Zora in Florida
Zora in Florida
Steve Glassman and. Kathryn Lee Seidel
Copyright 1991 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
Photographs of Zora Neale Hurston reproduced in this volume courtesy of Special Collections, University of Florida Libraries
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Zora in Florida / edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel.
Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8130-1050-0 (alk. paper). ISBN 0-8130-1061-6 (pbk.:alk. paper)
1. Hurston, Zora Neale-Knowledge-Florida. 2. Afro-AmericansFlorida-Folklore. 3. Afro-Americans in literature. 4. Florida in literature. 5. Folklore-Florida. I. Glassman, Steve.
II. Seidel, Kathryn Lee.
The University of Central Florida is a member of University Presses of Florida, the scholarly
publishing agency of the State University System of Florida. Books are selected for
publication by faculty editorial committees at each of Florida's nine public universities:
Florida A&M University (Tallahassee), Florida Atlantic University (Boca Raton), Florida
International University (Miami), Florida State University (Tallahassee), University of Central Florida (Orlando), University of Florida (Gainesville), University of North Florida (Jacksonville), University of South Florida (Tampa), University of West Florida (Pensacola). Orders for books published by all member presses should be addressed to University Presses of Florida, 15 NW 15th St., Gainesville, FL 32603.
To Leslie Seidel and. Alexis Wang and Marguerite and Eugene Glassman
Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel
I. Flora and Fauna in Hurston's Florida Novels I Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn
2. Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville 13 Anna Lillios
3. "Beginning To See Things Really": The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston 28
4. Through the Prism of Africanity: A Preliminary Investigation of Zora Neale Hurston's
Mules and Men 38
Beulah S. Hemmingway
5. A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I 46
Dana McKinnon Preu
6. Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men 62
Mary Katherine Wainwright
7. "De Beast" Within: The Role of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine 76
8. Voodoo as Symbol in Jonah's Gourd Vine 86
9. The Shape of Hurston' Fiction 94
Rosalie Murphy Baum
1o. The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics
of Creativity in Hurston' "Sweat" 11O
Kathryn Lee Seidel
ii. Hurston as Dramatist: The Florida Connection 121
Warren J. Carson
12. Zora Neale Hurston at Rollins College 130
Maurice J. O'Sullivan, Jr., and Jack C. Lane
13. Adaptation of the Source: Ethnocentricity
and "The Florida Negro" 146
Christopher D. Felker
14. Text and Personality in Disguise and in the Open:
Zora Neale Hurstons Dust Tracks on a Road 159
15. Three Legal Entanglements of
Zora Neale Hurston 174
Kevin M. McCarthy
Contributors 183 Selected Bibliography 186
One of the most enduring and romantic legends of American letters is that of the writer who toils long and difficult years in obscurity but who, after death, is recognized as one of the great interpreters of the age. Of the many candidates who are put forth for such literary canonization, Emily Dickinson was the real thing, as was her contemporary, Herman Melville. In our century Zora Neale Hurston, the central figure in this collection of essays, has only recently been recognized as a powerful and influential writer whose work deserves immediate recognition. In the first wave of the rediscovery of her work, readers and critics responded especially to her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). These essays represent a second wave of critical response that focuses on Hurston's less-known works, on her nonfiction, on gathering and preserving primary source materials, and on assessing the elements that allow her to enter the canon as a major figure.
Zora Hurston in her day w .as a writer of limited success because her work was not taken seriously by those who would have been most likely to appreciate it. In chapter 3 David Headon points out that Carl Van Vechten and Ralph Ellison, both noted black literary figures, dismissed Hurston as frivolous and insufficiently political. Part of the new appreciation of Hurston has to do with her use of her native place and her cultural traditions as the main stuff's9 of her work. This volume focuses, therefore, on the place that gave her inspiration, the frontier wilderness of central Florida.
At the time of Hurston's birth, just before the turn of the century (the date of her birth is discussed in chapter 2), central Florida was still
were laden with phosphate. Some of the rowdiest mining towns in American frontier history replaced those blighted communities of former northerners founded with the possibility of liberal education and views. The already- existing sawmill and turpentine camps were almost as notorious in their lawlessness as the mining boomtowns. Often the black labor in these places was forced in a system known as debt peonage, embarrassingly similar to antebellum slavery, made acceptable by a thin legal sugar coating. The country was so wild and sparsely settled that cattle ranged freely throughout much of the Florida peninsula.
From this ostensibly unpromising soil, Zora Neale Hurston drew her nourishment and inspiration as a writer. Although it would be mistaken to claim that Hurston's hometown of Eatonville-the first community wholly organized and settled by blacks in the state and perhaps in the nation-was as wild as many of the others in the area, the violent and unsettled conditions of the peninsula affected it. Yet to Hurston, Eatonville did indeed seem to be an oasis, an Eden in the midst of a depressed economy. Hurston's strengths as a writer-and perhaps some of her idiosyncrasies as a person-can be traced in large part to her frontier roots. As she tells us in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and shows us in her novels-Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), and her collection of folklore, Mules and Men (1935)in Florida she heard and later recorded the speech of the common people, a group of African-Americans who were singularly interested in preserving their integrity as a community. Also, Hurston's fierce independence both as a person and as a writer can perhaps be traced to the egalitarianism that frontier conditions often inculcate. At a time when it was believed that "real" black writers should concentrate on the struggle with the white majority, Hurston concentrated on themes of self-discovery and African-American culture, which her contemporaries did not hold in particularly high regard. Almost sixty years later, feminist and AfricanAmerican critics take issue with that assessment. They see, in Hurston's writings, black women characters who struggle to liberate themselves in a world dominated by men and their values. There is political content in her work after all.
Even today, more than thirty years after her death and a half century after her most influential work appeared, some critics are not sure what to make of Hurston's work-aside from a general belief that it is of enduring importance. (For instance, today some feminist critics feel that
graduate and graduate specialist. However, in spite of thi's broad interest, critical attention, though by no means negligent or negligible, has been quite parochial. This collection of essays, for instance, is the first in which anyone seriously examines the contribution of Florida material to Hurston's work, apparent though it is at even a cursory reading.
The editors made a concerted effort to solicit at least one essay on each major phase of Hurston's literary career that was somehow bound up with Florida. For instance, this collection contains two essays devoted to her first noveljonah's Gourd Vine, which, except for several introductory chapters, is set wholly in Florida. (See chapters 7 and 8.) Previously, little critical attention had been paid to this seminal first book. In fact, a comprehensive computer search turned up mention of the book in exactly a dozen articles, only one of which was devoted totally to the novel.
Likewise, chapters in this collection discuss such critically neglected areas as Hurston's early nonfiction, her early short play Color Struck (chapter ii), and her work for the WPA Florida writers' project in the thirties (chapter 13). In addition, chapters are also included on Floridabased works to which scholars have devoted more attention, such as Mules and Men (chapters 4, 5, and 6), Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography (chapter 4), and her short fiction, such.as "Sweat" and the "Spunk" complex (chapter io). Other chapters are oriented toward the peculiarly Floridian elements in her work, such as her use of floral and faunal imagery in many of her works (chapter i). Still others talk about the actual environment and conditions Hurston confronted in Florida. In chapter 15 Kevin McCarthy discusses her several legal entanglements with an eye to explaining the eclipse that befell her late in life, another area where critical attention has been minimal prior to the publication of this volume.
Although a concerted effort was made to cover all major phases of Hurston's Florida life, no effort was made to impose any particular critical orientation throughout this work. Serious study of Hurston dates back less than two decades. It is too early for a consensus to have formed-or at least one that has abided. The editors decided that the volume should speak to the largest possible community of Hurston scholars, both the professional student as well as the casual reader infatuated by the Zora mystique. Thus, some essays in this collection speak to a wide readership with facility and clarity; the focus of others narrows with the intensity and depth of their authors' vision. All are informed
evidence is mounting that she was actually born in 1890 or 1891-and likely not in central Florida. Robert Hemenway's groundbreaking biography Of 1977 included only a few paragraphs on Hurston's life in Eatonville; however, scholars such as Anna Lillios have uncovered new evidence by speaking with contemporaries of Hurston who are still living in Eatonville (chapter 2). Hurston tells us in her autobiography that she had a generally pleasant childhood, playing and fantasizing in the pine barrens and oak scrubs of the lake district of what is called the central ridge in Florida, until her mother died (when Hurston was about nine, by her account).
The seventh of eight children, she attended schools in Eatonville and Jacksonville until she joined a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company and moved north. In Baltimore, perhaps already in her late twenties, she attended Morgan Academy in 1918 (now Morgan State University). It was there that she became excited about literature, specifically a rendition of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," as she reports in Dust Tracks. She was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College, becoming its first black student, and received a bachelor of arts degree in 1928. She married at this point, but the marriage lasted only a few years and we know little about it. Living in New York at the crest of the Harlem Renaissance was an exhilarating experience but one fraught with frustration as well. Her early work, such as Spunk'" and Sweat, brought her to the attention of popular novelist Fannie Hurst, who hired her as a secretary in 1925. Other patrons soon followed, but her publications were often criticized as lacking in political content. Her two marriages were both short-lived, with one husband accusing her of threatening him with "voodoo" (as Hemenway reports).
During the 193os and '40s, when Hurston was most productive, she frequently lived in New York and often traveled to the Caribbean but always returned to Florida. Sometimes financial exigency drove her back to her adopted home state. (Hemenway tells us her largest royalty was $943.75.) At various times she taught drama at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach and took a position with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), as Christopher Felker tells in chapter 13. At other times, Hurston seemed to come back to Florida simply because she liked the mild climate and enjoyed the fishing. Then in 1948 an incident occurred in New York that sent her back to Florida more or less for good. A ten-year-old boy accused her of sexual molestation. The charge
from provincial Florida. In 1933, a dozen years after she published her first piece in a student literary magazine and after she had already completed one book that no publisher wanted, Hurston sent a short story called "The Gilded Six-Bits" to Robert Wunsch, a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park. Wunsch liked the story and recommended it to the influential literary quarterly Story, whose editors agreed to print it.
When "Gilded Six-Bits" came out later that year, it attracted the attention of Bertram Lippincott, who wrote to ask if Hurston had a novel for submission. According to Hurston, who sometimes liked a good story better than the literal truth, she sat down at a typewriter and six weeks later completed Jonah's Gourd Vine, which Lippincott published in 1934. (Chapter 12, by Maurice O'Sullivan and Jack Lane, tells this story
The following year the same publisher brought out Mules and Men,
Hurston's collection of folklore from Florida with additional material from points around the Gulf coast. The material from this book was gathered under the direction of Frank Boaz ("Papa Franz," as Hurston called him), one of the foremost anthropologists in the United States at the time. Hurston had studied under Boaz while at Barnard. Already a successful anthropologist who had published several papers in ethnographic journals, Hurston adapted the techniques of fiction to deal with her Florida data. Mules and Men can be regarded both as an anthropological text as well as a literary work, as Robert Hemenway hints in his excellent biography and as Dana Preu discusses in some detail in
Hurston's next book project, Their Eyes Were Watching God, generally considered her masterpiece, appeared in 1937-LThis novel plots the long Kand torturous life of Janey Crawford through several relationships and
misfotnsicuig m t a m~ it iral disaster in modern
Florida hisdt-jgQrsxeta1 w' hosn eroso
the south shore of Lake_ Qi ob4.n~h~vsaig12hrl
cane7 Their Eyes Were Watching God is a sort of picaresque novel turned inside out. While the traditional picaresque has a rogue for its central character, Janey begins as an innocent who is buffeted by human and natural forces but never gives up, even after her husband, Tea Cake, becomes rabid and Janey is forced to shoot and kill him. The structure of the novel, so criticized in the first wave of Hurston criticism, has been newly appreciated as a result of work by such critics as Henry Louis Gates; his book The Signifying Monkey (198) gives a fine account of
where, among other things, she claimed to be the first person to photograph a zombie. Barbara Speisman, herself the author of the highly acclaimed play A Tea with Zora and Marjorie (The Rawlings journal I ): 67-100), points out the connection of Hurston's fieldwork in Haiti with her Florida-based novel in chapter 8. Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston's autobiography, which her publisher encouraged her to write, is generally regarded as the last of her major works. Although many critics have faulted the factual errors and omissions in this book, few deny its artistic strength. Like many autobiographies and all of Hurston's books, whether fiction and nonfiction, Dust Tracks on a Road should best be regarded as a literary work of high merit rather than a resource book of facts.
Hurston published two other books whose literary significance has yet to be determined. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) is a biblically inspired tale, and Seraph on. the Suwanee (1948) is a saga of a white cracker family in Florida. In addition to her books, Hurston published many shorter works in a wide range of periodicals and anthologies. Some of her early short stories and nonfiction pieces that appeared in obscure publications are now considered some of her most important or illuminating shorter works.
Later in life, especially after her legal troubles in 1948, she turned away from the longer form except for an unpublished (and possibly unpublishable) historical novel set in the time of Christ. Her shorter nonfiction at this time appeared in such diverse places as the American Legion Magazine, Negro Digest, and local and special-interest newspapers. In recent years several of Hurston' s anthropological essays have been collected into a volume entitled The Sanctifled Church (Berkeley: Turtle Island, 1983).
The contributors to this volume reflect the growing diversity of scholarly interest in Hurston studies. As one might expect, most of the authors live in Florida, more than half are women, and many are black. Otherwise, the demographics of the authors and editors cannot easily be classified, nor indeed are they probably as easily summed up as the preceding sentence seems to indicate. One editor, Kathryn Seidel, is assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Central Florida and has published widely in feminist studies; Hurston's hometown of Eatonville lies almost directly between Seidel' s residence and her office. Steve Glassman, the other editor, teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
institution in November 1989. Glassman, the originator and director of the conference, developed an interest in Hurston through his interest in Florida studies.
When Hurston died in i960 in a nursing home in Fort Pierce, Florida, her literary career was at low ebb and she seemed all but forgotten. She was buried in an unmarked grave. Today the town of Eatonville has erected a memorial to her and has begun a campaign to return her remains to her home.
We would like to thank John W. Williams, academic vice-president at Embry-Riddle, for supporting the Zora conference that was the origin of several essays. At University of Central Florida John Schell, chair of the Department of English, and Interim Dean Stuart Lilie provided support. Lynn Prine created a selected bibliography of works. Beth Dold at EmbryRiddle and Karen Lynette at University of Central Florida typed the manuscript. Kevin McCarthy, Walda Metcalf, and Deidre Bryan made helpful suggestions throughout. The manuscript's readers, Kathleen Hickok and Carol Manning, made many astute recommendations. To all we give our gratitude..
Flora and Fauna in
Hurston's Florida Novels
ANN R. MORRIS AND MARGARET M. DUNN
Zora Neale Hurston begins her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road ( 1984), with the words "I have memories within that came out of the materials that went to make me. Time and place have had their say" (3). Zora's "place" was Florida, and, in the most literal-sense, the flora and fauna of that state lend their colorful profusion to her fiction. In Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), Hurston uses her knowledge of the plants and animals of Florida to provide realistic settings, to compose authentically natural speech for her characters, and to create central symbols.
Certainly the natural beauty of Florida has been celebrated by many writers. Perhaps the earliest well-known author to describe Florida flora and fauna was William Bartram who in his Travels (1791) wrote about a trip along the St. Johns River. The naturalist explored extensively along the river, and his impressions of the Florida landscape were well known by the English Romanticists Wordsworth and Coleridge. In the nineteenth century John James Audubon reported in words and pictures his investigations of Florida birds, and John Muir in A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf(1916) described his observations during a march from Fernandina to Cedar Key. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is probably the bestknown describer of Florida plants and animals, beginning in 1933 with South Moon Under. Since then many other well-known writers have used Florida places and characters in their fiction: A 1989 collection entitled Florida Stories, compiled by Kevin McCarthy, includes such authors as Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Andrew Lytle, John D. MacDonald,
2 Flora and Fauna in Hurston Florida Novels
Hurston knew virtually all parts of her home state, for she had traveled the length and breadth of it gathering folktales and working in various capacities. However, it is Eatonville and its environs that she features most prominently in her fiction. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston describes lovingly the big chinaberry trees that shaded the front gate of her family's home; she used to climb to the top of one of these trees to see the far horizon that she longed to explore. Close by, citrus trees and guava bushes broke the expanse of Bermuda grass. She also remembers palmettos and peach trees (both of which her mother used for switches), sandspurs that the eight Hurston children got in their hair when they played in the grass, and cape jasmine bushes with hundreds of "fleshy white fragrant blooms" (later she would learn in New York that people call these "gardenias" and sell them for a dollar apiece). Her favorite tree was one she called the "loving pine," a friend that, she insisted, ''talked to her'' as she sat beneath it.
On summer evenings she could hear the mockingbirds singing all night in the orange trees while alligators bellowed in nearby Lake Belle. Eatonville at that time was a frontier town where it was not unusual for the young Hurston to see alligators raiding hog ,pens, wildcats fighting yard dogs, and huge rattlesnakes lying across do steps. Nearby she could pick wild violets in the woods or play beneath the moss-draped oaks. After her mother, Lucy, died in 1904 and her father remarried, Hurston became acquainted with a different Florida, that of the St. Johns River up which she traveled in order to go to school in Jacksonville. During the boat trip on the sidewheeler City of Jacksonville, she was thrilled by the "smothering foliage that draped the river banks and the miles of purple hyacinths" (109). Along the shore she saw wild hogs, flocks of waterfowl, and gators slipping off palm logs into the stream. Peering into the dark waters she glimpsed schools of mullet and catfish "6as long as a man.
In Jacksonville, however, she w as homesick for Eatonville. As she wrote later in Dust Tracks, she missed "the loving pine, the lakes, the wild violets in the woods and the animals I used to know" (95). Apparently she never got over this homesickness, for she returned to Florida whenever she could: to marry twice; to collect folklore throughout the state; to teach school in Daytona Beach, St. Augustine, and V/inter Park; and during her last years to work at whatever job she could get, mainly in Fort Pierce, where she died. According to Robert Hemenway
Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn 3
that one of the happiest periods in Hurston's life was the time spent in Eatonville in 1932 while she completed her revision of Mules and Men (1935). When she arrived in her hometown that spring, she immediately planted a garden-with black-eyed peas, watermelon, pole beans, and okra-and then sat on her porch each evening, listening to the mockingbirds and smelling the honeysuckle (162).
Hurston' s description of the locales where her characters live shows
her extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of various parts of Florida.
Both her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (the barely fictionalized account 65f'her parents' marriage), and her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watch>r.1-ng God, are set mainly in central Florida where Hurston grew up. The
action in the two texts is laced with references to trees and plants characteristic of central Florida. In Jonah's Gourd Vine, for example, when jiohn Buddy Pearson and his wife, Lucy, arrive in Eatonville from Alabama, Lucy is captivated by the smell of night-blooming jasmine; later the family enjoys guavas and mangoes, and Pearson preaches in a church
crated with red hibiscus. Similarly, in Their Eyes Were Watching God,
when Janie moves with her second husband, Jody Starks, from the Panhandle to Eatonville, she has a big yard with palm and chinaberry trees. /At the corner of the house is a lemon tree from which, after Jody's death, Janie makes lemonade for Tea Cake.'I Citrus trees are common in central Florida where Janie lives, so common, in fact, that she measures time by the citrus seasons. She says that in her first marriage she waited for love 6a bloom time, and a green time, and an orange time" (11978, 24).
\-Hurston's knowledge of citrus is never more apparent than in Seraph on the Suwanee. Here the protagonist, Arvay Meserve, moves from the town of Sawley in West Florida to Citrabelle, described as being "6on the Florida ridge, South of Polk County" (1948, 64). Although both towns are apparently fictional, the description of the locale is realistic.
As soon as Arvay and her husband, Jim, arrive in Citrabelle, he goes into the citrus business. Having bought some acreage, he chooses the sandiest part of the land for his grove because "the sandier the land, the thinner the skin, and the juicier the orange" (70). He plants both early and late oranges (the best moneymakers): Parson Browns, pineapples, temples, navels, and Valencias. Grapefruit and tangerines complete his grove because they too always bring good returns. Because Jim plants budded stock rather than seedlings, the grove begins to produce in just three years. Meanwhile Jim grows "black-eyed peas" (cowpeas) in the grove
4 Flora and Fauna in Hurston Florida Novels
mention so many of them. The chinaberries (which Hurston at one point calls "umbrella trees"), live oaks, scrub oaks, and Pines throughout the state; the magnolias and dogwoods chiefly in north Florida; the bays and cypress in the swamps-all of these appear in her work. WXhen Arvay and Jim Meserve live in west Florida, he is in the turpentine business, and Hurston gives a detailed account of gathering the "gum" (from the Pines) for the "teppentine still" (Seraph, 38-39).
She shows, too, the Sunshine State's bountiful array of other fruits besides citrus, including figs, pears,' possum persimmons,3 guavas, wild grapes, and mangoes. And she mentions a vast abundance of flowers, from the familiar crape myrtle and verbena to the less-known sawgrass bloom and Cherokee rose.4 Some of the animals she mentions may also be unfamiliar to many readers. The "coudar," for example, is a striped, hardshell, freshwater turtle'; the "piney wood rooter" is a razorback hog; and the gopher is a land tortoise native to Florida. A "tusk hog," as a reader might guess, is a wild boar whose tusks make vicious weapons.
