Spring 2023 Book Club – Moses, Man of the Mountain

One month away.

My intro to this book came in the earlier study group, Intro to Zora Neale Hurston, and the synopsis of the first four chapters is here.

When we discussed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the Fall group, we followed the action chapter by chapter and discussed each in the first meeting, then, in the 2nd meeting, we discussed themes, overarching and connecting themes throughout the narrative.

We have these two dimensions for discussing Moses, Man of the Mountain, plus a couple others. We know that Hurston’s narrative is a “reworking” or a “reimagining” of the original Old Testament Biblical story, told from Hurston’s very unique perspective of southern folklore and her anthropological study of the African diaspora in the American South and the Caribbean. So that gives us additional data points, perhaps. There may also be places (spoiler alert!) where Hurston’s story emphasizes and/or departs from the original narrative and how those connections affect the overall story. There is also the division in both versions of the story between the Exodus out of Egypt and the time spent in the Wilderness that may warrant discussion.

So as we read through, we’ll ask ourselves the following questions: how does Zora’s narrative unwind? Do the two stories follow a similar sequence as we would expect or are there surprises along the way? Does the Hurston version enlighten us in ways we hadn’t anticipated? Or, does the Hurston version fall short? And if there is time left, we may want to examine present day analogies to this 1939 story and its Old Testament antecedents.

One final set of questions for the first round. At the end of chapter 10, the narrator uses the term “crossed over” 13 times, leading us to believe it was a historical if not a climactic event. There is no such “crossing over” in the life of the Biblical Moses. So it might bear further discussion. Additionally, the same year (1939) that Hurston published Moses, Man of the Mountain (based loosely on her 1934 short story, The Fire and the Cloud), Sigmund Freud published his final and epic work, Moses and Monotheism (Full text available at Internet Archive, summary here). Moses and Monotheism suggests that Aton, a single god created by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton, was also the god of Moses via his connection to the Egyptian royal family. According to Freud, Akhenaton ushered in a “cross over” during his reign, from a plurality of gods to one god, Aton, that was ultimately unsuccessful, the people reverting back to polytheism upon Akhenaton’s death.

And who is Moses? The biblical Moses is himself Hebrew. Is Hurston’s Moses Hebrew or Egyptian? Or does it matter? Is Moses a man sent from God, or a master hoodoo man with a bag of unexplicable tricks through which he manages to astound Pharaoh and his court magicians? And does it matter? And how much is Moses a self-made man, how much a man with a spiritual destiny?

More later. I promise.


Additional readings (not required)

Zeppenfeld, Julia. 2018. Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain. AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 45-62. Available online at JSTOR.

Boyd, Valerie. 2003. Wrapped In Rainbows. Scribner: New York. pp. 329-336.

Hurston, Zora Neale.1996. The Complete Stories: The Fire and the Cloud. Harper Collins: New York. pp. 227-121. Also found in West, Genevieve, editor. 2020. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Harper Collins: London. pp. 229-232.

Hemenway, Robert. 1978. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. University of Illinois Press: Urbana. pp. 256-271.

Plant, Deborah. 2007. Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit. Praeger: Westport, CT. pp 125-131

Synopsis of Week #8 – review of all prior session weekly readings

Week #7: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/12/25/synopsis-of-week-7-various-readings/

Week #6: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/12/24/synopsis-of-week-6-their-eyes-were-watching-god/

Week #5: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/12/04/synopsis-of-week-5-various-readings/

Week #4: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/11/26/synopsis-of-week-4-zora-neale-hurston-a-life-in-letters-carla-kaplan/

Week #3: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/11/12/synopsis-of-week-3-hurston-dust-tracks-on-a-road/

Week #2: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/11/08/week-8-into-to-zora-neale-hurston-review-end-of-course-synopses-week-two-11072022/

Week #1: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/11/07/week-8-into-to-zora-neale-hurston-review-end-of-course-synopses-week-one-11072022/

Miscellaneous pre-class links: https://repurposeandrepackageyourlife.wordpress.com/2022/05/22/magazine-and-journal-articles-libguides-and-a-playlist-of-videos/

Synopsis of Week #7 – various readings

In this final week of assigned readings, we covered three chapters of Hurston’s Tell My Horse, an account of her anthropological research in the Caribbean, and one chapter from Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows.

