Zora Neale Hurston: “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942)

What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like that to the world as yet. I might be like that some day, but I doubt it. I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me. So why give off the smell of something dead under the house while I am still in these tussling with my sword in my hand? (765)

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Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography written mostly in 1941. This date is important because she consciously removed much of her criticism of American imperialism after the Pearl Harbor attacks. What we end up reading is a slightly self-censored account of Hurston’s life and times. There are voluntary excisions and the edition in the Library of America has much of her earlier version. I will take a look at what she has to say about America’s place in the world later.

The autobiography is lively and interesting throughout. For me, what makes this work so interesting is the tension throughout between mobility and community. Hurston was clearly of the black South in this way. For all the clichéd images of the black South as rooted in towns, confined by Jim Crow, after slavery mobility became a way of life, not just for those who moved North but within the South as well. Hurston’s father was one of these wanderers, looking for new opportunities (and often new women). Yet at the same time, he settled in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the South, a prime example of black self-rule. We imagine that Hurston’s interest in black autonomy was inspired in large part by growing up in such a community. Hurston’s life was full of this same need for community and companionship frustrated by an opposing need to explore the world, seek out new opportunities, and develop her abilities. Whether it was going from job to job in her youth, fleeing her step mother, or escaping an ill-conceived marriage Hurston was often on the move. I wonder if her ability to navigate the world was based on her foundation in the strong community of Eatonville. As we see again and again in American literature, individual freedom and the enduring community are really two sides of the same coin.

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The strong sentiment throughout the book if Hurston’s dedicated individualism. She was quite conscious of his this individualism was becoming more difficult to maintain in the face of an emerging black rights movement in America. She speaks of this tension from time to time in the book, especially in a chapter “My People! My People!” In this chapter she talk about her love of black people, but also what she saw as their failing, including that of the educated black middle class, who she accused of trying to find their place in white America. I wonder if much of this attitude comes from that fact that her childhood was largely in an all-black town. She lived there until she was thirteen, so she did not experience the day-to-day discrimination and violence that so many others experienced. Here is a bit of what she had to say about this:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measures of what was inside people. So none of the Race clichés meant anything anymore. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no cures in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white. I saw no benefit in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief. (731)

She concludes by getting right too it. “Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearance and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” (733) What is only slightly hidden under this is that once you get rid of that quest to find a voice of the people, you are left with that individualism and the claim we seem to come to is that it was only possible given a strong community solidarity.

Dust Tracks on a Road is in roughly three parts. The first five chapters deal with Hurston’s childhood and the emergence of her curiosity about literature, writing and folklore. This awakening in her mind is her major focus in these chapters, along with the history of her father and his arrive in Eatonville. The next five chapters deal with her education and the maturation of her career. She got a late start due to poverty and the need for work, but through the help and inspiration of some important teachers and thinkers her career took off and she began her field work on African-American folklore. The final five chapters deal with different topic such as Hurston’s views on religion, race, love, and literature.

Although Hurston is most well-known for her study of black folklore and her novels about black life, she was inspired in her youth by folklore around the world. She was given texts by some white teachers passing through. It created for her an image of the ideal individual. It seems that this fed into her overall promethean individualism. “In a way this early reading gave me great anguish through all my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots, were not the tasks of Hercules. I wanted to be away from the drabness and to stretch my limps in some mighty struggle.” (596–596) The power of this folk literature is its ability to dream of the absolute limits of human potential. Unfortunately, for Hurston and for many others, it caused a great isolation that could only manifest in a bold individualism. (For the less creative it manifests in social awkwardness, Internet trolling, and other horrendous modern vices we need not get into.) “A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessing of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” (598)

One of the more important moments in her life was the time she spent with a dramatic troupe. It is yet another example of how community and solidarity were simply the reverse side of wandering and individualism. Detached from communities, they formed a tight-knit society on the move. Her experiences there match the tension in her father’s own life, between rootlessness and his settlement in Eatonville.

I saw thirty-odd people made up of all classes and races living a communal life. There were little touches of professional jealously and a catty crack now and then, but let sickness or trouble touch any member and the whole cast rallied around to help out. It was a marvelous thing to see. There were a few there from good families and well-to-do homes who slept in shabby hotels and made meals on sandwiches without a murmur. From what they said and did, you would think they were as poor as the rest. (664)

The wandering troupe seemed to abolish class distinctions within their own community.

I want to leave this with a look at one of the chapters that did not make it into the final text, “Seeing the World As It Is.” This was the original final chapter, but was cut due to editors opposition to her international commentary. This must have had something to do with the outbreak of World War II, but I wonder if the editor would have been so insistent that Mark Twain remove anti-imperial commentary from his autobiographical works for the same reason. The deleted chapter provides a much more focused and direct attack on “Race Solidarity,” which she saw as a presumptuous attempt to unify black people’s thinking and political perspectives. In addition she finds the leaders who promote “racial solidarity” (she calls them “Race Men”) are odious and opportunistic. There are some unfortunate aspects to this, such as her insistence on rejection of worried about the past. This seems to contradict the evidence she provides in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which show how history does have an impact on how people see their place in the world. Poverty played a role in Hurston sitting out the 1950s for sure, but we see here that she concerns about a struggle based on “racial solidarity.” Although her opinions almost certainly emerged in the context of a an all-black, self-governing community her cultural upbringing was interracial, indeed global.

The rest of the deleted chapter “Seeing the World As It Is,” attacks US hypocrisy in the international arena. We can understand almost at once why it could not appear in print in 1942. “The Unite States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. [. . .] But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.” (791) She associates the Nazi conquest of Europe with colonialism, showing that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” are as hypocritical as the Wilsonian demand for national self-determination. In the end, the “four freedoms” were a form of white privileges. Pearl Harbor was long enough ago that I think we can safely read this chapter for what it was, an obvious declaration of the reality of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, something well known now.

 

 

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

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Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.

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Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.