Critical Essays: Zora Neale Hurston.
Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston is one volume in the Critical Essays on American Literature Series published by G. K. Hall, with James Nagel as General Editor. The volume on Hurston, edited by Gloria L. Cronin, is a collection of book reviews and articles which address Hurston's four novels, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948); her autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road (1942); three collections of folklore, Mules and Men (1935), Tell My Horse (1938), and Sanctified Church (1983); the play Mule Bone (1991); and selected short stories from The Complete Stories (1995). With the exception of two commissioned articles, the critical essays collected are reprints. These essays are framed by Cronin's introduction and a primary-source bibliography of published and unpublished materials compiled by Blaine L. Hall. The general editor's note purports this volume to be "the most comprehensive gathering of essays ever publis hed" on Hurston.
Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston is organized chronologically, in accordance with the publication dates of the ten works addressed, and these works are treated in separate sections which contain reviews and/or essays. The section on Jonah's Gourd Vine contains only two book reviews; no critique of the work is offered. Three book reviews constitute the section on Tell My Horse. Their Eyes Were Watching Cod receives more attention, with three reviews and four articles. Ironically, although Cronin bemoans the lack of scholarly interest in Jonah's Gourd Vine and, along with other scholars, seems troubled by the "relatively little critical attention" that has been given to Hurston's other works, she helps to perpetuate the imbalance. In other instances, however, this imbalance is addressed, particularly with the inclusion of reviews and essays on Moses, Man of the Mountain and Seraph on the Suwanee.
The discursivity determining the contours of Critical Essays derives from Cronin's perception of Hurston as a "feminocentric pantheist" who, "from her first novel to her last, ... was engaged in a serious 'womanist,' ethnological critique of the social and political foundations of Western culture and, more specifically, of Christianity." Most of Cronin's selected essays reflect this perception of Hurston. In "Literary Objective: Hurston's Use of Personal Narrative in Mules and Men," Sandra Dolby-Stahl makes apparent the authorial intent which casts Mules and Men as a literary rather than a scientific, ethnographic report. Dolby-Stahl cogently argues that Hurston's desire to elicit an appreciation for authentic folkloristic contexts and material dictated her preference for a literary framework and the use of personal narrative account in presenting her material. Hurston's integration of conventional fieldwork reportage into a literary performance piece demonstrates Hurston's valuation and celebration of the f olk and African American folklore. Cheryl Wall's essay "Mules and Men and Women: Zora Neale Hurston's Strategies of Narration and Visions of Feminist Empowerment" identifies Mules and Men as "a mother text." The quest for female empowerment, Wall states, is inscribed in the narrative's subtext and the "between-story conversation," the space in which Hurston privileges the voices of the women in her text. Wall situates this ritual act within the matrix of Black vernacular culture, where women gain possession of the word and, thus, power.
In a feminist cultural studies approach to Their Eyes Were Watching God, Rachel Duplessis analyzes the interplay of multiple social determinants and their textual configurations. Hurston's narrative choices and structures in the text, suggests Duplessis, reinforce the notion of (Black) "women's culture" as "a binding force." Dolan Hubbard's article explores Hurston's uses of "church and extrachurch" modes of expression to narrate "the emergence of a female self in a male-dominated world." As Janie Crawford, the protagonist, appropriates sermonic language and the authority inherent in it, Hubbard claims that she emancipates herself, converts and empowers her friend Pheoby, and achieves communal intimacy. The power Janie acquires through appropriating homiletical discourse is comparable to the autonomy she gains through the practice of naming, unnaming, and renaming described in Sigrid King's "Power, Naming, and Their Eyes Were Watching God." From one "patronymically defined identity" to the next, Janie Crawfo rd Killicks Starks Woods is objectified, dehumanized, disempowered, and circumscribed. King recounts Janie's resistance to and survival of white and male discourses of domination and her command over language--which is initiated in her relationship with Tea Cake. Though King considers Tea Cake's use of language as creative and inclusive, he points out that Janie does not achieve true autonomy and self-definition until she is "once again unnamed" by Tea Cake's death. At the novel's end, Janie's experiences have created within her a psychic space for the resurrection of the self, for true autonomy.
Ralph Story takes on Harlem Renaissance politics in "Gender and Ambition: Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance," situating Hurston as "a black woman player ... in a game dominated at the time by white men who controlled the game, by white spectator-readers who comprised the primary audience, and by black men who functioned as gatekeepers and occasionally as players themselves." Because she challenged the status quo through her bodaciousness and her insistence on "telling a story the way it told itself to me," she was disparaged and censored by the male literary power brokers. Langston Hughes, an erstwhile friend, impugned her character, and Richard Wright castigated her work. Story reads these conflicts as instances of the ongoing" 'battle' of the sexes," with Their Eyes as the literary locus of this conflict. The passage wherein Tea Cake silences Janie "with a half word ... symbolically etches out and foreshadows the aesthetic debate between black female and black male writers." Divergent, sex-speci fic experiences necessarily give voice to a multiplicity of discourses, reasons Story. Yet Black male writers of the Renaissance era and contemporary Black male writers, in the main, remain unappreciative of Black female writers, their standpoint, and what informs it.
