Read an Excerpt
Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)
The New Republic, July 11, 1934
When Miss Hurston's hero ran away from trouble in Alabama and came to central Florida he heard for the first time of a "colored town."
"You mean uh town A nothing but colored folks? Who bosses it den?" he asked.
"Dey bosses it deyself."
This town, Eatonville, was Zora Hurston's birthplace, and some of her happiest qualities are perhaps due to this circumstance. It may well account in part for her zest and naturalness, her freedom from the conventional sentimentality so frequent in writing about Negroes. She handles, incidentally, much the same material as Julia Peterkin; handles it with double authority as a Negro and a student of folklore. An insider, she shares with her hero the touch of "pagan poesy" that made him thrill his hearers when he preached. But she is an insider without the insider's usual neuroses.
This is the story of John Pearson, yellow Alabama fieldhand, and famous preacher. He was a hero and a coward, a magnificent animal following his lusts and a church member praying to be cleansed of his sins. He loved his wife, Lucy, but left her for other women; returned to her, wept for her sorrows and left her again. After Lucy died he married Hattie, but the thought of Lucy so haunted him that he came to hate his second wife. "Whut am I doing married tuh you.... It's a hidden mystery to me-what you doin' in Miss Lucy's shoes," he railed at her after seven years, and beat her severely to ease his conscience. But through it all Miss Hurston makes him a credible, humanand almost appealing figure. Toward the end, when his troubles are thick upon him, a figure not without tragic dignity.
With white people the book deals only incidentally. Its chief white character is Alf Pearson, the bluff and kindly planter who despised "backwoods whites who live by swindling the niggers." But Miss Hurston is aware also of another side of the Negroes' white folks, as she has indicated in the brief searing paragraphs about the divorce courts where "the smirking anticipation on the faces of the white spectators ... made John feel as if he had fallen into a foul latrine. . . . 'Now listen close. You're going to hear something rich. These niggers! . . .'" And she is equally vigorous and forthright in her writing about colored people.
Candor like Miss Hurston's is still sufficiently rare among Negro writers. It is only one of the excellences of this book.
From the pen of Zora Neale Hurston comes another story of Negro folklore. Miss Hurston, who has written short stories about Negro Life, now, writes a novel of the Negro shortly after the Civil War, placing her story in typical small southern towns in Alabama and Forida. The story concerns the life history of John Buddy Pearson who, through the efforts of his wife, Lucy, rises to be an important Baptist minister in Florida. John's weakness is women, and even his love for his wife cannot guard him from that. After many affairs with women and after having been married twice, John marries Sally, who loves with a mature and unselfish affection. John has a final lapse, but he never lives to see the reproach in Sally's eyes as he is killed by a train on his way home.
Miss Hurston approached her task with a knowledge of Negro dialect and customs that is rare in contemporary writers. She deals with these people, who still cling to the last vestiges of witchcraft, in such a way that the reader wonders at her ability to capture so effectively the emotions of this primitive people. One feels, after reading Jonah's Gourd Vine, that one has suddenly been transplanted to the South and given an intimate but exaggerated view of the lives of these people in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Dialect is rather difficult to use successfully, but as a whole the conversations between the characters seem to flow freely and actually without stiffness. Idioms peculiar to the Negro, she uses effectively. Miss Hurston's detailed understanding of the customs and traditions of her people is an invaluable aid in winning for this book the praise some critics have given it.
Although Miss Hurston has the ability to paint clear and vivid pictures of Negro life, her style at times falls flat. Often she brings a new event to the story with a suddenness for which the reader is wholly unprepared. John's fight with his wife's brother, while it serves its purpose to get John out of town, is unnecessary. But still more unwarranted is the brother's treatment of Lucy when she is ill. To show the passage of time, Miss Hurston brings in some opinions about the World War and the migration of the Negroes to the North. These passages are not well done because the material is treated too hastily and because it is unrelated to the rest of the story. However, Miss Hurston rises to great heights when she writes in poetic form the last sermon of John Pearson with such power and emotion that one can almost hear the sermon.
In plot construction and characterization, Miss Hurston is a disappointment. The only thing that holds the series of events together is John Pearson, a strong man physically but weak in character. It seems as if Miss Hurston wished to depict certain phases of Negro life-life in a Negro home, a plantation, and the Negro preacher-and just thrust the characters in them regardless of any connection. Each time the scene changes, there is a formal break with what went on before. Only once does John's mother appear after John, as a young lad, has left his parents' home. John's half-brother disappears from the story at the beginning and is brought back near the end merely so...