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Mules and Men:Ways of Seeing Past, Present, and Future

Like all of Hurston's texts critics have read Mules and Men in a wide variety of ways. Critical responses have ranged from Alice Walker's claim that Mules and Men "was this perfect book" to Sterling Brown's accusation that Hurston's work lacked the necessary bitterness and hence consciousness of the "race problem" needed to accurately depict southern black life (Brown). While some of Hurston's contemporaries went so far as to catalogue the text as a psuedo minstral show, the performance of a "literary climber," who hoped to present the white reading audience with happy go-lucky black people in the vein of Uncle Tom (Hemenway 222).

Other disputes centered on questions of genre.While famed folklore collector Alan Lomax termed Mules and Men"the most engaging, genuine, and skillfully written book in the field of folklore," other sociologists rejected the first person construction of the text, and the obvious importance allotted to Hurston's own journey throughout (Hemenway 6).

This section of the e-text provides an analysis of the different ways that critics read Mules and Men.

When an author descibes her race in such servile terms as 'Mules and Men' critical members of the race must necessarily evaluate the author as a literary climber."

Harold Preece, 1936

Hurston knew that black folklore did not arise from a psychologically destroyed people, that in fact it was proof of psychic health. As she put it , the folk knew 'how to hit a straight lick with a crooked stick', how to devise a communicative code that could simultaneously protest the effects of racism and maintain the secrecy of that very protest."

Robert Hemenway, 1980

White and Black:Mules and Men In its Own Time

In its own time Mules and Men met with a variety of critical responses. Initially, the text found critical acclaim from white reviewers such as Lewis Gannett (New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, October 11, 1935) and H.I. Brock (The New York Times Book Review,November 10, 1935). To these readers Mules and Men served  as "a rich experience" and the best account of black folk-life "since Uncle Remus" (Gannett).For the most part white reviewers viewed the book as a portal through which they could venture into the life of southern blacks. As Brock explained "In this book a young Negro woman with a college education has invited the outside world to listen in while her own people are being as natural as they can never be when white folks are literally present"(Gannett).

Although the text was, for the most part, well received critically at the time of its publication by white reviewers, African American scholars like Sterling Brown viewed Hurston's construction of Southern black life through the all black town of Eatonville as "socially unconsious." Brown reached the conclusion that "Mules and Men should be more bitter; it would be nearer the total truth"(Brown). In an essay entitled "The Negro Folk Cult" published in Crisis by Harold Preece went so far as to accuse Hurston of pandering to the white pursuit of the primitive with depictions of "happy darkies" and characterizations of blacks through the "servile terms of 'Mules and Men.' Preece concluded that Hurston was a "literary climber" more interested in pleasing her white readership than in accurately depicting her race(Preece).

Even black critics who positively reviewed the text failed to uncover a politically or sexually subversive philosophy inside it. Benjamin Brawley's review of the text, published within his article "The Negro Genius," characterizes this response:

"Her interest is not, however, in solving problems,....As for the untutored Negro, she presents him without apology, a character as good as other characters but different. Taking a bright story wherever it may be found she passes it on, leaving to others the duty and the pleasure of philosophizing"(Brawley 12).

Although her contemporaries viewed the text in a variety of different ways, all in all they shared the same simplistic style of reading. In its own time only the surface of  Mules and Men  received critical attention and it was not until Robert Hemenway and Alice Walker's rediscovery of Hurston that critics attempted to reveal the racial and sexual politics of the text.

The Perfect Book: Contemporary Views of Mules and Men

Of all of Hurston's numerous works Mules and Men played the largest literary role in her rediscovery. It was through Mules and Men that Alice Walker and Robert Hemenway, the two people most responsible for rescuing Hurston from the "Dust Bin of History," first encountered Zora.

