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Looking for Zora's Mule Bone: The Battle for Artistic Authority in the Hurston-Hughes Collaboration

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 6, Number 2, April 1999
pp. 79-105 | 10.1353/mod.1999.0021

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Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (1999) 79-105

In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes describes the authorship dispute that ended his collaboration with Zora Neale Hurston by insisting that theirs "was not really a literary quarrel." He discredits Hurston's claim to sole authorship of Mule Bone and denies any artistic basis for their quarrel by indicating that Hurston was motivated by irrational jealousy of another woman:

She said, yes, she had sent the play to her agent [under her name only] because she felt that if the play were ever produced I would only take my half of the money and spend it on a girl she didn't like. Besides, the story was her story, the dialogue her dialogue, and the play her play -- even if I had put it together, and she didn't want me to have any part in it. Girls are funny creatures! [BS, 332]

Although Hughes's story is misleading and self-serving, when read on a figurative level it does highlight Hurston's artistic motives for ending the collaborative relationship by recapitulating the literary strategy that caused the dispute. In the spring of 1930, when Hurston and Hughes began planning a dramatic comedy based on Hurston's short story "The Bone of Contention," Hughes structured the play around a romantic triangle, thereby displacing and altering the artistic and political themes at the center of Hurston's story. Unwilling to accept this disruption of her artistic vision, Hurston ultimately stopped working with Hughes, wrote a new version of the play, claimed sole authorship of the drama, and stopped production of the collaboratively written version.

Although Hurston succeeded in preventing production or publication of Hughes's preferred version during her lifetime, his romantic triangles have dominated the reception of the play and critical accounts of the collaboration. In 1991, Mule Bone was produced at Lincoln Center and published in a full-length version for the first time, through the advocacy of George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The cover of this edition promises "the complete story of the Mule Bone controversy," and, toward that end, includes Hughes's account from The Big Sea, Robert Hemenway's and Arnold Rampersad's accounts from their biographies of Hurston and Hughes, respectively, and numerous letters written while the play's authorship was being disputed. Both biographers focus primarily on problems of "patronage and personality," including the triangle of Hurston, Hughes, and Louise Thompson, the "girl" whom Hughes says Hurston "didn't like" (ZNH, 136). Despite assurances that Hughes's relationships with Thompson and Hurston were both platonic, Rampersad concludes that Hurston "acted like a lover spurned" when she ended the collaboration (LH, 136).

In his introduction to the Harper edition, Gates indicates that he finds Rampersad's reconstruction of the conflict most accurate, but characterizes the conflict as "a complex and bizarre incident that will forever remain impossible to understand completely, beclouded in inexplicable motivation." Gates makes no reference to Ruthe T. Sheffey's 1987 article about Mule Bone, the only critical analysis that examines the play's texts for evidence of artistic disagreement and, consequently, the only one that identifies Hughes's insertion of a romantic triangle as the cause of the Hurston-Hughes split. Sheffey demonstrates that Hughes's romantic triangle displaced Hurston's focus on religious and political power, compromising the original folk themes incorporated into "The Bone of Contention" and "negat[ing] any movement in the direction of female wholeness," a transformation that "must have justifiably enraged Hurston."

I build on Sheffey's argument by considering how Hughes's insistence on romantic triangles affected representations of artistry and authorship in the play, as well as Hurston's efforts to redefine existing notions of authorship through collaboration. Through a feminist analysis of the genetic history of Mule Bone, including two previously unexamined drafts at the Library of Congress, I will reconstruct Hurston and Hughes's writing process, reevaluate Hurston's versions of Mule Bone, and reposition Hurston's and Hughes's problems of "patronage and personality" in relationship to ideological disputes about definitions and representations of authorship, artistry, and authority.

Constructing Collaborative Authority

On 12 April 1928, Hurston wrote Hughes from Florida, initiating...


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