Week #7

Hurston. Tell My Horse. Ch. 1-3.

Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows. Ch. 27. Deep South

Tell My Horse is an ethnographic account of Hurston’s research work and travels in the Caribbean in the 1930’s. The section we read focuses on the Jamaica portions of her travels. An interesting aspect Hurston highlighted was the colorline separation between dark-skinned blacks and lighter-skinned mulattoes in Jamaican society. There is a subtle implication a relationship between Jamaican blacks and American blacks with regard to societal implications of skin color discrimination in the 1930’s.

In the section entitled “Curry Goat,” Hurston takes us on a short voyage examining cuisine as an important aspect of culture. The discussion spills over into accounts of misogynistic attitudes among the ruling class, and ultimately, an inside view on the preparation of women for the marriage ceremony.

In the third section we read, Hunting the Wild Hog, Hurston examines “Maroon” cultures, i.e., geographic areas and sections of the Jamaican landscape and culture where pre-colonial African cultures were preserved and maintained. We talked briefly about “maroon” cultures in other Latin American countries and in the deep south of the US.

In Chapter 27 of Wrapped in Rainbows, Boyd chronicles the criticisms Hurston faced from big names, at the time, in Black Literature. She lists Alain Locke, who, in his annual review of black writing, criticized Hurston for overlooking “social document fiction,” Richard Wright, who in his “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” urged a closer adherence to Marxist “social realism” standards, and even criticism, along the same lines, from Howard professor Sterling Brown. Boyd follows as Hurston makes her case for ignoring such reactionary standards and avoiding the Communist Party-influenced portrayal of the South which Wright espoused and which even Wright himself, as many other literary stalwarts, would at some point in the future, disavow.

Boyd details Hurston’s work with the Federal Writers’ Project in the late 1930’s, James Weldon Johnson’s death and funeral in 1938, and her return to Florida where she worked on Tell My Horse and The Sanctified Church, and her short-lived romance and marriage which inspired Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Synopsis of week #6 – Their Eyes Were Watching God

Week #6 – Their Eyes Were Watching God

Week #6 was exclusively dedicated to Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This may serve as a book review of sorts.

The novel opens with a prologue as the protagonist, Janie, returns to Eatonville and narrates the events of her life with her old friend Phoebe.

Chapter #2 begins the narration of Janie’s life detailing her childhood, including her birth, the beginning of her racial consciousness, and the dawning of her sexual consciousness.

In Chapter #3, Janie allows her grandmother to marry her off to Logan Killicks, a local farmer and landowner who promises Janie a life of ease.

But soon (Chapter #4) he is after her to plant and grow potatoes and operate a mule-pulled plow. Unhappy with her marriage, Janie catches the eye of Joe Starks, who offers her an escape and a new life, which she accepts.

In Chapter 5, Joe becomes Jody and in chapter 6 and 7, Janie’s marriage with Joe begins to disintegrate as a result of Joe’s violence towards her.

Jody moves to a separate bedroom in Chapter 8 and is later diagnosed with kidney failure

In Chapter 9 Joe dies, and now widowed, Janie cherishes her freedom.

Then in Chapter 10, Janie meets Tea Cake, a younger guy, and finds herself glowing inside again.

Janie and Tea Cake court in Chapter 11.

Janie marries Tea Cake in Chapter 12, and relocate to Jacksonville in chapter 13. Janie and Tea Cake decide to relocate to the Everglades for better opportunities for agricultural work.

Chapter 14 gives up a peak into the social world of the migrant farmers, the living arrangements before housing for migrant workers was established, the storytelling.

In Chapter 15, Janie has her first taste of jealousy when a younger girl flirts with Tea Cake. They talk it out and find resolution.

