Zora Neale Hurston and the post-modern self in 'Dust Tracks on a Road.'
Hurston's autobiography has received some of the most negative criticism of any of her books and for this reason serves as an interesting case in point about the Hurston canon. Hurston's warmest admirers have criticized Dust Tracks. In his biography of Hurston, Robert Hemenway calls Dust Tracks "a discomfiting book" which "has probably harmed Hurston's reputation" (276); Alice Walker has called Dust Tracks "the most unfortunate thing Zora ever wrote" (xvii)(2); and Nellie McKay includes Dust Tracks "among the most problematical of autobiographies by black women" (179). However, post-structuralist theory can help readers to appreciate Dust Tracks-and for some of the very reasons that it previously received criticism.
Three complaints recur most in critics' ambivalent response over the years to Hurston's autobiography, and they no doubt account for much of the book's relative scholarly neglect: its apparent unreliability, its inconsistency or fragmentary nature, and its seemingly assimilationist racial politics. Although these deficiencies exist in other Hurston texts, including Their Eyes,(3) their presence in Dust Tracks is particularly problematic. The complaints about Dust Tracks are valid, especially those about its unreliability and its fragmentariness, if one insists on conventional notions of the consistency of autobiography and of the individual. But Dust Tracks is never consistent: not with itself, not with the conventions of autobiography in general or those of African American autobiography, not with the facts of Hurston's life, not with what probably were its author's real feelings about racial politics.(4) The individual persona who is both the subject and object of Dust Tracks on a Road is not the homogeneous, unitary, and autonomous protagonist of conventional autobiography but heterogeneous, fragmentary, and inextricably and in various ways part of the culture and society in which she lives. So as to correspond better to the persona represented in and by the text, Dust Tracks resists two cardinal conventions of autobiographical representation: traditional autobiographical structure and formal organization, and a focused projection of the autobiographical persona. Instead of satisfying these conventions, Dust Tracks on a Road focuses on the life of Zora's imagination, on the psychological dynamics of her family, on retelling community stories, on depicting the character of certain friends, and on Hurston's ambiguous pronouncements about race. In so doing, Dust Tracks portrays an individual persona that resists reduction to a coherent, consistent unity and instead portrays a person of many moods who is in tension with the world in which she moves.(5)
In calling Dust Tracks unreliable, critics are arguing that Hurston does not represent herself truthfully and that the book is a deceptive and unfaithful representation-although it "may be the best fiction Zora Neale Hurston ever wrote" (Turner, "Introduction" iv). According to Maya Angelou, "It is difficult, if not impossible, to find and touch the real Zora Neale Hurston" (xi-xii) in Dust Tracks. For Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "Hurston's autobiography singularly lacks any convincing picture of her own feelings" ("My Statue" 78-79; "To Write" 172-73). And Mary Helen Washington accuses Dust Tracks of "at all times deftly avoiding self-revelation" (19-20).
These criticisms presuppose that there is such a thing as a "real Zora Neale Hurston," to use Angelou's words, which one can differentiate from other "Zora Neale Hurstons" (as well as the fact that it is possible to represent this "real Zora Neale Hurston"). The possibility of representing the "real Zora Neale Hurston" presupposes that she is a single, autonomous, homogeneous unity. However, the kind of individual that Dust Tracks represents is heterogeneous and inseparable from her environment, since it is in her relationship to her environment that the individual is defined.(6) Angelou seems to yearn for the Enlightenment view of the individual, and the protagonist's apparent absence of coherence, unity, and consistency in Dust Tracks partly explains the greater scholarly interest in Their Eyes Were Watching God since, as James Krasner says, Their Eyes "is . . . a good deal more consistent" and therefore "a good deal more critically acceptable" than Dust Tracks (117).(7) But because Hurston's autobiography presents an individual that poststructuralist theory would identify as the postmodern subject - a fragmented, heterogeneous individual, inextricably interconnected with the rest of the world and human society-the lack of consistency, coherence, and unity is the most important feature of her text.
The subject as conceived in poststructuralist theory is a response against the notion of the individual central to humanism, a notion of the individual that we can trace back at least to Descartes. "The existence of a stable, coherent self, is the first of the Enlightenment-derived "beliefs still prevalent in (especially American) culture" that "postmodern philosophers seek to throw into radical doubt" (Flax 624). As a result, one can read into virtually everything the most influential post-structuralists have written a fundamental, underlying skepticism of Descartes's certainty of the existence of the individual human being standing alone - or, to phrase it as a post-structuralist would, the autonomous subject.(8)
Michel Foucault, for example, argues in The Archaeology of Knowledge that someone like Angelou expects narrative continuity, unity, consistency, and coherence not because the subject of a story is necessarily homogeneous but because the expectation of homogeneity is the product of Cartesian philosophy, which has been ruled by "the sovereignty of the subject (12).(9) Under the Cartesian or Enlightenment paradigm, the unity of the individual and the unity of the story go together. Because Hurston's book resists both of these unities, it can disappoint readers with conventional expectations about autobiographies.(10)
The fact that Dust Tracks does not conform to common conventions of autobiographical representation could constitute an argument for the book's value on the basis of originality. But values are often assigned within a preconceived framework: What we have previously valued helps determine what kind of values we assign to aesthetic works. Yet when our framework alters, we may very well evaluate differently. This is the crux of my argument about the status of Dust Tracks: Today's readers, no longer constrained by the "sovereignty of the subject"-by notions of the individual and of the representation of the individual as conceived under Cartesian, humanist philosophy-possess a framework for evaluating Dust Tracks on a Road differently. If we allow ourselves to perceive the self as post-structuralists do, then we have the possibility not only of appreciating Hurston's text as we never have before but also-and paradoxically - of appreciating it as a successful and convincing representation.