Sometimes Hurston characterizes the people of an area by- the plants and animals around them. For example, inJonahO Gourd Vine the conjure woman An' Dangie Devoe lives in a hut that "squats..,. behind a mass of Palma Christi and elderberry" (11987, 199). The Palma Christi is more commonly known as the castor bean, a plant that grows throughout Florida and is known not only for its seeds, from which castor oil is made, but also for its poisonous qualities. In this case the natural setting is appropriate because An' Dangie is trying to "poison" the Reverend John Pearson's marriage. Hurston says in Seraph, "Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow" (i). Apparently to support this, she has one character call the people of Sawley "dumb peckerwoods" (woodpeckers) (240), while she characterizes these people as ignorant, money-grubbing farmers. Appropriately these mercenary farmers grow mainly tobacco, cotton, and peanuts and only occasionally a few "bucketflowers" (potted plants, often'in tin cans).
In comparison, when Arvay and Jim reach Citrabelle they find people powerfull fond of painting houses and planting flowers." Arvay is nonplussed by the pleasantness of this life: "Things had a picnicky, pleasury look -... It was the duty of man to suffer in this world, and these people .., were obviously shirking their duty. They were living entirely too easy"9 (64). Years later, after Arvay has finally perceived the ugliness
Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn 5
and fish are different in this part of the state. Instead of the Leghorn pullets that people raised in Sawley, herons roost like "great white blooms" among the dark leaves of the mangrove swamps. Instead of the Suwannee's bream, perch, catfish, and black bass (which Hurston says are "locally known as trout"), exotic creatures such as octopi, sea nettles, and Portuguese Men-o-War abound in the waterway (296-98). Arvay learns that because of an abundance of food to be reaped from the sea, and because of the many dangers that remind commercial fisherman of their mortality, they spend freely and enjoy life vigorously when they can. So they "bought likker and loved recklessly" (285), much like the people whom Janie Crawford meets in the Everglades when she goes there with Tea Cake.
These Everglades people work on "de muck" planting stringbeans and tomatoes, then harvesting these and sugarcane from the rich black earth near Clewiston and Belle Glade. For meat they shoot rabbits; for practice they shoot alligators. Janie finds the life there easy because crops are plentiful, and as Tea Cake says, "Folks don't do nothin' down dere but make money and fun and foolishness" (Eyes, 192). Yet even the foolish have a profound respect for nature. The migrant workers on the muck govern their lives by the crops; the Seminoles in the glades watch the earth for signs. V/hen the sawgrass blooms, banana trees blow in the wind, and snakes, raccoons, possums, deer, and panther move east, the Indians know that a hurricane is coming and stolidly head for the Palm Beach road. These Floridians, like others whom Hurston describes in her three novels, are influenced by their local flora and fauna.
One of the more obvious ways that Hurston makes apparent this influence of plants and animals on characters is in the way they speak. A southern child, Hurston says, is "raised on simile," and many of the figures of speech that they use come from the plants and animals they know. She comments, "It is an everyday affair to hear somebody called a mulletheaded, mule-eared..,. hognosed, gatorfaced, shadmouthed ... goatbellied so-and-so." In other words, she continues, because southerners are "not given to book reading, they take their comparisons right out of the barnyard and the woods" (Dust Tracks, 135-36). This background, then, was part of the "time and place" that "had their say" in Hurston's life and fiction.
When Hurston says that southerners "take their comparisons out of the barnyard and the woods," she is suggesting a major way in which her characters use their familiarity with plants and animals; they make
6 Flora and Fauna in Hurston's Florida Novels
gossip, says, "Ah just lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don't pee-pee" (Eyes, 173). Some of the comparisons express disgust. For example, when John Pearson tries to make excuses for an extramarital affair, his wife, Lucy, tells him, "Big talk ain't changin whut you doin'. You can't clean yo'self wid yo' tongue lak uh cat" (Jonah, 204). And when John's congregation gets tired of his philandering, his friend comforts him with this scathing description: "'Tain't de sin so much, John. You know our people is jus' lak uh passle uh crabs in ah basket. De minute dey see one climbin' up too high, de rest of 'em reach up and grab 'em and pull 'im back. Dey ain't gonna let nobody git nowhere if dey kin he'p it" (263). Again, when Tea Cake leaves Janie alone in Jacksonville and she cannot find the money she had hidden in case anything went wrong, she runs around the room "like a horse grinding sugar cane"in other words, getting nowhere (Eyes, 177). And most scathing of all, when Arvey has failed to come to Jim's defense against a huge rattler, he chides her, "You love like a coward.... Just stand around and hope for things to happen out right. Unthankful and unknowing like a hog under a acorn tree. Eating and grunting with your ears hanging over your eyes, and never even looking up to see where the acorns are coming from" (Seraph, 230).
Hurston also uses references to animals and plants in other figures of speech characteristic of the Floridians she is describing. For example, when John Pearson boasts of what he has accomplished, a competitive friend calls John "uh wife-made man" and adds metaphorically, "If me and him wuz tuh swap wives Ah'd go past 'im so fast you'd think it wuz de A.C.L. [Atlantic Coast Line railroad] passin' uh gopher" (Jonah, 184). Lucy also uses a metaphor when she tells her daughter Isie (as Hurston's mother had told her), "Always strain tuh be de bell cow, never be de tail uh nothin'" (2o6). Several of the characters remark that "God don't eat okra," a metonymy that apparently refers to the slickness of cooked okra and thus means that God doesn't like slick, crooked ways.
Such figures of speech came naturally to Hurston. As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, Hurston "cut her teeth on figurative language during the tale-telling or 'lying' sessions that took place on a store porch in Eatonville" (2o8). Henry Louis Gates, Jr., sees such use of figurative language as part of the signification common in Afro-American culture, and he mentions Hurston as one of the earliest writers to define the term "signify" and to use "signification" in her fiction.6 Gates defines the term signifying to mean "punning... troping.., embodying the ambiguities of language" (286). An example might be John Pearson's description of how he will escape the sheriff when in trouble. "Ah'll give mah
Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn 7
case tuh Miss Bush and let Mother Green stand mah bond. But he adds, having tired of that subject, "Les' squat dat rabbit and jump uh 'nother one" (Jonah, 157). Or consider Jim's courting of Arvay, who is acting coy. One of Jim's friends cheers him on with these words: "Go ,Gator, and muddy the water" (Seraph, 20). ~:Perhaps the best example of signifying in the three books is the deI/scription in Their Eyes Were Watching God of the last days and the ("draggin'-out" of Matt Bonner's old yellow mule:. After taking pity on the mistreated mule and buying him from Bonner, Jody Starks sets the mule free. Hurston remarks that the "free mule"9 was usually around the store ''like the other citizens' 'and that new lies sprang up daily about his "free-mule doings." When the old mule finally dies, the townspeople drag him some distance out of town and make "great ceremony" over him. Mayor Jody delivers a eulogy over the "distinguished citizen," and someone preaches on the joys of mule-heaven, which is "a pasture of pure bran with a river of molasses running through /it." Finally the mule is left to the impatient buzzards, but the "stoopshouldered" birds won't eat until Parson Buzzard flies in to conduct his own ceremony over the dead beast (92-97). All of this is clearly satirizing the so-called freeing of the slaves and the pretense that they are treated as equals by society; then the satire itself is ridiculed by having the buzzards mimic the actions of the townspeople. Reading such passages led Sherley Anne Williams to observe, "In the speech of Hurston's characters I heard my own country voice and saw .., my own country 'Nself" (quoted in Mitchell, 59).
Flora -and fauna not only lend authenticity to settings and dialogue; they also provide a central symbol for each of the three novels. Lillie P. Howard has pointed out that in Jonah's Gourd Vine "snake symbolism abounds" in the form of whips, literal snakes, and trains (84-85). Clearly, from the beginning of the book, John Pearson's interest in women is likely to land him in trouble. Appropriately, his temptations are imbued with snake imagery. In her afterword to the reprinted edition of the novel, Holley Eley explains that its title refers to Jonah 4:6-10, which Hurston loosely interpreted in these words: "You see the prophet of God sat up under a gourd vine that had grown up in one night. But a cut worm came along and cut it down" (322-23). John Pearson too is finally cut down, though he has earlier overcome the snakes he encounters. Early in the novel his mother warns him, "Look out under foot
8 Flora and Fauna in Hurston 's Florida Novels
power of the "fiery-lunged monster" (34-35), not knowing that this will eventually destroy him. On the way to his destruction, Pearson becomes involved in a series of sexual dalliances, and even while happily married to and in love with his wife, Lucy, he carries on a torrid affair with a woman named Hattie. The "Hattie affair" is in fact such a scandal that Pearson might lose his church over it. In a sordid climax to a tawdry episode, Lucy on her deathbed pleads with him to end the affair, and he, in a rage, slaps her. Determined to begin again, John flees to Plant City and tries to become a better man. Somewhat redeemed, he is invited to preach again in Sanford. Prophetically, however, in this sermon he pictures Christ as struck down by "de damnation train," and when he leaves the church he rushes into the arms of a prostitute. Immediately repentant, he starts home for Plant City, but he never reaches it. John's car is struck by a train and he is killed. The snake has finally triumphed.
In Their Eyes .Were Watching God the central symbol_ is a-pear tree. T~hen Janie is sixteen and living in west Florida, she spends one spring Sday under a blossoming pear tree near her home. Watching the "snowy /virginity of bloom .., she saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace. So this was a marriage!" (24). From that momentJanie loI ofn bee for her blossom. When her grandmother insists that Janie~ mrythe, elely Logan Killicks, Janie has a visiojjo'f1i icks desecratin the pear tree(8.Jnegvsihwvr until fast-talking Jody Starks comes along. Though he does not represent "sunup and pollen and blooming trees,"9 he speaks "for far horizon" (5o), and Janie hopes that he may fulfill her longings. However, after seven years of marriage, Janie realizes that Jody only wants her to be Mrs. Mayor Starks, an attractive possession. From that point on, she is no longer "petal-open" with him (iii). KAfter Jody dies, Janie 'finally meets the man who "could be a bee to a Iblossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring" (161). Throughout the novel, Janie's relationship with this man called Tea Cake (his real name is Vergible Woods) is associated with nature and springtime. He brings J anie strawberries, takes her fishing, and introduces her to the joys of planting and growing vegetables in the Everglades. In short, instead of treating her like "de mule of de world" (Janie's grandmother's description of the black woman's role in life), Tea Cake treats Janie as an equal. She learns, in Cyrena Pondrom's words, "to rejoice in the creative forces of the universe, the forces that animate the plants of the fertile muck"
Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn 9
(she will plant, for "the seeds reminded Janie of Tea Cake more than an th-ngelse" (.83). These seeds fit into the pattern of springtime fertllzatiop -'dnwgrnwflii-iielWffrougbnn the nomdv fbyte eebl/so ima although Janie has had to kill her lover because he had
been bitten by a rabid dog, she has known with him a self-fulfillment much more desirable than the security and status provided by her first two husbands. And as Barbara Christian has pointed out, "The blossoni.
ing pear tree is the imae of Janie's sensuality and of her desire for
st as Janie sees herself as a "tree in bloom" with "glossy leaves and
bursting buds" (25), Arvay Henson Meserve's image of herself centers around a tree, in this case a mulberry tree that grows behind her home in Sawley. In contrast with Janie, Arvay's relationship with her tree changes as her image of herself changes in Seraph on the Suwanee. When a young woman, Arvey thinks of the big mulberry as "a cool green temple of peace" (34). She hides from her poor white family within the "green cave" made by low-hanging, supple branches, and when she had decided to marry Jim Meserve she takes him to this "green tent" (44).
Here she loses her virginity to him in a scene that is more rape than seduction, after which he takes her off to the courthouse to marry her.
This early description of the tree and what happens there establishes Arvay's desire for protection and her passivity; she is not as openly sensual as Janie, and unlike Tea Cake, Jim does not treat his fiance as an equal.
Even after Arvay has lived in Citrabelle for years and has had three children, she still sees the tree as a "leafy haven" (119). By this time, however, Arvay and Jim have grown apart. She disapproves of his moonshining business and his friendship with black Joe Kelsey; he is disappointed that Arvay won't acknowledge that their first child, Earl, has dangerous violent outbursts and needs to be institutionalized. This is the situation when Arvay returns to Sawley for a visit and walks out under her mulberry tree. High in the tree a small screech owl is sleeping, and she identifies with this "lonesome creeture" that cries for "someone to come and drive away the lonesome feeling from its heart" (119). Looking at the sleeping owl, Arvay wonders if she would even have escaped from this "ugly and lonesome place" if Jim had not arrived to carry her away.
Clearly, now the tree is a lonely place to escape from rather than a "cool
Arvay's final return to the tree does not occur until many years later.
By this time Earl has attacked a young woman and been killed by a posse, the other children are grown, and Jim has left Arvay. The couple's alienation from each other has climaxed in an incident with a rattlesnake, an incident in which Jim nearly loses his life while Arvay stands and
I0 Flora and Fauna in Hurston's Florida Novels
gawks instead of trying to help her husband. Jim is rescued but decides
to leave Arvay because, as he tells her, he is tired of her "stand-still ..
kind of love" and wants "a knowing and a doing love" (140). After Jim leaves, Arvay is called home to see her dying mother. She finds her mulberry tree leafless, for it is late February. But she knows that, before long, "tender green leaves would push out of those tight little brown bumps" and "green knots .., would turn out to be juicy, sweet, purple berries." She realizes that this "great, graceful green canopy ... was a sacred symbol. ... her tree of life," and that "here, in violent ecstasy, had begun her real life" (268-70). At last Arvay sees how life-denying and restrictive her family home had been and realizes that she should be actively involved in pursuing life rather than expecting Jim to shelter her as the mulberry tree did when she was a child. V/hat Lillie P. Howard calls "Arvay's grail-like quest. for self- actualization" (136) has at last been completed. She goes to Jim, ready to be an equal partner and to protect "I him as the mulberry tree had protected her. Clearly the tree symbolized
the haven that the weak, whining Arvay needed at first as a young girl and later as a lonely owl-like woman. By the end of the novel, the tree has become a symbol of her strength. V/hen she cradles the sleeping Jim to her in the novel's last scene, she realizes that "he hungered for her hovering .., so helpless sleeping there in her arms," and she knows that no woman could do "more mothering and hovering than she could"
(310). Although this change in Arvay is unconvincing, clearly she is intended to be portrayed here as someone who at first lacks confidence and needs the tree's protection. Later Hurston portrays her as a woman who is like the strong, vigorous mulberry tree that is the central symbol
of the book.
Q~-urston herself was such a woman-strong, vigorous, confident.
When Alice Walker traveled to Fort Pierce in 1973 to find this "bodacious" woman's grave, she was continuing a quest for "the secret of what has fed that .. often mutilated, but vibrant, creative spirit that the black woman has inherited" (239). Walker found in Fort Pierce the unmarked grave in a field of weeds; she also found an. old man who had lived near Hurston during her last years. The one thing Walker wanted to ask the man was whether Hurston liked flowers. His reply was "She was crazy about them. And she was a great gardener. She loved azaleas, and that running and blooming vine (morning glory), and she really loved that nig~ht-smelling flower (gYardenia). She kept a vegetable garden
Ann R. Morris and Margaret M. Dunn II
their say" in her work. In the lyric descriptions of settings, the lucid and realistic dialogue, and the haunting simplicity of symbols, her knowledge of the Sunshine State is evident. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once wrote to Maxwell Perkins that Hurston "is proud of her blood and her people" (293). Rawlings should have added "and of her state," for Hurston' s fiction shows that she recognized the profuse natural beauty of the Florida countryside. Hurston once described herself as a person who loved "magnificence, beauty, poetry, and color so much that there can never be too much of it" (quoted in afterword to Jonah 's Gourd Vine, 319). In the Sunshine State that she knew so well, Hurston lived with magnificence, beauty, poetry, and color. More important, she brought it all to her depiction of flora and fauna in the Florida novels.
1. This was possibly a "rough" lemon, a variety that was widely grown in Florida during the time Hurston was writing. These lemons are larger, juicier, and thicker-skinned than the Lisbon, Eureka, and Villafrance varieties grown in southern California and sold throughout the United States.
2. Hurston does not name the variety of pear tree she refers to in several of her fictional works, but she does comment in Seraph on the Suwanee that the pears were onlyy good for preserving" (8). Such pear trees-probably a variety of sand pearwere fairly common in the north and central regions of the state until a bacterial infection known as fire blight began to reduce their number. The most common varieties of sand pear were Hood and Pineapple, still grown for canning today. Compared to the Bartlett pears commonly available in supermarkets today, these varieties are very hard and less succulent. Nevertheless, when cooked with plenty of sugar, they are often used in pies and preserves.
3. Possum persimmons are apparently the wild persimmon common in Florida pinelands and fields. The trees often grow to be fifteen to twenty feet tall. The name comes from the fact that the fruit is eaten by possums.
4. The Cherokee rose that Hurston speaks of (89) is a wild rose found in low woods and along roadsides in a number of southeastern states. It is a lush, hardy rose that sends out long shoots that are thornier than those of the average rose. The small white flowers are not numerous. Because the Cherokee rose grows so well in sand, resists the summer heat, and continues to bloom for more years than most varieties, Florida rose growers have recently begun using the Rosa Fortuniana (Double Cherokee) as root stock on which to graft tea roses.
5. In Jonah's Gourd Vine Hurston describes the good meals that could be made from turtles that are stewed, fried- crisp and brown, or boiled. She adds that Floridians often caught turtles on a hook baited with "white side-meat" (2).
6. Gates points out Hurston's use of the term "signify" in Mules and Men, where she also defines it as "to show off" (161). In addition, writes Gates, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a "paradigmatic signifying test ... because it uses signifying both as thematic matter and as a rhetorical strategy of the novel itself" (290).
12 Flora and Fauna in Hurston's Florida Novels
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 18921976. Westport,, CT: Greenwood, i98o.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. "The' Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and
the Signifying Monkey." In Black Literature and Literacy Theory, edited by Henry
Louis Gates, Jr., 285-321. New York: Methuen, 1984.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, i977.
Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, i98o. Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. Reprint, with introduction by
Robert Hemenway. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
.Jonah's Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1934. Reprints, with afterword
by Holly Eley. London: Virago, 1987.
Mules and Men. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1935.
Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: Scribner's, 1948.
Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1937. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Johnson, Barbara. "Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching
God." In Black Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
205-I9. New York: Methuen, 1984.
McCarthy, Kevin, ed. Florida Stories. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989. Mitchell, Leatha Simmons. "Toni Morrison, My Mother, and Me." In In the
Memory and Spirit of Frances, Zora, and Lorraine, edited by Juliette Bowles, 58-6o.
Washington, D.C.: Howard University Institute for the Arts and the Humanities, 1979.
Muir, John. A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916.
Reprint. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Pondrom, Cyrena N. "The Role of Myth in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching
God." American Literature 58 (May 1986):i8-202.
Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. Selected Letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, edited by
Gordon E. Bigelow and Laura V. Monti. Gainesville: University of Florida Press,
South Moon Under. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1933.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983.
Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville
Eatonville .... a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse. -Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men
Maitland is Maitland until it gets to Hurst's corner, and then it is Eatonville. Right in front of Willie Sewell's yellow-painted house the hard road quits being the hard road for a generous mile and becomes the heart of Eatonville. Or from a stranger's point of view, you could say that the road just bursts through on its way from
Highway #17 to #441 scattering Eatonville right and left.
-Zora Neale Hurston, "Eatonville When You Look at It"
"In a sense, everything Zora Neale Hurston wrote came out of her experience of Eatonville," Alice Walker says of the writer who inspired her. Eatonville provided Hurston with folktales, personalities, and events, which later appeared in her novels, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); her collection of folklore, Mules and Men (1935); and her short stories, most notably "The Eatonville Anthology" (1926) and "Sweat" (1926).
Unfortunately, the people of Eatonville who told Hurston their folktales have nearly all died, the buildings with which she was familiar no longer exist, and the rural landscape has been transformed by commercial districts and housing developments. Less than thirty years after her death, most of the physical traces of the Eatonville that Hurston knew as a girl have vanished. Walker's search for Hurston's unmarked grave in Fort Pierce in 1973 typifies the elusive quest for Hurston's presence in her hometown. Nevertheless, some landmarks in Eatonville closely associated with Hurston can be identified.
14 Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston Eatonville
According to Eatonville residents, the Hurston family home was located on Taylor Street, behind the police station. The Orange County Indexing Department records that Hurston's father, the Reverend John Hurston, bought parcels of land from Joe Clarke on January 15, 1901, and April 14, 1910. This property fell in the block bounded by West, Lawrence, People, and Lord streets. (No one in town today has heard of Lawrence and Lord streets, which have long been renamed. The Hurston property most likely fell in the block bounded by present-day Lemon, People, Lime, and West streets.) In Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) Hurston describes her family home as a kind of Florida paradise: We lived on a big piece of ground with two big chinaberry trees shading the front gate and Cape jasmine bushes with hundreds of blooms on either side of the walks. I loved the fleshy, white, fragrant blooms as a child but did not make too much of them. They were too common in my neighborhood. When I got to New York and found out that people called them gardenias, and that the flowers cost a dollar each, I was impressed. .. There were plenty of orange, grapefruit, tangerine, guavas and other fruits in our yard.
We had a five-acre garden with things to eat growing in it, and so
we were never hungry. ( 1984, 18)
When Hurston was a girl she would cross the street and listen to "the big picture talkers" who "painted crayon enlargements of life," as they hung out on the front porch of Joe Clarke's general store. Clarke, the man after whom Jody Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God was modeled, owned at least a dozen parcels of land, including the forty acres comprising Eatonville. He had purchased this land from Josiah Eaton on November 1, 1884. Clarke's store, which also included a U.S. Post Office, was located on the northeast corner of West Street and.Kennedy Boulevard and faced West Street. Clarke's home was next door to the store. iThe R & R Grocery Store is currently located on the site. In her autobiography, Hurston describes the store's atmosphere: "There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clarke's porch. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked and nakedly arrived at. It was a case of 'make it and take it.' You got what your strengths would bring you. This was not just true of Eatonville. This was the spirit of that whole new part of the state at the time, as it Always is where men settle new lands" (62).
