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Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life

Overview

Mule Bone is the only collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two stars of the Harlem Renaissance, and it holds an unparalleled place in the annals of African-American theater. Set in Eatonville, Florida—Hurston's hometown and the inspiration for much of her fiction—this energetic and often farcical play centers on Jim and Dave, a two-man song-and-dance team, and Daisy, the woman who comes between them. Overcome by jealousy, Jim hits Dave with a mule bone and hilarity follows chaos as the ...

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Overview

Mule Bone is the only collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two stars of the Harlem Renaissance, and it holds an unparalleled place in the annals of African-American theater. Set in Eatonville, Florida—Hurston's hometown and the inspiration for much of her fiction—this energetic and often farcical play centers on Jim and Dave, a two-man song-and-dance team, and Daisy, the woman who comes between them. Overcome by jealousy, Jim hits Dave with a mule bone and hilarity follows chaos as the town splits into two factions: the Methodists, who want to pardon Jim; and the Baptists, who wish to banish him for his crime.

Included in this edition is the fascinating account of the Mule Bone copyright dispute between Hurston and Hughes that ended their friendship and prevented the play from being performed until its debut production at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York City in 1991—sixty years after it was written. Also included is "The Bone of Contention," Hurston's short story on which the play was based; personal and often heated correspondence between the authors; and critical essays that illuminate the play and the dazzling period that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The never before published or produced play based on a short story by Zora Neale Hurston, published to coincide with its debut production in New York.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060968854
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/1991
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was deemed "one of the greatest writers of our time" by Toni Morrison. With the publication of Lies and Other Tall Tales, The Skull Talks Back, and What's the Hurry, Fox? new generations will be introduced to Hurston's legacy. She was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, and died in 1960.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) ranks as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. A landmark figure in the Harlem Renaissance, his work profoundly captures and celebrates the trials and triumphs of his exquisitly drawn characters. In addition to his poetry, he was also the author of the novels Not Without Laughter and Something in Common, the play Mulatto, and two volumes of autobiography.

Biography

During the 1920s, African-American culture in the United States received an exhilarating shot in the arm in the era known as the Harlem Renaissance. For the first time, black American art, music, and literature was being taken seriously among the intelligentsia as a significant force in contemporary culture. At the front of that movement were several writers, including Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston's work reflected the liberation and experimentation of post-war America. She published stories and co-founded the groundbreaking journal Fire! with poet Langston Hughes and novelist Wallace Thurman. By the ‘30s, Hurston was a bestselling writer, but with the Renaissance on the wane and a new era of politics, economic depression, and the "social realism" movement, Hurston's once glorious literary career was running into dire straits. She would end her life destitute, practically forgotten, buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. However, a resurgence of interest in her work during the 1970s and the tireless work of writer Alice Walker would help reestablish Hurston in her rightful place as one of America's greatest and most influential writers.

Born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1891 to a father who was a Baptist preacher, Hurston was well-versed from birth in the dynamics of the Southern black experience. She brought that keen vision to her writing and published her first story in the Howard University literary magazine while attending the school in 1921. Still, it was not until Hurston moved to New York City in 1925 that she really began to make waves on the literary scene. Her writing was characterized by its unflagging honesty and strength, qualities that Hurston herself exuded. She often ruffled feathers by refusing to adhere to the constricting gender conventions prevalent at the time. This strength and self-confidence was already apparent in the writer's very first works. Her debut novel Jonah's Gourde Vine was praised by The New York Times as "the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race." Her second was a bona fide classic, Mules and Men, a compendium of African American folk tales, songs, and maxims that drew on Hurston's extensive studies in Anthropology.

By the time Hurston published her signature work Their Eyes Were Watching God, the freestyle experimentalism of the Harlem Renaissance was being increasingly overcast by the Great Depression. As a result, a backlash ensued. Their Eyes Were Watching God, which told of a woman named Janie Crawford who goes through three marriages to separate men as she struggles to realize herself, was too steeped in the experimentalism of the Renaissance to please critics. Furthermore, her portrayal of a black woman's search for personal liberation was too much for many black men to stomach. Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of Native Son, even dismissed Their Eyes Were Watching God for not being "serious fiction." Today, such criticism may seem absurd, or at the very least, incredibly short-sighted, but at the time, Hurston's daring prose was not in vogue amongst the social realists.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, instead, displays a true structural adventurousness, splitting between the eloquence of the narrative voice and the idiomatic, ungrammatical dialogue of the black, southern characters. While works of the social realism movement were easily categorized by their left-wing politics and gritty delivery, Their Eyes Were Watching God was less simple to pigeonhole. It is at once a product of the Harlem Renaissance, an example of Southern literature along the lines of Faulkner, and a work of feminist literature. Consequently, the novel was criticized for being out of step with the times, and it went out of print very shortly after being published, leading to the collapse of Hurston's career and her standing as a significant literary figure.

Hurston would die in 1960, back in Florida, destitute, forgotten. Her books long unavailable, her death barely registered. She would not return to the public eye until 1975, when Alice Walker published an essay titled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in Ms. magazine. Along with other writer including Robert Hemenway and Tony Cade Bambara, Walker went on a crusade to revitalize Hurston's career fifteen years after the writer's death.

When Their Eyes Were Watching God was finally republished, it was reevaluated as a classic. Today, the novel is required reading in universities all over the country, and Hurston is widely acknowledged as one of the first great African-American women writers. As a final tribute to her idol, Walker also traveled to Florida where Hurston is buried and placed a marker on her grave, a long-overdue tribute to a great American writer reading with beautiful simplicity: "Zora Neale Hurston: Genius of the South."