One of the reasons Dust Tracks has been accused of inconsistency would seem to be that Hurston creates an autobiographical persona that modulates - sometimes flip-flopping back and forth between opposing modes of representation and sometimes claiming to transcend them. These modes include dialect and standard English, the Uncle Remus frame form and a complete text-in-dialect, oral and written narrative, assimilationist and antiracist racial politics, narrative and portraiture, masking and divulging, and the inner world versus the outer world.(11) The one thing Hurston is consistent about is the heterogeneity both of the self and of society. In a sense, inconsistency is her theme, and as a result her text refuses to simplify things to a consistent continuity or a single, simplified opposition (like the issue of race boiled down to black versus white). In terms of both form and content, Dust Tracks consistently plays a high-wire balancing act, forever juggling its oppositions.
Because the form of Hurston's text is inconsistent and paradoxical, it reflects the persona it represents, who is herself inconsistent and paradoxical. Lately, a few critics have suggested that this is precisely what makes Hurston's literary self-portrait truthful: "In a world of . . . chaotic inconsistency , . . . is it possible to write a consistent personal history? . . . If . . . the personal narrative is seen as an expression of self-conscious creativity, then Dust Tracks can be seen as the least deceptive type of autobiography . . . . By admitting her lies, Hurston comes closest to the truth" (Krasner 116).(12)
Biographical accounts have always stressed how erratic and complex Hurston's personality was. Both Langston Hughes, who knew Hurston personally (238-40), and Hemenway, in his biography of Hurston (64-65), demonstrate the extent to which Hurston's social behavior was the constant performance of an entertainer. As a result, it is easy to assume that in Dust Tracks she was simply putting on another act, as Nathan Huggins asserts (133), or hiding behind a mask, as Eva Birch contends (144). However, when readers criticize Dust Tracks for being a put on, or for masking its protagonist's true character, they assume, like Angelou deploring the absence of the "real Zora Neale Hurston,"(13) that there is a character which is Hurston's true persona, distinguishable from other characters that Hurston could present, both in writing and in real life. The representation of the self in Dust Tracks, like the post-structuralist view of the subject, challenges the true-interior-behind-the-false-exterior model of the self and invites us to perceive the self as a densely textured, multi-layered series of masks. If Hurston had a "true" persona, it would be the combination of all the various masks she could wear, and thus, through the very opaqueness of its representation of its protagonist, as well as through its inconsistency and fragmentariness, Dust Tracks offers a self-portrait which should satisfy the expectation of verisimilitude of conventional readers of autobiography. As Francoise Lionnet says, in a position complementing my own, "Dust Tracks, far from being a 'camouflage' and an 'escape,' does indeed exemplify the 'paradoxes of [Hurston's] personality' by revealing a fluid and multidimensional self that refuses to allow itself to be framed and packaged" (102-03).
One of the most obvious ways that Dust Tracks reflects the inconsistency and heterogeneity of its subject is through its overall structure of eleven narrative chapters followed by five appendix-like chapters. The five discursive, final chapters have been a source of frustration for critics who see the book as fragmentary, because these chapters seem "tacked on" to the actual "story," which ends with the eleventh chapter. For example, Birch points out that the "opening chapters" of Dust Tracks promise "a structure . . . that is not fulfilled" and thus criticizes the "lack [of] coherence" in the book's "later chapters" (143-44), and Claudine Raynaud has called the final chapters "disappointing" and, arguing that their "rupture" of the book's overall organization "contributes to blurring what stands closer to the Zora Neale Hurston of 1942," suggests that they are at least part of the reason that Dust Tracks "succeeds at hiding [Hurston's] inner self" ("Autobiography" 112-13).
