Uncle Tom's Children Revisited
Ward, Jerry W., Jr., Papers on Language & Literature
Revisiting Uncle Tom's Children seventy years after its initial publication in 1938, we can profit from recalling a pithy exchange between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston in the form of book reviews. Wright put himself in conversation with Hurston, as it were, when he published "Between Laughter and Tears," a combined review of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Waters Turpin's These Low Grounds, in the October 5, 1937, issue of New Masses. His evaluation of these novels was less than favorable. Wright thought Turpin lacked artistic strength and passion, and Hurston was too willing to satisfy the "chauvinistic tastes" of a white audience (76). It is yet to be discovered whether Turpin ever published a response, but Hurston had a fine opportunity to repay Wright in kind when she reviewed Uncle Tom's Children under the title "Stories in Conflict." Her evaluation of the collection of stories in the April 2, 1938, issue of Saturday Review of Literature was equally less than favorable. A brief comparison illuminates the incompatible views Wright and Hurston had of literature's function in early twentieth-century American society.
Wright was very critical of what he deemed Hurston's sentimentality, her exploration of the human heart at the expense of ignoring the strong impact systemic racism might have had on the characters who peopled her novel. Hurston in turn was critical of Wright's preoccupation with race hatred, for she noted the entire work was devoid of human sympathy (3). What seemed new in Wright's stories, Hurston suggested, was his exploitation of "the wish-fulfillment theme," the popular notion that the hero gets his man. Wright's apparent fidelity to "the picture of the South that the communists have been passing around of late" (4) was regrettable. Hurston had no sympathy for the restrictions Marxist ideas might impose on creativity or for the possibility that Communist doctrine deemphasized the individual responsibility she championed in her own work. Wright himself, of course, was not exactly comfortable with Marxist restrictions as he wrote the stories collected in Uncle Tom's Children.
Written in the same year he published "Blueprint for Negro Writing" in New Challenge, Wright's review expressed impatience with Hurston's "facile sensuality." He thought such sensuality had "dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley (sic)" (76). Perhaps "sensuality" was not really the word Wright was seeking, because "Long Black Song," the third story in the first edition of Uncle Tom's Children, is saturated with sensuality. I suspect he had in mind qualities of accommodation and deference, the wearing of the mask that precluded the exploration of racially motivated anger that occurs in several of his short stories. His wording "facile sensuality" betrays the political motives of his misreading of Hurston's prose. According to Wright, Hurston "voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks' laugh" (qtd. in Fabre 251). The black nationalist and proletarian traditions that Wright obviously favored displaced comedy with critique; they evoked no laughter. The conflicting perspectives we detect in the reviews by Hurston and Wright are grounded in opposing ideas about the obligation of the writer. They reflect certain anxieties about readerships and the probable impact of racial images in the early twentieth century.
Hurston and Wright had genuine reasons for concern in the late 1930s about the effects of images upon the minds of readers. In an anonymous Time magazine review of These Low Grounds and Their Eyes Were Watching God, the writer emphasized that white Northerners
sometimes find it a socially embarrassing experience to encounter the emancipated Negro, whether in Harlem or between the covers of a book. Southerners would simply disregard the equalitarian gropings implicit in such novels as These Low Grounds and Their Eyes Were Watching God; Northerners might well find in them some indigestible food for thought. …