I’ve been sitting around for days pondering what to say about Zora Neale Hurston’s debut, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. What to say about the beginning of a dazzling literary journey? What to say about this spectacular, clever, frustrating, hysterical, singular writer at the start of her career?
I knew that Jonah’s Gourd Vine was partly autobiographical, but I didn’t realize that it was so autobiographical that she didn’t even change her mother’s character’s name. The characters of John Buddy Pearson and Lucy Potts are based roughly on her parents, John Hurston and Lucy Potts. The book tells the story of the family’s migration from the plantation where Lucy was born to Eatonville, Florida (the town where Hurston was raised, and where there is now an annual festival celebrating her work and legacy each winter – I want to go!).
The book follows John’s life and journey as a sinner and a preacher, hounded by demons he can never seem to shake. If the “story of the life” hero’s journey is a familiar one, the characters are still lit with the unique breath and excitement Hurston imparted onto all of her characters.
The dialogue, like in all of her novels, is the story – it’s what separates her writing from most other writers. You can see the clear bloodline running from Hurston to writers like Alice Walker, who clearly considered cadence and melody in the dialogue to be an integral and inextricable element, no different than plot or character development.
And it is joyous. Even when the story seems like it should not be, it is joyous. I know that many of her male contemporaries were forever scowling at Hurston, insisting that she was putting on too much of a show for (mostly white) critics and audiences – exaggerating “voodoo” in her work, writing in dialect, focusing on everyday life instead of social justice. Being too joyous with no good reason.
But everything I read about Hurston seems to indicate she was seemingly impervious to critique, from all sides. She wrote what she wrote, and said what she said. When she was in fashion, she took advantage of her good fortune; when she was out of fashion, she refused to change herself, her writing, or her views to suit the times, to sell more, or even save herself from poverty. Iconoclast is overused and misused, but iconoclast she seemed to be (hey, she DISAGREED with Brown v. Board of Education – now that is an independent thinker, however surprising her ideas may be to me).
She is a wonderfully complex mystery, and I am excited to have started this journey of reading all of her novels this year. Moses, Man of the Mountain will be the next up, if I stay chronological (having already read her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, many years ago, and all of her Complete Stories). I wish to learn more about her life and biography, as well.
I also REALLY love this version I got –copies of all of Hurston’s books were reissued in the 90’s with introductions (and often an afterword) by Henry Louis Gates. I have both the Complete Stories and Jonah’s Gourd Vine in hardback (although I think some of them were only released in paperback – I couldn’t for the life of me find her nonfiction Mules and Men in hardback from this particular reissue series). I plan to track down all of them in this version, if I can. Gates’ introductions are helpful and illuminating, even when I disagree with a particular perspective he has of Hurston’s work.
Once I finished with the rich, dazzling world of Eatonville, I moved on to two very different worlds: the Haiti of Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, and Toni Morrison’s Paradise.
Okay. So, I have been, for many years, keeping Paradise, Love, and A Mercy in reserve. I intentionally had not read them, because once I read them, I’m all out of Toni Morrisons. No more Toni Morrisons. Possibly forever! But tomorrow is not promised, so if I never read them, then I’ve never read them, and I’ll get to the real paradise without having read Paradise. This we cannot have.
I should not, as it turns out, have been surprised that Paradise is pretty brutal. An Untamed State is pretty brutal too (the topic of kidnapping is pretty tough). Usually when I have multiple books going at once, they are dynamic and play off one another – so when I am overwhelmed with the violence of An Untamed State, I can retreat into Jonah’s Gourd Vine, or the lyric beauty of a poetry book.
But I keep flipping from Haiti to Ruby, Oklahoma, and neither one is providing a tremendous amount of comfort. I may need to start Moses, Man of the Mountain sooner rather than later!