If one does not expect that Hurston represent herself in a standard, organized, coherent manner, one can see that the apparent fragmentariness that results from the five final chapters of the book is not a structural fault. Rather, these chapters are important in several respects to understanding Dust Tracks.(14) For one, the five last chapters are like an appendix, and appendices have an important history in the tradition of African American autobiography, but Dust Tracks avoids this and many other conventions associated with the tradition; the book does not, for example, focus on the themes of identity, voice, and appropriating the power of the word, as do so many African American autobiographies, from the first slave narratives to the twentieth-century autobiographies of Richard Wright and Maya Angelou.(15) The slave narratives often contained introductory and appended documents by white abolitionists, whose primary purpose was to guarantee the authenticity and good character of the author and the truth of his or her story. Hurston's appendices serve as a play on the slave narrative appendix and are a political act: She, the African American speaker/writer, guarantees her own authenticity instead of relying on the endorsement of prominent white people by presenting her "good character" herself. To put it as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., might in The Signifying Monkey, she signifies on the convention of the slave narrative and implies that even an African American female writer can herself assert her own authenticity.(16)
Although they contribute only anecdotes to Hurston's story of her life, the final five chapters offer valuable insights into Hurston's personality and thinking. Each chapter focuses on one relationship in particular. The first of these five chapters, "My People! My People!" discusses Hurston's relationship to race. The second chapter, "Two Women in Particular," is about Hurston's relationships with friends. The third chapter, "Love," is on sexual, romantic, and marital relationships; the fourth, "Religion," covers Hurston's relationship with God; and the fifth, "Looking Things Over," describes her thoughts on politics and world affairs-in other words, her relationship to the world at large. The five chapters present Hurston as she is (or seems to be) in relationship to others (other groups, other people, other beings). As a result, the book begins as it ends, with Zora's ties and relationships to other people and other things.
The emphasis on relationships is significant, because it is with and against the backdrop of her community and culture that the subject emerges. The first and second chapters of Dust Tracks establish the geographical and family settings into which Zora was born, thus establishing her advent in a frame of reference. The book begins with the remark "Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say" (561). Part of what makes Zora the person she is - indeed part of what enables her to tell the autobiographical story she tells ("I have memories . . . . Time and place have had their say") - are where she comes from and the people among whom she grew up. Her personality is defined in part by her relationships to a place and to its inhabitants. This is the reason that Hurston's reader "will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life" (561).(17) Thus, Dust Tracks starts by explicitly stating that its subject is not an autonomous entity but a subject whose self-representation is inextricably interrelated with what and whom she encounters.
Critics have frequently discussed, Hurston s use of dialect in her work.(18) As in her other texts, Hurston modulates between black dialect and standard English in Dust Tracks, forging, as Gates (209-12) says she does in Their Eyes Were Watching God, a unique synthesis of idiomatic and standard English, but in a different way and with different results. Hurston's narrative voice relies ostensibly on standard English, but the tone belongs to a colloquial, oral storytelling voice, and, especially in the first half of the book, a black vernacular voice interrupts frequently. The oral, storytelling voice often addresses the reader directly and colloquially. To introduce shifts of direction in the story, narrational paragraphs or sentences begin with "Well," "Now," "So," "At any rate," "For one thing," "Lo and behold." Narrative segments are formally introduced as in an oral storytelling setting with phrases like "The saying goes like this" (577), "It was like this" (579), or "It came about this way" (589). From the book's very first page the narrative voice frequently addresses the reader directly with the pronoun you (561).(19)
By using such phrases, Hurston creates a written story that sounds like an oral story, what the Russian formalists called skaz. Dust Tracks follows the conventions of oral storytelling, but the narrative is delivered in print, not orally. Both written text (with such conventions of written texts as chapter divisions and headings) and oral performance, and yet not entirely either, Dust Tracks is, at the same time, neither bird nor beast and both bird and beast. Since recording oral culture was an important part of her life's work, it seems appropriate that Hurston created texts that modulate between the oral and the written. But this modulation is not just a tribute to oral culture, for the way Dust Tracks resolves the opposition between the oral and the written story-it is neither and both at the same time - is paradigmatic of the way the book handles all the other oppositions in it.
When it comes to racial politics, the cause of many of the complaints about this book, Dust Tracks also resists being bird or beast, and yet ends up being both at once. The two sections of the book in which race and racism are most explicitly the central subject are the episode in which a black man is refused service in a barbershop and the twelfth chapter, "My People! My People!" Hurston describes a scene in the Washington barbershop where she worked as a manicurist while attending Howard University. Although the barbershop was black-owned, it catered to an exclusive, white clientele of congressmen and journalists. Hurston tells of her reactions when a black man unsuccessfully attempted to assert his de jure right to service in this high-class establishment. She tells how, like her white customers and her black colleagues, who finally threw the man out of the shop, she resented the man's insistence: ". . . I wanted him thrown out, too." Later, she realizes that her anger at the man "was giving sanction to Jim Crow, which theoretically, I was supposed to resist." But after further reflection, Hurston comes to the conclusion that she and her colleagues could not have acted otherwise: "Off-hand, you might say that we fifteen Negroes should have felt the racial thing and served him. He was one of us." Hurston feels, however, that such a gesture would have led to the ruin of the business and to her and her colleagues' unemployment: "Then we could all have gone home to our unpaid rents and bills and things like that . . . . The 'militant' Negro who would have been the cause of it all, would have perched on the smuddled-up wreck of things and crowed" (679).