Anna Lillios i5
located in a new building on Calhoun Street and East Kennedy Boulevard. The Reverend Hurston also served as the mayor of Eatonville from 1912 to 1916. According to Eatonville's town historian, Frank M. Otey, the reverend was "a vocal and knowledgeable politician" who formulated some of the town laws and emphasized education. He encouraged the town's citizens to send their children to school rather than to work. Otey notes that the Reverend Hurston set an example with his own children: "Ben became a pharmacist, Clifford Joe was a principal in a school in Alabama, and John ran a market in Jacksonville, FL. Both Dick and Everette became postal clerks, Dick as a railroad employee and Everette in New York. Of the two girls, Sara married and raised a family, while Zora became a renowned writer" (Otey 1989, i8).
Hurston attended the Robert Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, which was modeled on the Tuskegee Institute and considered one of the best southern black schools at the time. The school was built in 1899 by Russell C. Calhoun and endowed by E. L. Hungerford in memory of his son, who died of yellow fever while caring for blacks in the bayou region of Louisiana. Besides the typical academic subjects students were also taught vocational and domestic skills. None of the original buildings exists. The school was given to Orange County as a public trust on May 6, 1950. Today the school is called the Wymore Career Educational Center, a vocational-technical institution for 480 students in grades 7 to 12. The Hungerford Elementary School also occupies part of the property.
Several women still alive recall Zora Neale Hurston in Eatonville. In the winter and spring of 1989-9o I interviewed Clara Williams, Hoyt Davis, Annie Davis, Mattie Jones, Jimmie Lee Harrell, and Harriet Moseley, all of whom knew Zora Neale Hurston in their hometown. Except for Clara Williams, who resides nearby in Orlando, they still live in Eatonville. My questions focused on the women's memories of Hurston as well as of life in Eatonville during the 1920S and 1930s. I also wanted to see if I could clear up some mysteries surrounding Hurston, such as her date of birth and her whereabouts when she returned to Eatonville, as well as get some sense of the townspeople's regard for her.
The accepted date of Hurston's birth, which appears in Robert Hemenway's biography (1977), is January 7, igoi. But legal documents indicate otherwise; her death certificate gives January 7, 1903, as her birth date, and the marriage certificate that Sandy Shuler discovered in St. Augustine records that Hurston was twenty-eight years old when she married Herbert Steen on May 19, 1927. Cheryl Wall of Rutgers University has located census records in the National Archives that indicate that Hurston was nine years old in 1900. Two of the people I interviewed
i6 Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston' Eatonville
led me to believe that Hurston was indeed born in 189i. Mattie Jones, born in 1903, said that Hurston was a "grown woman" when she was a girl, that Hurston was of her parents' generation. Clara Williams said that her father was born in 189o, and he told her that Hurston was one year younger than he. This information is corroborated by Everette Hurston, Sr., Zora's brother, who showed Robert Hemenway his family genealogy in 1976 (1977, 32). Perhaps Hurston moved her birth date into the twentieth century in order to appear more modern, though future scholars may discover other-motives.
When Hurston returned to Eatonville as an adult, she would stay in a great variety of places. Usually she would reside with friends, notably Armetta Jones and Matilda Moseley. Basically, she would come and go like a free spirit, appearing and disappearing with little notice, according to the women I interviewed. But in the 1930s she apparently lived in a little house on a lake, possibly Lake Hungerford. Hurston wrote about her house in a short essay, "Eatonville When You Look at It," dated October I, 1938; this essay may have been written in connection with her work for the Federal Writers' Project. Hurston describes her home as "the last house in Eatonville," "a big barn on the lake." She says, "and west of it all, village and school, everybody knows that the sun makes his nest in some lonesome lake in the woods back there and gets his night rest." She concludes that another lake, Lake Belle, is the home of Eatonville's "most celebrated resident, the world's largest alligator"
Another author in the Federal Writers' Project, Paul Biggs of Lakeland, Florida, writes of visiting Hurston's home, which he locates on Lake Buck (perhaps an earlier name for Lake Hungerford): "The house in which Miss Hurston occupies is located close to Lake Buck. It is a weather-boarded house, very spacious, and comfortably arranged in the interior. Around the house will be found games for recreational amusements, such as: badminton, croquet, and holes for golf putting. Which makes its physical setting ideal for a country lodge" (1938, I).
In the interviews I also tried to determine the townspeople's regard for Hurston. Two potentially alienating factors surround her presence in her hometown. One has to do with her education at Barnard and her acquaintanceship with famous scholars and artists in New York. The other has to do with Hurston's sometimes harsh portrayal of Eatonville folk such as Joe Clarke in her fiction.
Clara Williams, the daughter of Rosa and Enoch Nixon, was born December 25, 1924. She has many memories of Hurston, whom she laughingly told me had been interested in her father. She confirmed the
Anna Lillios 17
18gi birth date. Her father, born in 18go, told her that Hurston was one year younger than he.
AL: What do you remember about Zora?
cw: You wouldn't want me to tell my favorite memory of her.
AL: You don't want to tell it?
cw: Well .... I have a lot of memories about Zora Neale Hurston,
but one .... She used to come up on what they call a hill where my grandmother lived, and talk to- us, you know, tell stories to the children there. One day she came up, and without asking my grandmother-people in those days didn't care, as long as somebody they knew had the children. She took us to her house and she had this photographer with her and he was taking pictures. They had all this watermelon-these long watermelons-and she quartered them and gave each one of us a piece of this watermelon for this photographer to take our picture. And, of course, being children we went to eating it, while he was steadily taking pictures. We thought nothing of it. My dad came to pick us up that Friday, 'cause mother was coming home from summer school. My youngest brother told daddy, "We went to Miss Zora's house the other day, Daddy, and she gave us a long piece of watermelon and told us to eat it and this man was taking our picture and we was just going up and down that watermelon, chomp, chomp chomp. My daddy got us back in the car. He told us to stay there until he came back. He disappeared and then he came back and carried us home, back to Orlando. But we didn't think anything of it. You know, somebody taking your picture. First of all, feeding you ... watermelon that was good and cold and it was
summertime. But he didn't want those pictures in a book.
AL: Did you ever see those pictures?
cw: We've never seen them. Never heard anything else about
them.... I'm sure she kept them. Then I met her again at Florida A&M when I was a junior in college. She was there promoting some of her books, and she recognized me because I look so much like my daddy. She told the people there that she saw somebody that she recognized (laughs), but I don't
18 Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville
cw: It must have been ... I graduated in 1946 so it must have
been in 1945, late, probably.
AL: What was she like as a person?
cw: As far as I knew her she was all right, because, see, I was a
child growing up and anytime somebody comes up and gives you something, you think, that's a good person. I didn't know
her as an adult, so I can't say.
AL: Can you describe her personality?
cw: She had a very outgoing personality and as far as children were
concerned she was a very nice person because whenever she
came up the hill she always had something to give us.
AL: She loved the kids....
,,qw: Yes. She'd sit down and she'd tell us stories and things about places she had been and something like that. She just had
everybody's attention when she came.
AL: Did she tell stories about the community or were they about
cw: No, she would just tell us stories, but I can't remember her
saying anything about anyone in the community. I mean, she was just talking to us. But she would say things just to hold
our attention. I guess to see our reactions.
AL: Do you remember any of these stories?
cw: No. But, you see, I have read all of her books now so if I were
to say I remembered anything she told, it would be probably something from her books-which would not be right. She never said where the stories were from. When she would come up, we knew she was going to tell us a story and everybody
just sat on the ground, cross-legged, and listened.
AL: Was she a great storyteller?
cw: She could hold your attention.
AL: Did she sing to you?
cw: No, she didn't sing to us, she just told us stories. And then
she'd jump up and say, "Well, I've got to go, and everybody would be, "Bye, Miss Zora, bye, Miss Zora, bye, Miss Zora,"
until she got out of sight. And, then back up the trees we'd go (laughs) or back around the fields or somewhere like that.
But I can't remember any of them.
AL: Did you have any sense how old she was at the time?
n1 1 1. 1 .1 1 1 -1 1 I 1 1.
Anna Lillios 19
cw: Everybody had gardens, you grew chickens. If your neighbors
needed something, they just came over and said, I need something, and they got it. We didn't have money. But money meant nothing, because we didn't need it. We had plenty to eat. We wore clothes made of feedbags. We bought beautiful feedbags and they made beautiful clothes. What difference did it make? We'd go to the feedstore and take a quarter-a quarter was a lot of money-and buy you some bags. ... panties to match your dress. That's true. We had a good time. We didn't realize we were poor. We were, but we didn't realize
it, because everyone else was in the same condition. AL: What kind of work did the men do? cw: Most of them worked in the orange groves. My father worked
in a packing house. My grandfather worked in a hotel. Now they have torn it down and built a new one. There is a marker in front of it on Highway 17-92, just before you turn to go to Eatonville. At the time it was a big old-fashioned hotel.
What he did, other than cleaning up and cutting the yard, I don't know. My grandmother took in laundry from different people around in Maitland. But she stayed home-she didn't
go out-and did it.
AL: What other jobs did women do? cw: That's all I know they did .., cleaning houses. Very few of
them that I know of went off to school. At Hungerford they taught them how to keep house, wash, and take care of children-along with the lessons. Very few of them were fortunate
enough to read and go to college.
AL: What kinds of food did people cook? cw: Everything. You name it, they cooked it. But they didn't have
all this fancy stuff like today. They just had regular food.
They'd have chicken, fish, beef, pork, pigs' feet, chitlins, potatoes, tomatoes, okra, peas 'cause they grew most of their own vegetables. Somebody grew pigs, had cows and milk.
AL: How did the townspeople feel about Zora? cw: She'd written some things about Eatonville and when she came
back, they said they were going to fix her. (Laughs.) They didn't like some of the things she said or the way she said
20 Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville
AL: Did anyone ever confront her?
cw: I don't know. I heard my grandmother say something about,
yeah, I saw that in the book. (Laughs.) I don't know if anyone else said anything. When she was in town, they didn't discuss it. People just didn't sit down in those days and talk about people like we do now. (Laughs.) I was a child and she didn't associate with us, other than to tell us stories. Naturally, we wouldn't hear anything negligent about her or negative, because they wouldn't tell us that. They would just tell us where she was, if she was telling stories somewhere, and we'd go to
listen to her. That's it.
Hoyt Davis, born June 7, 1903, was close to Hurston in age but does not remember playing with her as a child. Her first contact with Hurston came when she was an adult and Hurston would come to town. Mrs. Davis would visit her at Lula Moseley's house. She would go over to say hello but never had time to visit. Mrs. Davis did domestic work in Maitland, beginning when she was around nineteen years old. Her memories of Hurston are dim, but she does remember that "everyone liked her, that she was a kind-hearted person. She fit in with people just as if she was living here. They were so glad to see her." The questions that I asked Mrs. Davis had to do with life in Eatonville during the 1920S and 1930s.
AL: Tell me about your job.
HD: I did domestic work. I began around nineteen. The first job I
had I was helping a woman over in Maitland. I would do the dishes and do the bathrooms. In the wintertime when I was going to school, I would go in the afternoons. In summertime I'd go in the mornings. After I got older I started working for another woman in Maitland. She had boarders and she needed someone to help her in the kitchen because she did the cooking.
She hired me to do that. I started cleaning vegetables and washing dishes. She taught me how to cook, she taught me how to set up the table correctly, she, taught me how to serve correctly. As time passed by, she knew that I was capable of really cooking, because she had trained me to do it. She had cookbooks there-the Fanny Farmer and the Boston cookbooks, they were the leading cookbooks. Then she just turned
Anna Lillios 21
HD: Yes, it was hard, but I had to do it My husband and I had
AL: Did many other women work outside the home? HD: Yes. They did the same type of work I did-some of them
were cooks, some of them did maid work.
AL: Was it common for women to work outside the home? HD: oh, sure.
AL: Did you experience hard times during the 1930s? HD: No, I didn't because I was working on this job. And my father
and my brother, we all lived together right here on the same property. And, of course, they were working in the citrus groves. With me working we made it all right. We were never hungry, not even a day. My father always had a garden. He grew chickens and they'd lay eggs. So we got along pretty good. To tell you the truth, I don't know of one person being hungry at that time in Eatonville. Everybody out here planted gardens and they grew chickens. They could eat chickens whenever they wanted and they fished. So I never heard of
anybody asking for food.
AL: What was Eatonville like in the 192os and '30s? HD: It was a quiet little town. Wasn't too much going on. Nothing
like today. The people then they shared and cared. That made it nice. One person had maybe a cow. They'd milk the cow and they'd send the neighbors milk and butter. It was like one big family. There weren't too many people out here when I was a girl. People started coming in to Eatonville in the ig5os. AL: Were the churches the center of life? HD: Yes. Both of the churches were very active. Everybody went
to church. Everybody took their children to church. AL: Every Sunday?
HD: Every. My father and mother, they went every Sunday. A lot
of people here went every Sunday. They never missed a Sunday
unless they were sick.
AL: Did you ever hear Reverend Hurston preach? HD: I don't remember him. My father used to tell me about Reverend Hurston, but I don't remember him. He said he was a good preacher and a good man. To tell you the truth, all the
men out here were just hard-working, good men.
Excursions into Zora Neale HurstoO Eatonville
pennies, some of them would. They would turn them over to Miss Weston. She would make cookies and lemonade and that's what she'd serve. That was just wonderful for us and we'd enjoy it so much. She would take these pennies that she collected on Saturday and on Sunday morning she'd turn them over to her class in the church. The money went to the church.
We used to go to Lake Sybelia and we would swim. The
boys and the girls, we would all be together. Sometimes on holidays the women and the men would get together and have this picnic. After the picnic there would be a baseball game.
We en oyed it. Eatonville would sometimes be playing Winter Park, sometimes Oviedo. The men were all young. The girls
didn't play. We played hopscotch and things like that.
Another thing that children would do this time of year
[spring] ... Mr. Sam Moseley, he grew sugarcane. He had a cane grinder. I guess it was one he made himself. It looked like he might have made it. He had a horse to grind the cane. The kids would all be around in the daytime. He had cups there and he would give all the kids a cup of cane juice. Then he would make syrup and he sold the syrup. People all bought the syrup. On Saturday nights, the adults would have what they
called a candy pulling. And all the kids would be at that.
AL: Do you have any more memories of enjoyable childhood
HD: Some of the women who lived in Eatonville worked at the
Park House. It was a big hotel and they had to have help. I don't know who owned it at the time. Sunday afternoons some
of us-just would be girls, wouldn't be any boys with us
would get tog ether. We would go and pick violets, wild violets. We would wash them up and we'd go to the Park House. Those people there were northern people, down here
for the winter. They would give us ten cents a bunch.
I interviewed Annie Davis, who knew Hurston in the 1940s, on September 29, 1989. Mrs. Davis's father was Will Davis, whose second wife was Armetta Jones (the woman Hurston visits in Mules and Men). Mrs. Davis lived in Jacksonville, Florida, during the time that she had contact with Hurston.
Anna Lillios 23
home and have a lot of little books, a lot of papers. She had wrote and taken notes because she was writing about here from her childhood. Some liked it and some didn't. My mother and daddy knowed all of her people, all about her. But I didn't hear all that much ... you know, from the ending up to the beginning. I just know her by them. She'd always come to my mother and father's house and stay. She'd stay there till she
was ready to go back.
I spent a lot of time with her. We'd just get together and
talk. I wasn't here that long. I was back and forth from Jacksonville. [Davis was married and living in Jacksonville at the time.] Most of the time when I come home, she'd be here and she'd talk about her childhood days. She was trying to write books. I never had a chance to read her books. My mother's niece, she had a lot of her books and papers, but when she died the niece ... we don't know which way those papers and books and things went. We was trying to get a-hold of them but we
AL: Your mother's name is in one of her books. AD: Yes, and Matilda Moseley.... There's a lot of names in those
AL: How did she fit in when she came back? Was she like one of
AD: Yes, that's right. She was just Zora. She never looked over
none of her people because she had more education. She never looked over the lower class that was under her. She never did.
She was always Zora. She was always happy. She was always rejoiced. She didn't care what you had to sit down to eat. She always made herself welcome. She wasn't one of those highclass people. To look at her, the type of woman she was, you could never tell by the way she treated you. She always was nice. She was always kind. When she spoke to any of her people she always spoke nice. She just wanted to put in her book her
childhood on up.
AL: How did other people like her? AD: Some liked her. Some loved her. Some didn't. They didn't
want her to write in this book.
A- T-%*-l 1 r 1 1 11 1 1 1 '11
24 Excursions into Zora Neale HurstonO Eatonville
hogs, and cows and everything. She come out of a slum. I read
some of that in her books.
AL: Did she have any relatives here?
AD: No. She wouldn't stay with nobody if she wasn't with Mrs.
Moseley and them or she was to my mother and father.
AL: She writes a lot about the men sitting around Joe Clarke's
store, telling stories. Did you ever hear these stories?
AD: No. At least I wouldn't dare. (Laughs.) I wouldn't dare to be
out where the mens would be telling these things. That's something the women would never do. My mother and dad were alive. When I come here I was young. The only time I'd be with her was when she was home to the house, but not to go out with her. I know she was a sweet person, that's all I know about her. She was just regular. Digging up her background
from her childhood, I couldn't tell you anything like that.
AL: What kind of stories would she tell?
AD: She never would tell any stories ... just ordinary talking. She'd
go off and be on the side porch. We had an open porch and then a screened-in porch. She'd always go off and be by herself and she'd be writing, humming little songs. She was just a
nice, quiet person.
Mrs. Mattie Jones was born on February 28, 1903. She came to Eatonville in 1916, but she does not recall much contact with Hurston at that time. She got to know Hurston in the 193os and 1940s. Her husband's brother was Ellis Jones, Armetta Jones's first husband.
AL: Were you the same age as Zora?
Mj: She was older than I. She was a good ways older than I was.
I was just a young girl when I came.
AL: I've seen her birth date listed as 1901 and 18gi. When you came
to Eatonville in 1916, how old do you think she was? Was she
a teenager or a woman?
Mj: She was older than I. I was a teenager then. She was a woman.
AL: Have you read her books?
Mj: I haven't read up nothing about her in a long time. I don't go
AL: What kind of person was she?
Mj: She was nice and friendly. She'd take so much patience with
Anna Lillios 25
Mj: Oh, yes. Everybody as far as I know liked her very much. She
was real good as far as I can remember.
AL: Was she writing books then?
Mj: Yes. There was an old lady here at that time, named Miss
Henderson, and she hadn't seen her people in Georgia for fifty years. Her people all thought she was dead. Zora wrote a book about her and put a picture in the book. That was the way her
people in Georgia found out that she was still living.
AL: Did she fit in with the community?
MIRIAM BAKER (DAUGHTER): She was just one of them. It wasn't
until I got grown in these late years that I really realized how famous and great she really was. All I ever heard or remember
of her was that she was just one of the people here.
Jimmie Lee Harrell, born June 7, 1905, remembers spending one evening with Hurston in 1934. Harrell's brother, John C. Hamilton, married Hurston' s niece, Winifred, and lived with Harrell' s parents on Eaton Street; Hurston was visiting them at the time.
AL: What were your impressions of Zora?
JLH: She was friendly and a writer, I heard her telling my mother.
I thought she was a schoolteacher. She [looked] like a businesswoman. She knew what she was doing.
AL: What happened on the evening that you spent with her?
JLH: I cooked the food and waited on the table. Then I was
AL: But you were a woman then ...
JLH: Oh, yes. I was a woman at that time. I had four children.
AL: Why didn't you sit at the table?
JLH: I couldn't sit at the table and wait on the table. I cooked all
AL: Do you remember Zora as a kind person?
JLH: She was. She was just kind and friendly.
AL: Some people in town disliked the fact that she put them in her
books. Did you hear anything about this?
JLH: The background of their inheritance is just like myself. They
didn't have much schooling. But Zora was one, from what I can understand, who had been to school long enough to know what she was saying and doing. I imagine there was some
26 Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville
Harriet Moseley's great-great uncle was Joe Clarke, and her grandmother, Matilda Moseley, often hosted Hurston when she visited Eatonyulle. Hurston baptized Harriet Moseley in 1928.
AL: Do you have any memories of your godmother?
HM: I was a little bitty girl. I can't remember all that stuff way
back then. We were all small kids ... kids from the community that she carried over to Rollins College [probably around January 5, 1934, when Hurston staged All De Live Long Day at Rollins College]. She had all the children hopping on the
stage, dancing and doing little things.
I remember one morning, Grandmama asked Zora what did
she want for breakfast. "Tillie, make me some of them pancakes." Grandmama said, "Well, Zora, I ain't have no syrup." "Well, Tillie, make some of that homemade syrup you make." You see, my grandmom used to make syrup out of sugar-plain old sugar. She [Zora] loved pancakes. She was just like one of the family, like she was related to us-but she wasn't. If she had lived, she and my grandma would have been the same age. My grandmama passed in 1980, and she was eighty-nine. Mama said they were the same age. She and
my grandma were just like sisters.
AL: YOU mentioned that your godfather, Ellis Jones, got angry at
Zora for using his name in a book ....
HM: He told me everyone was mad at her .., all the citizens around
here. She would do all her writing up at Joe Clarke's store and she would talk about the citizens. Instead of using fictional names, she would use their ordinary names. My godfather got highly mad With her, because she used his name in one of her
AL: Did he confront her with a gun?
HM: Yes. She jumped up and left. She ran in the house, got her
bag, and left. If she hadn't, he was going to kill her.