Chapter 16 details the end of the growing season, the departure of the majority of workers, and the discovery of a racial pecking order based on skin color among those who remained.

Janie and Tea Cake argue in Chapter 17 as the migrant workers return and Tea Cake resorts to physical violence against her. The altercation becomes the talk of the small community. There is a different, larger altercation at the community dining facility.

In Chapter 18, Janie and Tea Cake experience their first hurricane. Many of the workers saw the early signs and moved to higher ground. A few made the mistaken decision that they could remain in place and see it through. That would prove a fatal error. Janie and Tea Cake found themselves in a flood, floating on random pieces of wood. Tea Cake rescued Janie from a rabid dog, though he sustained several bites in the process.

Tea Cake is impressed by local authorities to locate and help bury the dead from the flood in Chapter 19. He begins showing signs of rabies four weeks after the bites by the rabid dog. Delirious from night attacks, Tea Cake attacks Janie. Both armed, Janie is the better shot. Tea Cake dies and Janie is charged with murder. Janie is tried by a judge and jury and found not guilty. Janie buries Tea Cake in Pam Beach.

Janie returns home to Eatonville and narrates everything that happened to her friend Phoebe.

We had a rich discussion on the flow of action in the narrative and the structure of the novel itself. But mostly we talked about Hurston’s character development of Janie throughout the novel, from youth to middle age. Perhaps there were some similarities to Hurston’s own odyssey, especially given that she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in the weeks between the breakup of her last marriage and her relocation to the Caribbean for anthropological research.

Synopsis of Week #5 – various readings

Week #5: various readings

Hurston. Moses, Man of the Mountain. Ch. 1-4
Hemenway. A Literary Biography. Ch. 6, Mule Bone.
Hurston. High John de Conqueror
Hurston. Characteristics of Negro Expression
Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows. Ch. 18 (Hoodoo)

We began our discussion with the first few chapters of Moses, Man of the Mountain. Huston’s depiction of the Bible story of Moses’ birth and life. I noted the chilling effect the Pharoah’s decree must have had on birthing practices for the Hebrews in captivity and highlighted the following passages representing the tone of the book:

“Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A roller great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, “This is the law. Hebrew boys shall not be born.All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning>”

“The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to Egyptian law.”

“Decree: Babies take notice: Positively no more boy babies allowed among the Hebrews. Infants defying this law shall be drowned in the Nile.”

“Anybody depending on somebody else’s gods is depending on a fox not to eat chickens. I don’t see no way out but death and, Caleb, you are up against a hard game when you got to die to beat it.”

Chapter 6 of Hemenway includes a time line of the events surrounding the completion of Mule Bone, including accounts by Langston Hughes, his biographer Arnold Rampersad, and various correspondence to and from several parties to the conflict. It is definitely not a pro-Hurston account and Hurston does not dwell on it in Dust Tracks, her autobiographical account. Thankfully we have Hurst’s correspondence in the Kaplan collection so we can see her sides of the argument/conflict with greater clarity.

Hurston’s essay, High John the Conquer, represents both a creation myth and a survival myth.

High John’s story details how kidnapped/sold Africans came to America and how they brought their spiritual values and traditions with them, along with knowledge, skills, and methods of doing things.

But the most important aspect of High John the Conquer was his capacity for helping enslaved Africans survive their oppression, day after day in a corrupt and rotten system. High John was a trickster who would frequently give the slaves “one up” on their masters. He also provided the slaves with a sense of humor to survive long days and cruel treatment.

The existence of High John the Conquer (the Conqueror) in the Southern mind departs from standard Christian beliefs, infusing in it elements of African and diasporic spirituality. A sort of hybrid.

Hurston’s essay, Characteristics of Negro Expression, is a classic and seminal piece of cultural anthropology, but it does require a spoonful of sugar to go down smoothly. A few of the characteristics Hurston described in the 30’s bear a resemblance to stereotypes that may not be exactly kosher to discuss in today’s environment. We found it worthwhile to discuss each characteristic Hurston offered as an example of observed practice, separate and distinct from any stereotypical trait based on myth and not on observable reality. There, that almost makes it worse!