To not a few readers, Hurston's resentment of the man refused service at the barbershop must seem deplorable; it is certainly an instance of the problematic racial politics of Dust Tracks that readers have criticized since Ama Bontemps wrote in 1942 that, in Dust Tracks, "Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America - she ignores them" (qtd. in Turner, MiNor Chord 95). To readers upset by Zora's complicity in the expulsion, the solidarity of race should exert a claim in the barbershop episode. But in this instance, economic concerns take priority over racial solidarity, which foreshadows Hurston's rejection of facile racial classifications in "My People! My People!" The barbershop employees act out of fear for their livelihoods: "There is always something fiendish and loathsome about a person who threatens to deprive you of your way of making a living" (680).(20) Hurston acknowledges that the common bond of race shared by the" 'militant' Negro" and the barbershop employees has its power - "we . . . should have felt the racial thing" - but she refuses to accept that race is the only arbiter.
In "My People! My People!" Hurston presents her distrust of racial classifications and racial cliches. She tells of the many apparent contradictions she observed in the African American community, which leads her to refuse "to consider any racial group as a whole" (731). She recalls the many speeches she had heard extolling the race's progress, its beauty, its courage (721-22), but she contrasts this with stories of "cutting the monkey," which would appear to present the race in a very different light (722-23). "Weren't Negroes the smartest people on earth, or something like that? Somebody ought to remind the people of what we had heard at the schoolhouse. Instead of that, there would be more monkey stories" (723). She cites examples of African Americans' heterogeneity - the "'dickty' Negro" versus the "trashy Negro" (719-20), darker versus lighter skin (725-26), "Race Champions" and "'the better-thinking Negro' "versus "anything frankly Negroid" (730-31) - and concludes "that no matter where two sets of people come together, there are bound to be some in-betweens" (732). Hurston's point would seem to be to explode the "mirages" (721) and "cliches" (731) of the" 'Race Man,'" "'Race Solidarity,'" and" 'Race Consciousness'" (720).
As she undermines the received view of racial solidarity in "My People! My People!," however, Hurston makes a turn that is characteristic of Dust Tracks on a Road's approach to representation, undermining her own undermining, with the story of how her father and the other men of Eatonville went to the defense of a fellow townsman, Jim Watson, whom they feared was about to be lynched (726-29). In Dust Tracks, and particularly in "My People! My People!," Hurston frequently illustrates a point with an anecdote or a story.(21) The Jim Watson episode is typical in this sense, that it is presented to illustrate how "this Negro business came home to me" (726). But instead of illustrating what the preceding seven pages discuss, the emptiness of "the Race cliches" (731) like the "Race Man" and "Race Solidarity," the Jim Watson episode turns out to be an example of the very race solidarity and consciousness that the chapter sets the reader up to think are empty myths. What the episode shows is the men of Eatonville risking everything to protect a neighbor they momentarily suspected would become the victim of racial hatred, and for no particular reason except that he is a neighbor and one of their own:
They had gone out to rescue a neighbor or die in the attempt. . . . The men who spoke of members of their race as monkeys had gone out to die for one. The men who were always saying, "My skin-folks, but not kin-folks; my race but not my taste," had rushed forth to die for one of these same contemptibles. (729)
Hurston describes the cliche of the "Race Man" as one who "stand[s] ever ready to defend the Negro race from all hurt, harm and danger" (720). And while she speaks ironically of the "Race Man" - "People made whole careers of being 'Race' men and women" (720) - the Jim Watson story shows the Eatonville men conforming exactly to the description of the "Race Man." It would seem that the narrator of Dust Tracks is again being her usual, inconsistent sell for while the whole point of the chapter seems to be that "Race Man," "Race Solidarity," and "Race Consciousness" are cliches, the example presented as though to settle the discussion of race demonstrates that, when push comes to shove, people do come together in solidarity to defend one of theirs simply because he is one of theirs. If race solidarity is an empty cliche, this is nonetheless a very convincing example that people are willing to die for it.
Hurston's slipperiness with this episode does not end here, however. The chapter makes one reversal by appearing to argue against race solidarity while presenting this convincing example of such solidarity, but it makes another reversal when we learn that what raised Eatonville's fears was not that the black Jim Watson was being lynched but that a white man known as Old Man Bronner was being flogged by whites angered at a newspaper article Bronner had written. Here she demonstrates the limits of race solidarity and consciousness. Contemporary Southern fiction, like Richard Wright's and William Faulkner's, taught readers to expect vigilante law to be applied by whites to blacks, but Hurston's example shows whites applying it to another white.(22) The fictional representations of lynch law reinforce the notion of race solidarity because they present lynchings as a matter of white upon black, of one race versus the other; and while this was indeed primarily and all too often the case in the South at the time, what Hurston demonstrates with the description of white vigilantes ganging up on another white man is the original point of the chapter, that one race does not always stick together, that various members can be at odds with each other, and that a particular kind of situation - like a lynching - does not apply in precisely the same way to only the same victims all the time. In other words, once again the message is that things are not homogeneous but heterogeneous.
