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John Lowe’s study of all the Zora Neale Hurston novels is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing library of Hurston criticism. Two aspects of his study are especially valuable. First, he offers detailed readings of each novel in sequence, providing the most sustained critical discussion in one place of Hurston’s narrative fiction to date. Second (and more important from my viewpoint), he makes substantial use of the far flung Hurston manuscript materials, drawing both on Hurston’s explanatory comments in letters to friends and on excised [End Page 149] or unpublished manuscript material to buttress his critical arguments about the texts. The result is a very useful volume, one which must be linked with Hurston’s own texts, the still essential Hemenway biography, and the valuable recent collections Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah) and New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (ed. Michael Awkward) as the starting point for a scholar preparing to teach or write on Hurston’s fiction.
Lowe announces in both title and introduction his intention to approach Hurston through an analysis of her comedy. This label sometimes rings with new insights or the recognition of something one has always seen but somehow failed to notice, and sometimes becomes problematic. Among the intellectual constructs which this approach suggests to Lowe, one of the most illuminating is Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. There is no doubt that Hurston privileges “the discourse of the public square,” just as Lowe argues. And he is clearly right when he summarizes parallels between Hurston and Bakhtin as here: “Bakhtin and Hurston had three major consuming interests in common: the folk and their culture, the novel, and humor’s role in human relations and language. Both writers saw that what Bakhtin would call the ‘carnivalization of language’ enabled ordinary people to subvert the formal language of the state . . . and to pull off the pompous disguises elite culture draped around its mechanisms of power and prestige.” Lowe’s linkage of this construct to parallels in “some African societies” with “special holidays of comic license” further enriches the analysis. He also makes effective use of Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, citing “the three basic operations of condensation, multiple use of the same material, and double meanings” as a way of understanding some of Hurston’s experimental techniques. The parallels from both Freud and Bakhtin provide additional support for Lowe’s insistence that Hurston belongs in the modernist experimental tradition, a viewpoint with which I completely agree. Lowe’s wide reading and well-placed allusions also enable us to see Hurston among her contemporaries—Erskine Caldwell, Charles Chesnutt, Marc Connelly, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, George Schuyler, Wallace Thurman, Louis Untermeyer, and Carl Van Vechten, to name but a few—in a way we rarely have.
More problematic are the repeated efforts Lowe makes to imply [End Page 150] that nearly all of his analysis may ultimately be linked back to the comic. In fact, his interpretive readings of Hurston valuably go far beyond what would be required for an analysis of the comic tradition in her work, and his efforts to focus them through a comic lens sometimes seem to narrow Hurston’ s range or misplace her emphasis. An illustration of this tendency appears, for example, in his comments on Hurston’s short fiction (an extremely valuable section on the whole). After describing a sketch from “The Eatonville Anthology” he concludes: “This story . . . begins Hurston’s focus on female rivalry, one of her most important examples of female humor. . . . The story also functions as a parable about the need to protect the family unit and this provides a good illustration of her willingness to overlook rather appalling violence for the sake of a laugh if it encases a moral.” Both female rivalry and appalling violence recur in Hurston’s work, but I can rarely read these passages as motivated by an attempt at humor...