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Modernism/Modernity 7.3 (2000) 471-485

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Zora Neale Hurston and the Federal Folk

David Kadlec


When Zora Neale Hurston published her now-celebrated novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937, a handful of critics objected to its feathery characterization of rural southern African Americans. Richard Wright was among those who urged Hurston to attempt a more "serious" and politically responsible portrayal of black life in America; and Alain Locke advised her to tone up her "surface[y]" "folklore" narratives with hard-hitting "social document" techniques. 1 It would be a stretch to suggest that Hurston turned to the Federal Writers' Project in 1938 in an effort to answer Wright's and Locke's appeals to social realism and the gritty substance of the modern document; the production of a federally subsidized tour guide can hardly have been the sort of social project that her critics had in mind. Still, it was in her position as an editor of the American Guide Series book, Florida (1939), that Hurston first came to try her hand at documentary writing. Her contributions to the Florida guide are scant, but they are characteristically complex. The "Negro spirituals and secular tunes" that she recorded and transcribed for Florida may not be as "authentic" as they seem; and their uncertain status as documented "folk" materials suggests that, despite the progressive efforts of many who participated in the Federal Writer's Project, Hurston's conceptions of "culture" clashed with the varieties of culture fostered by the governmental documentary projects of the late 1930s.

The state and regional guides produced by the Federal Writers' Project did more than feed and clothe writers during the Depression. They also promoted new varieties of national pride during a decade rife with radical political sentiment. As the art historian and theorist John Tagg has noted, the liberal Roosevelt [End Page 471] administration compiled its massive factual and photographic archives in an effort "to retrieve the status of Truth in [liberal governmental] discourse." This "Truth" status had been "threatened by crisis," and its "renegotiation was essential if . . . national and social identities [were to be] resecured" in a manner that served both corporatist and state interests. 2 As part of a widely praised effort to provide a documentary "roadmap for the cultural rediscovery of America from within," the 378 books and pamphlets of the American Guide Series provided more than a compilation of the "raw cultural material" of myth and fact. 3 They also functioned as the popular literary vanguard of a project that shaped radical dissent toward the imperatives of liberal reform.

The publications of the American Guide Series served both informational and commercial purposes. Richard Wright's "sociological" contributions to the Illinois project, for example, laid a groundwork for the stories that he later published in Uncle Tom's Children. The gap between the informational and commercial directives of the Federal Writers' Project can be measured in the interval between the Guide Series' Florida and Alabama projects. Hurston had traveled extensively through these contiguous states when she gathered data for her studies of rural southern African American culture in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the divergent Alabama and Florida guides therefore offer an apt index of the imperatives that bore down upon the native Floridian who later undertook government-sponsored documentary work. Although Hurston did not participate directly in the making of the 1941 Alabama guide, this book does list Hurston's Mules and Men (1935) among its bibliographical sources, and it contains a short but notable account of Cudjo Lewis, the recently deceased African slave from the Mobile area whom Hurston had interviewed for her as yet unpublished book-length study, "Barracoon." 4

Of the two southern state guides, the Alabama guide is renowned for its unsentimentalized portrayal of the Deep South's violent settlement. The Roosevelt scholar William Leuchtenburg, for example, singles out the Massachusetts and Alabama state guides for their exemplary historical analysis and writing. "Though the [Guide Series] writers labored under some constraints," Leuchtenburg claims, "their comments could be unsparing." Offering an example of such sharp commentary...


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