Hurston ends "My People! My People!" with a paragraph that reinforces the apparent ambiguity of the entire chapter.
I maintain that I have been a Negro three times - a Negro baby, a Negro girl and a Negro woman. Still, if you have received no clear cut impression of what the Negro in America is like, then you are in the same place with me. There is no The Negro here. Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearances and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people! (733)
The paragraph begins by reminding readers of the heterogeneity of the subject: "I have been a Negro three times - a Negro baby, a Negro girl and a Negro woman." Not only does this affirm that the subject has several components, but it also suggests that, if it is difficult to apply the term a Negro to any single individual (since one person can be "a Negro three times"), it is harder to use it as a collective noun.(23) The paragraph then states the apparent message of most of the chapter, that "race" is a questionable classification because of the diversity of the group so classified: "There is no The Negro here. Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearances and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all . . . ." This section of the paragraph expresses what both the beginning of the paragraph and the entire chapter have implied all along, that to apply Negro as a collective noun is impossible.
However, in the chapter's final phrase, its final five words, Hurston brings about another reversal, for after affirming that "no possible classification" is "catholic" enough to "cover us all," Hurston concludes that there is indeed an exception, a classification that will "cover us all," the phrase that gives the chapter its title "My people! My people!" The chapter introduces the phrase My people! My people! as an expression of "pity, scorn and hopeless resignation" and a sign of African American diversity: "It is called forth by the observations of one class of Negro on the doings of another branch of the brother in black" (719). Ten paragraphs other than the chapter's final one end with the phrase "My people! My people!" (719, 720, 721, 723, 725, 730, 731); in four cases, the phrase is the narrator's own interpolation at the end of an anecdote (723, 730, 731), and in all cases the phrase is a concluding remark to an anecdote illustrating the diversity of African American manners.(24) What distinguishes the use of the phrase in the final paragraph is that it does not appear in quotation marks, as all the other instances of it do. The absence of the quotation marks in the final instance of the phrase suggests that it does not appear ironically, as it does earlier; now it is indeed the catholic classification that will "cover us all." Thus Hurston provides the reversal: The chapter repeats the message that the race cannot be classified, but concludes with a suitable classification. Once again, though, this reversal is itself undermined, by the meaning of the classifying term. "My people! My people!" is a suitable classification, but it is also the sign of diversity and variety, so the conclusion is that the only possible way to classify "the Negro" is as diverse, various, heterogeneous.(25)
In his biography of Hurston, Hemenway describes Hurston's reluctance to write an autobiography at all (275-78). Hemenway cites a letter Hurston wrote after the publication of Dust Tracks in which she says, "I did not want to write it [the autobiography] at all, because it is so hard to reveal one's inner self" (278). The remark about revealing one's inner self would seem at first to endorse Angelou's criticism of Dust Tracks, since it seems to be Hurston's admission that she was incapable of representing her "real" inner self. But it is not that Hurston had neither the will nor the ability to reveal the "real Zora," but rather that there is no one, single, hidden, inner, real self to reveal. What she did reveal was a literary representation of a complex and varied human being. Reading Hurston's letter as Angelou might could lead to the easy conclusion that the inconsistencies and the deceptive strategies Hurston employs in Dust Tracks result from her unwillingness to satisfy her publisher's request for an autobiography - in other words that in appearing to write but not really writing an autobiography, Hurston was playing a joke on her publisher, Bertram Lippincott (who persuaded her to write the autobiography). If indeed Hurston was having her subtle joke at Lippincott's expense, it would be another example of the juggling acts I have tried to demonstrate run throughout Dust Tracks, for once again Dust Tracks would prove to be neither bird nor beast and yet both at the same time: both an autobiography and not an autobiography (in fact an autobiography and a not-autobiography all at once). To perceive the juggling acts in Dust Tracks makes it possible to appreciate what a remarkable literary achievement this book is, but that requires abandoning traditional expectations both of autobiographical unity and of the homogeneity of the self.
1. A recent search of the MLA database yielded 114 items for Their Eyes, 20 for Dust Tracks on a Road, 15 for Mules and Men, 8 for Jonah's Gourd Vine, and 4 each for Tell My Horse, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Seraph on the Suwanee. The proportion of items in the MLA Bibliography on Hurston devoted to Their Eyes is as large since the appearance in 1991 of Zora in Florida, whose chapters, according to its editors, "represent a second wave of critical response that focuses on Hurston's less-known works" (Glassman ix), as it was before.
2. Walker qualifies her criticism of Dust Tracks with a sympathetic depiction of the constraints under which she feels a black, woman writer would have labored in Hurston's time (xvii). For a summary of the reception of Dust Tracks, see Hemenway's biography (288-89).
