I’m sure you know, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an influential Black American woman writer and anthropologist whose most famous novel is Their Eyes were watching God (1937). Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) was her first. I have been aware of her for some time – three or four years – as she comes up pretty regularly on Melanie’s blog, Grab the Lapels.
“The novel is semi-autobiographical, describing the migration of characters, similar to her parents, from Notasulga, Alabama to her long-time home of Eatonville, Florida” (Wiki). That’s an interesting statement, as the beginning of the novel feels as if it is in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-65), compared with Hurston’s birth year 1891.
When Old Massa wuz drivin’ you in de rain and in de col’ – he wasn’t don’ it tuh he’p you ‘long. He wuz lookin’ out for hisself. Course Ah was twelve years old when Lee made de big surrender ..John’s mother talking to his father (p. 5)
John Buddy is 16 here and his mother was probably 16 when she had him, so we’re talking 1885, which until I “did the math”, is later than I expected. Don’t you love how she dates the abolition of slavery from “de big surrender”. Ned, John’s father, drives his children “in de rain and in de col'”, sharecropping for poor white landholders in backwoods Alabama, who inevitably steal his share of the crop. In these opening pages we learn that John is Ned’s stepson, that his father is white, and that he is physically big. When Ned takes a whip to his wife, John knocks him down and leaves to seek his fortune on the other side of Big Creek, at the Pearson property where his mother was from.
Although you might think that other characters – friends, neighbours, family – might play a part, they soon drop off, this is entirely John’s story – fictionalised biography, not autobiography. Hurston never speculates about John’s parentage, but on his arrival at the Pearson estate, we see that he is about Pearson’s build, he is warmly welcomed, and he takes Pearson as his surname. There, he begins attending school, sees a railway train for the first time, learns slowly to read and write, works his way up into positions of responsibility, joins the choir to be near very smart twelve year old Lucy Potts whose father is an independent landowner, and is set upon by all the buxom teenage girls.
He has to go away for a while to help out his stepfather. He exchanges notes with Lucy, is soon back and they are walking out under the strict supervision of Mrs Potts who has promised her to another old farmer. And when Lucy turns 16 they are married.
They start having children, John is forever giving into the buxom girls and women who continue to beset him (Zora doesn’t apportion much blame to her father). He is obliged to leave the Pearson place and with a considerable gift from old Pearson, John makes his way to Florida where he becomes a powerful gospel preacher. Now, that’s enough of the story. If you really want to know, when John is old he drives his new Cadillac in front of a freight train, and that’s the end of him.
The importance of this work is of course the first hand account of the post-slavery years in the South, but more than that, it is the beauty and originality of the language. This is not some heavy handed Peter Carey reconstruction (Ned Kelly, Jack Maggs), but a poet writing as she and the people around her speak.
The rhythms of John’s preaching, the rhythms of their partying and dancing are the rhythms of Africa –
Furious music of the little drum whose body was still in Africa, but whose soul sung around a fire in Alabama. Flourish. Break.
Ole cow died in Tennessee
Send her jawbone back to me
Jawbone Walk, Jawbone Talk
Jawbone eat wid uh knife and fork.
Aint Ah right?
Ain’t I right? Yeah!
Hollow-hand clapping for the bass notes. Heel and toe stomping for the little one. Ibo tune corrupted with Nango. Congo gods talking in Alabama.
As it happens, the book I read and wrote up before this one was Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel (to be posted in January). Stead’s protagonist is a German-Swiss, the guests are English, French, Swiss, Italian and the maids have their own language from whichever region of Italy they are from. So I’ve been thinking a lot about rendering language into English, which of course is a problem here too in Australia.
I love Hurston’s approach: This is the way we speak, suck it up!
It is very easy – and far too common – to dismiss non-received English as Pidgin. But Hurston demonstrates that yes, poor Black Americans must speak some English to communicate with their masters/employers, but also that they have language histories of their own, to which they will not let go.
Before he is made to leave Alabama, John often leads the prayers –
John never made a balk at prayer. Some new figure, some new praise-giving name for God, every time he knelt in church. He rolled his African drum up to the altar, and called his Congo Gods by Christian names. One night at the altar-call he cried out his barbaric poetry to his ‘Wonder-workin’ God so effectively that three converts came thru religion under the sound of his voice.
But in the end, John is a weak vessel, not worthy of Lucy, boastful and heedless of Lucy’s greater wisdom. Lucy, in fact would have been a much more interesting subject. And I hope a least one of Hurston’s other novels has a female protagonist. Eatonville, Florida was an all-Black town, indeed Pearson was for a while mayor, and Hurston was able to grow up as her mother intended, away from prejudice. John and Lucy’s children play such a small part in the story that I didn’t take the time to work out which one of them she was.
This is a fascinating story, of a flawed man, written with great poetry. There is an Introduction, written by someone I don’t know, about the influence Hurston had on that person, so I skipped it. But I will be looking for more.
Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, first pub. 1934. This edition Virago, London, 2020. 215pp.