A major figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston published more books in her lifetime than any other African-American woman, spoke at major universities and received honorary doctorates, and was described in the New York Herald Tribune as being one of the nation’s top writers. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is widely considered a masterpiece today, and one of the most important works of fiction ever written by an African-American woman. Alice Walker insists in the foreword to Hurston’s biography: “There is no book more important to me than this one.” Yet Hurston died in poverty in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave. In an essay published in 1972, biographer Robert Hemenway describes her as “one of the most significant unread authors in America.” The following year, however, Walker traveled to Florida to find and honor Hurston’s grave. According to scholars Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke in the “Introduction” to The Complete Stories a rising black feminist movement “seized upon [Hurston] as the canonical black foremother.” This recognition thus restored Hurston’s place in the American literary landscape.
Hurston was notable as a novelist, short story writer, critic, and also as the country’s most important collector of African-American folklore. Born and raised in the small, all-black community of Eatonville, Florida, she had a lifelong interest in anthropology and returned to Eatonville after graduating from Barnard College in New York City to study her townspeople. She frequently used material she gathered in her anthropological work in her fiction. “The Eatonville Anthology” is based on real people and real events of Eatonville, and Hemenway considers it to be Hurston’s most successful attempt to “fuse folklore and fiction.”
While Hurston achieved success during her lifetime, she could be controversial and provocative as well. Her writing might be considered “politically incorrect” by some. Hurston’s use of dialect and stereotypes in her writing has received praise from critics, but she has also been faulted for portraying African Americans negatively. Hurston’s views on race relations were also controversial. She told at least one reporter that she opposed desegregation, though as Walker pointed out, a woman from an allblack town where blacks held all positions of power could quite reasonably see little to be gained from integrating with whites.
Hurston’s writing differed sharply from other women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. It frequently rejected upper middle-class values, it employed African-American dialect, and her female characters were interested in sex. Critic P. Gabrielle Foreman holds in her essay in Black American Literature Forum that Hurston was unlike other black women writers such as Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen. Foreman feels that these writers “composed books, draped among other things, with women who don heavy silks and satins and who adorn their satiny yellow skin with pretty party dresses described in detail.” Hurston wrote of characters whose response to life was visceral, and who lived according to the rituals of their own communities.
Hurston frequently had to struggle to make a living in the latter part of her life. After interest in black literature and art waned at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston ceased to write about the people and customs of Eatonville. She turned toward a more conservative choice of material: her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, concerned the lives of white characters, a radical change in subject matter for Hurston. Her book after that, which she had been toiling over when she died, was a biography of the Roman ruler Herod the Great, the rebuilder of Jerusalem’s Great Temple.
Hurston’s “The Eatonville Anthology,” first published in The Messenger magazine in three installments in 1926, has attracted attention for a variety of reasons. Critic Heiner Bus examines “The Eatonville Anthology” in his essay “The Establishment of Community in Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ and Rolando Hinojosa’s ‘Estampas del valle’.” Bus discusses Hurston’s story in the context of other well-known works about American small-town life, such as Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938), all of which were written by white men. Bus sees similarities between the works of mainstream and minority authors but believes that themes like community and continuity, certainly prevalent in ‘ “The Eatonville Anthology,” (in segment XI, Double-Shuffle, for example), have “special connotations in the work of ethnic writers.” The need for community and identity is particularly felt by minorities who live within a larger mainstream society. Bus writes: “The trust in the power of the word as a tool to overcome powerlessness, forced muteness, is a first step towards identity and visibility as a group.” Hurston’s portrayal of Eatonville gives her community visibility and power. Hurston’s remarkable ear for dialect and use of authentic detail captures the words of her townspeople just as they would have spoken them.
Hemenway sees the significance of “The Eatonville Anthology” as “Hurston’s most effective attempt at representing the original tale-telling context [and] the best written representation of her oral art.”
He further observes that “The Eatonville Anthology” is the “literary equivalent of Hurston’s memorable performances at parties. The reader has the impression of sitting in a corner listening to anecdotes.” Some of the events described in “Anthology” actually occurred in Eatonville—for example, the thieving dog Tippy and Mrs. Tony Roberts, the pleading woman, among others, were real according to Hemenway. Other events in the story are based on “folktales or jokes known not only to Hurston but to many other traditional storytellers.” Hemenway continues: “Joe Lindsay, the greatest liar in the village, tells a tale so common that folklorists have classified it as Type 660: The Three Doctors.”‘ Heiner Bus comments on Hurston’s use of the Brer Rabbit tale in a footnote to his essay, noting that the Brer Rabbit story appears in both the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend and in The Book of Negro Folklore. According to his interpretation,”projecting human behavior into the animal world signifies .. . an effort to conjure up imperial power in a situation of oppression.”
Hurston incorporated pieces of traditional African-American folklore into “The Eatonville Anthology,” and one of the most interesting aspects of the story is the way she later used bits of it again and again in her other works. Alice Walker observes: “Everything she experienced in Eatonville she eventually put into her books. Indeed, one gets the feeling that she tried over and over again with the same material until she felt she had gotten it right.” For example, the real mayor of Eatonville, Joe Clarke, appears in “The Eatonville Anthology” and also turns up later in Their Eyes Were Watching God, as Mayor Jody Starks. Segment IX of “Eatonville” which focuses on Joe’s unhappy “softlooking, middle-aged” wife becomes the seed for Jody and Janie’s relationship in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Bus observes that Daisy Taylor, of segment XII, reappears in an unpublished play Hurston wrote with Langston Hughes entitled Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. The Brer Rabbit segment appears again in Hurston’s collection of folklore, Mules and Men. Critic JoAnne Cornwell sees Brazzle’s mule of segment VII in “Anthology” in the mule belonging to Matt Bonner in Their Eyes and pleading Mrs. Roberts, of segment I, still pleading in the form of Mrs. Robbins, also in Their Eyes. Hemenway reports that the events of segment II, Turpentine Love, are repeated in Seraph in the Suwanee, except with white characters instead of blacks. He also points out the events described in “Pants and Cal’line” are based on Hurston’s Aunt Cal’line and her Uncle Jim in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, with one notable difference.
The difference highlights a further reason “The Eatonville Anthology” is important to study: the story was overlooked (or treated carelessly) in much the same way Hurston herself was overlooked in the latter part of her life. According to Hemenway, a “printing mishap” caused “Pants and Cal’line,” (Segment XIII) to “go incomplete” when the printer or editor apparently lost part of the story. In the real-life incident that is the basis for this section, Hurston’s aunt tracked down her husband at the home of one of his mistresses and returned home with his pants slung over an axe. In ‘ “The Eatonville Anthology,” the axe that Cal’line is mysteriously carrying on her way to Delphine’s is never explained. The reader never learns the outcome of the confrontation, nor is the significance of the “Pants” of the title ever explained. According to Hemenway, “the error does nothing more than indicate some of the loose editorial practices of the understaffed, underpaid, overworked Messenger office,” the Messenger being the “only radical Negro magazine in America” at that time. The omission was not intentional, but nonetheless, as Andrew Crosland points out, “The Eatonville Anthology” has been reprinted in several anthologies, due to “the Hurston revival,” but without the explanation necessary to understand the story.
Hurston’s talents were recognized and applauded during the Harlem Renaissance, then largely forgotten for years. Studying “The Eatonville Anthology” will further the reader’s understanding and appreciation of the town that gave rise to this story and the larger works that grew out of it as well.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Zora Neale Hurston, Published by Gale, 1997.
Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997