization different from our own,” and believed Euro-American scientists had much to learn from the native peoples they had hitherto looked down on. As an early theorist of cultural relativism, Boas was keenly interested in folklore and what is now known as salvage ethnography, and perhaps saw in Hurston a unique opportunity that was normally closed to white scholars to gather and preserve a valuable world of African-American culture.
In a sense, Boas sent Hurston back to Eatonville as a spy, but in another sense, she had already come to Barnard as a spy. If both communities ultimately had difficulty assessing who she really was, it is perhaps understandable as a consequence of her role as a double-agent. It’s an open question whether her point of deepest cultural penetration was at a voodoo ritual in Haiti, or backstage during H.M.S. Pinafore.
Hurston made a number of trips on fellowships to Florida, Louisiana, and later Haiti and Jamaica to collect folk tales and study local culture. The direct products of these trips were the folk studies Mules and Men (1935), and Tell My Horse (1938). The indirect products were her novels Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Opinions about Hurston’s fiction have generally depended on how one reacts to dialogue such as, “Table dat talk. Dat John is gwine offa dis place effen Ah stay heah. He goes to Mimms uh he goes apin’ on down de road way from heah.” For Richard Wright, this was “minstrelsy” pure and simple. A more contemporary view is that Hurston preserved the verbal music of her community as an act of love, rather than condescension.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God focus on family life, love, and sex, and generally depict an African-American community that is raucous, independent, and often joyous. For Wright and the social novel school, this portrayal was an abdication of social responsibility. For the latter, the task of the African-American artist was to confront white America with its crimes, in the manner of Wright’s Native Son (1941). Hurston answered this criticism by writing that, “Negroes are supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such and so, regardless of his color.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God does defend and valorize an oppressed underclass, but that underclass is women. Wright may not have been receptive to passages such as the now-famous one in which the novel’s heroine Janie learns the nature of things from her grandmother:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe its someplace off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it, he hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls Their Eyes Were Watching God the first explicitly feminist African-American novel, and defines Janie’s journey as “a project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation.” In the course of finding her voice, Janie works her way through three men, abandoning one, killing another with words, and yet another with a gun, albeit regretfully. It’s worth noting that Hurston’s marriages, (Herbert Sheen 1927—28, Albert Price1939—43, James Howell Pitts 1944 only) were numerous, short-lived, and seem to have had little direct impact on her writing.
In the end, we should guard against defining Hurston’s fiction as the product of her training as an anthropologist, because Hurston’s approach to storytelling and basic themes are already evident in the short stories that pre-date her field-work. Stories such as “Spunk,” “Isis,” and “Muttsy” display the same combination of vernacular dialogue and lyrical prose found in her novels, and are populated with a similar cast of gamblers, adulterers, little girls, and grandmothers. Although, Boas was provided Hurston with valuable support and guidance, she was still pursuing her own inclinations.
What stands out most from the historical record is the idea that no one could handle or control Hurston, that she was always breaking free of whatever box she was put in, whether by her patrons or her enemies. This passage from a letter about her by one of her academic sponsors is revealing: “She has unquestioned ability. On the other hand, she seems to have some rather conspicuous outs. She seems to all of us, to demand very badly, further discipline, both intellectually and personally.” The author endorses her application for a fellowship, but deems her unfit for classroom studies, “where she might cause a great deal of trouble.” Rebelliousness and an appetite for conflict are at the core of Hurston’s character. Her professional friendships with Alain Locke and Langston Hughes ended in quarrels. The most memorable incident of Dust Tracks on a Road is the adolescent Hurston’s fist-fight with her hated stepmother:
Consequences be damned! If I died, let me die with my hands soaked in her blood…
She had the advantage of me in weight, and that was all. It did not seem to do her a bit of good. Maybe she did not have the guts, and she certainly underestimated mine. She gave way before my first rush, and found herself pinned against the wall, with my fists pounding at her face without pity.
The Bible character she identified with the most was David, because, “no matter where he went, he smote ’em hip and thigh. Then he sung songs to his harp awhile, and went out and smote some more.” By all accounts, her social persona was intensely flamboyant in manner and dress. She wore pants, smoked cigarettes, and during her research in the South, supposedly traveled with a pearl-handled revolver. Her life was inevitably fraught with political position-taking, and yet she sought at every turn to redefine herself in ways that were unhampered by race, gender, time, and place.
Dust Tracks on a Road put Hurston on the cover of The Saturday Review in 1943, but her fortunes began to fade soon after. Her anti-imperialist, anti-interventionist sentiments found no traction in a nation at war. Then, in 1948 she was accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy. Although she was able to show that she had been out of the country at the time of the alleged incident, the accusation alone was enough to destroy her reputation. By 1950s standards, the brawling, drawling characters of her 1930s novels seemed outmoded: they lacked the aspirational dignity sought after by the nascent civil rights movement. Seraph on the Suwanee failed to find a readership, and her publisher rejected her later novels The Golden Bench of God and Herod the Great (the former has disappeared, the latter still exists in manuscript and a short section of it appears in Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston). Her letter to the Orlando Sentinel criticizing Brown v. Board of Education, in which she commented acidly that she had no interest in being forced on people who did not want to associate with her, cemented a public impression that she was out of step with the times. She found and lost work as a maid, substitute teacher, and librarian, and died of heart disease in a welfare home in Florida in 1959.
Alice Walker’s 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms. magazine is generally credited with starting the Zora Neale Hurston revival movement, and Hurston the feminist and Hurston the treasure house of African-American culture became more vivid figures for readers than Hurston the contrarian conservative. Cited as an influence by emerging literary heavyweights such as Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara, she became a major rediscovered female author, an important African-American voice, and her work gradually assumed its current place at the center of the Americanist canon, a journey made possible by her immense literary talent, which provided a target-rich environment for scholars and students alike.
The extraordinary drama of her life and political context tends to obscure the things that brought her into the public eye in the first place: her irrepressible sense of the dramatic, her deep understanding of human need, and her dazzling skill with language, nowhere more on display than in Janie’s coming of age scene from Their Eyes Were Watching God:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun, and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
The reader is also left limp and languid by such writing, imbued so gorgeously with nature, with sex, and with spirituality. It’s a technical tour de force filled with heady active verbs and arresting syntax. It’s a ribald jokey twist on the cliché of the birds and the bees. It also happens to be the moment that sends the novel’s narrative engine roaring down the tracks, as Janie’s discovery of sex will put all things in motion. And yet, it’s just a young girl lying under a fruit tree, watching some insects. Writing in Haiti on a break from field work, a mature Hurston looks back at her days as a young girl in Eatonville, and does what great writers do: she finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Edward Porter’s short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, Booth, Printer’s Devil Review, Best New American Voices, Best Indie Lit New England, and elsewhere. He has held fellowships from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and The MacDowell Colony, earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College, and his PhD from the University of Houston, where he was a fiction editor for Gulf Coast. This fall, he’ll join the faculty at Millsaps College.
Homepage image via American Philosophical Society
Postcard art by Tony Millionaire via Ephemera Press