AL: Are there any family stories about Joe Clarke? Did he beat his
HM: I don't know anything about Joe Clarke.
AL: Why did Zora name you Harriet?
HM: My grandmother said she believed Zora got the name from
Anna Lillios 27
Eatonville has grown tenfold since Hurston's time. It is now a town of three thousand residents, who celebrated its hundredth anniversary on August i8, 1987. Since Hurston's death in i96o, the town has undergone two very different phases of development. The first phase involved the improvement of its water and sewer system, the paving of its roads, the construction of a public pool and a community center, the creation of a parks and recreation system, the construction of a fire station, the expansion of the police department, and the beginning of an interstate park with one hundred acres for business sites.
The second phase in Eatonville's recent history focuses on preserving its unique past. The Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc., committee was formed in 1987 under the direction of N. Y. Nathiri. The largest project thus far with which this committee has been involved was the first annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival for the Arts, which took place on January 25-28, 199o; the guest speaker was Alice Walker. The committee is involved in a number of other activities, including trying to prevent the widening of Kennedy Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through the town; commissioning Eugene Fry to conduct a historic survey of the town, in order to justify Eatonville's inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places; lobbying the post office for a Zora Neale Hurston commemorative stamp; planning to create a town archives; and dedicating a memorial in town in honor of Hurston. Hurston's niece, Lucy Hurston Hogan, will authorize that Zora's remains be moved from Fort Pierce to Eatonville in 199o.
Bigg, Paul. "To the House By the Lake." Written for the Federal Writers' Project,
September 22, 1938. State Historical Society, Tampa, FL.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1977.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. Reprint. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1984.
"Eatonville When You Look at It." Written for the Federal Writers'
Project, October I, 1938. State Historical Society, Tampa, FL.
Jonah's Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1934.
Mules and Men. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1935.
Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Reprint. Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 1978.
Otey, Frank M. Eatonville, Florida: A Brief History. Winter Park, FL: Four-G Publishers, 1989.
Walker, Alice. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing and then Again When I Am
Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Old Westbury, NY:
The Feminist Press, 1979.
"Beginning To See Things Really":
The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
(4-, DAVID HEADON -.When Zora Neale Hurston, all youthful confidence and swagger, addressed the issue of race in her 1928 essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," she placed herself in a developing tradition of African-American social commentary stretching back to the slave narratives. Perhaps the most contentious expression of this issue before that of Hurston, Alain Locke, and Langston Hughes in the 192os had been made by W. E. B. "DuBois in his Souls of Black Folk (1903). DuBois suggested that the "Negro" was "a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (364). Hurston, a quarter of a century later, identified no such dilemma. No "double consciousness" for her, no measuring of oneself with the tape of the white world. She declared: "I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it" (1928 , 1652).* The parameters of the debate, then, had been established. In the decades to follow, Hurston's persistent expression of personal liberation from what she considered the misconstrued issue of race-in fiction and nonfiction alike-would ensure her a controversial status among her contemporaries. She would be resented- sometimes for good reasonand misunderstood. Richard Wright, reviewing Their Eyes Were Watch-
David Headon 29
eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears" (Hemenway, 241). It was not accurate criticism, but it was damning. And prophetic. When Hurston died in i96o, she was separated by at least a generation from her halcyon days of literary status and success. Her work, it seemed, did not reflect the growing politicization of the black community.
Not unexpectedly, during the revival of critical interest in her in the last fifteen years-a rediscovery led by Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway, and Larry Neal, among others-Hurston's personal politics have continued to present a problem,'a nettle not easily grasped. The paradoxes and contradictions, the rash generalizations and occasional braggadocio, still cannot be overlooked or ignored. How to deal with a black writer whose characters steadfastly refuse to acknowledge DuBois' "veil," characters whoelabrate-instead of plotting revenge, characters who want to.ove, discover, and transcend, rather than commit murder? How to deal with a Wfie-t&- fw 0se conservatism led to an almost doctrinal anti-Communist article in the repugnant McCarthy era published in, of all places, the American Legion Magazine? And, most difficult of all, how to deal with a vibrant, intelligent African-American woman who, in the last pages of her 1942 biography, Dust Tracks on the Road, could sum up the immense human tragedy of centuries of slavery, and its particular relevance to her, in these terms: "I see nothing but futility, in. looking-brack--over-my" shoulder in rebuke at thegraye of some white..jn._who.as_been-dead too long to talk about. That is just what I would be doing. intr-ying, to fix the blame for the dark days of slavery and the RecQnstruction. From what I can leam,_it _.sad.. Certainly. But my ancst rs.whoJve _and died in it are dead. The white men who, prqfite d!by thejr_1abor-.andlives are dead also. I have no personal memory of those timesand no respons-ibiity for .e. (290). The insensitivity and culpable na*vet6, even caiouJsn7ess, of this passage are obvious. It is devoid of a sense of history and current affairs. The cockiness is at best misplaced; at worst, it is a gross misreading of the priorities and aspirations of the black community at the time.
Little wonder that the critics, rediscovering Hurston in the 197os and i98os, have recoiled from her politics and her apparent lack of political acumen. Alice Walker suggests that "we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period-rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be" (1979, 3). For Walker, Hurston is a "cultural revolutionary" (1983, 89). Larry Neal, in his 1974 profile of Hurston, summarizes the consensus critical case with this simple assertion: "One thing is clear. ., unlike Richard Wright, [Hurston] was no political radical" (16I).
30 The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
I want to take issue with this prevailing interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston. I propose to revise the conventional wisdom regarding the broad range of her writings, both fiction and nonfiction from 1924 to about 1950, in order to demonstrate her evolving political consciousness-individual and eccentric on occasion, yes, but perceptive and lucid, ahead of its time also. I want to show that the cutting edges of Hurston's thought have more in common with the directions of radical AfricanAmerican literature of this century than has previously been recognized. While Hurston was never interested in the role of public iconoclast, her writings from 1927-28 onward confirm a steadily more trenchant awareness of the ambiguities of black/white relations, especially as this applied to the concept of "civilization." In this evolution of her political consciousness, Florida and its black population played the seminal role. When Hurston left Barnard to collect folklore in her home state, she had, without realizing it, embarked on a personal odyssey that would eventually lead to the adoption of a stance as potentially revolutionary in its way as that of the most militant black activist.
There are four distinct chronological stages in Hurston's development. First are the years of the young writer and scholar up to 1927, which do not show us much more than a simple joy in creation and positive sense of community. Second are 1927 and 1928, the early years of Hurston's folklore gathering in Florida, when interest in literature gives way to the excitement and discovery of the cultural mother lode confronting her in the rich imaginative lives of black people in the South. Third is the period from 1931 to 1935, when Hurston could assess more maturely the worth of her source material. Delight turns to hardened resolve and bold assertion. Political awareness ripens. In the early 193os Hurston had the very nature and operation of Western "civilization'" firmly in her sights. And fourth are the years from 1945 to 1950, Hurston's last important period of creativity, when she produced a few essays that, in their clarity and skepticism, confirmed and enlarged on the most penetrating aspects of her social critique. In my discussion I will include a cross-section of the important, but lesser known, nonfiction essays.
In "Profile'" Larry Neal suggests that a "truly original" black literature will require "some new categories of perception; new ways of seeing a culture" (162). This is a helpful starting point. Hurston does create with freshness, vigor, and originality. As I work through the stages of her political and literary development, I will make passing reference to what_ __ __ emrg as th si mos imoran "ne ctg rie of perceptio
David Headon 31
English; the significance she attaches to notions of personal identity and self-worth; her emergent feminist aesthetic, in natural opposition to what Walker has labeled the "Great White Western Commercial of white and male supremacy" (1979, 4); her suspicion of Western civilization and its machinery of cultural appropriation; and her eventual realization and articulation of the inadequacies of Western anthropological methods.
In the mid-192OS, shortly after Hurston's arrival in New York, two documents were published, less than a year apart, that were destined to assume an honored place in the literary history of this country: Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925) and Langston Hughes's landmark essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926). Both would have their passionate admirers and adherents, Hurston no doubt among them, and both would ultimately be accorded the prestigious title "manifesto" of the Harlem Renaissance (Hemenway, 1977, 39). Significantly, both men advocated the literary potency of the black folk heritage-Locke suggesting that the folk gift could be carried "to the altitudes of art" because it did not need to fight "social battles" and right "social wrongs" (1925, 39) and Hughes pointing to the "great field of unused material," the black "heritage of rhythm and warmth" ( 1970, 161).
Hurston's writing at this time-short stories, prose sketches, and poems-tends to reflect the aesthetic philosophy of Locke and the passion of Hughes. The stories "Drenched in Light," published in 1924, and "Spunk," her contribution to Locke's New Negro anthology, are cases in point. Isie Watts, the central character in "Drenched in Light," is incorrigibly joyful. Her happiness is infectious. "Spunk," on the other hand, opens with the protagonist Spunk Banks sauntering and strutting with his married companion, Lena Kanty. Together they are, in Elijah Mosley's words, as "big as life an' brassy as tacks" ( 1925, 105, iii). Joe Kanty, Lena's humiliated husband, "that rabbit-foot colored man,"9 is killed by Spunk, but eventually returns as a big black bobcat to haunt Spunk and finally cause his death. The fickle Eatonville townspeople, devourers of the gossip of the love triangle, figure in the story's concluding paragraph, the women eating heartily of the "funeral baked meats"9 and the men "[whispering] coarse conjectures between guzzles of whiskey" (i06-7, iii). Eatonville life is crude, slow, deliberate; it is also a little intoxicating. But, as in the series of sketches in "The Eatonville Anthology," Hurston is content nostalgically to recall her happy
32 The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
wearing it" (1935, 17). She was still satisfied with the surface of things, content faithfully to reproduce the flavor of black communal life and speech. She lacked artistic-and moral-direction.
Of all the material published before Hurston's first Florida folkloregathering trip in early 1927, the only story that anticipates the political range and achievement of her later works is the sketch entitled "Sweat," published at the end of 1926. In "Sweat" Delia Jones, a washwoman, toils relentlessly to remain with her husband, Sykes, and keep them both in food. Delia, when first married fifteen years earlier, "wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup" ( 1979, 200). As we begin the story, Delia has sweated and slaved for too many years; there is now too much "debris" cluttering "the matrimonial trail" (199). Husband Sykes has taken a lover, whom he flaunts; he beats Delia and enjoys taunting her and playing on her fear of snakes. But he does this once too often. Revenge figures in the story's conclusion, as Sykes is killed by his own rattlesnake.
Robert Hemenway, in his fine biography of Hurston, calls "Sweat" "a story remarkably complex at both narrative and symbolic levels" (70). He enlarges on the Freudian and Christian symbolic structure, the sophistication of the "literary design." It is a convincing interpretation, providing we endorse the tools of New Criticism. Hemenway places his emphasis where Alain Locke might have located his in the 1920S. I feel the story works more meaningfully-is more political-at the narrative and folk levels.
"Sweat" seems to be, in part, Hurston's response to Langston Hughes's imprecation to black writers in his "Racial Mountain" essay to change the old whisper "'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of the black middle class of the twenties, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro-and beautiful' (163). Delia Jones is beautiful-and dignified and, above all, courageous. She will not, finally, be cowed by Sykes's physical and verbal coercion. He assaults her and calls her an "ole snaggle-toothed black woman" (199). Eventually Delia's "habitual meekness" disintegrates. Her verbal tirade, a statement of liberation, is the emotional climax of the story: 'Ah hates you, Sykes,' she said calmly. 'Ah hates you tah de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an' took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck... Ah don't wantuh see yuh 'roun' me atall. Lay 'roun' wid dat 'oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan 'way fum me an' mah house. Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog' (204).
In "Sweat" Zora Neale Hurston forcefully establishes an integral part of the political agenda of black literature of this century. She places at the foreground feminist questions concerning the exploitation, intimidation, and oppression inherent in so many relationships. It is not the
David Headon 33
civil rights of Du Bois and Crisis, but it is civil rights nonetheless. One of Hurston' s wonderful Eatonville cameo characters in "Sweat," a man named Clarke, provides the philosophical overview: 'Taint no law.-on earth dat kin make a man be .decent if it aint .in 'im. Ther 's. plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It's round, juicy an'
w"e~ when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' w4r i n g tell'' d ey wr in g every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out. When dey's satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats 'em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws 'em away' (201).
"Sweat" is, in fact, protest literature. Published just before Hurston's first Florida excursion, it foreshadows, also, the far wider range of her second stage of writing-one where moral concerns take root. In a letter Written in March 1927,'#Hurston expresses real concern at the decline of folk life and traditions in Florida's rural black communities. "Negroness,'' she writes ''is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture" (Hemenway, 1977, 91). Her revitalized interest in Florida folk life had prompted her to question the coziness and tidiness of the discourse of academic life. Assumptions were no longer clear-cut, as she had been taught; she was now in the field, on the muck in Florida experiencing some of the less visible but still pervasive by-products of Western cultural appropriation..
The essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," published in 1928, is interesting in this context. It is almost as controversial now as when first written. One sentence in particular continues to be offensive to Hurston's readership: namely, "Slavery is the price I paid for civilization" (1652). Even Alice Walker reacts to this statement with bitter disappointment: "We can assume this was not an uncommon sentiment during the early part of this century, among black and white; read today, however, it makes one's flesh crawl" (isi). The problem, obviously, is the word "civilization." Isolated from the-larger context of the essay, "civilization" appears to represent Hurston's coveted target, the implied goal of the black community at large. Up from slavery to embrace the rewards of white society. Yet, one page later in the same essay, as Hurston sits in the New World Cabaret whooping to the tempo of the "narcotic harmonies" and dancing "wildly" inside herself, she remarks that, having experienced the ecstasy of enjoyment in the music, "I creep back slowly to the veneer we call civilization. '' "'Civilization' 9 is now used pejoratively, connoting boredom, conservatism, apathy, and, by
34 The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
hundred years. Many years later, motivated by frustration to write "My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience" ([194411979), she would take the opportunity to add her most telling remarks on this question. A white doctor treated her in a demeaning, insulting manner, prompting Hurston to reflect, rather than angrily react: "I went away," she says, "feeling the pathos of Anglo-Saxon civilization.... And I still mean pathos, for I know that anything with such a false foundation cannot last. Whom the gods would destroy, they first made mad" (164).
Hurston had come a long way from the hero worship she accorded to some of her university professors of the mid-I92OS. It was the myth of Western civilization, of course, that had constituted the very foundation stone of Papa Franz Boas's anthropology courses at Barnard.'
Freeing herself from the conditioning of the white community, she began her lone journey of personal, moral, and political discovery. It was only fitting that the catalyst should be her own turf, Florida. Letters that she wrote during the months of March and April 1928 reflect a sensibility excited and profoundly aware of the importance of her mission. She radically altered her research technique between 1927 and 1928. In her first trip, she had, as she recalled in Dust Tracks, "[gone] about asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, 'Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?' The men and women who had whole treasures of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads" (183). Hurston, the Barnard anthropologist, was fortunate enough to have been raised in the region.-She knew of the existence of the treasures and could make appropriate adjustment sm, Margaret Mead, in Samoa, would not have the same good fortune. Nor indeed would Western anthropologists in the deserts of Australia who, thinking they were getting the words for "tree,9' "star," and 66rock," were in fact being tricked and supplied with words describing parts of the male and female genitalia. They simply were not aware of their vulnerability; Hurston was. So she changed and began to give more of herself, be less academic, less objective. Success almost immediately followed. On March 8, 1928, she wrote a letter describing the thrill of heightened perception: 6 61 am getting inside of Negro art and love. I am beginning to see really.... This is going to be big" (Hemenway, 112). A month later she referred to "the greatest cultural wealth of the continent" when describing black folk life (113). The stage was set for the stunning achievements of her third and most significant stage of writing.
David Headon 35
struggle had at last been clearly identified. The Cunard essays, on the surface detailing the originality of black art forms, go much further. At stake, for Hurston, is the crucial issue of black identity itself: self-image. So she discusses the "drama" that permeates a black person's "entire self," along with the "will to adorn," to beautify (Cunard, 39); in addition, she specifies a range of black cultural heroes and heroines. Her last essay in the group, "Spirituals and N eo -Spirituals," opens with an assertion (359): "The real spirituals are not really just songs." They are in fact about a whole rich, complex way of life, ranging from ''sorrow songs" to celebration. Spirituals are not about glee clubs, concerts, tuxedoes, and audience hype. As Hurston points out, "The real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first notes just burst out and the rest of the church joins in-fired by the same inner urge. Every man trying to express himself through song. Every man for himself" (360). Spirituals are not entertainment, they canvas notions of freedom, confidence and self-revelation.
One of the inevitable corollaries of Hurston's promotion of the inherent quality of black life was the need to sharpen the attack on those blacks who rejected their own cultural forms, individuals who, as she put it, "ape all the mediocrities of the white brother" (Cunard, 43). In 1934 she wrote an article for the Washington Tribune entirely devoted to the ways of the so-called black-fur-coat peerage (Dust Tracks, 242): "Fawn as you will. Spend an eternity awe struck. Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape the white man's every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off" (quoted in Hemenway, 206). Hurston had finally given her political ideas prominence. It remained only for her to place something of lasting quality on art's street corner. Between 1934 and 1937 she did exactly that,vin the form of one memorable short story, one extensive work of nonfiction, and one great novel. Together they comprise her most ex tensive political, moral, and artistic statement. The works in question are "The Gilded Six-Bits," Mules and Men, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. All three works reflect her Florida roots.
Missie May and Joe in "Six-Bits," Janie and Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the riches of folklore and hoodoo in Mules and Men, along with the tour-de-force description of Polk County-all exemplify Hurston's claim in Mules and Men concerning the "wealth and beauty of
36 The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
critics have assumed that a book that deals with the relationships between members of a black family-or between a man and a woman-is less important than one that has white people as a primary antagonist"
(Walker, 1973, 202).
Zora Hurston confronted, ultimately, the complex politics of self. In
her 1945 article "Crazy for This Democracy" she attacked the hidden aspects of the Jim Crow laws: psychological manipulation (that is, whites being conditioned into believing their right to be "first by birth") and the fact that "darker people" are taught to suffer their "daily humiliaStions',, (Walker, 1973, 163). The carefully crafted ending of "Six-Bits" exposes the complete absurdity of stereotyping; Janie's quest for self,fulfillment in Their Eyes Were Watching God does the same.
This is the revolutionary message of Hurston's writing: Liberate the
self, and all else follows.. Never succumb. In 1943 and 195o Hurston wrote two more essays on this subject-'"The 'Pet Negro' System" and "What White Publishers Won't Print"-so dominant had it become in her thinking. Her mother exhorted her when she was young to "jump at de sun" (Dust Tracks, 29). Hurston, at the peak of her artistic powers in the 1930s (and with her fertile Florida of the imagination to call on),
encouraged all blacks to do the same.
Baraka, Amiri. Foreword. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea-An Autobiography. 1942.
Reprint. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1986.
Cunard, Nancy, ed. Negro: An Anthology. London: Wishart, 1934.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks. 1903. Reprinted in Writings. New
York: Library of America, 1986.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 1977.
Hughes, Langston. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." 1926. Reprinted
in On Being Black, edited by Charles T. Davis and Daniel Weilder, 16i. New
York: Fawcett, 1970.
Hurston, Zora Neale. "Characteristics of Negro Expression." In Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard. London: Wishart, 1934.
1. "Crazy for This Democracy." Negro Digest 4 (December 1945). Reprinted
in I Love Myself... edited by Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press,
"Drenched in Light." Opportunity 2 (December 1924): 37-74.
Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1942.
"How It Feels To Be Colored Me." World Tomorrow ii (May 1928).
Reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym
et al. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1979.
."Mourner's Bench, Communist Line: Why the Negro Won't Buy Communism." American Legion Magazine 50 (June 1951): 19-25, 55-6o.
.Mules and Men. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1935.
David Headon 37
"My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience." Negro Digest 2 (June
1944). Reprinted in I Love Myself ..., edited by Alice Walker. New York: The
Feminist Press, 1979.
"The 'Pet Negro' System." American Mercury 56 (May 1943): 593-6oo.
"Race Cannot Become Great Until It Recognizes Its Talent." Washington
Tribune, December 29, 1934.
Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals." In Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy
Cunard. London: Wishart, 1934.
"Spunk." Opportunity 3 (June 1925). Reprinted in The New Negro, edited
by Alain Locke. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.
--. "Sweat." Fire!! (November 1926). Reprinted in I Love Myself... edited
by Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979.
"What White Publishers Won't Print." Negro Digest 8 (April I95O): 8589.
Locke, Alain, ed. The New Negro: An Interpretation. New York: Albert and Charles
Neal, Larry. "A Profile: Zora Neale Hurston." Southern Exposure i (Winter 1974):
Walker, Alice. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing... And Then Again When I Am
Looking Mean and Impressive-A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. New York: Feminist
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1. "Interview." In Interviews with Black Writers, edited by John O'Brien, 202.
New York: Liveright, 1973.
Through the Prism of Africanity:
A Preliminary Investigation of
Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men
~-BEULAH S. HEMMINGWAY
Zora Neale Hurston-novelist, folklorist, feminist, anthropologist, and playwright-was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Nowhere is this more evident than in her Mules and Men, published in 1935. Viewed superficially by early critics as a quaint collection of black folklore from simple black rural southerners and valued chiefly for entertainment, Mules and Men has experienced a revival as more sophisticated scholars from interdisciplinary backgrounds examine its content. Newer interpretations salute Hurston's presentation of black creativity and spontaneity'and her celebration of the exuberance of black life. But Mules and Men is much more. This slender volume symbolizes Hurston's acceptance of the Africanity portrayed in its pages by illiterate black people, who protested the sterility of Western culture through imaginative folklore rooted in Africa, but adapted to the American environment.
