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The Journey of I: Mules and Men as Autobiography

Mules and Men provides an account of folk culture created by the southern black masses, yet the word "I" appears as the first word printed in the text. As discussed in the section on Anthropology, the style of narration as well as certain indiosyncracies within the folktale section of the text complicate any reading of Mules and Men as straight folklore.Although the folktales and Hoodoo rituals collected by Hurston form the bulk of the text, Hurston's own journey provides the text with its framework. Mules and Men  contains various elements  consistent with the genre of autobiography  suggesting the significance of the  Hurston's own story to her construction of black culture. While the text is an account of black culture it is also an account of the journey of Hurston's "I" as she travels back to the land of her birth to collect the folk treasures that formed her birthright.

"When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of Negroism. From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top."
Mules and Men p.1

 

 

doll.jpg (18654 bytes) Hurston's life story plays an intregral role in the production of Mules and Men.  She chose Eatonville's inhabitants as her subject matter because by returning home she could become "just Lucy Hurston's daughter, Zora and even if I had-to use one of our down home expressions-had a Kaiser baby [Have a child by the Kaiser]...I'd still be just Zora to the neighbors."(Mules and Men) In going home, Hurston returned to the land that had provided her  with the native folk knowledge  and appreciation for the "big lies" told in front of Joe Clark's store that had provided the original impetus for Mules and Men.

In her autobiography Dust Tracks on A Road,  Hurston recounted her early experiences on the porch of Clark's store:

"I know that Joe Clarke's store was the heart and spring of the town. Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouthes. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions...For me, the store porch was the most interesting place that I could think of.I was not allowed to sit around there, naturally. But, I could and did drag my feet going in and out whnever I was sent there...But what I really loved to hear was the menfollks holding a "lying" session. That is, straining against each other in telling folktales. God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Brer Bear, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard, and all the wood folk walked and talked like natural men."

(Dust Tracks on A Road p. )

 

As she began to consider writing a collection of black folklore Hurston "thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the Devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John...outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer 'Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him." (Dust Tracks on  A Road p. )

Hurston begins Mules and Men by telling her own story: "I was glad when somebody told me, 'You may go and collect Negro folklore.' In a way it would not be a new experience for me. When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism..."

By framing the folk tales with her own story,   Hurtson gives Mules and Men the feel of a  travel narrative. The text is filled with both seemingly superfluous details, such as "I got home and to bed and Armetta had Georgia syrup and waffles for breakfast" as well as accounts of her various initiations into different segments of black culture (Mules and Men).

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The Hurston that guides readers through Mules and Men acts both as observer and participant in the folk world she recreates.As a narrator she never uses her "I" to intervene or give judgements, except in the rare exeptions when she uses her voice to validate the culture recounted in Mules and Men. Rather her adventures go purposely without analysis.

As Robert Hemeway observes unlike an autobiographer like  Henry David Thoreau who "embarks on a voyage of spiritual discovery, Zora Neale Hurston always remains close to shore, her description directed away from the inner self toward the words of her informants" (Hemenway 165).

Hurston presents folktales and hoodoo rituals without editorial intervention. She does not point out the inherent racism directed against truly dark black women like "Gold" in chapter 2 or at the sexism directed at women throughout the book. She does not comment on the slavery-like conditions of the turpentine mill ruled by a "Ole Massa" type over-seer in Polk County.

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One of the few instances of intervention that Hurston makes in the text occurs when she validates the practice of hoodoo. Unlike the "white, racist anthropologists and folklorists of the period" who thought "blacks inferior, peculiar and comic" in their hoodoo practice, Hurston's accounts demonstrate her belief in the powers of hoodoo ("Hemenway xix). In the first chapter of the Hoodoo section Hurston explains the origins of Hoodoo before providing an account of a conversation between herself and Mrs. Rachel Silas of Sanford.

Mrs. Silas plays the role of the doubter as Hurston affirms her own belief in the faith of hoodoo:

"Do you believe in that old fogeyism, chile? Ah don't see how nobody could do none of dat work, do you?" She laughed unnecessarily. "Ah been hearin' 'bout dat mess ever since Ah been big enough tuh know mahself, but shucks! Ah don't believe nobody kin do me no harm lessen they git somethin' in mah mouth."

"Don't fool yourself," I answered with assurance. "People can do things to you. I done seen things happen."

The rare incidences when Hurston intervenes in her own narration to make judgements signify the texts attempt to redeem black folk culture. Just as she begins the Hoodoo section by affirming the value of Hoodoo as a spirituality worth studying she begins the Folklore section by asserting the cultural value of folktales.

"Ah come to collect some old stories and tales and Ah know y'all know plenty of 'em and that's why Ah headed straight for home."

"What you mean, Zora, them big old lies we tell when we're jus' sittin' around here on the store porch doin' nothin'?" He asked.

"Yeah, those same ones about Ole Massa, and colored folks in heaven, and--oh, y'all know the kind I mean."

"Aw shucks," exclaimed George Thomas doubtfully. "Zora, don't you come here and tell de biggest lie first thin. Who you reckon want to read all them old-time tales about Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear?"

"Plenty of people George. They are a lot more valuable than you might think. We want to set them down before it's too late."

Any reading of Mules and Men as Autobiography must take into account the pressures put upon Hurston by her publisher to make the book "very readable." As she revealed in a letter to Franz Boas "He [Lippincott, the Publisher] wants a very readable book that the average reader can understand, at the same time one that will have value as a reference book. I have inserted the between-story conversation and business because when I offered it without it, every published said it was too monotonous" (Hemenway 163).This letter does not make clear exactly what Hurston meant by "between-story conversation and business" but from a comparison of Hurston's 1927 article "Hoodoo in America," written for the Journal of American Folklore in the traditionally cold style of sociologists, it be assumed that Mules and Men would have remanined outside the realm of autobiography if not for the pressures put on Hurston by her publisher.

Yet, although the text's autobiographical leanings may have been publisher induced perhaps the best attribute of the test is the art with which Hurston constructs herself both in relation to her journey and to her fellow folktellers.

The initiations Hurston' undergoes in the Hoodoo section of the text provide the perfect metaphor for the journey of Hurston's "I" throughout the text. Just as she layed on a couch covered with nothing but a snake skin for three days, throughout the text Hurston must transform herself in order to attain the position of cultural insider that in Eatonville was her birthright. Hurston does this by performing a variety of different roles throughout the text. 

For a Critical Biography of Hurston See Who Was Zora Neale Hurston?

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