Seraph on the Suwanee

Overview

Acclaimed for her pitch-perfect accounts of rural black life and culture, Zora Neale Hurston explores new territory with her novel Seraph on the Suwanee—a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of "Florida Crackers" at the turn of the twentieth century. Full of insights into the nature of love, attraction, faith, and loyalty, it follows young Arvay Henson, convinced she will never find true happiness, as she defends herself from unwanted suitors with hysterical fits...

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Overview

Acclaimed for her pitch-perfect accounts of rural black life and culture, Zora Neale Hurston explores new territory with her novel Seraph on the Suwanee—a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of "Florida Crackers" at the turn of the twentieth century. Full of insights into the nature of love, attraction, faith, and loyalty, it follows young Arvay Henson, convinced she will never find true happiness, as she defends herself from unwanted suitors with hysterical fits and religious fervor. But into her life comes bright and enterprising Jim Meserve, who knows that Arvay is the woman for him, and nothing she can do will dissuade him.

Alive with the same passion and understanding of the human heart that made Their Eyes Were Watching God a classic, Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee masterfully explores the evolution of a marriage and the conflicting desires of an unforgettable young woman in search of herself and her place in the world.

Acclaimed for her pitch-perfect accounts of rural black life and culture, Zora Neale Hurston explores new territory with her novel Seraph on the Suwanee—a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of "Florida Crackers" at the turn of the twentieth century. Full of insights into the nature of love, attraction, faith, and loyalty, it follows young Arvay Henson, convinced she will never find true happiness, as she defends herself from unwanted suitors with hysterical fits and religious fervor. But into her life comes bright and enterprising Jim Meserve, who knows that Arvay is the woman for him, and nothing she can dowill dissuade him.

Alive with the same passion and understanding of the human heart that made Their Eyes Were Watching God a classic, Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee masterfully explores the evolution of a marriage and the conflicting desires of an unforgettable young woman in search of herself and her place in the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Saturday Review of Literature
A simple, colorfully written, and moving novel .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060973599
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/28/1991
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose fictional and factual accounts of black heritage remain unparalleled. Her many books include Dust Tracks on a Road; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Jonah's Gourd Vine; Moses, Man of the Mountain; Mules and Men; and Every Tongue Got to Confess.

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

Chapter One

Sawley, the town, is in west Florida, on the famous Suwanee River. It is flanked on the south by the curving course of the river which Stephen Foster made famous without ever having looked upon its waters, running swift and deep through the primitive forests, and reddened by the chemicals leeched out of drinking roots. On the north, the town is flanked by cultivated fields planted to corn, cane potatoes, tobacco and small patches of cotton.

However, few of these fields were intensively cultivated. For the most part they were scratchy plantings, the people being mostly occupied in the production of turpentine and lumber. The life of Sawley streamed out from the sawmill and the "teppentime 'still." Then too, there was ignorance and poverty, and the ever-present hookworm. The farms and the scanty flowers in front yards and in tin cans and buckets looked like the people. Trees and plants always look like the people they live with, somehow.

This was in the first decade of the new century, when the automobile was known as the horseless carriage, and had not exerted its tremendous influence on the roads of the nation. There was then no U.S. 90, the legendary Old Spanish Trail, stretching straight broad concrete from Jacksonville on the Atlantic to San Diego on the Pacific. There was the sandy pike, deeply rutted by wagon wheels over which the folks of Sawley hauled their tobacco to market at Live Oak, or fresh-killed hogmeat, corn and peanuts to Madison or Monticello on the west. Few ever dreamed of venturing any farther east nor west.

Few were concerned with the past. They had heard that the stubbornly resisting Indians had been therewhere they now lived, but they were dead and gone. Osceola, Miccanope, Billy Bow-Legs were nothing more than names that had even lost their bitter flavor. The conquering Spaniards had done their murdering, robbing, and raping and had long ago withdrawn from the Floridas. Few knew and nobody cared that the Hidalgos under De Sota had moved westward along this very route. The people thought no more of them than they did the magnolias and bay and other ornamental trees which grew so plentifully in the swamps along the river, nor the fame of the stream. They knew that there were plenty of black bass, locally known as trout, in the Suwanee, and bream and perch and cat-fish. There were soft-shell turtles that made a mighty nice dish when stewed down to a low gravy, or the "chicken meat" of those same turtles fried crisp and brown. Fresh water turtles were a mighty fine article of food anyway you looked at it. It was commonly said that a turtle had every kind of meat on him. The white "chicken meat," the dark "beef' and the in-between "pork." You could stew, boil and fry, and none of it cost you a cent. All you needed was a strip of white side-meat on the hook, and you had you some turtle meat.