Hurston' s choice of rural black southerners as griots and tale-tellers was both deliberate and correct. Because blacks were isolated in Eatonville, a small town in central Florida, and in sawmills and lumber camps of the deep South, oral tradition remained strongest among them, and most were uninfluenced by standard American paradigms for thinking and acting. Thus, African survivals were more prevalent among people separated from the common influences of urban life. Although poor and illiterate, Hurston's characters are a clever, dignified, proud people who are spunky enough to parry harsh insults from other blacks and glaring disrespect from whites. Collectively they shared an ethos by which their souls lived, readily defended their humanity, and shaped and controlled,
Beulah S. Hemmingway 39
was more than a response to white injustice. They lived by their own yardstick and measure of their own worth, while rejecting white definitions for their humanity and capabilities. Thus, spiritualism occupied a central role in their worldview, as did cooperation, communalism, group survival, respect for nature, the celebration of life, and an uncommon resilience. Considered escapism by some critics and politically naive by others, this worldview, while incomplete and unbalanced in an industrialized world, was tailored to the needs of the black masses who lacked political power.
I Illiteracy is not necessarily a synonym for ignorance. Hurston's characters knew their limitations. Whether they accepted them or not is another question; they were knowledgeable about their environment and struggled to fashion a better way of life. Robert Hemenway's introduction to the reprint edition of Mules and Men affirms this view. "Mules and Men," he writes, "refutes the pathological view of uneducated rural black people.... Even in the face of an historically brutal experience, black people affirmed their humanity by creating an expressive communication system that fostered self pride and taught techniques of transformation, adaptation and survival" (Hurston, [19351 19789 20). Such creativity proved an invaluable tool for black survival and softened the
effects of racial discrimination and poverty. v
Folklore occupied a special place in the lives of such people, for it was
more than entertainment. Folklore was their novel. Thematically legends, myths, proverbs, and games in Mules and Men represent a satirical description of the world and the inter- and intragroup relations of its people. Functionally such folklore educated and inspired blacks while defending their humanity and preserving African culture.", No claim is made here that all Hurston's folklore originated in Africa, only that its use and content served an African function. But in tone, style of delivery, themes, and content, Mules and Men reflects African creativity in the use of language as symbolic action and the manipulation of oral tradition to
redefine the world for blacks in accordance with their needs.
The folklore of Mules and Men follows most African-American tales in
form and function. Thematically, animals dominated trickster tales, which emphasized small, weak, unimposing animals that consistently outwit and outmaneuver strong animals to obtain their desired goals.
Tricksters considered such action proper and good, even if the means were immoral. For them, the end justified the means. Thoup:h small and
40 A Preliminary Investigation of Mules and Men
q The world of the trickster is explored in Robert D. Pelton's The Trickster in West Afria: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Pelton describes the trickster as a study in ambiguity and complexity. In his view, the trickster personified the human personality: The trickster is at once noble and foolish, heroic and cowardly, daring and deceitful, often beaten, but never defeated. Religion was important to the trickster, but not in a fixed, unchanging way. Most tricksters accepted the gods as beings not to be served but to be conquered. For them man was the measure of things, especially in his use of the mind to transcend life's difficulties (1-24).
Rural black Floridians, like their forebears elsewhere in the South, employed such tales symbolically to control and manipulate a hostile social environment. Accordingly, trickster tales, an embodiment of wish fulfillment and role inversion, dominated and turned society upsidedown. Tricksters rarely obeyed laws, ignored society's norm of decency, and waged a constant war of rebellion.'"Lawrence Levine in Black Culture and Black Consciousness relates the saying of a slave: "Well you know what was de fust stealin' done? Hit was in Afriky, when de white folks stole de niggers je' like you'd get a drove of horses and sell 'em.'" This South Carolina slave (a Gullah preacher) articulated a common feeling when he asked in one of his sermons: "Ef buckra neber tief (thief), how come yer here" (124). For them, survival by any means necessary was legitimate and practical.
But tricksters did not always win. Sometimes they were tricked by smaller, weaker animals or people. Such tales were not the childish, simple entertainment early collectors thought them to be; instead, these tales represent human behavior, emotions, and character. Indeed, Hurston's characters me tamorphosed into humans at will but retained animal features and qualities. Such abilities allowed her characters the best of all worlds. Alternating between fact and fantasy, they both satirized and protested society's constraints. Psychologically this ploy reinforced black spiritualism, thereby strengthening black resolve.
Florida's natural environment provided the wildlife for the animal tales in Mules and Men. Alligators, panthers, bears, rabbits, gophers, raccoons, opossums, and squirrels are prevalent, but domestic animals, such as dogs, cats, Mules, and cows, are prominent as well. Trickster tales are represented in this collection, and tricksters also experience dilemmas in many of these tales. Collectively the tales are educational, empnhasizing the value
Beulah S. Hemmingway 41
owner butchers the ox who had sworn revenge on the mule. While this tale clearly is demonstrative of a trickster who is tricked, conversely it reveals the importance of self-representation in an environment controlled by others (126).
A more classic animal trickster tale is Hurston's retelling of the story of the dog and the rabbit who struggle to gain the favored role in the courtship of a beautiful maiden. When the dog gained the advantage by singing, Brer Rabbit resolved to neutralize his voice. He pretended to aid the dog in sweetening his voice, but split his tongue instead and ruined the dog's voice. The rabbit never capitalized on his feat, because the dog has been chasing him ever since. The rivalry eventually resulted in a dog convention, which issued a moratorium on chasing rabbits and invited the rabbit to dinner to celebrate the truce. Brer Rabbit was cautious and feared trickery. After several warning signs, he declined the invitation, explaining "but all de dogs ain't been to no convention, and anyhow some of dese fool dogs ain't got no better sense than to run all over dat law and break it up. De rabbits didn't go to school much and he didn't learn but three letter, and that's trust no mistake. Run every time de bush shake" (119). On that note, the rabbit parted company with the dogs.
Inequality breeds suspicion and distress in societies permeated with ethnocentric and racial biases. These factors combined in Florida to foster black skepticism relative to the judicial system's impartiality and the ability of whites to treat blacks fairly. These concerns are related in Hurston's tale about the gopher in court: "De gopher come in and looked all around de place. Dejudge was a turtle, de lawyers were turtles, de witnesses was turtles and they had turtles for jury-men.
"So de gopher ast de judge to excuse his case and let him come back some other time. De judge ast him how come he wanted to put off his case and de gopher looked all around de room and said, 'Blood is thicker than water,'9 and excused hisself from de place. Clearly, the gopher's doubt rested not only on suspicion but on historical experience as well. He is willing to assume responsibility for his welfare in the absence of demonstrated concern by the court (129).
Hurston' s most noted trickster tales involved the relationship between John, a slave, and massa, his master, or the struggle between black and white people. Role inversion and wish fulfillment dominate such tales. John is portrayed as a wise, cunning figure who not only outwitted
42 A Preliminary Investigation of Mules and Men
the range of human behavior. John's environmental difficulties, at once both cruel and kind, normally dictated his behavior, which was at all times controlled by the will to survive.
John the Conquerer portrays this range of behavior best. A symbolic, legendary figure in black folklore, John roamed all the plantations, sawmill camps, and railroads, answering the needs of slaves and their descendants. John was a bearer of gifts: laughter, hope, inspiration, all manifestations of the soul, advantages gained from the inside, gifts by which the soul lived. Such qualities lifted the spirits of the downtrodden and allowed them to "keep on trucking," "make a way out of no way,' "hit a straight lick with a crooked stick."'
Hurston's characters uniformly believed that John (blacks) was smarter than massa (whites).. John's tales symbolized as much. ioIn the tale of "Ah'll Beatcher Makin' Money," John, a slave, is given one of the two horses that massa owned. When John abused massa's horse, informants told on him, and his owner promised to kill the horse if the trend continued. John disobeyed the warning and massa killed his horse, whereupon John promised to beat him making money. This tale symbolized the rapacity of southern culture, illustrating that materialism occasionally warped one's judgment so extensively that the quest for wealth made the rational irrational. In the end, John outmaneuvers massa at. every turn and drowns him in a nearby river after stating that he hopes massa finds all he's looking for (45).
Black intelligence, likewise, is exalted in the tale "First Colored Man in Massa's House." John, the slave, "didn't know nothin' mo' than you told him and he never forgot nothin' you told him either" (8s). After guiding the slave on a tour of his house and identifying furniture and other household items in sterile, superficial language, massa retired for the night. Thereafter, John accidentally set the house afire. When he related the events to massa in his (the master's) own language, the slave's master was slow to understand. Impatient, the slave then related the scenario in plain English. Such a tale refutes white stereotypes of black intelligence and satirizes whites' pretentiousness and penchant for mystification of the simple.
John's tales symbolize the legendary strength and bravery of blacks and contradict the effeminate, weak, cowardly image projected by whites. Confrontations with both natural and supernatural forces demonstrated John's masculine qualities. Hurston's characters were staunch supporters
Beulah S. Hemmingway 43
his advantage in the conflict through the adroit use of a razor and a gun, weapons often identified with "bad Negroes." These conventional lawbreakers lived on the fringes of society, as members of the proletariat.
But neither God nor the Devil was John's equal. Big Sixteen, a legendary powerful slave, was able to perform any feat of strength or to meet any challenge posed by massa. Accordingly, Big Sixteen was ordered to catch the Devil. Whereupon the slave promptly dug a hole to Hell, knocked on the door, and slew the Devil with a nine-pound hammer, a feat that astonished massa. When Big Sixteen died, he went to Heaven, but St. Peter rejected the slave out of fear of his power and his (St. Peter's) inability to control him. Because Big Sixteen had to go somewhere, he went to Hell, where the Devil's wife likewise refused to accept him. "You aint coming in here," she said. "Here, take dis hot coal and g'wan off and start you a hell uh yo' own" (170-73).
John's tales clearly reject the myth of the helpless, effeminate black man emasculated by the slave experience. Hurston's characters, like other blacks, considered and understood such hype or propaganda projected by slave owners, pseudo scientists, or scholars. This psychological ploy was used to deny blacks the basic privileges to which they were entitled. Conversely, John's tales accomplished the opposite result. They aided in the reemasculation of black men by projecting powerful role models who, stripped of the advantages bestowed by money, race, and power, were clearly superior to whites. More important, such characters were worthy role models or precursors ofimaginary heroes such as John Henry or Shine, both of whom demonstrate the superiority of man over machines or technology.
Johns tales corrected alleged distortions of slaves by masters and scholars alike. Far from the faithful, loyal, mythological slave portrayed in literature and history, John was that "troublesome property" Kenneth Stamp alludes to in Peculiar Institution. In Hurston's "The Fortune Teller" (87-90), John, a loyal, trusted slave, reveals his clairvoyant pow ers to his master, who feigns disinterest but passes the secret to a neighboring planter. When a dispute between the men arose over John's alleged powers, the neighbor wagered his plantation and worldly goods and secured a notary public to legalize the bet. Meanwhile, John s master promised him wealth if he succeeded but death if he failed. The neigh boring planter captured a raccoon, placed it under a washpot, and ordered John to guess its contents; John guessed right, made his master wealthy,
44 A Preliminary Investigation of Mules and Men
The quest for freedom is a central theme in Mules and Men folklore as blacks struggled against an omnipresent, oppressive society. Rural African-Americans, illiteracy aside, were familiar with that oppression, its infrastructure and maintenance mechanisms. Hurston also portrays the quest for freedom, illustrated in the tale of the slave who was promised his freedom if he made a good crop. John produced and massa grudgingly kept his promise, but only after attempting to dissuade John from accepting manumission. But John ignored massa's entreaties relative to familial ties and his request that John remember "youse a nigger, tho?" Confident, self-reliant, and hopeful for a better tomorrow, John strode toward Canada (97-98).
John's tales, as noted, symbolized wish fulfillment and role inversion but were often based on truth. The struggle for freedom, status, power, and self-esteem was always hazardous, and failure invited certain destruction. Thus, blacks learned to be circumspect in their actions, silent about their thoughts, self-reliant, and distrustful of others' motives. In an oppressive society bent on the control of its underclass, such actions are seen as positive attributes in the struggle to survive. Thus,. the trickster role was complex and fraught with danger. Consider, for example, the tale of "Big Talk" (83-86), where two ex-slaves exchange trickster roles. One slave claims to have cursed massa and escaped punishment. His comrade repeated the identical action and is severely punished. Afterward he confronts the first slave, who later informs him that he cursed the master from a distance. The second slave swears revenge and concocts a story about looking under missy's dress and escaping harsh treatment. When the first slave repeats this action, massa almost kills him. Angry, he confronts his friend, who, in turn, informs him that "Ole Miss's drawers they wuz hangin' out de clothes line.... It's uh wonder the [massa] didn't kill yuh dead" (84-85).
The tale of "High Walker and Bloody Bones" relays similar lessons. High Walker was a powerful, fearless black man who encountered a talking skeleton that informs him, "My mouf brought me here and if you don't mind, yourn will bring you here" (185). Frightened, High Walker repeats the event to a white man and foolishly promises to forfeit his life if the skeleton didn't talk. But High Walker couldn't force the skeleton to talk, and lost his life. Thereafter, the skeleton spoke: "Ah told you dat mouf brought me here and if you didn't mind out, it'd bring you here" (h81).
Beulah S. Hemmingway 45
protest mechanism that resisted American definitions of black humanity and racial stereotypes. While seen as simple, happy-go-lucky, childlike figures by some early and modern folktale collectors, Hurston's characters are instead sophisticated people who conjure up the memory of an old black saying: "A heap sees, but a few knows," or the admonition of Robert D. Pelton that warns against "mistaking the shallowness of our own understanding for the shallowness in the people we study" (21).
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. 1935. Reprint, with introduction by Robert
Hemenway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred
Delight. Berkeley: University of California Press, i98o.
Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: A Slavery in Antebellum South. New
York: Vintage, 1956.
A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
v- DANA McKINNON PREU
It is now a cliche' to speak of Zora Neale Hurston as a woman several decades ahead of her time, yet the current strength of the renaissance of interest in her works indicates we have yet to satisfy our desire to know and understand this complex creator and curator of black culture. Her dual role as literary creator and anthropological curator is, for some, a problem and for others, including me, the fascination in approaching the first part of Mules and Men (1935). Without the creativity that Hurston used to present her collection of black folklore, Mules and Men would probably be in deserved oblivion, along with other folktale collections of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, current scholarship has consistently validated the authenticity of Hurston's portrayal of her black culture-that of poor, mostly nonliterate, central Florida blacks.
In at least three ways, Hurston anticipates current scholarship, and thus our understanding of these elements enhances our appreciation of her writing. The first example of her foreshadowing of contemporary scholarship is her inclusion of a prayer and a sermon, both recorded in poetic form. iThis awareness of black prayers and sermons as oral poetry has been fully documented by Bruce Rosenberg in The Art of the American Folk Preacher. While Hurston implies that the sermon and prayer are types of black American folklore, Rosenberg's analysis of sermons by black American folk preachers places the sermons/poems in the oral narrative tradition of Homeric and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry (3-5). Of greater importance, and now generally recognized, is Hurston' s unique position during her lifetime of advocating the beauty, dignity, and wholeness of the isolated poor, black, oral culture. Of course, the purpose of
Dana McKinnon Preu 47
an independent, self-created, and self-sustaining black culture (Hemenway, 1978, xxvi).
Hurston developed a unique format for presenting her view of black culture. In contrast to other anthropologists of the 1930s who dealt essentially with folktales isolated from the communal environment 'in which they were told, Hurston dramatically creates the communal context of the folklore. In fact, she anticipates Robert A. Georges' method of a holistic study of storytelling events "to appreciate their true significance as communicative events, as social experiences, and as unique expressions of human behavior" (1969, 328). Her literary creation of community and of communal behavior patterns allows for character revelation necessary for her purpose. For a people, like individuals, must have beauty, dignity, and a sense of wholeness within the group, as symbiotically separate individuals and the group give and receive identity. Most crucially, Hurston's dramatized record, or literary reconstruction, of "the between-story conversation and business" creates a vital world into which she invites the reader to experience anagogically the fullness and complexity of black oral culture (Hemenway, 1978, xxiv-xxv). Thus, in Mules and Men curator/ anthropologist and literary creator merge. i
Two approaches allow us to appreciate the complexity of "the between-story and conversation business." One is to contrast Hurston's oral literature techniques and point of view with a work treating similar subjects that uses fully literate personal-essay techniques and point of view, in this case, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek (1942). The other more fundamental way to understand Hurston's orality is to recognize the characteristics of an oral culture and oral literature, for a world of orality uses a different set of mental processes and behavioral patterns from those in our world of literacy. In fact, our literate expectations can prevent us from perceiving "the true inner life of the Negro," to use Franz Boas's phrase, or "that which the soul lives by," to use Hurston' s own phrase. Fortunately, contemporary scholarship aids us in understanding what orality means in a practical way of individual behavior and group dynamics as well as in a theoretical way of defining such abstractions as culture. I am basing the remainder of my analysis of orality primarily on 'Walter J. Ong's 1982 synthesis of scholarship in this area, Orality and Literacy.
These key terms in the title call for a brief clarificatio n. Orality or
48 A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
century's electronic communication methods-expands human mental capabilities, and oral cultures are thus limited when they are juxtaposed with literate ones. Ong also stresses the complexities inherent in a contrast of the two cultural states. However, informed contrasts need to be made: first, to avoid the error of dismissing an oral culture as "primitive," "simple," "quaint," or "inferior," and, second, to appreciate an oral culture positively as an earlier or different state of human consciousness (1-3, 174-75).
Certainly, Hurston's purpose was to give readers of Mules and Men a positive experience with black oral culture in three distinct black communities: her home of Eatonville, a sawmill camp at Loughman, and a phosphate mining camp in Pierce. Her purpose in creating to preserve literately these pockets of black orality affects her stance as narrator. To put herself in the oral setting as narrator without violating the authenticity of the setting, she had to forgo the lite rate techniques of analysis, classification, presentation of objective data and introspection of the selfconscious narrator (Ong, 49-57). The stance she assumes may be described in one of Ong's phrases for a characteristic of orality: "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced" (4~5). In light of her extroverted nature and forceful personality, Hurston is unusually successful in submerging herself within the group. She consistently allows the tellers, audience participants, and the conversational groups their individual voices. With a few brief lapses, such as her classification of Eatonville's tales (Mules and Men, 21), her analysis of black men's laughter (67-68), and her explanation of the white law's attitude toward black women killers (65), she maintains her persona of an orally oriented member of the group.
In her introduction, Hurston indicates her conscious assumption of her role, one that is defined in the immediate situational environment of Eatonville (Ong, 49ff). She explains, "I didn't go back there so that home folks could make admiration over me because I had been up North to college. ... I was just Lucy Hurston's daughter Zora" (Mules and Men, 3). Her accounts of the various communal settings and the indigenous folklore can easily be analyzed according to the characteristics of aut 'hentic oral cultures and the communal performances provided by Robert Kellogg in his article "Oral Literature" and by Ong. Such analysis validates Hurston's stance as narrator and her accounts.
just as she accepts her role as an orally oriented narrator, Hurston
Dana McKinnon Preu 49
tend to give a romanticized picture of subjects, a charge that has been made against Mules and Men (Hemenway, 1978, xxvff). Certainly Hurston was fully aware of the problems of extreme depression, poverty, segregation, and the deprivational consequences of these conditions; however, the natural limitations of orality cause the community's unawareness, or very vague awareness, both of the outside economic and social influences and also of the historical influences upon their immediate conditions. Hurston does not impose a literate analysis upon her material. She does, however, present three specific functioning black communities in the immediacy of the weeks or days of her visits.
The structure of her presentation of the communities is literary, despite the seemingly natural chronological progression of her travels between the communities and within each one. The residual oral communities of Eatonville and Pierce frame the more authentically oral community at the sawmill camp at Loughman. While Hurston, Lucy's daughter, takes home-girl pride in the formally incorporated Eatonville, Hurston the anthropologist, by juxtaposing her hometown and the sawmill camp, reveals her awareness of the dilution of black culture in communities civically organized according to white, literate patterns. The brief return to the sawmill camp at the end of her trip serves as a startling coda to emphasize the contrasting communities.
Beginning at. Eatonville, Hurston establishes for the reader her point of reference, her roots. In her introduction, she provides a physical description of Eatonville: "a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house" (6). Later, with pride of a literate citizen, she emphasizes Eatonville' s formal civic organization when she describes Wood Bridge, a nearby black community: "No enterprising souls have ever organized it. They have no schoolhouse, no post office, no mayor. It is lacking in Eatonville's feeling of unity"- (is).
The citizens of Eatonville and Wood Bridge are portrayed as having a sense of social grace and manners. A popular social event was the toeparty, a gathering sponsored by a community organization to raise money. The women at the party stand behind a curtain, exposing only their toes. Each man pays to choose a set of toes, then treats their owner to dinner (17). The toe-party to which Hurston goes in Wood Bridge with Eatonville friends is indeed lively, and there is coon dick, a raw "likker," as well as Coca-Cola. However, social propriety is observed
5o A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
exchanges, all characteristic of oral cultures (Ong, 43-45). However, in Eatonville these verbal battles for superiority are generally done in good humor, or when there is evidence that the verbal exchange might evolve beyond a stylized game into a serious, perhaps physical, exchange, someone in the group can interrupt the combatants. Hurston also shows the internal function of the church in the community. During a lull in one lying (storytelling) session, the group hears the concluding prayer from a meeting at the Baptist church, and Hurston records it as a natural part of th e cultural environment (27). The ritual poetry of the prayer contrasts with the high-spirited narrative of the tales, yet both are integral parts of the unified culture.