Good To Know

Hurston's earliest work was a comedic play called Mule Bone, which she co-wrote with Langston Hughes. However, the play would not be performed until 1991 due to an arduous legal battle that also brought an untimely end to the friendship between Hurston and Hughes.

Spike Lee's audacious debut film She's Gotta Have It has been viewed by some as a hip adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the fact that the film opens with a quotation from Zora Neale Hurston may prove such theories correct.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      January 7, 1891
    2. Place of Birth:
      Eatonville, Florida
    1. Date of Death:
      January 28, 1960
    2. Place of Death:
      Fort Pierce, Florida
    1. Education:
      B.A., Barnard College, 1928 (the school's first black graduate). Went on to study anthropology at Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt

Mule Bone
A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts

A Tragedy Of Negro Life
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

This play was never done because the authors fell out.
--Langston Hughes, 1931

And fall out, unfortunately, they did, thereby creating the most notorious literary quarrel in African-American cultural history, and one of the most thoroughly documented collaborations in black American literature. Langston Hughes published an account entitled "Literary Quarrel" as the penultimate chapter -- indeed, almost asa coda or an afterthought -- in his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940). Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston's biographer, published a chapter in his biography entitled "Mule Bone," and Arnold Rampersad, Hughes's biographer, presents an equally detailed account in volume one of his The Life of Langston Hughes. Only Zora Neale Hurston, of the two principals,did not make public her views of the episode. But she did leave several letters (as did Hughes) in which she explains some of her behavior and feelings. In addition, Hurston left the manuscript of the short story, "The Bone of Contention," upon which the play was based. These documents -- letters, the short story, Hughes's account, and two accounts from careful and judicious scholars -- as well as a draft of the text of the play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, comprise the full record of the curious history of this brilliant collaboration between two extraordinarily talented African-American writers. We have assembled this archival and published data here to provide contemporary readers with the fullest possible account of a complex and bizarre incidentthat will forever remain impossible to understand completely, be-clouded in inexplicable motivation.

In a sense, this is a casebook of a crucial -- and ugly -- chapter in the history of the Harlem Renaissance, that extraordinarily rich period in American cultural history that witnessed the birth of jazz, the coming to fruition of the classic blues, and the first systematic attempt to generate an entire literary and cultural movement by black Americans. The Harlem Renaissance, also called "The New Negro Renaissance," is generally thought to have begun in the early 1920s and ended early on in the Great Depression, about the time when Hughes and Hurston had their dispute. The origins of the Renaissance are, of course, complex and have been written about extensively. It is clear, however, that the production of a rich and various black art, especially the written arts and the theatre, could very well help to reshape the public image of black people within American society and facilitate thereby their long struggle for civil rights, a struggle that commenced almost as soon as the last battle of the Civil War ended. As James Weldon Johnson put it in the "Preface" to his Book of American Negro Poetry (1922):

A people may be great through many means, but there is one by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.


If, then, African-Americans created a recognizable and valued canon of literature, its effect would have enormous political ramifications: "The status of the Negro in the United States," Johnson concluded, "is more a question' of national mental attitude toward the race than of actual conditions. And nothing will do more to change that mental attitude and raise his status than a demonstration of intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art."

Johnson, by 1922 one of the venerable figures of the black literary and theatrical traditions, effectively issued a call to arms for the creation of a literary movement. Soon, political organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, through their magazines, The Crisis and Opportunity, began to sponsor literary competitions, judged by prominent members of the American literati, with the winners receiving cash prizes, publication in the journals, and often book contracts. At the prompting of Charles Johnson, the editor of Opportunity, Hurston submitted two short stories -- "Spunk" and "Black Death" -- and two plays -- Color Struck and Spears -- for consideration in Opportunity's annual literary contests in 1925 and 1926. While "Spunk" and Color Struck won second-place prizes, Spears and "Black Death" won honorable mention. Two other short stories, "Drenched in Light" and "Muttsy" would be published in Opportunity, along with "Spunk." It was at the 192 5 annual awards dinner that she met another award winner, Langston Hughes, who took third prize jointly with Countee Cullen and first prize for his great poem, "The Weary Blues." It was a momentous occasion, attended by "the greatest gathering of black and white literati ever assembled in one room," as Arnold Rampersad notes, and included among its judges Eugene O'Neill, John Farrar, Witter Bynner, Alexander Woolcott, and Robert Benchley. Hughes was quite taken with Hurston, Rampersad tells us: She "'is a clever girl, isn't she?' he soon wrote to a friend; 'I would like to know her.' " Eventually, he would know her all too well.

Between 1925 and their collaboration on the writing of Mule Bone between March and June 1930, Hughes and Hurston came to know each other well. As Rampersad reports, by mid-summer of 1926, the two were planning a black jazz and blues opera. Hemenway calls it "an opera that would be the first authentic rendering of black folklife, presenting folk songs, dances, and tales that Hurston would collect." By the end of that summer, the two (along with Wallace Thurman, John P. Davis, Gwen Bennett, Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglass, all members of what was jokingly called "The Niggerati") decided to found a magazine, called Fire!!, the title taken from a Hughes poem. The following year, in July 1927, Hughes and Hurston met quite by accident in Mobile, Alabama, and decided to drive together to Manhattan in her car, "Sassy Susie." "I knew it would be fun travelling with her," Rampersad reports Hughes writing. "It was." The trip lasted about a month, with the two sharing notes on hoodoo, folktales, and the blues along the way, and even meeting Bessie Smith, the great classic blues singer. Shortly after this trip, Hughes introduced Hurston to his patron, Charlotte van der Veer Quick Mason, who would contribute about $75,000 to Harlem Renaissance writers, including $15,000 to Hurston. While Hughes received $150 per month, Hurston received $200...

Mule Bone
A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts
. Copyright © by Zora Hurston. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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