Valerie Boyd’s chapter 18, entitled, Hoodoo, is devoted entirely to Hurston’s study of Voodoo practices in New Orleans. Included are Hurston’s relationships with associates in New Orleans, her studies with practitioners, and details of her initiations in various voodoo cults and priesthoods. Her experiences in New Orleans, according to Boyd, increased the precariousness of her relationship with her patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, which resulted in a degree scholarly maturity that she had not been able to achieve under “Godmother’s” constant tutelage and patronage. Boyd reported that this period of her life gave Hurston a “gradual ripening within.”

Synopsis of Week #4 – Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (Carla Kaplan)

Week #4 – ZNH Correspondence

In week #4, we shared tranches of Hurston’s letters from the 1930’s from Carla Kaplan book, Zora Neale Hurston: a Life in Letters. Then, when we met, we discussed highlights of letters we had chosen. The 30’s were an interesting decade for examining correspondence as it was Hurston’s perhaps busiest decade professionally, socially, and personally. Of course that activity was reflected in her correspondence.

Perhaps an outline of Hurston’s life events as reflected in her correspondence will be illustrative for future groups.

We did focus on her correspondence with certain people, like her exchanges with her friend and patron, Carl Van Vechten, her letters to James Weldon Johnson, and her multitudinous correspondences with her patron and godmother, Charlotte Osgood Mason. We talked about her dependence on patronage to survive, basically, and the often seemingly obsequious tones she took with her funding sources, whether it was Mason, Dr. Moe at Guggenheim, and Edwin Embree at Rosenwald, whose support for her PhD studies never came through.

Her letters to Professor Locke at Howard and James Weldon Johnson in New York took on more of a social tone, perhaps one of friendship, of mentor-protege relationship, as did her letters to Van Vechten, to fellow Harlem Renaissance luminary Dorothy West, and even to W.E.B. DuBois. We could speak at length about her letters regarding her working relationship with Langston Hughes, and her mention of interactions with Louise Thompson and Katherine Dunham. Other sources reveal there may have been much more to those relationships than met the eye in her letters.

We see her day-to-day struggles, with work, with health, and always, with finances. It’s easy to assume Hurston dealt with these issues in a vacuum, but upon reflection we acknowledge she was neither isolated nor alone. It was hard for anyone to make it as a writer during those tough Depression times, let alone a woman, let alone a black woman.

Also, we see in Hurston’s letters the both the charm of her wit and the sting of her criticism and sarcasm, especially to those she felt had wronged her. Examining the letters also gave us a framework for better understanding books and articles we had already covered, such as Dust Tracks On A Road, and on works yet to come, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (TEWWG), her travels to Haiti and Jamaica (Tell My Horse), and her field work in New Orleans and in Florida.

I think it was a good choice to include the letters in this Intro group, and I am thinking about making the Kaplan collected letters a mandatory item for future groups, along with Dust Tracks and TEWWG.

Synopsis of Week #3 – Hurston. Dust Tracks on a Road.

We devoted week 3 to Dust Tracks On a Road exclusively.

Pushing through chapter by chapter, we focused on key essential themes as well as any organizing principle that emerged from our reading.

I’ve experienced a bit of writer’s block this week and I don’t know why. So I am just going to pretend I’m writing a review for Goodreads. And I may even post it there. I also won’t be able to resist taking detours into autoethnography as a basis for Hurston’s style of writing.

The Maya Angelou foreword in the edition I read adds no value as far as I can see, so we will just skip it. I’d really like to get my hands on the Jane Caputi paper, “The Cosmic Zora: Reading Zora Neale Hurston Through Her Cosmology” from the September 2022 issue of The Journal of American Culture. In a last ditch effort, I am putting the request on Twitter under #SaturdayLibrarian. Never mind.

