- The Politics and the Poetry of Endurance
Anyone who has ever introduced a class to Their Eyes Were Watching God can recall the shocked faces of at least some of the students when they learn the circumstances of Hurston's death in 1960. Everything optimistic and irrepressible in her writing, those faces seem to say, argues against Hurston's consignment to a then unmarked grave and an obituary in the Fort Pierce News Tribune describing Janie Crawford's creator as "penniless and almost forgotten." The altered status of Their Eyes, condemned by Richard Wright and Sterling Brown among others of Hurston's contemporaries, illustrates the broader contention of M. Genevieve West's impressive new study, Zora Neale Hurston & American Literary Culture: the story of Hurston's literary reputation is the story of "American literary culture and of the almost invisible process of canon formation." While she acknowledges the problematics of the reception theory that guides her examination of literary culture, West reconstructs a convincingly complex "horizon" of readerly "expectations" from the 1920s to the present day and demonstrates how its changing textures have conditioned the reception of Hurston's work.
She achieves this convincing reconstruction, in part, by providing a more comprehensive and nuanced reading of responses to Hurston's work than have prior studies of Hurston's marginalization. These tended [End Page 128] to focus on single aspects of Hurston's style—her use of humor or penchant for indirect critique—or on her flamboyant personality and repudiation of traditional gender roles to explain her literary fall from grace. Beginning with the literary culture of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, West reads Hurston's reviews as "texts, rather than documents," ones that "dialogically engage the larger public discourses of the time" on race, politics, and gender. The works to which Hurston's were frequently compared in these reviews—appearing in both mainstream publications and others with a more explicit political agenda like New Challenge, Opportunity, and New Masses—also reveal, says West, the unspoken biases through which Hurston's work was evaluated. For example, positive white comparisons of early works like Mules and Men to Uncle Remus or Jonah's Gourd Vine to Marc Connelly's "humorous, condescending treatments of blacks and religion" in Green Pastures were answered by black critics, who viewed Hurston as pandering to white audiences more comfortable with comic or primitive depictions of black culture than with the characters and plot lines emerging in the novels of the protest tradition. Hurston's persistent use of black folkloric stereotypes and the black vernacular, says West, reinforced this perception. When Hurston deviated from the norms of black autobiography by failing to document the racism of her past in her 1942 Dust Tracks on a Road, this further affirmed the earlier suspicions about her lack of artistic and personal integrity.
While West certainly factors in the influence of Hurston's personality, the most innovative of all the strands through which she recreates the construction of Hurston's literary persona is her analysis of the marketing strategies used by Lippincott, publisher for six of Hurston's seven books. The book covers, the summaries on the front and black flaps, as well as the critical commentary selected for advertising campaigns lead West to conclude that "at best the publisher was ignorant of black life," and "at worst [it] deliberately manipulated racist stereotypes . . . in order to attract white readers." Her analysis of these documents mediating between Hurston and her readers supports West's general conclusion: Hurston's marginalization was driven by "concerns about her character and the way in which racist white readers could manipulate her work to support their agendas." This thorough contextualization of Hurston's reception in the 1920s and 1930s lays the groundwork for understanding why her more pointedly political articles and essays written in the 1940s and 1950s were largely dismissed by influential black critics. Despite revealing the...