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  • Ethnics and Ethnographers:Zora Neale Hurston and Anzia Yezierska1
  • Lori Jirousek (bio)

In the early twentieth century, the new social science methods of participant-observation and social survey promised to yield an unprecedented depth of information through sustained direct contact between researcher and subjects.2 Approaching social scientific study as both observer and observed, two ethnic American writers, Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American migrant from the rural South, and Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, offered unique perspectives on these new methods. Specifically, they challenged participant-observation—the practice of living among, observing, and recording a studied culture and its member informants—and the resulting text, ethnography.

When Hurston developed her 1935 African-American folklore collection Mules and Men, she produced a hybrid text that transcended mere ethnography.3 Preparing the manuscript, Hurston wrote to her mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, "full of tremors," fearing he would refuse to write the preface to a book containing so much "unscientific matter." To persuade him, she insists that the "conversations and incidents" that contextualize the folk tales "are true" ("To Franz Boas," 30 August 1934). This conflict between narrative and ethnographic truth also plagued Hurston's contemporary, Anzia Yezierska, who similarly diverged from the ethnographic standards of her mentor, the philosopher and educator John Dewey. Yezierska's struggle to develop an ethnographic text likewise "true" to its informants emerges most explicitly in her 1932 novel All I Could Never Be, which recreates Yezierska's experience on a Dewey-led ethnographic team studying Philadelphia's Polish immigrants. The Yezierska figure, Fanya Ivanowna, challenges her Deweyesque supervisor: "I wonder if I shall ever learn your scientific method of approach. It seems to me that you must feel first what [End Page 19] people love and admire—to know them" (AICNB 80). Yezierska's comments closely mirror Hurston's remarks on a 1934 Rosenwald fellowship application, in which Hurston explains that successful ethnographic collection "must be done by individuals feeling the material as well as seeing it objectively. In order to feel and appreciate the nuances one must be of the group" (qtd. in Kaplan 165). Envisioning a thorough participant-observation, both writers suggest that overemphasizing objectivity can prevent successful ethnography.

Intervening in ethnographic exchange presented a crucial opportunity for Hurston and Yezierska to promote intercultural understanding. However, both authors felt ambivalent about the participant-observation that placed them in ambiguous relationship with their home cultures. Within their ethnographic texts, they carefully narrated the participant-observation process itself to reveal its problems and possibilities. Sometimes collaborating and other times conflicting with their ethnographic mentors, Hurston and Yezierska struggled to develop an accurate representation of their informants. The texts that these two ethnic ethnographers produced offer multiple layers of insight, illuminating different cultures, exploring standards for adequate textual representation of informants, and, overall, investigating the potentials for ethnography in ways that forecasted contemporary anthropological concerns. For Hurston and Yezierska, ethnography needed to maximize the personal involvement with informants and serve the native communities.

Often called the father of American anthropology, Hurston's mentor Franz Boas helped to found Columbia's anthropology department in 1901, and this strong advocate of participant-observation also challenged racial hierarchies and promoted cultural relativism. Hurston studied anthropology with Boas through Columbia's Barnard College, graduating in 1928, and he advised her on fieldwork among Florida's rural African Americans. Yezierska's mentor John Dewey became Boas's colleague, joining Columbia's philosophy department in 1904. Dewey emphasized empirical study of individuals and their social environment and championed self-directed education. While Yezierska graduated from Columbia's Teacher's College the year he arrived, she later would return to Columbia to audit Dewey's 1918 graduate seminar in social and political philosophy, beginning a relationship that proved pivotal both personally and professionally: Dewey-based characters surface continuously in her fiction as both mentors and romantic interests.4 Besides their institutional affiliation, the two Columbia mentors shared intellectual interests. As Dewey's biographer George Dykhuizen observes, Boas had a "marked influence on Dewey's thinking" and helped to guide him "further toward the cultural anthropology that would be such an important feature of his later philosophy" (123). Though not an anthropologist...


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