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  • Zora Neale Hurston's Herod the Great:A Study of the Theological Origins of Modernist Anti-Semitism
  • Michael Lackey (bio)

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Zora Neale Hurston, April 1935. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten.

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We have, at long last, Deborah G. Plant to thank for doing an extensive analysis of Zora Neale Hurston's unpublished manuscript, Herod the Great, a novel that would have depicted the life and times of a man who supposedly ordered the deaths of many children in an effort to kill the Christ-child, as the Gospel of Matthew records.1 Plant's fortitude in taking Hurston's Herod seriously is remarkable, especially given the critical pronouncements of prominent scholars. As Robert E. Hemenway claims, Herod indicates that late Hurston (1949-1960) was "a talent in ruins," because the "manuscript suffers from poor characterization, pedantic scholarship, and inconsistent style" (345). Carla Kaplan not only accepts Hemenway's assessment, but also extends his critique to the letters about the projected work: "It is hard to imagine how Hurston could not have known there were problems with the Herod book. Even her letters about it seem dull compared to others" (Hurston, Letters 602). To counter such uncharitable judgments, Plant skillfully illustrates how Hurston's Herod is an extension and amplification of ideas found in her earlier works, specifically Moses, Man of the Mountain. If Hurston's Moses challenges the Old Testament version of the ancient Hebrew leader by suggesting that Moses was actually an Egyptian, Hurston's Herod challenges the New Testament version of the baby-murdering tyrant by suggesting that he was actually a forerunner of Christ. Therefore, according to Plant, Moses and Herod are great works because they intelligently and honestly portray the ideal human—"Herod, like Moses, was representative of Hurston's ideal individual" (Zora 138)—and convincingly challenge accepted versions of history: "Hurston was audacious in her heroic conception of King Herod. She certainly had to be self-reliant given the seemingly universal condemnation of this man. Original in thought, she had to be bold in spirit as she created a work that defied history" (Zora 142).

In essence, Plant exposes the faulty assumptions that allowed Hemenway and Kaplan to dismiss Hurston's late work. Quoting a fragment of an undated letter, Plant rightly demonstrates that, rather than trying to appeal to a sympathetic audience, Hurston ultimately desired "to add to the store of human knowledge and permanent literature" (Plant, Zora 140; Kaplan 838), a situation that oftentimes placed her at odds with editors and readers. Therefore, instead of judging the work on the basis of its appeal to the readers and editors of Hurston's day, Plant urges us to determine the value of Herod on the basis of its contribution to the history of ideas and the evolution of aesthetics.

Publishing one of the introductions to Hurston's Herod, I contend, will not only demonstrate that Plant's valuation of Hurston's late work is in large measure right, but it will also enable us to make sense of some of Hurston's earlier work. The Herod manuscript was [End Page 101] never completed, and what we have of it has suffered both water and fire damage, especially the last thirty pages. Undamaged, however, are four introductions, and the version I have selected for publication is a combination of Introduction C and Introduction D.2 It was Hurston's objectives regarding Herod as articulated most clearly in her letters about the work that have guided my selection. There are four main reasons why Hurston wanted to write a book about Herod. First, she believes that the New Testament representation (Matthew 2:1-23) was a horrid distortion. By presenting Herod "against the back-drop of his time and customs" (Introduction C 1), Hurston holds that she can give readers "the real, the historical Herod, instead of the deliberately folklore Herod" (Preface B 1) of the Bible. Second, Hurston argues that an accurate depiction of Herod would ultimately expose the dominant view of Christianity, which claims that Jesus Christ is God, as both historically false and politically dangerous. Third, Hurston asserts that an accurate representation of Herod...


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