A brief note on the content of the folktales is necessary. With the stories told in Eatonville and in the other two communities, Hurston gives concrete examples of major points of Ong' s analysis of storytelling within the communal setting. The basic point is that while the tales are traditional, the teller's art is shown by his ability to fit his story into the social context of the moment and engage his immediate audience. Hurston shows the recognized importance of the traditional or established tale as authority when Gene accuses his wife, Gold, of making up a story just to get at him. He fails to discredit Gold only because Armetta and Shoo-pie, two ladies of authority, insist they both know the "ole tale"
Hurston's tales are, as Ong describes other oral tales, close to the human lifeworld of the culture. Perhaps of most significance for experiencing the black culture of Eatonville is Ong' s explanation of the homeostatic characteristic of oral cultures. As he explains, "Oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance"
(46). If we view the content of the stories as reflecting community thought, we see in some stories a culture that is able to view itself with a high degree of mature, comic detachment and a healthy skepticism; "How the Brother Was Called to Preach" and "How the Church Came to Be Split Up" are two such tales. These examples, like many others, also show the creation of lore to cover contemporary situations. Both stories occur when the group hears activity in the two churches of the town. After noting the activity in the first, Gold comments, "Hard work in de hot sun done called many a man to preach" (22). This observation introduces a story about a man who thought he heard God's
Dana McKinnon Preu 51
"It's too bad that it must be two churches in Eatonville" (28). Charlie patiently explains that Peter himself is to blame for the divisions. He implies that there is no way to change the original situation, and Armetta reenforces the recognition of the irreconcilable split: "Baptis' and Methdis' always got a pick out at one 'nother" (31).
Banter, stories, and a song are the oral weapons used by those in Eatonville to fight the battle of the sexes. Gold changes the subject and takes jabs at her man Gene, and the two have heated banter on who is blacker. Gold finally sidesteps the argument with a tale explaining that ''niggers'' got black because they misunderstood when God said ''Get back!" They dutifully got black (33). A comment by George Thomas that "Her tongue is all the weapon a woman got" (33) occasions Mathilda's tale~ of how women got God's keys to the kitchen, bedroom, and cradle to offset men's superior physical strength (33-38). Despite the women's assertions, a young man recites, "Sue, Sal and That Pretty Johnson Gal," the story of a young man's simultaneous affairs with the three girls (39-40). Another couple takes up the game, and the sexual banter concludes when the male contender falls asleep because of the effects of coon dick (40-41). This verbal agonistic behavior in the residually oral community contrasts with the physically violent agonistic behavior of the more exclusively oral sawmill camp.
Several stories and the song "John Henry" all celebrate the wit and cleverness of blacks to be masters of their own situations. In "Ah'll Beatcher Makin' Money" (45-49), the traditional hero John gets, by his wits, justifiable revenge on Ole White Massa, and in another story the equally traditional hero Jack outwits the Devil ("How Jack Beat the Devil," 51-58). These two heroes, along with "John Henry," represent the poetic role of the marvelous heroes who must be type figures and whose deeds must be remembered easily. Of course, "John Henry" reflects the extraordinary physical strength of a tragic black hero; but, in addition, this song and the story "How to Write a Letter" show black oral heroes up against the technology of power-driven machinery and writing. Although the nonliterate father in the story momentarily holds his own against his literate daughter, his tale along with "John Henry" may well reflect blacks' awareness of different types of outside technology threatening their established oral culture. It would be typical of these blacks to externalize such awareness, because self-analysis and introspection are characteristics of literate cultures.
52 A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
logical elements for the physical security and mental well- being of the group. The literate outsiders who enter Eatonville on the community's terms can perceive a beauty that transcends their perception of poverty and oppression.
The black community at the Loughman sawmill camp has an atmosphere and physical characteristics different from those in Eatonville and, thus, provides elements of black culture not seen there. The camp community includes the jook joint, which features blues, corn likker, and jook women like Ella Wall, whose reputation was known in Eatonville. Life here is harsher even though the men are employed. Certainly it embodies the physically violent side of the oral cultures, a characteristic that is an extension of the "agonistically toned" oral characteristic (Ong, 43). More than one woman in the camp had shot or knifed a man (Mules and Men, 69), and Box-Car, who introduced Hurston to a chain-gang song, had learned the song on the gang (163; also see 133). The harshness of white law had intruded upon this community, yet it was a refuge from that law. Hurston finally wins acceptance here when she explains that her $12.98 dress, which contrasted with the $1.98 mail-order dresses of the other women, and her car were gifts from her bootlegging man and that they had split up to run from the law (66, 68-69). It is not surprising that several tales of John getting the better of Massa came from this community. On one .occasion Eugene Oliver exclaims, "Go 'head and tell it, Cliff. Ah love to hear tales about Ole Massa and John. John sho was one smart nigger" (75 also see 85). Other incidents of note that occur in this community are the visits of an itinerant preacher whose sermon Hurston records as oral poetry (148-si) and examples of ritual verbal combat.
Two purely ritualized forms of verbal combat contrast with the agonistic banter recorded at Eatonville. The first is called woofing. A form of flirting, it calls for quick, witty repartee. An excellent example is Pitts's woofing of Hurston at a dance shortly after her arrival at Loughman. She plays willingly and well. After she has passed this test, the men are comfortable with her (68-70). The second is a form of "can you top this? and the content provided by several participants is a series of outlandish one-liners on such subjects as the ugliest man. In the incident Hurston records, Clifford Ulmer's contribution is "Ah knowed one so ugly till you could throw him in the Mississippi river [sici and skim ugly for' six months." The ritual combat of this incident is evidenced when Jim Allen_ h arac fti comunty declares ClfAhewne
Dana McKinnon Preu 3
twice in Loughman; this is, the members of an oral culture take their identity from the group, externally rather than internally; a person's position in the group is his identity (Ong, 69). The first incident of someone's asserting his identity and responding to what he considers a challenge occurs on the fishing trip. In the playfulness of the occasion, young Arthur Hopkins refers to Mr. Jim Allen, the patriarch, as "Jim." Mr. Allen responds:
"Don't you be callin' me by my first name. Ah'm old enough
for you' grand paw! You respect my gray hairs. Ah don't play wid
"Ah didn't mean no harm," Arthur said.
"Dat's all right, Arthur, Ah ain't mad. Ah just don't play wid
chillun. You go play wid Cliff and Sam and Eugene. They's you'
equal." (Mules and Men, 104)
The second incident of asserting one's position involves the physically violent behavior pattern in the community. Enmity existed between Big Sweet who befriends Hurston and Ella Wall before Hurston's arrival, but her presence increased the tension. The women almost have one fight and later actually start a community brawl. The physical strength and violence celebrated in folktales of the culture thus become reality. These incidents may serve as other examples of the "agonistically toned characteristic of orality" (Ong, 1982, 44-45). But for all the harshness of this community, there is here, as in Eatonville, a culture that fosters communal cohesion and, thus, security and self-realization for the individual within the group. The jook joint fosters a reflection of black culture that Eatonville denies.
After the highly charged atmosphere of the sawmill camp, in the black quarter of the phosphate mining camp in Pierce, Hurston found a community much like Eatonville. Though the mining company provided relatively good living conditions, the black culture remained an independent, self-sustained one. Hurston records here only the evening of a lying contest, but this account is unusually rich because of the high degree of interaction within the group. Also, because Hurston concentrates all the tales into the one incident, this episode emphasizes the purely literary functioning of the group. Basically, the Pierce storytelling event enriches the accounts of the other two communities rather than adds new dimensions to the portrait of black oral culture.
While Hurston has created three easily distinguishable communities, each with its memorable characters, they share the verbomotor life-style described by Ong (68-69). For good and bad, orality forces close, personal, and frequent, if not continuous, interaction upon community
54 A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
members. Establishing an order and group identity is necessary for the individuals' physical and psychological survival. Hurston has shown how the lore and tales intricately woven into all facets of community activities enforce group order and cohesion to provide physical security and provide a reality for group identity and dignity that enhances psychological wellbeing.
A final way to appreciate the full import of Hurston's accomplishment in the dramatization of her oral world and to appreciate the dimensions of morality in her world is to contrast Mules and Men with a somewhat similar work. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a white Florida writer of about the same period, presents her adopted central Florida home in a book of personal essays entitled Cross Creek (1942). Rawlings describes a small oral or residually oral community of citrus groves and fishing areas. The inhabitants include five white families, including Rawlings, and two black families, though other blacks and whites temporarily in the area and also those from peripheral areas significantly interact with the core community. Of course, with the personal essay form, Rawlings is the self-conscious, literately oriented narrator throughout (Kellogg, sq). She is the analytical, objective reporter par excellence. She is even objective when she presents her own emotions. And it is well to remember that her almost scientific concern for the accuracy of geographical and biological details makes Cross Creek and her novels a naturalist's reference source. On completing Cross Creek, the reader knows the community and its people from the limited point of view of the literate "I" narrator. The "I" narrator is the constant, interpretative tour guide for.the reader through her world.
For contrast with Rawlings's presentations, I am limiting discussion to Hurston's presentation of the sawmill camp. This material may be effectively separated from Mules and Men to form a small oral epic, with the tales themselves secondary to action and characterization through the character's actions. Hurston's role as the participating, unanalytical "199 narrator in the context of oral literature has already been established. In turning to specific aspects of these works, I would emphasize that the contrast I am making is comparative only in terms of morality and literacy; the separate merit of both works is well established. The two points of contrast are, first, Rawlings's and Hurston's presentations of information about animals common to both communities and, second, the contrast in the characterization of Rawlings's 'Geechee and Hurston.'s Big Sweet.
Dana McKinnon Preu 55
Martha Mickens, the black matriarch of Cross Creek: "Why a wild cat be's a varmint, Sugar. Skunks be varmints, an' 'coons an' foxes an' 'possums. Minkses, too. A panther be's a varmint, an' a bear. All them wild things, Sugar, out in the woods" (1942, 156). This quotation could well be added to Ong's examples showing that orally oriented people define in terms of specific examples, not by a series of abstracted characteristics (53). However, Rawlings uses this and other quotations from orally oriented neighbors to establish the quaintness or strangeness of the backwoods people she had chosen to live among. Her presentation includes mainly her firsthand experiences with and observations of these creatures. Interspersed are only a little local lore and some scientific information. When we read Rawlings's account, we are in our comfortable literate reality and can objectively enjoy the trials and tribulations of the city lady's battles with uncivilized creatures that infested rural Florida.
On the other hand, Hurston's information on wild creatures is presented mainly in the folktales. Twenty-one are told on a fishing trip at Loughman where the men work in the cypress swamps most of the time. In the episode, there is much "in-between conversation" that includes animal lore not formalized into tales. Most significant about this extended storytelling event is that it clearly exemplifies Ong's reference to oral states of consciousness that contrast with literate states of consciousness (174). Robert E. Hemenway has already noted such a contrast in an analysis of fiction by Hurston and other Afro-American writers. Specifically he notes the fusion of the psychological reality of black folklore and objective reality in Afro-American fiction (1982, 28-35). In addition, Hemenway contrasts the "heuristic function" of the animal tales of black culture with the tales' reduction to "pediatric literature" in either Joel Chandler Harris's or Walt Disney's literate Uncle Remus setting (3538). During the Loughman fishing trip, we hear the tales in an authentic communal setting. Thus, we can experience the complex role the tales play in the functioning and the reality of the community.
The fishing activity occasions a community gathering; men, women, single, married, young to old-all exchange information and opinions, teach and learn, assert individuality and reinforce group order and/or personal relationships. As I have already noted, tales are told because they contribute to the group's functioning, or their telling meets the psychological needs of the teller. Hurston's "between-story conversation and
56 A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
sages preserved and passed by word of mouth from generation to generation" (1978, xxiii). Only a partial analysis of the fishing episode is given here.
Some of the tales reflect the oral culture's use of artistic "logic" to order the natural world. For example, Patriarch Jim Allen tells how God came to give "de snake poison in his mouf and a bell on his tail" (1046). By extension, the long story affirms God's fair order as the Creator balances the powers of man and snake. "How God Made Butterflies" and "Why the Waves Have White Caps" also help explain the workings of God and natural forces. In answer to Jim Presley's question about what God changed after creation, Floyd Thomas explained that God created flowers because He got tired of looking at the bare ground and, in turn, made butterflies to keep the flowers company (129-30). In "Why the Waves Have White Caps," Cliff Ulmer personifies the elements as women; the white caps are Mrs. Wind's children trapped by the jealous Mrs. Water (138-39). Cliff, Jim Allen's grandson, is one of the young men establishing for himself an independent identity among the men.
Like Cliff, other young men, especially Joe Wiley and Jim Presley, are establishing their identities not only by engaging in the combative game of topping others' assertions but also by creating their individual artistic reality; at this point they are exploring the elements of fire and water, albeit in terms of catfish and snakes. They get so farfetched that Mr. Allen gently chides them, "Y'all done quit tellin' lies. Vall done gone to molding' em" (104).
Tolerance and compassion, qualities necessary in the closebound oral community, are part of the theme of "Why the Mocking Bird Is Away on Friday." This tale is. also, in part, a statement defining bad behavior and showing its consequences, as is the tale of the man who went catfishing on Sunday. Some tales have the theme of change, for example, "How the Possum Lost the Hair Off His Tail." Others justify a behavior, as in the case of Lonnie Barnes, who tells "How the Woodpecker Nearly Drowned the Whole World" to justify his desire to shoot woodpeckers. The final tale of this series, How the Lion Met the King of the World, affirms man's control over creation.
In this impromptu verbal jam session, we see the culture exploring and creating its specific integrated form of cosmic and physical reality. The group collectively through its lore has come to comfortable terms
Dana McKinnon Preu 57
sawmill community would find her abstractions, classifications, other scientific lore, and personal realistic experiences equally useless.
The second informing contrast between Rawlings's literate techniques and Hurston's presentation of black oral culture and its literature is the characterization of 'Geechee in Cross Creek and that of Big Sweet in Mules and Men. Of course, inherent here is also the contrast of a white writing about blacks in an essentially white setting and of a native black writing about blacks in an all-black setting. Naturally, this contrast emphasizes the unique record Mules and Men provides. Rawlings's characterization of 'Geechee must be seen in contrast with her characterizationis of other blacks. In a chapter entitled "Black Shadows," Rawlings states, "I am not of the race of Southerners who claim to understand the Negro" (18o). She goes on to state her realization that Negro behavior described by whites as "childish, carefree, religious, untruthful and unreliable" is "a defense mechanism as ingrained as the color of his skin" (181). In this chapter she recounts her relationships with a series of female and male employees. Her original readers, almost all of them white, could certainly share the frustrations she reveals in this chapter. Yet her attitude. is sympathetic toward the blacks, and her underlying frustration is that her white, literate logic fails her in these relationships.
It is significant that 'Geechee is completely separate from the characters in "Black Shadows" for two reasons: First, 'Geechee is a woman with whom Rawlings develops close emotional ties and, second, while the characterizations in "Black Shadows" are in a comic mode, 'Geechee is cast in a tragic mode. In "'Geechee" Rawlings reveals the pain of a memorable, proud, capable woman whose tragic mistake was to give her heart to an unworthy man. In addition, she reveals her own pain at seeing her friend suffering and being powerless to help. Rawlings unconditionally accepts Geechee- something she did with few others-although she could not change 'Geechee's behavior, which forced their separation.
Rawlings presents a character who might be a spiritual cousin to Big Sweet, Hurston's friend and protector at the Loughman sawmill camp. Both are awesome in their physical strength, their dignity, and their actions to be masters of their fate. However, 'Geechee is seen in a literate tragic mode in the isolated setting of Rawlings's house at Cross Creek. The literate narrator freely uses abstraction and introspection with a resulting emphasis on internal action and conflict. In contrast, Hurston
58 A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
Let us look first at 'Geechee. In one of Rawlings's most successfully dramatized incidents, she shares her initial encounter with 'Geechee. Analytically, Rawlings describes 'Geechee, whose physical and psychological strengths are overpowering: "She looked capable of murder. It would be like having a black leopard loose in the house.... It was her eyes that frightened me. One was blind and white fixing me with an opaque, unseeing purpose. I felt dazed and foolish, as though I had been hypnotized by a grotesque idol" (82-83). Rawlings's fear soon turns to trust and dependence as she experiences the excessively thorough work, devotion, and loyalty noted among 'Geechee's regional group, the blacks from the tidal waters of the Ogeechee River in Georgia (84). In time Rawlings learns that 'Geechee came to her because she felt the white woman could get her man, Leroy, out of prison. Admiring 'Geechee's determination, Rawlings does. However, to both women's distress, Leroy proves to be a hateful, menacing ingrate. Initially 'Geechee's conflict is between her devotion to Rawlings and to the worthless Leroy. Rawlings enjoys a brief victory over Leroy, but she loses 'Geechee to the maid' s dependence on alcohol because of her despair over not freeing herself from an abusive lover and/or not being able to deal adequately with her loneliness.
'Geechee has tragic stature because we see her crucial moments of introspection as she voices her self-awareness and, even in her weakness, her determination to control her destiny. In her weakest moments, she retains a dignity that defies pity.
The breaking point with Leroy comes when he attacks Rawlings verbally after she has been extremely generous to 'Geechee and him. 'Geechee explains, "I don't mind him doin' me wrong. He ain't never done anything but wrong to me. But nobody ain't done for him what you done. He ain't worth killin' the way he talked to you. I wanted to die" (88-89). 'Geechee's second tragic awareness is voiced after a final drinking bout while she was working for Rawlings. With dignity and a sense of her own destiny, she says, I know I got to go. I ain't no use to nobody. It comes over me and I can't help it. No use foolin with me, I won't never be no different" (9) In contrast, Big Sweet has no such moments of introspection.
About their relationship, Rawlings concluded with a personal moment of introspection, "No maid of perfection .. can fill the strange emptiness she left in a remote corner of heart" (95). With her empathy, respect,
Dana McKinnon Preu 59
in which she lost an eye, the other women in Leroy's life, her willing acceptance of Leroy's mistreatment of her, his actions and place in the black urban society of Jacksonville, her relations with other blacks of the Hawthorne/Cross Creek area. But then we are asking the author to write a different story in another mode.
Hurston's story of Big Sweet at the almost all-black sawmill camp gives us a tale in an oral, not literate, mode. 'When we juxtapose 'Geechee with Big Sweet, we can observe the same strong qualities of a black woman, but now within the oral black community. However, we must adjust to Hurston's oral epic style of phsyical action, a style without introspection by the characters and without introspection or analysis by the narrator participating in the communal activity. The literate reader may make his own analysis after the excitement of the action.
Befitting the oral heroic mode, Big Sweet is monumental in her physical presence and in her actions, and we never see her outside the communal setting. In contrast to Rawlings, Hurston never gives an objective description of Big Sweet. She does identify Big Sweet among "the wellknown women" of the area (Mules and Men, 67), and from what we later learn of her, this description might be an example of epic litotes. Of course, her name suggests a heroic epithet. In addition are her references to other women and the women's references to her. For example, she refers to Hurston, no small person, as "Little-Bit," and Ella WXall, her adversary, calls to Big Sweet, "Hey, bigger- than- me" (16o).
Her actions among the men-black and white-portray her fearlessness and psychological strength as well as her physical strength. Significantly, she is the only woman to tell tales during the fishing trip; she tells "Why the Mocking Bird Is Away on Friday" and "How the Gator Got Black" with no objections from others. In fact, she forestalls an interruption by Sam Hopkins: "When Ah'm shellin my corn, you keep out yo' nubbins, Sam" (115). Further, on the fishing trip before the whole community, she chides and challenges her man, Joe Willard, for fooling with Ella Wall. She cuts in a discussion about cats to pronounce "And speaking about hams, if Joe Willard don't stay out of dat bunk he was in last night, Ah'mn gointer sprinkle some salt down his back and sugar cure his ham" (133). None of the men defends Joe.
In the jook joint, she is even more powerful. She first eyeballs down a half-drunk tenor because his noise interferes with her card game. More important, she challenges Ella Wall, who dared appear, to the point
6o A Literary Reading of Mules and Men, Part I
dere and Ah means tuh use it on her, too.... Don't you touch me, white folks" (161). The best he can do is take Ella's knife and make her leave the camp. When the Boss and Ella leave, Joe Willard proclaims, "You wuz noble!" "You wuz uh whole woman and half uh man" (162). In epic fashion we see the progression of three increasingly difficult challenges met and mastered by the hero. Indeed, her acts are easily remembered, a requirement for oral heroic deeds.
Like 'Geechee, she is loyal to friends, and, as we have seen, she directs her destiny. Loyalty to one she accepts is seen in her relation with Hurston and, of course, in her effort to keep her man. She successfully protects Hurston from Lucy, who is jealous because her man, Slim, plays and sings for Hurston, and possibly from Ella during their first encounter at the jook joint and later at Cliff Ulmer' s wedding. Because Hurston had to leave in the middle of the melee following the wedding, we are not sure who survived, but I would bet on Big Sweet. In any event, she controlled not only her own destiny but also that of her community in several ways.
In contrasting the presentations of Big Sweet and 'Geechee, we see that one does not have to argue the effectiveness of orality or literacy. While it is true that Rawlings, the writer in the literate mode, frequently includes dramatizations of physical, public actions along with private and internal actions, she less frequently achieves the level of the marvelous and bigger- than-life aspects of oral literature. Rawlings shows us that a character in a literate mode of literature does not have to have a complete world/culture created in order to function publicly. The development of concern with the private life, with introspection and interior, and with psychological action came within the literate world. Nevertheless, the literate reader can still be moved by the oral hero' s adventure stories of power and daring action in the public arena of perhaps a small but complete cultural world. Hurston's little epic places Big Sweet beside John, Jack, and John Henry as black folk heroes. Telling Big Sweet's story, Hurston shows us how the African griot creates a hero and serves the community.
