Zora Neale Hurston wrote her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in a little more than two months, beginning on July 1 and finishing September 4, 1933. Although she later admitted that she’d had the story in mind since 1929, she nonetheless exhibits enormous skill and dedication to her craft of writing in this novel (Hemenway 189). While it is true that Hurston’s Jonah is anovel based on her own life—more specifically on the lives of her parents, John and Lucy Potts Hurston—we should not confuse the characters and plot as exact replicas of her family or of her growing-up years. The family “history” that Hurston writes is a jumping-off place for the development of a remarkable work concerning African-American life after the Civil War in a South, and a country, undergoing rapid social and political change.
Reviews of Jonah at the time of its publication (May 1934) were generally positive, at least in the white press, which praised its language and story. At the same time, reviewers for such papers as The Times Literary Supplement and the Boston Chronicle totally misunderstood Hurston’s attempt to portray the rich creativity of her culture (Hemenway 193–94). Perhaps Opportunity and the Crisis read Jonah without the racist bias of the white press, but Estelle Felton could muster only a tepid review (4–5), and Andrew Burris saw the novel as a failure (6–7). Today, such astute readers as Robert Hemenway, Eric Sundquist, Karla Holloway, and James Lowe recognize the daring and complexity of Jonah’s Gourd Vine.