3. The protagonists of Hurston's first two novels are of mixed race, and Darwin Turner suspects that "Hurston was guilty of some of the very prejudices" against darker-skinned blacks "for which she condemned Mrs. Turner" in Their Eyes Were Watching God: "In Jonah's Gourd Vine and in Dust Tracks, a reader discerns Miss Hurston's obvious admiration of her father's gray eyes and fair skin" (Minor Chord 106-07).
4. In his biography, Hemenway demonstrates that Hurston was not always forthcoming about her political and racial views in her writing: Although "she did not actually misrepresent her views" when writing for "the predominantly white mass-magazine audience," Hurston "seldom expressed her true feelings . . . . When addressing a predominantly black audience, Hurston's prose was much less oblique" (294).
5. Claudine Raynaud argues that Dust Tracks masks "the 'inner self' of traditional autobiography" and discloses instead "the collective truth of a people" ("Autobiography" 116); instead of presenting the individual, Hurston's autobiography presents the community. My argument is that in presenting the community Dust Tracks indeed does disclose the subject, since part of what defines the subject is its relation to a larger social context.
6. Francoise Lionnet presents a view similar to mine; for her, Dust Tracks defines "one's subjective ethnicity as mediated through language, history, and ethnographical analysis" (99). That the individual is defined in relation to his/her environment is all the more so in the case of a female individual in a patriarchal society that defines "woman" in terms of "that-which-is-not-man." As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese points out in "To Write My Self," "Gender identities derive from a system of gender relations. How to be a woman is defined in relation to how to be a man and the reverse" (168). Fox-Genovese develops this point considerably in relation to Dust Tracks: Black women's "self-perceptions retain a characteristically uneasy relation to the wrappings of gender. Is the black woman writer first a self, a solitary statue? Or is she first a woman - and if so, in relation to whom? No dilemma could more clearly expose the condition of any self as hostage to society, politics, and language" ("My Statue" 84; see also "To Write" 177).
7. Yet another factor possibly contributing to scholars' greater attention to Their Eyes than to Dust Tracks may be that readers have found the novel a more conventionally straightforward self-revelation on Hurston's part: Raynaud states that "the reader might find out less about Zora Neale Hurston in Dust Tracks than in Janie's gradual coming to awareness and plenitude in Their Eyes Were Watching God" ("Autobiography" 112), and Hemenway says that Their Eyes "manages to express Zore Hurston's own hopes for a meaningful place in a male-dominated world much better than [does] her autobiography" (Zora 6).
8. The problem, from a post-structuralist perspective, with Descartes's humanism lies in his first principle, as it is embodied in the famous formulation, "I think, therefore I am" (17). While Descartes claims to be questioning and doubting all that can be questioned and doubted with the result of establishing his own existence as an indubitable first principle, he does not call into doubt whether a subject, an action, and an object necessarily presuppose each other (57-64). The cogito ergo sum formulation presupposes that, if there is thinking, someone must be doing it. For a summary of Levi-Strauss's and structuralism's reaction against the cogito, see Harari, "Critical" 20.
Recent attention to African American literature in mainstream literary studies would seem to have contributed to the acceptance of the post-structuralist view of the subject. After all, we can trace the notion of the individual as fragmented rather than homogeneous back not only to high Modernist works (like Cubist paintings and Kafka's fiction) but also to W. E. B. Du Bois's description of the "double-consciousness," the "two-ness," and the "double self" of African Americans (362-65). It is ironic, then, that so many readers, including African American readers, have criticized Dust Tracks on a Road for the fragmentariness of its form and of the persona of its protagonist.
9. The critique of the Enlightenment subject pervades post-structuralist writing. See, for example, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," when Derrida acknowledges that because of Freud's theories we can no longer think of the individual self in the Enlightenment manner, as an autonomous, homogeneous being (250), since what the individual is conscious of is only part of that individual's mental activity. In the introduction to The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault argues that traditional history yearns for unity because "the sovereignty of the subject" (which is to say the influence of the Cartesian notion of the existence of the individual, or "the founding function of the subject") still exerts a powerful influence on Western history (12). Another significant critique by Foucault of the autonomy of the subject appears in "What is an Author?"
10. I speak of conventions of autobiography since Rousseau; Augustine, of course, uses an overall narrative structure in his Confessions not unlike that of Dust Tracks, as it too ends its chronological narrative three-quarters of the way through the text, devoting the last three of its thirteen books to an allegorical explication of the first chapter of Genesis.