All in all, we have seen that Mules and Men is unique not only because it preserves oral literature, but because as a literate writer, Hurston has created an authentic oral world/culture as the context for the literature.
In his conclusion Ong states, "Study of the contrast between orality and literacy is largely unfinished business" (156). And more specifically,
Dana McKinnon Preu 6i
research and literary creation, Mules and Men is unique in preserving a vital recording of a functioning Afro-American oral culture. As our study of orality continues, we are in debt to Zora Neale Hurston for providing not artifacts to be dissected, but a means whereby we may positively experience orality.
Georges, Robert A. "Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events." Journal of
American Folklore 82 (1969):313-28.
Hemenway, Robert E. Introduction to Mules and Men, by Zora Neale Hurston.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
.. "Hurston's Buzzards and Elijah's Ravens." In A Rainbow Round Her
Shoulder, edited by Ruthe T. Sheffey, 28-41. Baltimore: Morgan State University
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men. 1935. Reprint, with introduction by Robert
Hemenway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Kellogg, Robert. "Oral Literature." New Literary History 5 (1973):55-66. Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New Accents
series. New York: Methuen, 1982.
Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. Cross Creek. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1942. Rosenberg, Bruce A. The Art of the American Folk Preacher. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1970.
Subversive Female Folk Tellers
in Mules and Men
M-- MA RY KATHERINE WAINWRIGHT
During the Great Depression, Zora Neale Hurston served as general editor of and a contributor to the Florida volume of the Federal Writers' Project American Guide Series. Robert Hemenway devotes only two paragraphs of his 1977 biography on Hurston to describing her brief tenure with the Federal Writers' Project, and other scholars and devotees of Hurston have also tended, as I had, to ignore or forget this detail of her life.
Several years ago, however, I happened quite by accident on a library copy of the 1939 Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. One sleepless night I discovered the following unauthored passage in the midst of what is, for the most part, an encyclopedic survey of Florida's history, agriculture, business, tourism, and education. In the description of the unincorporated town of South Bay, located on the banks of Lake Okeechobee, readers are told of the town's partial destruction during the 1928 hurricane (the same hurricane that Hurston describes in Their Eyes Were Watching God). Inserted into the otherwise dry, prosaic writing style that typifies this volume is this paragraph: "A Negro field worker who passed unscathed through several hurricanes has graphically described the velocity of a tropical gale: 'One day the wind blowed so hard, it blowed a well up out of the ground; blowe *d so hard, it blowed a crooked road straight. Another time it blowed an' blowed, an' scattered the days of the week so bad that Sunday didn't come till late Tuesday mo'nin'" (Florida, 477). This voice I recognized; this voice, in fact, I knew well. And, despite the lack of evidence to suggest the author, I heard, without a doubt, the folkloric voice of Zora Neale Hurston speaking from these
Mary Katherine Wainwright 63
While we know that Hurston drew literary inspiration from her varied experiences and travels from Harlem to Haiti, her early childhood exposure to the wit, wisdom, drama, and hidden messages of Eatonville's folktales and folk life, as the preceding passage illustrates, clearly inspired her strongest literary voice and defined her goals as an African-American woman writer. In both major and minor texts, in her creation of literary characters, plots, themes, narrative techniques, and even statistical information about Florida, Hurston's dominant discursive voice is the voice of the Eatonville folk teller. As Hemenway has argued, "Zora Hurston was struggling to make literature out of the Eatonville experience. It was her unique subject, and she was encouraged to make it the source of her art" (1977, 19-20).
In exploring Hurston's literary use of her Eatonville experiences, scholars today recognize that folktales and glimpses of folk life do not appear in her texts as mere "structural blunder," as Darwin Turner claimed in 1971 (107). Instead, following the lead of Hemenway's 1977 critical biography, most scholars of the eighties, including Hemenway, Alice Walker, and Mary Helen Washington, understand that Hurston used her "folkloric ethos" (Neal, 162) as a way of "liberating rural black folk from the prison of racial stereotypes and granting them dignity as cultural creators" (Hemenway, 1977, 329-30). Or, in Alice Walker's words, the use of folktales allowed Hurston to emphasize "racial health, a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature" (8s). Certainly as we read and reread the stories in Mules and Men (1935) of John's outwitting "Ole Massa," of how objects in nature have acquired their distinctive characteristics, and of African-American creation stories, we begin to recognize the ways that African-American folk culture has functioned historically as a kind of literary underground railroad, preserving and transmitting positive racial images and alternative records of the African-American experience.
While agreeing with Hemenway and other scholars that the folktales serve as "the tradition-bearers for an Afro-American world view" because they refute the "pathological view of uneducated rural black people" (Hemenway, 1978, xix xx), my own study of Hurston's folkloric voice and vision suagests that she han nat -has,.been
overlooked by the majority of scholars:_ to liberate black women, the o1~f the world" as she labels them in Their Eyes Were Watching Go'd i 7] I978, 29),- from historically sexist stereotyping. A careful in1yTlT o T1Woi iiicture and the themes of her collection of Eatonville folktales in Mules and Men suggests that Hurston's folkloric voice is
64 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men
embedded in this text for purposes even more subversive than have previously been recognized.
At the same time that she celebrates the life of the folk in Mules and Men, Hurston illustrates black women's vigorous defiance of conventional gender expectations and male authority. Using her folkloric sensibility to subvert the dominant culture's ideology regarding African-Americans, she adds a politics of gender to her politics of race by subtly employing the voice of the female folk teller to undermine negative assumptions about black women held. by both black and white cultures. Although this simultaneous indictment and celebration is exemplified in various ways throughout this work, in this chapter I explore the ways that privileging men's views and values affects women's discourse; how men silence women's voices and texts; how women, in turn, fight for and eventually employ their own discourse; and how that discourse functions as a subtext that alters cultural assumptions and provides us with a different way to view the black cultural experience-from a woman's perspective. This subtle undermining encoded as a subtext in Mules and Men holds the key to Hurston's subversive use of the voice of the female folk teller.
One of the most important thematic threads in Mules and Men, Part I (the folktales), is the way that language functions as a source of power. Dr. Asa Hilliard maintains that power is the ability to define reality and have others agree with that definition, while Robert Hemenway believes that "whoever attempts to control language, the naming process, attempts to control our understanding of who we are, our definition of reality" (1978, xxiii). On the surface, Mules and Men suggests that men hold the power in the black community because they control its language. Divided into ten chapters that contain a total of seventy folktales, Mules and Men resounds with male voices. The seventy tales form the portion of the book that Cheryl Wall has called the 66texts,99 and they are told from a male perspective: Twenty-eight of the storytellers are men while four are women; moreover, sixty-five of the tales are told by the male storytellers, but only five are told by women. Of these five, only one, Mathilda Moseley's "Why Women Always Take Advantage of Men," relates to experiences of black women from a woman9s perspective. The tales from Mules and Men thus confirm what folklorist Roger Abrahams has noted about black folktales: an "invisibility 9' of female "images and values" (58). They also illustrate what Hortense Spillers has identified as
Mary Katherine Wainwright 65
But one of-Hurston-m moajobj-ctives in Mules and Men (and Their Eyes Were Watching God) is to replace the white and black male "theon/.omy with a black femal'.mat1iinomy. hou ghonlya one of the., five.folktales told an is specifically related to gender concerns, it
leaves us with a powerful message of ways in which, women assume power in situations that _traditionallyhave rendered- them powerless; moreover, the tale serves as a sharp contrast to some of the stories told by the men in which women are seen as prizes for men to win, as community peacemakers, as love and sexual objects, and as temptresses.
The only positive woman's tale in Mules and Men is prompted by George Thomas's trivialization of women. When he says "Don't you know you can't git de best of no woman in de talkin' game? Her tongue is all de weapon a woman got.... She got plenty hips, plenty mouf and no brains," Mathilda Moseley "jumps in" to protest: "Oh, yes, womens is got sense too.... But they got too much sense to go 'round braggin' about it like y'all do" ([19351 1978, 33). She then proceeds to tell her tale.
Mathilda Moseley's folktale seems to reinforce a fairly conventional domestic role for women. According to the storyteller, in the beginning God created both men and women equally strong in physical powers and authority. But man got tired of this balance and desired domination. Therefore, he approached God to ask for "mo' strength than dat woman you give me, so Ah kin make her mind" (34). God granted man this strength, which the man then used to subdue the woman physically. Indignant, the woman went to God and begged for the "strength and power Ah useter have." But God refused her request, saying that he could not take back something that he had already given. Angry at God's refusal, the woman went immediately to the devil, who told her that she could have the advantage over man if God would give her the three keys hanging on his mantelpiece. This time God granted her request, and the devil explained to her their significance and their power: "Now dis first big key is to de do' of de kitchen, and you know a man always favors his stomach. Dis second one is de key to de bedroom and he don't like to be shut out from dat neither and dis last key is de key to de cradle and he don't want to be cut off from his generations at all" (36). Woman's strength, the devil goes on to say, will come if she will lock everything up and not open anything "until he use his strength for yo' benefit and yo' desires" (36). The woman did what the devil advised, and the resolution of the conflict was man's learning that he "had to mortgage his strength to her to live" (38).
This folktale discloses several important traditional cultural assumptions about women. It appears that the tale points to the dominant
66 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men
culture's deeply embedded belief that woman's domain lies in the private sphere of the home-the kitchen, bedroom, and nursery. The tale also points to ways that black women negotiate the private sphere in order to attain power in the public sphere. For example, in many black folktales, God is portrayed as the deity responsible for authorizing white supremacy. But in this tale, according to Mathilda Moseley, he is the deity responsible for authorizing male supremacy. By seeking an alternative and subversive authority, the traditional trickster figure of the black folk cosmos (the devil), women regain power; not the physical power of men, but the authority of their own female-centered experiences. By holding the keys to the kitchen, bedroom, and cradle, women in this folktale redirect a male-centered hierarchy of physical authority originated by God to a female world of domestic authority that usurps the power of men; man uses "his strength for yo' benefit and yo' desires." Another important message of this tale is God's initial equal creation of men and women, a motif Hurston expands in the "Adam's Rib" sermon in chapter 8. Finally, while men in this tale receive their strength from God, the conventional giver of gifts and power, women, by receiving their power from the devil, repeat a tradition established by Eve and Pandora, thus implicitly reinforcing the notion of women as usurper of male authority and disturber of men's power.
While this one folktale out of seventy suggests an alternative way to view the black cultural experience from a, woman's perspective, we find further and more persuasive evidence of Hurston's feminist message in Mules and Men in what Cheryl Wall has called the "context,"9 the narrative frame that introduces the setting from which the seventy formally structured tales emerge. Learning well from her childhood in Eatonville, Hurston knew -that the occasion for "lying," usually as it was illustrated by the banter of the porch sitters at Joe Clarke's store, was as important to oral folktales as the tales themselves. It is this narrative frame, which replicates many of Eatonville' s cultural rituals and community events (fishing trips, card games, backyard barbeques, trips to the jook and sawmill camps), that sets up the "lying sessions,"9 the opportunity for telling folktales. One of the many thematic threads that runs through the narrative context is the struggle between black men and women over who has the right to speak, to be a user of language. Thus, the texts, the seventy folktales listed in the table of contents (with the exception of Mathilda Moseley's tale), are dominated by male dis-
Mary Katherine Wainwright 67
insisting on the right to be creators of texts, in the narrative context women gain control, esteem, and respect in their communities. Until chapter 10, the narrative frame also undercuts the male-as-norm motif of traditional folklore as well as Hurston's recorded tales.
The narrative context of Mules and Men thus portrays an alternative to the domestic power suggested by Mathilda Moseley's tale and offers another source of power for women, linguistic authority. Linguistic authority is most clearly exemplified by the character of Big Sweet, the woman who befriended Hurston and saved her life as she gathered folktales in the sawmill camp in Polk County, Florida. Big Sweet can also be seen as a prototype of the female artist, Janie Crawford, in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, one who has found the ability to reclaim the authority of language assumed by the male. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston tells us that Big Sweet came to her ''notice" the first week of Hurston's arrival at the sawmill camp: "'I heard somebody, a woman s voice 'specifying' up this line of houses from where I lived" ( 1984, 186). Big Sweet's "specifying," so Hurston reports, had gathered an audience of about four or five hundred people, who listen to her "giving her opponent lurid data and bringing him up to date on his ancestry, his looks, smell, gait, clothes, and his route through Hell in the hereafter. .. Big Sweet broke the news to him, in one of her mildest bulletins, that his pa was a double-humpted camel and his ma was a grass-gut cow, but even so, he tore her wide open in the act of getting born, and so on and so forth. He was a bitch's baby out of a buzzard egg" (186-87).
Hurston repeats this view of Big Sweet talking "smart," using language as a way to assert her identity and to win community esteem, in her presentation of Big Sweet in the narrative context of Mules and Men as one who earns the privileged status of folk teller by verbally competing with the male storytellers. In chapter 6, for example, Big Sweet tells "Why the Mockingbird Is Away on Friday," but her position of storyteller is immediately usurped by the men in the group, who continue to expand on the theme of how animals have come to be as they are. Later in the chapter Big Sweet wants to tell her gator tale, but, as before, she is interrupted by Sam Hopkins. This time Big Sweet is determined not to lose her position as storyteller, so by asserting herself and talking smart to Sam-' When Ah'm shellin' my corn, you keep out yo' nubbins, Sam" (115-she is able to retain her position.
68 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men
exceptin' readin' Sears and Roebuck's bible and hollerin' 'bout, 'gimme dis and gimme dat' as soon as we draw our pay. Gaining the upper hand in this verbal match, Shug quickly replies, "We don't git it by astin' you mens for it.... you mens don't draw no pay. You don't do nothin' but stand around and draw lightnin'," while Gold quips, "Aw, shut up, Gene, you ain't no big hen's biddy if you do lay gobbler eggs. You tryin' to talk like big wood when you ain't nothin' but brush"
This verbal play between the men and women continues throughout the narrative context until, after a strategically' placed sermon at the end of chapter 8, narrative power shifts to women's actions and discourse. In chapters 9 and 10 Big Sweet dramatizes the way that women reclaim the power of their own experience by insisting on joining their community's game-playing and oral rituals and, in Susan Willis's words, by reversing the community's accepted "systems of domination" (43). Structurally, the Adam's Rib sermon preached by the traveling preacher in chapter 8 deserves consideration, as Cheryl Wall claims, because its emphasis on the equality of men and women "prepares the reader to accept and approve Big Sweet's actions in the conflict that follows. She is heroic"~ (378). Taking his text from Genesis 2:21, the preacher concludes his Creation sermon by describing the equal creation of man and woman, thus recalling the theme of Mathilda Moseley's tale:
Behold de rib!
Brothers, if God
Had taken dat bone out of man's head
He would have meant for woman to rule, hah
If he had taken a bone out of his foot,
He would have meant for us to dominize and rule.
He could have made her out of back-bone And then she would have been behind us.
But, no, God Almighty, he took de bone out of his side
So dat places de woman beside us; Hah! God knowed his own mind.
Behold de rib! (Mules and Men, 151i)
Following this pointed reminder of sexual equality, Big Sweet rises to heroic stature during various conflicts one evening at the "jook"9 in the sawmill camp. From winning an "eye-balling" match with Texas Red
Mary Katherine Wainwright 69
achievement occurs when the Quarters Boss comes into the jook and tries to break up the quarrel that is about to erupt among Ella Wall, Lucy, and Big Sweet. Big Sweet has been holding her own with her black brothers and sisters, but when she stands up to the white Quarters Boss, she defies the unspoken convention governing black/white interaction that "cussing Ole Massa" is never done to his face (83), and we realize the preceding events have been gradually* building up to this chapter's grand finale-an interracial power struggle between Big Sweet and the Quarters Boss.
The Quarters Boss orders Big Sweet to give him her knife, but she surprises him and the community by defiantly standing up to him, saying "Naw suh! Nobody gits mah knife. Ah bought it for dat storm-buzzard over dere and Ah means tuh use it on her, too. As long as uh mule go bareheaded she better not part her lips tuh me. Do Ah'll kill her, law or no law. Don't you touch me, white folks!" (161). Following her tirade, the Quarters Boss immediately transfers his attempt to retain his role as the figure of authority from Big Sweet to' Ella: He takes Ella's knife away instead and banishes her from the jook. The Quarters Boss then leaves the jook after -having the last word, but his words merely mock his position of authority and implicitly acknowledge that Big Sweet has gotten the better of him. As if he were speaking to a sullen child, he cautiously chides her: "Now you behave yo'self, Big Sweet. Ah don't wanna hafta jail yuh" (162).
The reaction of the men at the jook validates Big Sweet's newly acquire *d authority and welcomes her as an (almost) equal into the privileged circle of language users; they recognize that she has outwitted the whitee folks" with her words: 'You wuz noble!' Joe Willard told her, 'You wuz uh whole woman and half uh man. You made dat cracker stand offa you' (162). In the eyes of the community, Big Sweet has acquired discursive authority in a public, not a domestic, context. This entire chapter, beginning with the eye-balling contest and ending with the black-white, male-female standoff, dramatizes, through Big Sweet's interactions with the men, the way men (both black and white) attempt to control cultural rituals by controlling language -and thus attempt to attain and retain power by denying women's voices and actions. Big Sweet, however, reverses this cultural convention.
Chapter 9 ends with a folktale that subtly parallels and reinforces the events that have just taken place in the _jook. Cliffert tells a story about
70 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men
Like Big Sweet, Jack never has to follow through. Jack's words and the Devil's fear of losing his hammer to heaven are enough to force the Devil to end the game, thus implicitly acknowledging that Jack is the stronger (164-65). In this tale, as in the portrayal of Big Sweet, Hurston redefines the meaning of "stronger." Power does not come from physical prowess, she suggests, but rather from discursive adeptness, the ability to outwit the "master" and thus to survive and prevail in an oppressive and potentially enslaving situation through verbal play.2
In Chapter 9 Big Sweet gains a prominent place in the community' s folk life and discourse through verbal threats, thus overturning the role of authority traditionally assumed throughout this work by men, both black and white. In chapter io, the final chapter of part I of Mules and Men devoted to the Eatonville experience, we discover that Hurston, however', engaged in another reversal in the ongoing power struggle. While chapter 9 portrays Big Sweet's defining a positive role model as she breaks the silence surrounding women'9s voices, chapter 10 introduces, in both the tales and the narrative context, some of the most demeaning images of women found in the entire volume. Set against a backdrop of hostility, trivialization, and constant putdowns, Big Sweet's gestures and assertiveness take on even greater significance because in this chapter Hurston problematizes the role of the black woman folk teller. Now that Big Sweet has reached heroic and artistic stature in the insulated folk community of the Loughman sawmill camp, Hurston reveals some of the obstacles that the black woman storyteller must face as she moves away from a community rooted in oral tradition and lore into a community that a town like Pierce, Florida, represents, a town that is more in contact with the dominant culture and that has approximated what Toni Morrison identifies as the most "obvious" and the "worst" of white characteristics (140).'
In many ways chapter io, which takes place in the more mainstream town of Pierce, Florida, can be read as an autobiographical account of Hurston's own artistic journey from the indigenous black community of Eatonville to the larger artistic community of the Harlem Renaissance. The treatment of women in this chapter parallels many details of Hurston' s own treatment at the hands of such contemporaries as Langston Hughes (The Big Sea) and Wallace Thurman (Infants of the Spring). First of all, Hurston's message here is that women artists must confront a patriarchal notion of women's beauty: that is, that women are objects
Mary Katherine Wainwright 71
Likewise, in the narrative context of chapter 10, the storytelling of Good Bread, a large woman, is successfully stopped when Mack Ford insults her appearance and reinforces a conventional and male-defined notion of women's beauty. He tells Hurston that "li'l slim women" were put on earth to "beautify de world" while "big ones" are intended "to show dese slim girls how far they kin stretch without bustin' "9 (170).
In this verbal exchange, Good Bread tries but cannot defend her appearance against such ingrained social definitions of beauty. She says to the men, "You jus' leave me out yo' mouf. And furthermo' Ah don't crack" (170). But Christopher's response suggests she has overstepped the gender boundaries with her verbal retaliation. As a woman; she is not allowed to set her own standard of beauty: "She always tryin' tuh loud talk somebody. Ah hates women wid men' s overalls on anyhow" (171). In other words, women who attempt to participate in the word games of the community, those who attempt to write their own texts, overstep cultural boundaries. They are trying to wear the overalls and emulate men, who, in this exchange, are the acknowledged cultural language users and namers. The resolution of this conflict scores a loss for women. Instead of holding her own with the men, Good Bread leaves, a leavetaking that is significant because it is first described in language pejorative to women ("Good Bread flounced on off" [171, emphasis added]), and next it suggests that once she is gone, the male storytellers can reclaim their rightful position in this lying session: "She so mad now she'll stay way and let Mack tell Zora some lies. Gwan, Mack, you got de business" (172). The "overalls"9 remain on Eatonville's idea of their rightful owner, the men, and Good Bread's ability as a folk teller has been judged according to patriarchal notions of gender and not literary merit.
The narrative context reveals other social prescriptions that become a barrier to the black woman folk artist, including Hurston herself, barriers that she must confront and overcome in order to earn the right to tell her own stories. For instance, women are shown to be frightened, timid, and needing the protection of men when Lessie Lee "snuggled up to Clarence with the eyes of Eve and said, 'He [A.D. and his scary tales] scares me too, Clarence. Less me and you hug up together" (183). And on another occasion, A.D. wants to tell a story about a "witch woman,"9 but Baby-face Turl objects, saying "Naw, Ah don't wanta hear bout no witches ridin' nobody.... Ah been near rode tuh death in mah time.