In 1970, Robert Hemenway, while writing an article that required "accurate material on voodoo practices," acquired Mules and Men. Although other texts had provided him with the perspectives of "a number of white, racist anthropologists and folklorists of the period" in Hurston's text he found an authenticity "verified by [Hurston's] familiarity with its context. Soothed by Hurston's "assurance that she was exposing not simply an adequate culture but a superior one," Hemenway embarked upon a rediscovery of Hurston that eventually culminated in a literary biography that signified the beginning of the Hurston renaissance that we now enjoy"(Hemenway xi). 

In contrast to the simplistic readings of Mules and Men provided by Hurston's contemporaries, Hemenway presents the text as both inherently political and subversive. In this construction the tales of Mules and Mencan be read as signifying both "a uniqueness of race spirit because they were a code of communication -intraracial propaganda-that would protect the race from the psychological encroachments of racism and the physical oppression of society" and "proof of the psychic health" of southern blacks in the face of this oppression (Hemenway p. 51).

In Hemenway's construction the title, Mules and Men,  does not signify, as Peerce had earlier concluded , that Hurston pandered to a white readership through "servile" personifications of black Americans. Rather, the title, like the stories themselves reveal a coded message about the nature of black culture. As Hemenway stated "The phrase meant not only that black people were treated as mules, but also that they were defiantly human--mules and men. Demonstrating at once both the nature of black and white relationships  , "slave:mule:beast of burden" and the ability of the oppressed to turn a "negative relationship.....into a positive identity" the title testifies to the ability of southern blacks to, in Zora's words, "hit a straight lick with a crooked stick."  Hemenway concludes that "'Mules and men" was a phrase that signified--meaning that it contained many different contexts and meanings"(Hemenway 223).

In terms of "signifying"according to Henry Gates' "Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text," Mules and Men was the first text to "represent the ritual itself" and define the trope of signifying. The glossary of Mules and Men defines "signifyin" as "showing off," verbally. In Gate's reading the frequent exchanges of Mules and Men words are used as a commodity, as Hurston states in her essay "Characteristics of Negro Expression," "language is like money" to be traded back and forth, with words changing meaning with every story.(Gates 196-7) .

In Gate's construction Mules and Men, as well as Hurston's most widely read novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a "speakerly text" whose "rhetorical strategy is designed to represent an oral literary tradition." Mules and Men glorifies the tradition of signifyin'  also termed "playin' the dozens" and testifies to the creative and highly intelligent codes of communications among illiterate southern blacks. 

The bookless may have difficuly in reading a paragraph in a newspaper, but when they get down to playing the dozens they have no equal in America, and I'd risk a sizable bet, in the whole world. Starting off in the first by calling you a seven-sided son-of-a-bitch, and pausing to name the sides, they proceed to "specify" until the tip-top branch of your family tree has been "given a reading."

Dust Tracks on a Road

 

Like Gates, Alice Walker, by far Hurston's biggest critical ally, views Mules and Men as proof of Hurston's desire to redeem black folk culture. Testing "the perfection" of Mules and Men on her various relatives Walker found that "Zora's book gave them back all the stories they had forgotten or of which they had grown ashamed (told to us years ago by our parents and grandparents-no one of whom could nottell a story to make us weep, or laugh) and showed how marvelous, and indeed, how priceless, they are." Hurston's tales revealed that African Americans were "the descendents of an inventive, joyous, courageous, and outrageous people: loving drama, appreciating wit, and most of all relishing the pleasure of each other's loquacious and bodacious company." For Walker Mules and Men testified to the characteristic of "racial health- a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings" (Walker, A Cautionary Tale p.63) 

Reading Forward: Further Readings of Mules and Men

Other critics, most notably Barbara Johnson in "Thresholds of Difference:Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston" have built upon the conclusions drawn by Hemenway, Gates, and Walker in order to further complexify thier reading of Mules and Men. Because Hurston's work virtually disappeared for twenty years critics have just begun to scratch the surface of Mules and Men. The rest of this site is devoted to providing various readings of Mules and Men through a variety of different prisms.

 

 

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