Concerning Zora Neale Hurston and Mules and Men

Since I have had the pleasure of teaching classes entirely devoted to the works of Zora Neale Hurston, I have a pretty good collection of her writings and writings about her.

My favorite in regard to the anthropological or ethnographic writings is The Library of America volume, Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings--Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road and Selected Articles because it includes a pretty thorough selection of her nonfiction writings in a fairly compact and light weight package.  It also includes some helpful supporting materials by Professor Cheryl Wall, including a biblography, an introduction and a useful chronology.  This chronology includes much of the information concerning Hurston's life that she chose never to reveal, such as her marriages, her real birth place and her real birth date in 1891 in Notasulga, Macon County, Alabama, which she wrote about only in fictional terms in her first novel Jonah's Gourdvine (1934).

There have been a great many revelations concerning Hurston's life since her celebrated rediscovery by the womanist writer Alice Walker in her first collection of essays, In Search of Her Mother's Gardens in the late 70s, beginning with the revelation that she had died unknown and in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1961.

In this class we will focus on the significance of her combination of anthropology and fiction in Mules and Men (1935) and other work in which she renders her many hours of folktale and folk music gathering in Florida into a seamless narrative centered around a single trip, which begins in Eatonville, Florida and ends in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The book includes musical scores, recipes, spells, sermons, and tales of a vast description, as well as descriptions of the series of characters who provide the information.  For the most part, they convey themselves in a form of an African American dialect completely unique to Hurston, significantly departing from years of the conventional use of dialect in American literature designed mostly to imply the innate inferiority of African American speech.  

The simultaneous unreality and reality of this series of narratives, including that of Hurston herself who writes in flawless standard english, is woven together in a manner unlike almost any literary narrative before or since.  So much so that we can only guess at the reality of many things in this compendium.  We now know that Hurston had written many of these stories down in a previous form in 1927 recently rediscovered and published as Let Every Tongue Confess edited and introduced by Carla Kaplan but it had not been published, perhaps in part because it had been too clinical and straightfoward for Lippincott's taste.  Also godmother Charlotte Mason, who helped to sponsor the trip, kept a tight rein on Hurston's appearances in print. In Every Tongue's Gotta Confess, many of the same or similar tales we find in Mules and Men had been set down in sections designated by type along with an inventory of the informants, their ages, educational levels and birth places.  For me, this early work in 1927 (found in someone's papers all these years later) functions as a key to much of Hurston's subsequent writings across genre, from her letters (also edited by Kaplan) to her plays (all deposited with the Library of Congress and available on line), her short stories, her essays, novels and folklore collections.  In 1927, she was struggling for transparency in her collecting whereas by 1935, she had completely given up on any kind of straightforward presentation.  Of course she was actually 44 years old by then and knew better. 

As such, Mules and Men (1935) is a consummate act of storytelling and as is the case when one witnesses most canonical literary storytelling sessions, those of us who care are left wondering about many things, including what is finally the ultimate difference between the real and the unreal.  As many critics have pointed out, 1935 was a difficult year for black folks in the South.  Perhaps there is not enough sign of that in Mules and Men.  Perhaps there is more sign than we thought.

My approach to it in the classroom has simply been to work towards identifying its composite elements and leave the conclusions to the student's own predilection because I see and hear more and more every time I turn to it.  There is a page I found this time on the web which seems interested in many of the very elements I have found so intriguing since my first introduction to Mules and Men by my teacher Mark Mirksy at CCNY in 1971.

It is located at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA01/Grand-Jean/Hurston/Chapters/siteintroduction.html

and it is composed of a series of essays focused on Mules and Men and its unique ability to shed light on Hurston's unusual approach to almost everything, in particular African American folklore and vernacular culture.  There is little doubt that the inscrutability of the construction and methodology of Mules and Men can shed a lot of light on how Hurston was able to make a way out of no way.  In particular her fondness for the "lies" of her native Eatonville and African American folk culture.  It may also be the case that her empathy for the "folk furthest down" contributed to her own eventual invisibility and lack of success. 

ZORA IS MY NAME (DVD 1990 Edition), a staged version of Hurston's work, is available through Amazon for $17.99 and some kind of free shipping I never seem to get.  The abridged audio-tape of MULES AND MEN (2 cassette sets) by Ruby Dee is also available via Amazon used or second hand for as little as a $1.  I recommend that everybody get these before they are gone!

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