Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine

September 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most remarkable writers of the 20th century.  She met and mingled with various writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, yet her fictions, mostly set in the Deep South of Alabama and Florida, do not fit well with the themes and locales frequently associated with the Harlem Renaissance.  She was one of the earliest female cultural anthropologists, doing extensive work with the Boazes in the 1920s and 1930s, yet until recently her field anthropological work was mostly unknown to latter generations.  She did some of the heavy lifting for Alan Lomax when he made his famous field recordings for the Library of America of African American singers in the South, yet her name is rarely attached to this paramount collection of traditional folk songs.  Today, Hurston is primarily known for her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), yet when she died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked, segregated grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida.  Yet despite all this, Hurston’s work contains a vibrancy and verisimilitude that eloquently and powerfully captures the voices of a people whose vivid tales of love, life, betrayal, loss, fortitude, and redemption were so often ignored or dismissed by the surrounding white population.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) is at its heart a contemporary Biblical tale centered around an early 20th century African-American minister, John, his wife Lucy, and their struggles to maintain their family and faith as John battles his temptations to sleep with other women.  Stories of temptation, particularly those in which the protagonist succumbs to desire and lust, are very powerful and evocative, in large part because they speak to our own trials and tribulations.  What makes us give in to temptation, if anything can “make us?”  Are we active participants in our own dissolution, passive instruments of destruction, or something more nuanced that occupies a position that is neither fully active or passive?  Hurston, through John, explores these elements in a way that fuses early 20th century African American religious and folk beliefs.

John’s upbringing lies at the crux of this conundrum regarding human agency in the light of temptation.  He is the product of a white landowner sleeping with a black tenant at a time in which such offspring were often viewed with suspicion by both racial groups.  Very early on in the story, Hurston establishes not just this distrust, but also the beliefs that spring from it:

“Shet dat door, John!” Ned bellowed, “you ain’t got the sense you wuz borned wid.”

Amy looked where her big son was looking.  “Who dat comin’ heah, John?” she asked.

“Some white folks passin’ by, mama.  Ahm jes’ lookin’ tuh see whar dey gwine.”

“Come out dat do’way and shet it tight, fool!  Stand dere gazin’ dem white folks right in de face!”  Ned gritted at him.  “Yo’ brazen ways wid dese white folks is gwinter git you lynched one uh dese days.”

“Aw ’tain’t,” Amy differed impatiently, “who can’t look at ole Beasley?  He ain’t no quality nohow.”

“Shet dat door, John!” screamed Ned.

“Ah wuzn’t de last one inside,” John said, sullenly.

“Don’t you gimme no word for word,” Ned screamed at him. “You jes’ do lak Ah say do and keep yo’ mouf shet or Ah’ll take uh trace chain tuh yuh.  Yo’ mammy mought think youse uh lump un gold ’cause you got uh li’l’ white folks color in yo’ face, but Ah’ll stomp yo’ guts out and dat quick!  Shet dat door!” (p. 4)

Ned, the paramour of John’s mother, Amy, frequently treats John with disdain due to his bastard birth, biracial heritage, and the benefits of education that he receives due to his situation.  Yet behind this disdain, in scenes such as this, there lurk hints of a fear similar to that expressed in this passage.  Hurston has a keen ear for dialect and belief, and throughout Jonah’s Gourd Vine she explores the dynamics of post-liberation African American society and the effects that segregation, the divergent beliefs of the educated and illiterate, and the conflict between the dominant Protestant strands of Christianity and the vestiges of traditional West African beliefs have on African Americans.  These conflicts become even more apparent when John marries Lucy and they move to an all-black town in central Florida (based on Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston’s family moved when she was young), where John becomes a minister who finds himself torn between the call of the Spirit and the temptations of the flesh.  Spiritus fortis, corpus debile.  It is here where Hurston’s novel firmly roots its allusions to the biblical tale of Jonah and the gourd vine.

Unlike most stories where the temptation is either overcome or the character is destroyed by it, Hurston explores a middle path in which a mostly good person tries (and often fails) to do what is right, what is spiritual and just, despite (or even in some cases because of) his flaws.  We see John try to refuse the calling of the Lord (in his attempts to move away from the ministry), we see him brought back time and time again (first by Lucy, and then later by others), and we see him struggle to understand the mercies of God despite the sins that he has committed and the weaknesses (the philandering, the attempts to cozy up to certain parishioners) to which he has succumbed repeatedly.  Hurston slowly reveals these elements through dialogue between the various characters.  The cadences of the characters’ speech serves to reinforce the internal conflicts that lie at the heart of Jonah’s Gourd Vine, such as the one on class/race consciousness expressed by  a minister and some parishioners:

“And Ah say unto you, de Negro has got plenty tuh feel proud over.  Ez fur back ez man kin go in his-to-ree, de black man wuz always in de lead.  When Caesar stood on de Roman forum, uccordin’ tuh de best authority, uh black man stood beside him.  Y’all say ‘Amen.’  Don’t let uh man preach hisself tuh death and y’all set dere lak un bump on uh log and won’t he’p ‘im out.  Say ‘Amen’!!

“And fiftly, Je-sus, Christ, wuz uh colored man hisself and Ah kin prove it!  When he lived it wuz hot lak summer time, all de time, wid de sun beamin’ down and scorchin’ hot – how could he be uh white man in all dat hot sun?  Say ‘Amen’!  Say it lak you mean it, and if yuh do mean it, tell me so!  Don’t set dere and say nothin’!”

***

At the close of the service, many came forward and shook Cozy’s hand and Harris glowed with triumph.  He was dry and thirsty for praise in connection with his find so he tackled Sisters Watson and Boger on the way home.

“How y’all lak de sermon tuhnight?”

“Sermon?” Sister Boger made an indecent sound with her lips, “dat wan’t no sermon.  Dat wuz uh lecture.”

“Dat’s all whut it wuz,” Sister Watson agreed and switched on off.

Harris knew that he must find some other weapon to move the man who had taken his best side-girl from him. (p. 133-134)

This exchange is rooted in the attempts of the Deacon, Harris, to remove John from his role as minister.  The planned replacement preaches a Gospel that today would be called Afro-centric:  a black Christ, with Africans being much more influential in history than whites would have them believe.  It is a tempting doctrine for the downtrodden and although this element is ancillary to the main conflict of John and his temptations, it is a strong secondary thematic thread that runs through Jonah’s Gourd Vine.  Hurston certainly aimed at replicating the issues that interested Southern rural blacks and although at first glance this might not seem to be vital to the primary story, ultimately her attention to setting and local speech serves to supplement John’s morality tale, making it broader and more meaningful when placed in context of the times and locale.

There are few weaknesses in the novel’s structure.  At times, Hurston appears to be too self-conscious of how her characters’ speech might not be understood well by those who did not live in the region, as she occasionally interrupted the narrative flow of the dialogue to have a character think or explain fully in more formal speech the colloquialisms that make this tale a fascinating read.  Strong as Lucy is in the first half of the novel, her death feels a bit too contrived, especially when considered in light of John’s latter wives and paramours.  Although she appears to be the metaphorical gourd vine that withers over the head of John’s Jonah-like character, the importance of this seems stinted based on developments later in the novel.  Yet these weaknesses, not surprising in a first novel, hint at the prodigious talent Hurston had as a writer and as a recorder of folklore, as Jonah’s Gourd Vine provides a narrative template for Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the masterpieces of 20th century American literature.

Originally posted in January 2012 at Gogol’s Overcoat.

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