mules and men -- 2/19/21

Today's selection -- from Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King. In 1935, Zora Neale Hurston published Mules and Men, based on folklore she collected while traveling in Florida and Louisiana. It was a resounding success and earned her a Guggenheim fellowship:

"[In 1935, Zora Neale] Hurston managed to wrench into some kind of order the sheaf of notes, transcripts, and stories she had hauled back and forth between New York, New Orleans, Eatonville, and points in between, her mind lurching from 'corn pone and mustard greens' to 'rubbing a paragraph with a soft cloth,' as she said. ... Lippincott published it in the autumn as Mules and Men. A friend of Hurston's, the Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias, provided the illustrations, with silhouetted bodies wrapped together in a juke joint scrum or with hands raised in agonized worship. After some pleading by Hurston -- 'I am full of tremors' in even asking, she said -- Boas agreed to write a forward, just as he had done for [Margaret] Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. He praised Hurston's book as the first attempt anyone had made to understand the 'true inner life of the Negro.'

"Folklorists had previously thought they were getting at the hidden essence of a community, but what they often ended up with, Hurston believed, was offhand pleasantries and made-up tales. It was little more than lint-rolling passed off as science. Mules and Men was the first serious effort to send a reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps -- not as an observer but as a kind of participant, as Hurston had been. Since 1927 she had spent more time on the Gulf Coast than Boas, Mead, and Benedict had ever spent in their own field sites. She wrote from the perspective of someone eager to hold up the entire tapestry of local culture, with its stories and dialects, its insults and wisecracks, as a work of communal genius that could be understood as well as appreciated. 

"She hadn't returned to her 'native village,' as she called it, in order to flaunt 'a diploma and a Chevrolet.' Rather, she wanted to comprehend a way of life that had been too close to her before she started off northward, a culture in which she had swum ever since she had 'pitched headforemost into the world.' Folklore was 'the boiled down juice of human living,' she would later say, and on page after page, she joined in on the boiling-down. She abandoned grammatical detachment and used the first person to tell of meeting people, talking to them, even narrowly escaping a knife fight, the dust roiling behind her car as she sped out of town. ... 

"Hurston wrote about Eatonville and Loughman, with their loggers and turpentine boilers, bootleggers and juke crowds, in the past tense -- ran, hollered, fell, cut. She was offering readers a creative, interpreted record of things she had witnessed and heard about, with her informants situated in time and space. She communicated her science exactly the way she had performed it: as a conversation in which she, the observing intelligence, was also part of the action. She was making data, not just gleaning it, and she wanted the reader to understand that fact. In doing so, she put on permanent display one of the deepest of Boasian messages: that all cultures change, even while anthropologists are busy trying to write up their field notes about them. 

"Mules and Men was a collection of sorts, organized into two sections, one on folktales and another on folk religion, or hoodoo. Her prose didn't just repeat other people's stories -- about romantic courtships and the origins of race, about the hidden lives of animals or the interminable conflicts between Baptists and Methodists. It actually took you straight into a sweaty room, with flies buzzing and liquor being passed around the circle. It was a grand unspooling, the stories arranged not so much by chronology or theme as by their own poetic imagery. A single word from one story might suggest a new one on an entirely different theme, the way one storyteller would pick up where another had left off. 'Ah know another man wid a daughter,' someone would say, or 'I know about a letter too,' and you'd be away on another tale, one flowing into the next. 

"Folklore wasn't about exposing some hidden essence of a society, Hurston realized, but about the way real people interact with one another, over time, repeatedly, in a long arc of conversations, fights, and reconciliations. Stories get told by people, and those people are in places, together. 'Many a man thinks he is making something when he's only changing things around,' she wrote. The basic logic of legends, tales, and folkways was not to suspend them in time but rather to try to communicate to a reader an appreciation for storytelling as a communal act: the slipper logic, the quiet genius of taking a sliver of someone else's account of the world and conjuring it into your own, a jazz ethic before anyone thought to call it that. 

"'I think it is not saying too much to state that Miss Hurston probably has a more intimate knowledge of Negro folk life than anyone in this country,' her old instructor Melville Herskovits wrote of her after the publication of Mules and Men. But Herskovits was reading Hurston through his own academic interests. The whole point of Mules and Men, as with her growing body of published fiction, was not to talk just about black people or to embalm Negro culture for future study in a classroom. Rather, she imagined it as a grand project to confirm the basic humanity of people who were thought to have lost it, either because of some innate inferiority or because of the cultural spoilage produced by generations of enslavement.

"Hurston didn't claim to speak for all black people or to have captured some deep, essential blackness. But she knew that no one on Joe Clarke's porch thought of himself as speaking a bastardized version of English. None of those people imagined themselves to be in the dim twilight of African greatness. In Mules and Men she had tried to show, in plangent prose and revved-up storytelling, that there was a distinct there to be studied in the swampy southeastern landscape she knew from childhood -- not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive."



Charles King


Gods of the Upper Air


Penguin Random House


Copyright 2019 by Charles King


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