Review Of Zora
Neale Hurstonís The Complete Stories
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/12/06
Isaac Bashevis Singer with a tanÖ.and breasts. Thatís what I was thinking of Zora Neale Hurston as I read her Complete Stories, except sheís not as good a writer nor tale teller. Or, perhaps a less skilled Sherwood Anderson. There is a sense one gets when reading these tales that Hurston was born too late. Had she been born several centuries earlier she may have been right at home writing didactic cultural tales along the lines of the Decameron or the Mabinogion. Perhaps the most fully realized story in the collection is the first one, John Redding Goes To Sea, in which a restive youth ends up getting his lifelong wish of going to sea fulfilled, but only posthumously, as a corpse flooded out in a swollen river. Hereís a sample of the best of Hurston, metaphorically and musically:
Perhaps ten-year-old John was puzzling to the simple folk there in the Florida woods for he was an imaginative child and fond of day-dreams. The St. John River flowed a scarce three hundred feet from his back door. On its banks at this point grow numerous palms, luxuriant magnolias and bay trees with a dense undergrowth of ferns, cat-tails; and rope-grass. On the bosom of the stream float millions of delicately colored hyacinths. The little brown boy loved to wander down to the waterís edge, and, casting in dry twigs, watch them sail away down stream to Jacksonville, the sea, the wide world and John Redding wanted to follow them.
Sometimes in his dreams he was a prince, riding away in a gorgeous carriage. Often he was a knight bestride a fiery charger prancing down the white shell road that led to distant lands. At other times he was a steamboat captain piloting his craft down the St. John River to where the sky seemed to touch the water. No matter what he dreamed or who he fancied himself to be, he always ended by riding away to the horizon; for in his childish ignorance he thought this to be farthest land.
That is excellent writing. Other stories lack the almost Serlingesque irony of that tale, in favor of didacticism, which while not necessarily a bad thing, can be too much in large doses within a tale, as well as reading too many didactic stories back to back. In Drenched In Light a young girl who seems to love mischief finds herself redeemed in the eyes of her grandmother when she can please white folks. While the tale is, as the Introduction by Henry Louis Gates notes, unusual in its portrayal of white folks as non-hostile, it is also far too predictable and trite a tale that ends with a black character de facto pickaninnying.
The tale Spunk is one of the more blatantly fabular tales, as is Magnolia Flower. The former is about a beyond the grave tale of vengeance while the latter is a love story. Part of the reason these tales work is their simplicity. The fact is that Hurston was not a particularly deep writer, either in terms of ideation or in terms of execution. The more complex a tale she attempted the more it petered out into pedestrian phrasing and plot machinations. The Gilded Six Bits, as example, is a tale that goes awry. In it a wife cheats on her husband simply because she fancies another manís presumed riches, due to a gold chain. The husband stays with her, they have a child, and the tale ends on an upbeat, although unsatisfying way, for the characters, up till the point of the adultery, are seemingly complex. Then, they are revealed as nothing but stereotypical coons, whores, and simpletons. I donít know whether Hurston wrote this tale simply to sell to a larger audience, but it is not funny enough to be a farce, so merely sticks out in this anthology as a curio of Americaís racially screwed up past. Yet, Gates lauds this tale for portraying African-Americans in a positive light- that love conquers all, despite the blatant stereotypes the main characters represent. I wonder how much of that opinion is due to the fact of single motherhood and absentee fathers in modern black America? The Conscience Of The Court is a similar tale that starts off as a potentially excellent realistic courtroom drama that could bring racial issues to the fore, as a woman is wrongly accused of a crime, only to descend into unrealistic, if not utopian preachiness. I have to believe that a tale like that was influenced by Hurstonís ability to get it published in magazines with mostly white readership, because the moments of poetic speech and insight in the tales are too numerous, yet their eventual overall failure too manifest in its reasons.
Which brings me to the Introduction by Gates, a man who is not a writer by profession, but a student of history. While this may qualify him to speak of Hurston in historical terms his stoop-kneed assessments of these flawed tales is saccharine and void of understanding. He lauds her destruction of potentially thought provoking material into lowest common denominator ends and shows he hasnít a clue as to what constitutes a successful narrative and a one dimensional characterization. He calls simple tales complex and points to things outside the stories, themselves, as having relevance, even though the tales do not manifest it. The only reason I point this out is the length and depth of the Introduction, and the fact that many of these ideas are regurged uncritically by young writers- white or black- who study these tales.
That said, I only wonder what Hurston might have accomplished at a later date, when there would be no pressures to change her tales- or would there be? Would she have succumbed to the fashionable PC track? Would her tales have been even more simplistic, and even more dependent upon the trite black dialect? That said, her tales have an undeniable music and poetry in their sounds, but their intellectual content is often nil. In a sense, one might consider these tales mere apprentice work for her novels, but, then, why put out this many of them in differing forms? A book of the eight or ten best tales, a Selected rather than Collected or Complete edition, would have been far more effective in highlighting her strengths and uniquities as a writer. Unfortunately, this book does the opposite, portraying Hurston as, especially in light of later black writers, rather generic, and little more than a talented Romantic, at best, and a bodice-ripping romance writer, at worst. Oy!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird website.]
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