But the people also knew that while the Suwanee furnished free meat, it furnished plenty of mosquitoes and malaria too. If you wanted to stay on your feet, you bought your quinine every Saturday along with your groceries. Work was hard, pleasures few, and malaria and hookworm plentiful. However, the live oaks set along the streets and in many yards grew splendidly and gave good shade. The Spanish moss hung down everywhere and seemed to interest travellers from the North, though these were few and far between. Nobody gave these Yankees any particular encouragement to settle around Sawley. The Reconstruction was little more than a generation behind. Men still living had moved into west Florida after Sherman had burned Atlanta and made his triumphant march to the sea. A dozen or more men who had worn the gray of the confederacy were local residents. Damn Yankees were suspect of foraging around still looking for loot; and if not that, gloating over the downfall of The Cause.

This was a Sunday and the sawmill and the 'still were silent. No Yankees passing through. The Negroes were about their own doings in their own part of town, and white Sawley was either in church or on the way. Less than a thousand persons inhabited the town, and more than half the white population belonged to Day Spring Baptist Church. The menfolks, as everywhere, were not too good on attendance, but they paid their dues more or less, and the women and children went.

On this particular Sunday, though, there was a large turnout. Not that there was any revival meeting going on, which always brought everybody out, nor were they hurrying to the .church because it was believed that the pastor, Reverend Carl Middleton, had anything new to say, or any new way of saying what he always said.

Sawley was boiling like a big red ants' nest that had been ploughed up. It was rumored that Arvay, the younger of the two Henson girls was a'courting at last. To be exact, Arvay was not a'courting so much as she was being courted, and what with Arvay's past record and everything, this was something that people had to see.

In the first place, Arvay was all of twenty-one, and according to local custom, should have been married at least five years ago. But at sixteen, shortly after the marriage of her older sister Larraine, commonly known as ... Raine," to the Reverend Carl Middleton, Arvay had turned from the world. Such religious fervor was not unknown Among white people, but it certainly was uncommon. During "protracted meeting," another name for the two weeks of revival that came around every summertime, most anybody was liable to get full of the spirit and shout, in church and sing and pray. Back-sliders and...

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 7, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A good book

    I thought the novel was an okay read. I really expected something obvious to happen, but it didn't. Overall, the book is a very very good discussion-starter.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great story!

    Awsome book, easy to read n great story!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2008

    Not a lot of growth in this book

    I was really disappointed with the book because I wanted to see Arvay say, "I'm tired of this, I'm done". Instead, she succumbed to the hold that Jim had over her and that's it. She didnt't grow at all, she allowed herself to be mentally and, let's face it, sexually abused by her husband. I was so irritated with her.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2002

    Loved It!!

    I absolutely love this book. I read this book for the first time when I was 19. Immediately, I feel in love with it. The heroine is white but I felt she could have been any woman from any walk of life and any race. Her insecurities, her loves, her secret hatred, and her secret shame. We as women have all felt it. I would recommend this book to any young woman who's ever felt left out or alone. This book shows that everyone is special. You just have to look inside yourself to see it and appreciate you for who you are!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2001

    Entertaining

    'Seraph on the Suwanee' provides interesting dialog details into the lives of the 'Florida crackers' (i.e. poor southern whites) in the early 20th century, but at times, it¿s difficult to follow where this story is going. The novel follows the marriage of Jim and Arvay Meserve. The novel paints Jim Meserve as an ambitious and resourceful, yet also chauvanistic and sometimes violent man. The central character is the wife, Arvay, who is timid, uneducated, and (overly) sensitive. Told from Arvay¿s point of view, the problem with the story is that it is essentially one-sided and is more like the story of her life from her point of view. Only toward the later 1/3 of the book is she given a challenge and a mild conflict emerges when she is challenged to prove herself worthy of her husband. Here is where I think the novel fails¿we never really see any growth, development, or maturity in Arvay throughout the novel. It is only in the last couple of chapters that she has a ¿self-awakening¿ experience caused by the death of her mother. This ¿self-discovery¿ and the following reconciliation with Jim is weak and disappointing in my opinion. I enjoyed the book, Hurston is simply a great story teller-- she paced it appropriately, injected lively dialog, believable characters and situations, and provided colorful imagery. However, I think I would have enjoyed this story if it were two-sided; I found myself wanting to know more about Jim, his background, his thoughts and motivation.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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