11. Space limitations preclude discussing all of these oppositions in detail. Because Dust Tracks, like much of Hurston's writing, dramatizes conversations in dialect within a narrative frame rendered in standard English, one can read Hurston as working against a traditional structure established by Joel Chandler Harris and Charles W. Chesnutt for rendering African American folk material. While Harris and Chesnutt establish a white frame narrative for the stories that Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius tell, Hurston has African American folk stories narrated in a more completely African American context. Dust Tracks emphasizes the inner life over the outer when the early chapters of Dust Tracks minimize their attention to young Zora's relationships with her siblings and describe instead the fantasy life she created from corn cobs, soap, and spools of thread (606-11). For reading Dust Tracks "not as autobiography but rather as self-portrait," see Lionnet (98). Raynaud cites "the tension which runs throughout the book . . .: The singular is linked to the universal, the particular to the comic, the individual to the voice of the tribe" ("Autobiography" 117). See Lionnet (104), Raynaud ("Autobiography" 113), and Hemenway ("Introduction" xxiii) for the transcendence of race in Dust Tracks.
12. Fox-Genovese argues that the most troubling aspects of Dust Tracks make the book a faithful representation of its author's personality: "The best clue to the essence of that private self [of Hurston's] lies in the troubling autobiography [of hers], which, more than all the other writings, reveals the struggles that wracked the self, even if it does not directly testify to them - does not, as it were, confess" ("My Statue" 83-84). Lionnet holds a similar view to Krasner's and Fox-Genovese's: "Rather than recounting the events of her life, Hurston is more interested in showing us who she is - or, to be more precise, how she has become what she is" (97).
13. To explain what troubles her about Dust Tracks, Angelou cites an African American folk saying that Hurston would have appreciated and may have known:" 'If a person asks you where you're going, you tell him where you've been. That way you neither lie nor reveal your secrets'" (xii). In a television documentary by Bill Moyers, Angelou makes it clear - by reciting two stanzas of Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask" - that the kind of evasiveness this folk saying embodies was a common and necessary defense tactic for African Americans in their dealings with white Americans during segregation.
14. The form of Hurston's text has received another twist in its latest versions: Robert Hemenway's 1984 edition, which is the source for Henry Louis Gates's 1991 edition, adds earlier manuscript versions of chapters 12, 13, and 16 of Dust Tracks in a true appendix to the book; thus Dust Tracks has accrued a true appendix to the appendix-like chapters 12 through 16. The Library of America edition of Dust Tracks presents a text based on Hurston's typescript (rather than on the first published edition), restoring 29 passages omitted from earlier versions. This edition also includes an appendix, consisting of earlier versions of four chapters. As a result, the most recent editions of Dust Tracks, in their own uncertain form, mirror the heterogeneity that is so central to Hurston's representation of herself and her world.
In a detailed examination of the textual variants of Dust Tracks, Raynaud argues that, "once restored, the deleted passages [which the Library of America restores] project a self closer to Hurston's initial response to the autobiographical exercise" (" 'Rubbing'" 36). Since the restored text undoes some of the editorial ravages Hurston's editors appear to have imposed on the first edition of Dust Tracks, Raynaud is undoubtedly right that a text such as the Library of America's is "closer to Hurston's initial response." Citing one omitted passage in particular, whose deletion "contributes to the confusion about Hurston's autobiographical persona" (" 'Rubbing' "44), Raynaud implies that the restored version would preclude some of the complaints readers have had with Hurston's self-representation. I am skeptical, though, that the status of the text would bear that much on the kinds of negative responses to Dust Tracks that I have outlined, because of the nature of the deleted passages (the majority of which do not pertain directly to Hurston herself but to her acquaintances) and their relatively small number, twenty-nine.
15. And yet, as McKay argues, Dust Tracks "conforms to the paradigm" of at least one "significant aspect of the black autobiographical tradition" in which "blacks have employed language strategies, particularly artifice and concealment, in their relations with white America" in order "to cope with the powerlessness and vulnerability of the racial self" (181).
16. Dust Tracks does not signify only on an African American literary tradition. At the beginning of its third chapter, Dust Tracks signifies on two famous, canonical autobiographical novels: Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield. In Mark Twain fashion, the third chapter immediately emphasizes its questionable verisimilitude (and indeed the entire book's questionable verisimilitude) by beginning, "This is all hearsay" (577). The chapter's title plays on David Copperfield by using dialect to say the same thing - Hurston's "I Get Born" (577) instead of Dickens's "I am Born." So while Twain's pseudonymous novel masquerading as the true autobiography of young Huck Finn (questioning nonetheless the truthfulness of its predecessor, Tom Sawyer) begins by making a claim for its truthfulness (and thus raises, all the more, readers' doubts that it can be truthful), Hurston's autobiography begins by undermining the truthfulness its readers would suppose it to have (which in fact reinforces .what is true, the impossibility of writing one's life history with absolute accuracy). And like Dickens's autobiographical novel, Dust Tracks begins the story of its protagonist/narrator's life with what seems a clear, unambiguous statement of that person's birth ("I Get Born," "I am Born"), which, in turn, raises the question of the certainty of either person's birth (why else would one have to assert one's having been born unless there were some doubt?). But whereas Dickens's text begins in standard English, Hurston's provides the same initial statement, but in dialect, which in turn implies that one could and should give the life-story told in dialect comparable standing to the canonical life-story told in standard English.
