Hurston wrote Moses, Man of the Mountain between 1937 (when Their Eyes Were Watching God was published) and 1939. She had already written about Moses in a short story, “The Fire and Cloud,” in which Moses fakes his death and, sitting on his grave, describes to a lizard his deliverance of the Hebrews from bondage (Challenge 1). The figure of Moses had long played (and continues to play) a significant role in African-American culture, from sermons of black preachers, including Hurston’s father, to the poem, Moses, A Story of the Nile (by Frances Harper, 1869), to black spirituals such as “Tell Ole Pharaoh to Let My People Go,” to Go Tell It on the Mountain (by James Baldwin, 1952), and to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s allusion to Moses in his famous speech “I See the Promised Land.”
Hurston’s Moses has received, at best, mixed reviews over the years. Critic Robert Hemenway finds the novel limited because Hurston is “unable to find a consistent tone” in her treatment of Moses (260); Lillie P. Howard writes that “the book falls short of its mark” (132). Among critics, John Lowe, Timothy Caron, and Deborah McDowell seem to be most aware of the power inherent in Hurston’s fanciful retelling of the biblical story of Moses.
Hurston “reconfigures ‘bone by bone’ ” the black folk hero of Moses, the great cultural figure who delivers southern Blacks from bondage into the promised land of freedom (Caron 47). She does this by reinterpreting the biblical Moses, transforming him into a great conjurer/hoodoo man. Conjurers tell stories that attempt to explain the riddles of life; such storytellers often deal