72 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mule s and Men
structured tales suggest the socially sanctioned literary conventions that also serve as barriers to the emergence of a valid black women's literature. In "How a Loving Couple Was Parted," Hurston duplicates a stereotypical literary image of woman as a troublemaker and a conniver, out to disrupt the socially sanctioned institution of marriage and patriarchal social security. In this tale, the Devil entices a barefoot woman to break up a happily married couple by promising her a pair of shoes. The Devil himself is so outraged by the woman's evildoing that when she comes to collect her shoes he ties them to the end of a long pole and hands them to her, saying "Anybody dat kin create mo' disturbance than me is too dangerous. Ah don't want 'em round me" (178). Another convention of patriarchal literature is the demeaning portrayal of the unmarried woman, the spinster. In "How the Squinch Owl Came to Be," Miss Pheenie, Ole Marster's "ole maid sister," is described as having a stringyg" neck because she'd never been married. Her jealousy of the young men courting her niece and her one desire to "git courted and married" motivate her to believe the promises of a "devilish young buck,"9 and so she sits on the roof all night, freezes to death, and is turned into a squinch owl (181-82). The marriage and courting motif also
-characterizes the story about a young farmer who tricks his new bride into believing that he owns a lot of property in "All These Are Mine." These tales in chapter 10, combined with the actions in the narrative context, deliver a strong message from the men that women's rightful place is at the side of a man, not in overalls or the storytelling rituals.
Because of its conventional message regarding gender roles and how, literature has served to reinforce social attitudes toward women, chapter 10 in may ways undermines Big Sweet's unconventional performance in chapter 9. At the end of chapter 10, Big Sweet even reinforces the message of some of the chapter's tales when she summons Hurston back to the Loughman sawmill camp to attend the wedding of Cliffert and Thelma. But in the last few pages of the folktales section of Mules and Men, the final actions show Big Sweet' s saving Hurston from the threats of the knife-wielding Lucy.
The last two chapters following the Adam's Rib sermon on equality reveal a point -counterpoint volley. While many of the tales 'and even some of the narrative context reinforce fairly conventional and even demeaning stereotypes of women and suggest that the male storytellers are the rightful users of language to record and define their culture, the
Mary Katherine Wainwright 73
the volume's ultimate storyteller. Together, these two women refute the socially expected and accepted roles of women. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston explains how the alliance she and Big Sweet formed provided the occasion for the female storyteller to emerge. As Big Sweet says to Hurston, "You just keep on writing down them lies. I'll take care of all de fighting. Dat'll make it more better, since we done made friends" (189).
Susan Willis calls our attention to the last image of Mules and Men, arguing that "nowhere is Hurston's subversive intent and smug demeanor more evident than in the conclusion" (29). Hurston concludes her volume with a final folktale about Sis Cat, who is tricked into letting the rat go when he suggests she needs to mind her manners and wash her face and hands before eating. The second time the rat tries to trick Sis Cat, she gets the better of him by saying, Oh, Ah got plenty manners.... But Ah eats mah dinner and washes my face and uses mah manners afterwards." Hurston then draws a parallel between herself and Sis Cat in a witty one-liner: "I'm sitting here like Sis Cat, washing my face and usin' my manners" (252). Susan Willis believes that the "gloating" Hurston likens herself to the smug Sis Cat because she has "just served up the body of black Southern folktales to the Northern white readership" and is now asking her readers, "Who' s swallowed who?"
(29). Willis correctly points to one important effect of Hurston's use of her Eatonville heritage: "turning the tables on the superior Northern establishment (28). She neglects, however, to see that Hurston, writing with "confidence and satisfaction," is also turning the tables on her own culture's skewed gender prescriptions and values.4
Hurston, a black female writer, has encoded the evolution of a strong female discourse that arises out of the very culture that denies women access to its oral rituals and practices. The attempt to silence women's voices has, so Hurston reveals, caused the opposite. Both Big Sweet and ~ Hurston herself earn respected positions in the predominantly male circle~ of storytellers. Theirs have been subversive activities as they have been engaged in the task of reshaping language so that it works for, not against, women. When Janie Crawford lashes out at the men on the porch in one of the most eloquent scenes in Their Eyes Were Watching God, she says, "You men don't know half as much 'bout us women as you think you do" (117). Janie could easily be speaking to Mack Ford, Gene Brazzle, Jim Mosely, Eugzene Oliver, and all of the other male
74 Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men
: Hurston herself, represent the indomitable spirit of black women inscrib\2ing their own voices and expressions, demanding respect and dignity, V and struggling for and earning the right to tell their own stories.
1. In the narrative context of Mules and Men, Shug tells the same tale on p. 50.
Another story recorded in the narrative context of Mules and Men about fast-growing corn is also found in Florida in the description of Belle Glade (474). An astute reader also suspects that the stories of Burwell Yates (130), Dr. Abraham (37) and Daddy Mention (379) are also written by Hurston, but to date I have found no way to document this observation. The descriptions of Maitland and Eatonville are taken
directly from Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (361-62).
2. See Robert Hemenway's discussion of "The First Colored Man in Massa's
House" (Mules and Men, 85). In his introduction to Mules and Men, Hemenway claims this story, with its focus on vocabulary and language, "recreates the unsuccessful
attempt at cultural genocide the slaves overcame" (1978, xxii).
3. I am grateful to Dana McKinnon Preu (Florida A&M University) for her
observation that Mules and Men, Part I, takes place in three geographical locations: Eatonville, the- Loughman sawmill camp, and Pierce. (See chapter 5 herein.) She believes that the events and folktales recorded in Loughman depict a more indigenous oral culture. Eatonville and Pierce, McKinnon claims, frame the Loughman sections and represent African -Amnerican culture that has had more contact with the dominant society and thus has assimilated more of its value systems, ideologies, and social
4. In a recent article, "Speaking in Tongues," Mae Gwendolyn Henderson succinctly reminds us that black women's texts exemplify a "simultaneity of discourse."
Believing that readers of black women's texts often decode a "gendered" text at the expense of a "racial" one or vice versa, she proposes a way of reading these texts that accounts for both their "gendered" and their "racial" encodings: "A mode of reading which examines the ways in which the perspectives of race and gender, and their interrelationships, structure the discourse of black women writers" (17). Henderson cautions us that to privilege "one category of analysis at the expense of
others" risks "restrict[ing] or repress[ing] different or alternative readings" (17).
Abrahams, Roger D. "Negotiating Respect: Patterns of Presentation Among Black
'Women." Journal of American Folklore 88 (1975): 58-8o.
Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. American Guide Series, Federal Writers'
Project. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939.
Hemenway, Robert E. "That Which the Soul Lives By. Introduction to Mules
and Men, by Zora Neale Hurston, xi-xxviii. Bloomington: University of Indiana
Mary Katherine Wainwright 7
Criticism, Theory, and Writings by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, 1637. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Hilliard, Asa. Keynote Address. Fourth Annual (McKnight) Fellows Meeting.
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Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. Reprint, First American Century Series
edition. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. 2d ed., edited and with introduction by-Robert E. Hemenway. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
.Mules and Men. 1935. Reprinted, with introduction by Robert E. Hemenway. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
.Their Eyes Were Watching Cod. 1937. Reprinted, with foreword by Sherley
Anne Williams. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Washington Square Press, 1970. Neal, Larry. "A Profile: Zora Neale Hurston." Southern Exposure 1 (1974): 16o-68. Spillers, Hortense. "A Hateful Passion, A Lost Love." Feminist Studies 9 (1983):
Thurman, Wallace. Infants of the Spring. 1932. Reprinted, with afterword by John
Williams. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1979.
Turner, Darwin. In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for
Identity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Cardens: Womanist Prose. New York:
Wall, Cheryl A. "Zora Neale Hurston: Changing Her Own Words." In American
Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleischman, 37193. Boston: Hall, 1982.
Washington, Mary Helen. "Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow."~
Introduction to I Love Myself... A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, edited by Alice
Walker, 7-25. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1979.
Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison:
University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
"De Beast" Within: The Role
of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine
ALAN BRO0W N
Life on the Florida frontier made an indelible. impression on the mind and on the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Eatonville, Florida, an allblack town located five miles from Orlando, had been incorporated for only fifteen years when she claimed to have been born there in 1901 (Washington, 125). In many ways the Eatonville that Hurston grew up in was still very much a part of the frontier that surrounded Orlando. In her collection of folktales, Mules and Men (1935), and in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston explains how people living in Eatonville early in the twentieth century were molded by the harsh conditions that they encountered. In both books she makes the point that people living in rural Florida had to become tough-that .is, more animalistic-in order to surmount the same obstacles that the creatures of the swamp had to cope with every day. On the other hand, Hurston also argues in her autobiography that the natural beauty that surrounded her brought out the poetic impulse that lay dormant within her and inspired her to be an artist. In her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), which was written after Mules and Men (though published before), Hurston does more than simply relate the tale of brave people trying to fashion a life for themselves out 'of the wilderness (Helmick, 1970). She draws from her own life experiences and from the folktales that she had collected to create the character of John Pearson, a product of his environment who is condemned by his community because of the animalistic and spiritual elements that coexist within him. In Jonah's Gourd Vine, therefore, John Pearson's external struggle with the forces of nature
Alan Brown 77
Tracks on a Road, Hurston portrays life in a frontier town in terms that are both idyllic and horrific. On the one hand, Eatonville around the turn of the century was a rustic paradise whose plenty was readily available to anyone: "There were plenty of oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, guavas and other fruits in our yard. We had a five-acre garden with things to eat growing in it, and we were never hungry" ( 1984, 26). On the other hand, though, Eatonville during Hurston's childhood days was also an untamed wilderness, a neighborhood "where bears and alligators raided hog-pens, wildcats fought with dogs in people's yards, rattlesnakes as long as a man and as thick as a man's forearm were found around back doors ."(52). Even harmless plants posed a threat in Hurston's youthful imagination, which had been overly stimulated by the real terrors of the forest: "There was another tree that used to creep up close to the house around sundown and threaten me. It used to put on a skull-head with a crown on it every day at sundown and make motions at me when I had to go out on the back porch to wash my feet after supper before going to bed" (77).
While her body was being nourished on the tropical fruit that was readily available, her mind was nurtured on folktales, some of which appeared years later in Mules and Men. In this book, She recalled "lies" that her friends and relatives told of strange experiences that they had had while hunting the deer that abounded in the forest and gave them a year-round supply of meat. However, along with these tales of nature's bounty, Hurston also remembered the hostile side of nature. During her search for authentic black folktales in the 1920S, Hurston experienced firsthand the dangers that the swamp gang she was interviewing had to face every day: "My own particular crowd, Cliffert, James, Joe Willard, Jim Allen and Eugene Oliver, were to look out for me and see to it that I didn't get snake-bit nor gator- swallowed. The watchman .., had been killed by a panther two weeks before, but they assured me that nothing like that could happen to me; not with the help I had" (71). Presley, who has been listening to Jim and Cliff's stories about the snakes that proliferate in the area, pleads with them to change the subject: "Don't tell no mo' bout no snakes- specially when we walkin' in all dis tall grass.... Ah speck Ah'mn gointer be seen' 'emn in my sleep tonight. Lawd, Ah'mn skeered of snakes" (11978, i06). Even the plenty that the swamp provided posed a threat to the inhabitants of Eatonville, as is illustrated in Mules and Men by the tale of the man who is pulled in the
78 The Role of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine
actors. In Dust Tracks on a Road Hurston demonstrates how people who live in a place where only the strongest survive eventually become as tough as the conditions that they cope with on a daily.basis. She portrays her father as a man who "was struck by lightning and was not even knocked off his feet, but that lightning went off through the woods limping" (51). Growing up among men like her father, Hurston was impressed with their resourcefulness and, to a certain extent, their violent natures: "As in all frontiers, there was the feeling for direct action. Decency was plumb outraged at a man taking a beating and then swearing out a warrant about it" (52). In an area populated by impulsive men and dangerous beasts, violence was likely to erupt any minute; therefore, a high value was placed on physical prowess. In Mules and Men, Hurston recalls a story about two suitors who have to perform tremendous feats very quickly in order to win the hand of their beloved. After hiking in the woods seven or eight miles in search of a deer, one of the suitors 4 6 took aim and fired. Then he run home, run I round behind de house an set his gun down and then run back out in de woods and caught de deer and held 'im till de bullet him 9 im. So he won de girl 9 9 (43). '
Ironically, the same environment that turned some people into fine physical specimens also inspired others to become poets. Stimulated by the tall tales that featured animals that could talk, Hurston's imagination conjured up other fanciful images: "Animals took on lives and characteristics which nobody knew anything about except myself. Little things that people did or said grew into fantastic stories. There was a man who turned into an alligator for my amusement.... In my imagination, his work-a-day hands and feet became the reptilian claws of an alligator" (Dust Tracks 86). Even inanimate objects communicated with the little girl in ways that would eventually be transferred to her novels: "I picked up glints and gleams out of what I heard and stored it away to turn it to my own uses. The wind would sough through the tops of the tall, long-leaf pines and say things to me. I put in the words that the sounds put into me. Like 'Woo Woo, you wooo!' The tree was talking to me, even when I did not catch it" (77).
While Hurston's natural surroundings acted as a catalyst for the development of her artistic sensibilities, the folklore to which she was exposed also influenced the creation of her most "poetic" character in
_Jonah's Gourd Vine: the preacher, John Pearson. According to tradition,
Alan Brown 79
tale that follows, a lazy field hand interprets God's unwillingness to knock him off a log as a sign that he is being called to preach.
Before Hurston's experiences found expression in Dust Tracks on a Road or Mules and Men, they were incorporated in her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine. In this autobiographical book, Hurston transforms the folk life of Eatonville into the essential experience of all southern blacks (see Washington, 130). The central male character of this novel, John Pearson, is a metaphor of all black men living in rural Florida in the early decades of the twentieth century. The adopted stepson of Ned Crittendon, John is a mulatto, the product of a union between the owner of a plantation, Massa Alf Pearson, and a slave, Amy. Ned is so jealous of John's light skin, which allowed many plantation blacks to have the privileged position of "house-nigger," that he "binds" John over to a cruel overseer to work his land. Amy, however, intervenes on her son's behalf and arranges for him to become a field hand on the plantation from which she had come.
Ironically, by forcing his stepson to work outdoors, Ned is providing him with the means by which black boys at this time became men in the accepted meaning of the word. In the time that he spends working in the lumber camp, John actually learns to like hard work: "All next day John wielded a broad axe, a maul and pestle with the rest. He found that he liked the rhythmic swing, the chant 'Cuttin' timber! 9 with the up stroke. Then the sure descent 'Hnh!"' ([19341 1971, 104). Working in the lumber camp, John develops those physical traits that Hurston found so admirable in men who pitted their strength against the forces of nature: "He could chin the bar more times than anyone there. He soon was the best shot, the fastest runner and in wrestling no man could put his shoulders to the ground.... Coon could muscle out one axe, but John could balance two. He could stand like a cross, immobile for several seconds with an axe muscled out in each hand" (107). Working close to nature transforms John into a man who is proud of his body and who responds to its needs. Physical gratification, then, becomes a driving force in John's life.
Unlike his stepfather Ned, a former slave, John is set loose in a world that denies black men the avenues for the pursuit of manhood which are open to whites. Like many black males at this time, John is a tragic figure in the Greek sense of the term. As Hurston was trying to create a realistic portrait of the black males she was acquainted with in 1930s
8o The Role of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine
to manhood lay in the sexual conquest and exploitation of women (Gayle, 37). John's tragic flaw, therefore, lies not in some quirk of the mind, which was not allowed to develop to its full potential, but in one of the needs of his body, which, by contrast, was overly developed: John is sexually promiscuous.
Set against the primeval backdrop of the Florida frontier, John's outward struggle against the wilderness in his early years parallels his inner struggle with his own personal weakness after he is married. Hurston foreshadows John's later battles with his personal demons in the scene in which he impresses a girl he met in school, Lucy Potts, by killing a huge water moccasin that hides under a log bridge and terrifies everyone who walks by: "The snake went on guard, slowly, insolently. Lucy was terrified. Suddenly, he snatched the log from its place and, leaning far back to give it purchase, he rammed it home upon the big snake and held it there. The snake bit at the log again and again in its agony, but finally the biting and the thrashing ceased" Gonah, 67). The snake, an i told devil... [that has] been right dere skeerin' de folks since befo9 [Lucy] was burned" (67), is an outward manifestation of the evil side of man s nature that has tempted mankind since the Garden of Eden and becomes John's most powerful adversary after he and Lucy are married.
While working in the lumber camp, John confronts another denizen of the Florida swamps. Although "Coon" is actually a man, his brutelike nature allies him with his mammalian namesake. Like the bandit to which the "masked" animal is often compared, Coon steals a piece of John's bread and then taunts John into retrieving his property: "Don't you lak it, don't yuh take it, heah mah collar, come and shake it" (iog). The violent streak that many frontiersmen are imbued with emerges in a bloody fight in which John demonstrates Hurston's belief that wild surroundings foster wild men: "John ran in and landed one smack in his enemy's mouth, and while Coon was spitting out his teeth, he ripped a mule-kicking right to the pit of Coon's stomach and the fight was over and done" (iog). Invigorated by his defeat of the brutal camp bully, John is recognized by the rest of the camp and by himself as a man who enjoys the sting of battle: "John felt good. His first real fight. Something burned inside him" (iog). Once again Hurston is providing the reader with a glimpse of the battler that John is to become years later when he contends with the most formidable opponent of all: himself.
Aside from serving as the catalyst for the development of the physical
Alan Brown 81
ture's harshness. Not long after he marries Lucy, John visits a woman of easy virtue named "Big 'Oman." As he is riding home during a terrible storm, he has to cross a swollen river: "The river was full of water and red as judgment with chewed-up clay land. The horse snorted and went minging down to the bridge. Red water toting logs and talking about trouble, wrestling with timber, pig pens and chicken coops as the wind hauls up feathers, gouging out banks with timber and beating up bridges" (141). The personification Hurston employs in her description of the river appears once again in the prayer of thankfulness that John delivers in church:
You are de same god, Ah
Dat heard de sinner man cry
Same God dat sent de zigzag lightning tuh
join de mutterin' thunderSame God dat holds de elements
In uh unbroken chain of controllment....
We thank Thee that our sleeping couch
Was not our cooling board,
Our cover was not our winding sheet.
Please tuh give us uh restin' place
Where we can praise Thy name forever. (145)
The imagery contained in the prayer illustrates John's belief that nature has conspired with God to punish him for his sinfulness.
John's war with himself begins immediately after he confesses his adultery to Lucy. In the metaphors that Hurston employs, it becomes clear that John has turned into one of the "beasts" that he had previously contended with in the forest: "Dat's de brute-beast in me, but Ah sho aim tuh live clean from dis on if you 'low me one mo' chance" (144). Because he is a creature of appetite as well as a man of the spirit, John is able to remain faithful only as long as Lucy is able to satisfy him sexually (Gayle, 39). When Lucy becomes pregnant, he has another affair with a woman named Daphne, repents, steals a hog, and flees to Eatonville in a futile attempt to run away from his past and himself.
The beast imagery that John applies to himself continues to reflect his primal drives through the remainder of his marriage to Lucy. When Alf Pearson learns of John's affair with Daphne, -he suggests that Lucy "take a green club and frail John good" (Jonah, 146), just as one would do to
82 The Role of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine
you doin'. You can't clean yo' self wid yo' tongue lak uh cat (204). One suspects that the parallel that Lucy makes between her husband and an animal notorious for its aggressively sexual nature-the tomcat-is deliberate.
The two impulses within John that have been cultivated through his contacts with nature-the carnal and the spiritual-also produce friction within the community after Lucy dies. With no one around to redirect his energies, the countdown begins for John immediately upon her death. After losing his position in the church as a result of character assassination, he takes up carpentry but discovers that no one will hire him. Shabby and rejected, John has a dream that serves as a sort of epiphany and leads to action. His dream of rescuing Lucy from the snake that hid under the footlog is a subconscious expression of his desire to overcome the snake that he could not kill: the one that nestled in his heart. Finally he leaves town altogether as a broken man, defeated by his sexual license. Clearly society, even on the edge of the frontier, cannot tolerate a person who is truly a natural man, both as a lover and a poet.
John's dilemma is more than an isolated case of a preacher who is condemned by his peers for being a man's man as well as a man of God. Injonah's Gourd Vine, Hurston dramatized a basic tension that has characterized American civilization since at least as early as the mid-eighteenth century. The tension is not that which springs from the conflict of Man with Nature; rather, it is the product of a conflict that has informed and continues to inform American life: the desire to be the unfettered master of one's life as well as a participant in a strong, well-ordered society. As John Pearson discovers, these two states are mutually exclusive.
John is a prime example of Crevecoeur's hunter, who was instrumental in opening up the wilderness to society. In Letters from an American Farmer, Crevecoeur recognized that as society developed and the frontier declined, the hunter figure became an irritating anachronism. Once established, society could no longer tolerate the hunter, nor could the hunter put up with the restraints of society: "What are we in the great scale of events, we poor frontier inhabitants? What is it to the gazing world, whether we breathe or whether we die? Whatever virtue, whatever merit and disinterestedness we may exhibit in our secluded retreats, of what avail? We are like the pismires destroyed by the plough, whose destruction prevents not the future crop" (209). Crevecoeur's fear of being assimilated into society is based on his observation of the futile