Zora Neale Hurston: An American Story

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Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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18 Responses

  1. Avatar dhex says:

    great essay guys.Report

  2. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Thanks for this. My daughter was irritated yesterday when she saw Google’s page was honoring Hurston, because this year in her lit class she had to read Eyes…God and hated it. She really struggled to understand the conversations written in dialect. I wasn’t too sympathetic, since I think there’s value in struggling through something like that. But I wasn’t familiar with Hurston myself, so it’s nice to get this backgrounder. I’m going to grab my daughter’s book and read it now.Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Dude, the first time I read it, which was in high school, I hated it for precisely the same reason, and hell, I actually knew people who still talked like that (old, old people who sat on the porch and gave us candy and told us stories when we walked by — damn I miss that time and place, because it is completely gone now), so I had no excuse. It was like reading a book in another language, or at least early Middle English or something. You almost have to sound it out in your head to figure out what the hell they’re saying. But I learned, when I read it later, that if you keep going, and you keep sounding it out, it won’t just start to become clear, it will become instinctive, and you won’t have to sound it out any more. I actually find myself thinking in the accent, sort of like when you are first learning a language and you leave class thinking in Spanish or French or whatever without even realizing it.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        the first time i read it i felt like i was reading a racist cartoon script because i so heavily associated the dialect patterns with stereotypical portrayals of aave in media.

        when i found out about her anthro background it made more sense. it helps that the book is fantastic.Report

      • @dhex

        When I read the novel and even now, I wonder how to assess Hurston’s use of dialect. She may have come from that culture and had an anthropology background, but there still seemed something very off to me about a very well educated person trying to write in dialect like that. I feel the same way about Twain’s “N-word Jim” character; however, to be honest, Hurston’s feels worse for me. Maybe that’s because I read Huckleberry Finn in high school and Hurston’s “Their Eyes…” more recently (I taught it for a class I TA’d for).

        I was also put off by what I felt to be a couple of inconsistencies in the story. If I recall correctly, the rabid Tea Cake bites the protagonist (in his last attack on her before dying), but she doesn’t get rabies. And the much earlier scene where Tea Cake beat the protagonist seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear just as suddenly.

        After reading Burt and Chris’s essay, however, I have at least a greater appreciation for Hurston’s double-voice in the novel. Also, I tend to trust the narrator too much when I read fiction….maybe the supposed inconsistencies are part of what Hurston is trying to do.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Pierre, it’s a dialect she could speak herself. Given how much she loved Eatonville and its people, it’s hard for me to see any condescension in it. I feel like it’s more of a celebration of it, in fact. To have them speak the way her educated, New York friends speak would be the condescending way to write them.

        I’ve read two theories on Janie’s being bitten; one is that Janie is dying when she returns to Eatonville, and the other is that, when she learns that Tea Cake had rabies, she clearly would have received treatment, so that fact doesn’t need to be spoken. I’m not sure the former theory could exist if the latter were actually true, but I suppose I had assumed that she’d been treated without ever really thinking too much about it.

        I don’t have a problem with the way Tea Cakes beating Janie out of jealousy is treated, for a couple reasons: 1) at that point in the story, Janie has already beaten Tea Cake out of jealousy, and that’s handled in much the same way (just as a sort of fact of life), and 2) both beatings come in the context of what is clearly an intensely passionate but unconditional love. Don’t get me wrong, such relationship violence is unacceptable, but I understand what Hurston was doing, and I understand why she didn’t dwell on it.Report

      • @chris

        Thanks for the reply. I actually didn’t remember (and still don’t remember) Janie beating Tea Cake, but that would at least provide a parallel, or complicate the matter.

        I wasn’t aware there were theories about Janie being bitten….I had simply thought it was something I noticed and maybe had read wrong. I suppose another theory would be that the bite didn’t transmit the disease (e.g., didn’t break the skin).

        And again, your and Burt’s essay reminded me that there’s more nuance than my finger-wagging “she shouldn’t write in others’ [which as you point out is also her own] dialect” attitude admitted of.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        Janie went after Tea Cake when she found him rolling around (not sexually, not even willingly, if I remember correctly) with Nunkie, after Janie chased Nunkie off.

        And I think in the book it’s pretty clear that Tea Cake breaks the skin, because he bit her so hard that Janie has to pry his mouth from her arm.Report

      • Well, if Hurston put that level of detail into it, she probably intended to convey that Janie had been infected. I find it implausible that she could’ve gotten treatment. I’m basing that only on the fact that the environs had just been devastated by a flood/hurricane and the appropriate vaccine would have been in short supply. All that is just a guess, though.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      This is how I feel whenever I watch period pieces. Hell, even during a recent “Twilight Zone” marathon, I couldn’t help but get distracted by that weird 50’s television dialect. “Did people really enunciate like that back then?” Even if I find it clearly understandable, I still find it distracting. But I can be weird and picky like that… at least with visual/auditory media.Report

      • When I watch the old Twilight Zones, I tend to think the people are guilty of overacting. Also, when the lead character gets flustered and blustering angry about some weird thing happening, I tell myself, “get a grip man, I’d never act like that. I’d try to think things over before flying off the handle.”Report

  3. What an absolutely stunning essay. Brilliant, beautiful work, friends.

    And, re: high schoolers appreciating difficult writing, there are works I read even into my 20s that I wonder now if I had the maturity to grasp and appreciate.Report

  4. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    Wonderfully written, thank you.

    I read Their Eyes Were Watching God for school in Grade 11, and remember liking it better than many other English-assignment book I read. It came as a surprise to me because it was about a black woman whose struggles didn’t revolve around being black, unlike every other book with black protagonists I’d read up to that point.

    (Regarding appreciating English-class books more when you’re out of school and re-read them – I re-read The Chrysalids a couple years ago and loved it, whereas it hadn’t made a big impact on me when I read it for school. Having discovered the X-Men universe before the re-read probably made most of the difference, though.)Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I just want to say (again) that collaborative efforts like these or @russell-saunders and my “viewing parties” are uniquely difficult but profoundly amazing pieces; well wort the effort. I encourage folks to do such work whenever possible and applaud @burt-likko and @chris for a really amazing piece.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    Fascinating story. Learned a lot from this piece; Hurston was never in the curriculum in any of my schooling, as far as I remember. Thank you.Report

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