Of course, Valerie Boyd gave us loads of information about Dust Tracks in her bio, Wrapped in Rainbows, for which we are thankful. I also want to mention up front Sharon K. Rowland’s MA thesis, “Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Vision for a New Harlem Renaissance Icon” which is also chocked full and the Francoise Lionnet chapter, “Autoethnography: the An-Archic Style of Dustracks on a Road.”

OK. Fully armed, let’s take the plunge.

Valerie Boyd calls our attention to the front cover of the original Lippincott edition. It shows a little girl (possibly Zora) and an adult woman (possibly Zora’s mother, possibly Zora’s adult self) in a rural setting at the beginning of a diagonal dusty road and at the end of the road a big city skyline. Maybe it’s New York. Boyd wrote, “The cover of the first Lippincott edition traced Hurston’s remarkable trajectory with an amusingly literal illustration.”

Critics have accused Hurston of playing fast and loose with the facts in the depiction of her life in Dust Tracks. But so what? As Boyd offers, DustTracks on a Road gives us a portrayal of the writer’s inner life, and as Lionnet alludes, “It may be more useful to reconsider Dust Tracks on a Road not as autobiography but rather as self-portrait . . . ”

We got past the discrepancies of Hurston’s birth place and birth year and we understand and acknowledge the reasons why. I focused on Hurston’s self-fulfilling visions (she cited twelve but I only counted eight, but that’s all right), those images she saw in her childhood that manifests throughout her life. But the librarian inside me really grasped the syllabus she outlined for us of books she read as a child that would come back to her as a practicing anthropologist and folklorist. In chapter 4, she mentions Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales, Dick Whittington (English folklore), Greek and Roman myths (especially Hercules and his choices), Norse tales (brought to my mind Neal Gaiman’s American Gods), stories from the Old Testament, Kipling’s Plain Tales, and later, regular articles by O.O. McIntyre, a New York columnist. Later in chapter 9, she expands her syllabus to include Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Kubla Khan, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Chapter 10 opens with this lovely quote on research:

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.”

Chapter 10 also introduces us to Godmother, i.e., Hurston’s relationship with her erstwhile patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason. It also includes a lengthy Whitman-esque piece on her beloved Polk County.

This is getting too long, so I’d better wrap it up. In chapter 11, the fall of the stock market and the Great Depression that follows dries up funding for both research and patronage. Chapter 12 is very political on the “Race Problem” and all its inherent internal inconsistencies. Chapter 13 focuses exclusively on two of Hurston’s contemporaries and friends, Ethel Waters and Fannie Hurst. Chapter 14 briefs us on Hurston’s loves and marriages. Chapter 15 zeroes in on Hurston’s views on traditional religion. Chapter 16 wraps everything up and ties a pretty bow on top the package.

And then there are the appendices, the afterwords, a most useful bibliography (that only accompanies this edition) and a chronology of Hurston’s life, plus postscripts! Read it all. I promise you will not have found your time wasted.

Additional readings mentioned:

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows

Rowland, Sharon K.. Zora Neale Hurston’s Cosmic Vision for a New Harlem Renaissance Icon

Wellbeloved, Sophia and Jon Woodson. “Monkey Junk”— Zora Neale Hurston’s Experiment in Oragean Modernism   

Lionnet, Franciose: Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture: The An-Archic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road

Synopsis of Week #2: Into to Zora Neale Hurston

Mules and Men. Boas preface, Rampersad foreword. Part 1: Folktales.
Hurston. You Don’t Know Us Negroes and other essays. Gates and West introduction.
King. Gods of the Upper Air. Ch. 9. Masses and Mountaintops
Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows. Ch. 8. Lost and Found

We opened week 2 with Boas’s preface and Rampersad’s foreword to Hurston’s Mules and Men.

Boas, Hurston’s professor at Barnard, said he found in Hurston “the complete package,” the ability to penetrate through affected demeanor that blacks normally project to exclude the white observer, her success in gaining the confidence of her subjects, and the charm of her own loving personality and revealing style. Boas didn’t not normally write prefaces for the works of his students. He made an exception for Hurston.

