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Mules and Men: An E-Text Edition


There has been no greater tragedy in the construction of the American literary canon than the twenty year banishment of Zora Neale Hurston to the "Dustbin of History." In a career that spanned three decades Hurston published four novels, two collections of folklore, an autobiography, and no fewer than forty articles and essays on topics ranging from "How it feels to be Colored Me" to "Crazy for this Democracy." 

During the first twenty years of her career, Hurston's work met with great interest. Yet, from the mid fifties until the late seventies Hurston and her work were virtually forgotten, her books were out of print and she appeared as a mere footnote to studies of African American literature. Her last few years found Hurston working as a maid for a white woman who found out about her domestic's literary talents when she recognized her by-line in the Saturday Evening Post.

Hurston faded further into obscurity. When she died in a welfare home she was buried in an unmarked grave and many of her precious papers destroyed. 

The Many Faces of Zora Neale Hurston 

The anonymity of Hurston's death sharply contrasted with the fanfare that marked the beginning of her career. As one of the highly touted "New Negro Artists" of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was welcomed to the literary world with awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, and book contracts. Yet, not until Alice Walker and Robert Hemenway individually encountered Zora, through her classic collection of African American folktales and hoodoo Mules and Men, was Hurston discovered and her work recovered for the canon. 

Who Was Zora Neale Hurston Really?

As the numerous critical editions of her work, journal articles and collections of criticism recently published signify, we currently enjoy a renaissance of interest in Hurston's work. During the past twenty years numerous critics and scholars have gone, as Alice Walker famously did, "Looking For Zora," and though they sucessfully recovered her voice and have discovered much about her life and work, no one has definitively found her.

 Zora Neale Hurston was often  contradictory. She could at one time protest the "arse-an-all" of democracy and support the highly conservative Robert Taft (Crazy For This Democracy,) . She was both disgusted by a culture that created white primitive seeking patrons and simultaneously allowed herself to be patronized, and to some degree controlled, by the wealthy Charlotte Osgood Mason.

Characterizations of Hurston respond to these contradictions and cast her in disparate roles. Through Alice Walker's eyes, Hurston emerges as a mother figure and midwife of contemporary African American Women's writing, a women who restored to African Americans the wealth of their folk culture, and recovered for popular use illiterate voices that without her would have remained unheard. In critics such as Nathan Huggins view, Hurston's penchant for performance and her ability to cloak herself in various roles, from bootlegger to graduate student, cast her in the tradition of the minstrel who pandered to white patrons. 

More than anything Zora Neale Hurston was the worlds greatest liar and her own duplicity explains why for so long she was lost to us. Throughout her life she lied about her age, her place of birth, and often times her identity. She cloaked herself in the garbs of the many different identites that she created for herself and recounted in her work.

Her upbringing explains Hurston's penchant for lying. In her hometown of Eatonville, Hurston was brought up in a culture in which lying, i.e. folk tale telling, was an artform. Hurston celebrated this culture of lying when she published a collection of "them big ole lies" told "on the store porch" by the working class African Americans of her hometown o (Mules and Men ). Because of the centrality of  lying to any exploration of Hurston's work this site focuses on this collection of lies, Mules and Men and uses this text to demonstrate how Zora Neale Hurston used "lies" in order to redeem and recover the voice of working class African Americans.

Mules and Men

Currently, online treatments of Hurston's work mimic the canon's early dismissal of her. Although a few well constructed sites devoted to Hurston herself exist, as of now no critical account of her work appears.In keeping with the tradition of Hemenway and Walker's rediscovery of Hurston, this site hopes to begin to fill this vacuum by providing an e-text of Mules and Men, arguably Hurston's most important contribution to African American culture. Documenting the folktales and hoodoo practices of southern blacks in the 1930's Hurston captures a culture that overcomes the adversity of poverty,racism,and sexism by, in her words "hitting a straight lick wid a crooked stick"(Mules and Men).

But more than provide an optimistic account of the lives of working class southern blacks, Mules and Men argues for the re-evaluation of the black folk aesthetic on its own terms. In an age of African American literature when black artists were encouraged to "put their best foot forward" in the form of acceptable, middle class characters Hurston squarely defined that best foot as belonging to the lower classes of blacks from which came the blues, jazz, folktales and folk songs. Mules and Men testifies to Hurston's belief that "folk were creating an art that didn't need the sanction of art to affirm its beauty"(Hemenway 54). 

Mules and Men is still a complex and controversial text today because, as Barbara Johnson states, it "is a book with multiple frames"(Johnson p. 66). Any reading of the text must therefore account for these various frames. This site hopes to do so by providing an account of a few of the innumerable ways in which  Mules and Men  may be read.

Hurston casts her herself in many roles as she endeavors to find herself by returning home to Eatonville and becoming immersed in the culture of lies that as a child she failed to appreciate.    This site examines the role of  Hurston's "I"  as she travels throughout Florida and New Orleans in a process of self-discovery. AlthoughMules and Men is not an autobiography Hurston employs devices inherent to that genre in order to tell the tales and sing the songs of  "the Negro farthest down" (Dust Tracks On A Road, ) 

Hurston credits her "Spyglass of Anthropology" with granting her the vision to see the value of the culture of lies in which she grew up. This site will futher examine the complex relationship between Hurston the anthropologist and the construction of the  text. 

Ultimately, Mules and Men may be read as Hurston's own folk performance. By playing the role of the bootlegger in Polk County, and the Hoodoo initiate in New Orleans, Hurston becomes an intextricable part of the performances that she seeks to record. This site chronicles Hurston's various performances throughout the text in an effort to discover Hurston's relationship both to her text and to her audience. 

Many individuals were responsible for the production of  Mules and Men and their involvement further complicates any reading of the text. This site scrutinizes the relationship between Hurston's patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, and the creation of the text. As Hurston's financial backer, Mason's influence can not be overstated and in some critical interpretations, Mules and Men forms Hurston's performance for her primitive seeking patron. Hurston's work was inseperably tied to her life and a futher section of this site will examine Hurston as an individual.

The initial frame provided by the text is the preface written by Franz Boas. A section of this site will also examine the ways in which Boas' ideas and teachings affected Hurston's work.

The illustrator of the text, Miguel Covarrubias, deserves a web site all to himself.A limited treatment of Covarrubias looks into the relationship between the illustrations and the text. 

More than merely providing the e-text of Mules and Men, this site documents the world recorded by Hurston through augmenting the text with elements unavailable to the medium of the original work. Visitors will find both  Hurston's recordings of the folksongs that appear in the text and photographs documenting her folklore
collecting trips. 

Future Chapters 

Although Mules and Men is a finished product this site will hopefully serve as the first of many additions to a fuller database devoted to Hurston's texts. The work of Miguel Covarrubias also deserves a more extensive treatment than this production allows. Although this site examines many of the frames of Mules and Men  , many more exist and hopefully will one day appear here.  Hurston's status as the mother of contemporary African American women writers alone suggests the necessity of opening up the web for her work. Hurston deserves a place on the academic net. Its time we put her here.

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