17. This third sentence of the book raises a matter which length precludes my exploring fully: that Hurston's narrator implies that, in reading "the incidents and directions of my life," a reader is interpreting them. This implies that reading and interpreting amount to the same thing, which makes sense, since the only way one could read and not be interpreting at the same time would be if it were possible to experience the narration in so unmediated a way that perceiving and comprehending would be one and the same, and this cannot be.
18. The earliest reviews of Hurston discuss the effectiveness of her use of dialect. The most sophisticated discussion of dialect in her work is Gates's close reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God in The Signifying Monkey, which focuses on the different narrative discourses in the novel and situates it in the African American tradition of the "speakerly text" (173-80, 209-12).
19. Examples of colloquial apostrophes abound in Dust Tracks: "At any rate, Tony Taylor became the first Mayor of Maitland . . ." (565); "For one thing, I really was young" (636); "Lo and behold, there was Dwight Holmes" (674) are just three. A quick count provides thirty-one examples of passages beginning with "So" (569, 570, 575, 578, 581, 582, 584, 585, 588, 590, 596, 599, 606, 633, 634, 636, 645, 650, 666, 669, 674, 680, 682, 684, 690, 698, 714, 731, 750, 763, 766); four instances of "Well" (641, 665, 670, 765); and two examples of "Now" (564, 564). There are at least twenty instances of the direct address "you" in Dust Tracks (561, 602, 619, 628, 629, 667, 671, 698, 706, 713, 715, 716, 717, 732, 733, 743, 754, 765, 768, 769).
20. Lionnet points out that Hurston anticipates by "more than twenty years" Frantz Fanon's choice "to emphasize local historically and geographically specific contingencies, rather than 'race' as a general and abstract concept" (105).
21. We see this, for example, in "My People! My People!" when Hurston introduces the anecdote about the man who wanted to pray to God to unite his fellow African Americans, "'to get these Negroes together' "in order to show "that there is no such thing as Race Solidarity in America with any group." Hurston introduces the anecdote specifically as a story to prove this point: "The lower class Negroes say it with a tale" (721).
22. It is true that Bronner was not lynched, only flogged, but the text is clear that he is the victim of vigilante law: "So some of 'em waylaid [Bronner] this evening. They . . . drug him off back there in de woods and tanned his hide for him . . . . They had Bronner down there tied down on his all-fours, and de men was taking turns wid dat bull whip" (728-29).
23. Fox-Genovese concludes from the "I have been a Negro three times" passage that neither as baby, as girl, or as woman does the female African American ever exist ("My Statue" 80; "To Write" 174).
24. One other paragraph ends simply with" 'My people!'" (726). Although the phrase is not repeated, it is used as a narrative interpolation at the conclusion of an anecdote that emphasizes differences among African Americans (725-26).
25. Hurston's comment that "light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them" (731) would seem to support the view of some commentators who see Hurston and Dust Tracks stressing individualism and self-reliance. Ann Rayson argues that Hurston "sees herself as a kind of black, female Ben Franklin . . ., espousing the Poor Richard philosophy of early American individualism and moderation" (43); Deborah G. Plant claims that "the 'message' in Dust Tracks is that individualism and achievement are the avenues to self-empowerment" (16); and Washington concludes that "Hurston always saw herself as a self-made success, and she had the kind of individualism and egoism that generally accompan[y] that belief" (22). It would be wrong to presume that individualism has nothing to do with the problems of classification, but it is not the only cause, for the real root is the heterogeneity of human society, of specific communities, and of the individual subject. Furthermore, the preponderance of the evidence is that the point of the "My People! My People!" chapter - and indeed I would argue the point of the book - is how thoroughly unclassifiable race is. Hurston's claim that "God made them duck by duck," especially if taken by itself, might appear to be an expression of a belief in an Emersonian individualism, but I would certainly not want to reduce the "message" of Dust Tracks to the sort of Franklinian individualism Plant and Rayson attribute to Hurston in her autobiography. My view is much closer to that of McKay, who argues that Dust Tracks works against the conventional view that individualism is the most important factor in the Western autobiographical endeavor" (175).
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-----. "To Write My Self: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women." Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 161-80.
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-----. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977.
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McKay, Nellie Y. "Race, Gender, and Cultural Context in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road." Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988. 175-88.
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-----. "'Rubbing a Paragraph with a Soft Cloth'? Muted Voices and Editorial Constraints in Dust Tracks on a Road." De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 34-64.
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-----. "Introduction." Dust Tracks on a Road. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Arno, 1969. i-v.
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Washington, Mary Helen. "Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow." I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. New York: Feminist P, 1979. 7-25.
Pierre A. Walker is Associate Professor of English at Salem State College in Massachusetts and one of the general editors of the complete letters of Henry James (U of Nebraska P). He is the author of Reading Henry James in French Cultural Contexts (Northern Illinois UP) and of articles on James, literary theory, and African American literature in various journals and collections.
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|Author:||Walker, Pierre A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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