Rampersad wrote a less-than-complimentary foreword to Mules and Men, probably influenced by his prior attachment as biographer to Langston Hughes (I’m not even sure why the editors used it). He wastes no words in his damaging list of what he considers Huston’s scholarly shortcomings (he clearly has an agenda). Without any offer of evidence in support of his claims, he accuses Hurston of (1) including in Mules and Men stories and accounts that did not originate in her research; (2) telescoping certain periods of time into arrangements that better fit her narrative; (3) some readers might find Hurston ”insufficiently analytical” in her writing (so he says, again without any offer of evidence). He continues (4) her shifts from 3rd person to 1st person are confusing; (5) her language is too colloquial and her sense of humor, reckless; and (6) her approach is journalistic rather than scientific.

Henry Louis Gates’ intro to “You Don’t Know US Negroes” expertly summarizes the entire collection, essay by essay, while whetting our appetites to immediately take the plunge. It really is a great introduction! For years as a student I never paid attention to introductions in textbooks. Boy what I was missing!

Anyway, in a breath of fresh air after reading the horrid Rampersad foreword to Mules and Men (that should have never made it into print. What were the editors thinking? What WERE they thinking?), Gates acknowledges (in perhaps a slightly self-serving way, though I will gladly give him the benefit of the doubt) that this collection of essays positions Hurston as one of the major essayists of the twentieth Century. He sets the tone citing Hurston’s assertion that “the Negro in fiction” was often portrayed as an artificial, two-dimensional construct, by both black and white writers. Her aim, correspondingly, was instead to depict in her writing the richness and complexity of black life. That, in fact should be the mission and the purpose of all black writers, Hurston would continue, to “allow the Black experience to speak in its own voice, in all its sublime resonance.”

In a litany of quick-bite summaries, Gates provides thumb-nail sketches of many of the essays in this volume, many of which are rare, lost, or located in obscure places. I won’t spoil it for you. You really must read the summaries for yourself. In the middle, he describes Hurston as a cultural nationalist, engaged a “war of representation” defending against white and black detractors as well as the “modernists” who would have blacks “tidy themselves up” and “given a facelift” in order to be accepted the greater American and world society. He also goes into some detail about why Hurston opposed school integration as an end in itself, and some of her criticisms of the NAACP, the Communist movement, and government overreach in general.

Gates closes with Hurston’s account and experiences as a court reporter in the case of Ruby McCollum, the black housekeeper who allegedly murdered her white employer under questionable circumstances in the 1950’s He also speaks to Hurton’s critics among the black elite, namely Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Sterling Brown, who accused her of pandering to racial stereotypes in her writings.

In Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King devotes a chapter to Hurston’s training and experience as an anthropologist, a collector and a writer. The book’s subtitle prepares us for the story: “How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century” and he includes chapters on all the greats of the period, Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, among others, and of course, Zora Neale Hurston. He provides a brief biographical account of Hurston’s life, growing up in the south and studying in Baltimore and Washington and studying anthropology at Barnard. He mentions the Harlem period and her associations with luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance period. And he covers her work in anthropology and collecting and her communications with Franz Boas and Charlotte Osgood Mason. King surveys the history of anthropology and of folklore collection related to blacks going back to Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, and he compares Hurston’s work to that of her contemporaries in the Anthropology field, Culminating with Hurston’s publishing of Mules and Men. I just love his closing,

“In Mules and Men she (Hurston) had tried to show, in plangent prose and revved-up storytelling, that there was a distinct there to be studied in the swampy southeastern landscape she knew from childhood — not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.”

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air

The Boyd chapter, “Lost and Found,” is a short chapter that details, as much as is possible, Hurston’s life from 1911 in Eatonville until 1917, when Huston arrives in Baltimore. It is a critical period as Hurston emerges into adulthood, but not a very well-documented period of her life, which explains why she was able to compress that time in her own personal accounts. Boyd does an excellent job of giving us a flavor of Hurston’s hectic but impressionable life, back and forth among her siblings after her mother’s death, and with the theater touring group across the south and middle Atlantic during her teenage years.