Ruthe Sheffey's article on Moses, Man of the Mountain focuses on Hurston's rescue of Moses from the Judeo-Christian tradition and his figuration as an African American folk hero and a prototype for African American leadership. Janet St. Clair's work discusses Hurston's least appreciated novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, challenging judgments of it as a "regressive novel." St. Clair attributes apparent thematic and structural inconsistencies in Seraph to a subversive subtext, a "feminist manifesto roiling just beneath the vapid and saccharine surface." Philip Snyder's commissioned essay on Dust Tracks is an incisive assessment of much of the current scholarship on Hurston's autobiography, deconstructing the notion of an authentic self and the possibility of a definitive textual representation of that self. Snyder discusses Hurston's autobiography as a "highly mediated discourse" which defies totalizing interpretations. He reconstructs Dust Tracks, along with Their Eyes, as the prototypical African American female Bildungsroman and Kunstlerroman, wherein Hurston creates an emancipatory autobiographical discourse, characterized by a feminist "front porch" politics of liberation.
More than mere "apprentice work," Wilfred Samuels sees Zora Neale Hurston's short stories as the locus of beliefs and themes that would become central to her later work. Hurston's love of the folk, Eatonville, and folk culture, writes Samuels, is evidenced first in her short stories. Heterosexual relationships and their inherent misogyny, as well as female empowerment, are predominant themes in these early works. Samuels explores these themes in a comparative analysis of "John Redding Goes to Sea" and "Drenched in Light" and in other short stories, such as "Spunk," "Sweat," "The Gilded Sixbits," and "Muttsy." Unfortunately, he does not address Hurston's lesser-known short stories.
The reviews of Mule Bone focus more on the production and performance of the play than on the play proper. "Why the Mule Bone Debate Goes On," by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., highlights an important issue: Black speech. According to Gates, the 1984 debate over whether to stage Mule Bone stemmed from Hurston and Hughes's "exclusive use of black vernacular as the language of drama." Such notions harken back to the Harlem Renaissance Black literati's condemnation of Hurston's use of Black dialect and the eventual silencing of the author. The 1984 debate over the production of Mule Bone resounds in the 1997 debate over the Oakland, California, School Board's resolution to validate Black English as a language and to use Black English as a tool of instruction. Black English might well remain "the bone of contention" among African Americans--at least until African Americans realize that the stereotyping gaze of stereotyping others does not constitute African American realities.
One still winces at Richard Wright's acerbic conclusion in "Between Laughter and Tears" (also included in this volume) that Their Eyes Were Watching God "carries no theme, no message, no thought." In view of this literary death knell, one might be astounded by the critical attention this novel now receives. The contemporary critical assessment of Their Eyes as a masterpiece, the reevaluation of Hurston's contribution to American and African American literary traditions, and her position in the American and African American literary canons speak to "the changing values of the literary establishment and of the nation," as Gloria Cronin points out--though Mule Bone speaks to the contrary. Feminist and womanist critical attention given to Their Eyes catapulted the novel from near oblivion to literary prominence. Janie's journey from object to speaking subject and selfhood easily lends itself to womanist and "feminocentric" interpretations. It is arguable, however, whether a "feminocentric pantheism ... sustained [Hurston] through most of her life," as Cronin contends, and it is also arguable whether all of Hurston's novels--and her other works--can be categorically described as feminocentric texts. Does Hurston continue a "fascination" with women in Moses, Man of the Mountain? Is a "feminist manifesto" submerged in the narrative structures of Seraph on the Suwanee, as Janet St. Clair states? Certainly these questions beg the questions posed early on by critics such as Barbara Smith and Deborah McDowell: What constitutes a Black feminist critique? What constitutes a Black feminist text? Jennifer Jordan's "Feminist Fantasies: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God" was one of the first works to question the uncritical declaration of Their Eyes as a feminist text and of Hurston as a feminist author. Whether Hurston can be categorically described as a womanist or Black feminist author remains an equivocal issue. Nonetheless, Critical Essays might somehow have addressed or acknowledged this significant debate.
Given that, as Phillip Snyder contends, "Hurston's life and work celebrate travel over arrival, motion over stasis, possibilities over probabilities, dialogic over monologic, and infinity over totality," scholars might resist a totalizing configuration of Hurston. In the advancement of Hurston studies, scholars might also refrain from condemning any of Hurston's works as "failures." Cronin writes, for example, that "the tone of Moses is uneven and the book is ultimately a failure." Ruthe Sheffey recognized Moses as a successful "tour de force which ambitiously and successfully merged Afro-American folklore--its wit and humor...--with the universal folk hero, popularized in the Judeo-Christian tradition." Current scholarship on Moses, such as John Lowe's analysis, attests to the novel's success and merit.
The reviews and essays, together with Cronin's assessment of the historical and contemporary critical response to Hurston's oeuvre, trace the trajectory of Hurston's career and reputation. Given that there are only two new essays in this volume, and that only those two have been published since 1993, Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston does not so much advance Hurston scholarship as enhance it. The collection of reviews, the editorial essay on unpublished manuscripts, and the bibliography of Hurston's writings make Critical Essays a good introduction to Hurston studies and suggest the direction future scholarship might take.
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|Author:||Plant, Deborah G.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2000|
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