Small Presses Special - Go Gator and Muddy the Water

Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings from the Federal Writers Project

Zora Neale Hurston, edited

Like a character in a folk tale, Zora Neale Hurston had a habit of disappearing. As a young woman she fled her brother's home to join a travelling Gilbert and Sullivan company as personal maid to one of the actresses. While working on a doctorate in anthropology at Columbia University in the early 1930s, she was fond of taking long trips south to do fieldwork. Staff at the Roosevelt administration-sponsored Federal Writers Project (FWP) - which employed Hurston to write the essays collected here - also had to endure her frequent disappearances.

Hurston relished her ability to make herself vanish. In interviews and in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road (1942), she invented personal details that obscured her past. "I was born in Eatonville, Florida. I am 35 years old," she told an interviewer in June 1939. In fact, she was born in a sharecropping area of Alabama, not the all-black town of Eatonville. She was 48 in 1939.

Her best known absence is the one that succeeded her death. Famous by 1940 as an anthropologist and novelist (her great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937), she had disappeared from the public gaze by the end of the decade. In 1950 she was discovered working as a maid in Miami, and she died penniless in 1960 in a welfare home in St Lucie County, Florida. She was buried in an unmarked grave. For two decades her books were hardly read at all.

Then Alice Walker, in 1975, published her essay, "Looking for Zora", in which she described Hurston as an important literary influence. This prompted publishers to reprint her books, and biographers and critics to read them. It's easy enough to blame Hurston's literary disappearance on the usual suspects - the mainly white, north-eastern, male US literary establishment that first lauded her as a kind of "pet darkie" (Hurston's term), then forgot about her. It didn't help that Hurston had little support from her black male contemporaries. The novelists Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and the critic Sterling Brown savaged Their Eyes.

Disappearing may have been bad for Hurston's literary career, but it was a habit Hurston embraced, not only in her life, but also in her work. Black writers, Hurston felt, should keep their feelings about race and politics out of their work. In her 1938 essay, "Art and Such", she criticised "the Race Man and Race Woman" - writers like Wright, Ellison and Brown - who championed "the same old theme" of race politics "to the detriment of art". Rather, black writers should document "the obvious fact that Negroes love and hate and fight and play and strive and travel and have a thousand and one interests in life like other humans".

It makes sense that for her professional calling Hurston would choose anthropology. As an anthropologist she could make herself disappear both literally and figuratively. The anthropological essays, folk tales and recordings in Go Gator were the result of fieldwork done in Florida, in 1938 and 1939, under the auspices of the Florida unit of the FWP. Hurston was already a successful writer by this time, with four books, two Guggenheim fellowships and impressive academic credentials under her belt. But, like many writers during the Depression, she couldn't support herself. As a federal writer she mainly worked on two projects: adding sections on African American lore to a Florida state guidebook and preparing chapters on African American arts for a book titled The Florida Negro. This was eventually published in 1993 but most of the essays in Go Gator are published here for the first time, since the bulk of Hurston's work was cut by FWP editors uncomfortable with her ideas on race.

The essays in Go Gator are short and not the best examples of Hurston's writing style, even if occasionally her lush lyricism breaks through: "Nightly in Palm Beach, Fort Pierce, Miami, Key West, and other cities of the Florida east coast the hot drumheads throb and the African-Bahamian folk arts seep into the soil of America." More often the approach is that of the academically trained critic deciphering the structures underlying culture and language.

Most of the essays conform to Hurston's principle of objectivity; she never lists her personal grievances (which must have included an experience of institutional racism at the FWP, where she was never promoted to editor). And yet, as Pamela Bordelon points out in her helpful introductory essay and annotations, Hurston never shied away from the subject of racism. A proposal for a recording expedition into west Florida is prefaced by this folk song: "Got my knap-sack on my back/My rifle on my shoulder/Kill me a nigger 'fore Saturday Night/If I have to hunt Floridy over."

What's most interesting about these essays is the sense of racial consciousness they convey. It's subtle but strong. Hurston's technique is the modernist one of showing rather than telling, of letting images, dialogue and details speak for themselves. Again and again she selects racially charged subject matter, then retreats. It's an effective method. Conjuring tricks draw an audience's attention but when something disappears, people search for it in the traces it leaves behind. In this case, those traces are Hurston's language. Unfortunately, no one has had a chance to look at them until now.