Synopsis of Week #1: Into to Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston. The Complete Stories, Introduction
Hemenway. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Introduction.
Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows. Ch. 1-3
Kaplan. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Foreword and Introduction

We opened the study group and week one with a collection of biographical readings.

We began our extended discussion with the Alice Walker foreword to the Hemenway literary biography (an article Walker published in MS magazine, In search of Zora, was available as an optional reading). Walker discovered Hurston’s Mules and Men while researching for a story on voodoo practices in rural areas in the 1930’s. But the first time she heard of Hurston was in a class she took with famed poet, Margaret Walker at Jackson State University.

Walker referred to Mules and Men as a “perfect book.” She mentioned that blacks in the North had forgotten their Southern roots and Mules and Men restored to their memories stories that had been forgotten. She characterized Hurston’s work as promoting “racial health,” providing a sense of black people as complete, complex and undiminished human beings. This positive racial health, Hurston felt, was missing in most black writing and literature. Hurston, on the other hand, was very self-confident in her racial identity as an individual, probably attributable to her upbringing in all-black Eatonville where her own father was a leading clergyman and mayor.

In her foreword to Hemenway’s official literary biography of Hurston, Walker lists reasons why Hurston’s faced criticism from her colleagues. They disliked her outspokenness and independence. They resented her referring to them as the “Niggerati,” and to their patrons and “Negrotarians.” They didn’t approve of the flamboyance of her dress and disliked the sensuality she projected. She was criticized for her attitudes towards marriage, getting married, being married, staying married. Some accused her of bisexuality and/or lesbianism.

Unfortunately, Walker falls into the trap Hemenway set for her in his biographical account. The narrative went as follows: Hurston was a cultural revolutionary her early and middle years. But as time passed, Hurston became frightened of life, and her writing reactionary, static, misguided and timid. The final proof was her last work, Seraph on the Sewanee, a fictional account of white people in the deep South, in which she abandoned entirely her focus on black life.

This was a gross interpretation error, in my estimation.

Walker continues the narrative. She says the most unfortunate thing Hurston ever wrote was her autobiography (because of certain possible misrepresentations she included in Dust Tracks On a Road), concluding with blaming Hurston’s poverty and dependency for the “change in her voice.”

Hemenway tells us in his intro that Hurston died poor because at the end of her life she had no way to generate income while continuing to write. Only part true. Then he claims that Hurston was somehow less of a writer or that she had lost her drive when he decided on what would be her final project, a biographical account of the biblical figure, Herod the Great. An abjectly false assertion, in my opinion revealing Hemenway’s lack of vision, not Hurston’s.

We also begin our reading of Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows, derived from a “line” we would later discover in Dust Tracks On a Road. We won’t go her into the details of Hurston’s early life other than to certify that Boyd got her birthday right. Boyd highlighted the encouragement Hurston got from her mother and the disapproving nature of her father. Finally, we noted that Boyd’s book did not include an intro, a preface, or a foreword, but plunged us directly into the life of Zora’s world.

We read the Henry Louis Gates intro to Hurston’s Complete Stories where he compares the lyrical modernism of Hurston’s writings as taking a backseat to Ann Petry’s naturalist-feminism and Richard Wright’s naturalism of the 1940’s. We will see that Gates takes a more rehabilitated view in later writings we will examine.

It was a heavy reading week. We completed the week with a short Hemenway foreword. Written 34 years after the release of his path-breaking literary biography of Hurston, Hemenway shows a certain level of moderation in some of his former assessments and views. He highlights Hurton’s complexity and force of personality which emerge from her collected correspondence. He lists three major truths that emerge: that folklore was the passion of her life and that her love of folklore informs all her subsequent work; that her career was a constant struggle for survival and the need to acquire the financial means to pursue her artistic vision; and finally, Hurston’s determination that the ever-present racial divide in society would not limit her life or her work.