Satisfy My Soul - Black Life and Nature in the Rural South of the Twenties Comes Alive in Zora Neale Hurston's Latest Resurrection from the Archive

By Lowe, John | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Satisfy My Soul - Black Life and Nature in the Rural South of the Twenties Comes Alive in Zora Neale Hurston's Latest Resurrection from the Archive


Lowe, John, The World and I


John Lowe is professor of English at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Author of Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (1994), he has published many articles and essays on African-American, southern, Native American, and ethnic literature, as well as pieces on humor and humor theory. He is currently completing The Americanization of Ethnic Humor, a cross-cultural, multidisciplinary examination of changing patterns in American comic literature.

Zora Neale Hurston, unknown even to most African Americans thirty years ago, has entered the American literary firmament; her image gazes out from bookstore murals, and her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has become one of the most-taught and best-loved novels in the African-American canon. Knowing a good thing when she sees one, Oprah Winfrey has grabbed an option to produce the movie. However, as scholars and her most dedicated readers know, Hurston was a shape- shifting, protean writer, who produced three other novels, many short stories and plays, and an impressive number of essays and reviews.

Hurston was just as devoted to anthropological studies as she was to fiction and drama, and though she never finished her Ph.D. at Columbia, where she worked under the legendary father and mother of the discipline, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, she collected African- American folklore throughout her career. She published two folklore collections, and now, after the dramatic and mysterious discovery of a third collection she left among the papers of an obscure scholar she probably didn't know, we have a third volume, entitled Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales From the Gulf States.

The latter part of the new title was original to the text; the editor, Carla Kaplan, has added the prefatory expression, drawn from one of the tales. She has also provided a short introduction that relates the material to Hurston's career, and John Edgar Wideman has contributed a moving and appropriately poetic tribute in a foreword. The book is handsomely printed and, under a see-through slipcover, sports a gorgeous painting of black folk going to church by celebrated Louisiana folk artist Clementine Hunter, very much in keeping with the new title.

This latest find at the Library of Congress can be added to the Hurston plays discovered there a few years ago, and to a previously unknown short story and a presumed-lost early play that were concurrently discovered in the pages of a sorority magazine. Every Tongue, however, must be accounted the most impressive archival trophy uncovered to date, for it provides us not just Hurston's voice, but the glorious utterances of her people.

The 'spyglass of anthropology'

Readers who only know Their Eyes may be surprised by the new book, which came out of its author's scholarly activities. These efforts seem to contradict the legend of Hurston as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance during the twenties. Her studies at Morgan State and Howard had led her to New York, where she had snagged a scholarship to Barnard; there she soon became, in her words, their "sacred black cow."

She spent her days in classes and her nights in Harlem, where her down- home stories, performed with style and a wicked sense of wit, endeared her to rising young talents such as Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent. She called their clique "the Niggerati" and joined them in literary competitions sponsored by racial uplift magazines such as The Crisis and Opportunity. These contests led to the publication of her second play, The First One (an African-American version of the myth of Noah's son Ham), and a fourteen-segment sketch, "The Eatonville Anthology," her first setting of folk-inspired tales from her Florida hometown.

Eventually, Hurston and some of the younger writers grew impatient with the admonitions of the Renaissance's elder statesmen, such as Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and W. …

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