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Reading Hurston Writing

Article excerpt

"He can read my writing but he sho' can't read my mind." (Hurston, Mules 3)

I have always been intrigued by Alice Walker's positioning of Hurston's two most popular works, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God, at opposite ends of an axis of authenticity. In her foreword to Hemenway's literary biography of Hurston, she notes that she would choose Mules and Men "because I would need to be able to pass on to younger generations the life of American blacks as legend and myth; and Their Eyes Were Watching God because I would want to enjoy myself while identifying with the black heroine, Janie Crawford, as she acted out many roles in a variety of settings" (xiii). In this short statement, Walker sets out a fairly straightforward typology of genres: Novels offer us the authentic sell and ethnographies offer us authentic others. In the novel, we have access to, and in fact sometimes occupy, the interior of characters; in the ethnography, we access the interior of a group of others.

Such notions of inside and outside and especially how they relate to ideas about authenticity concern me both as a working folklorist in the field and as a teacher of folklore and literature in the classroom. (1) The ongoing critique and revision of the ethnographic project, mostly viewed in terms of authorship of representational texts and also in terms of how these texts instantiate and substantiate social-science authority, has focused our attention on the many failures of the ethnographic intention to get inside a community and/or its culture. (2) Examinations of Hurston's Mules and Men have contributed to this sense that the ethnographic project is doomed to failure. After all, if someone as close to her informants as Hurston was still forced to flee a fieldwork site, what does that say about those projects where the initial hermeneutical gap is all that much wider (see Dorst)?

On the literary side, Hurston's novel continues to be read mostly for its divisions as well. One of the early critical examinations of Their Eyes Were Watching God found that Hurston "weakened the plot by a careless shift of point of view" (Turner 107). More recent readings find that "the double-voiced utterance ... [, the] text's central device of naturalization, [serves] to reinforce both Janie's division [of her self] and paradoxically the narrator's distance from Janie" (Gates, Signifying 209). Other readers, too, continue to focus on the eliding of the narrator and Janie in the novel. In a kind of response, or defense of Hurston and her most famous work, feminist critics have championed "Janie's healthier and questioning fragmentation" (Lubiano 136).

These readings, and many others like them, seek out images of unity and division. Indeed, such images, and their rhetorics, dominate critical examinations of Hurston's work, whether the considerations be by literary scholars or folklorists and anthropologists. These unities or divisions are then read against the background of African American history or culture as a cultural attribute or trope. In other words, Janie's achievement of a unified voice/self or of a divided voice/self is seen as appropriately representative of the African American experience. (3) In this way, Hurston is the ultimate insider: Her divisions and elisions are defended on the basis of their being representative of African American ways of speaking and/or of the African American experience itself. As John Roberts notes, "American folklorists have traditionally studied African American folklore as a course for generating statements about the black character and/or experience in the United States" (161). Ironically, Hurston's divisions become wholenesses of a different kind, standing in for the necessarily divided self of African Americana and of women in a society and culture that privilege the white and male.

In an effort to move our critical consideration beyond reified unities or divisions, the focus of this essay is on Hurston's interest in "a body and a self that cannot be bounded or contained" (Kawash 169). …