Zora Neale Hurston: “Mules and Men” (1935): Part One

Mules and Men is a beautiful work by the later Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, consisting of her ethnographic work in Northern Florida, near a sawmill town. Her contribution in this work consists mostly of collecting a significant amount of African-American folklore, but by combinging the folklore and stories with the stories, dialog, and interactions of the people who gave the stories, she enriched the narrative and shows how these stories (many of which now have a permanent place in Americana) emerged from social relations. She collected these stories beginning in 1928, but would not see them published until 1935. She was thus, not collecting these tales as part of the Works Progress Administration projects to collect oral histories of former slaves. Her original funding was private.

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Hurston’s introduction reveals some important background about why she thought it was so important to preserve these stories. Much of this may be obvious to us now. She realized that she was talking about collecting the cultural heritage of an exploited people who were told repeatability that their voice was not important to the nation. When she introduced her project, her subjects asked her with disbelief, why would anyone want to read about those “lies” (which is the term they used for this folklore). As Hurston writes: “The best source [of folklore] is where there are the least outside influences and these people, being usually under-privileged, are the shyest. They are the most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” (10) She also cuts right to what she sees as the major motif in the lore she documented: the ability to outsmart superiors and the fluid nature of social relations. This, naturally, is not really an accurate description of race relations in early 20th century America or life in slavery (where many of these stories emerged), but it suggests a deep attitude of resistance and a value that challenged the hypocritical hierarchies in American democracy. She summarizes: “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child. How even the Bible was made over to suit our vivid imagination. How the devil always outsmarted God and how that over-noble hero Jack or John—not John Henry, who occupies the same place in Negro folk-lore that Casey Jones does in white lore and if anything is more recent—outsmarted the devil. Brer Fox, Brer Deer, Brer ‘Gator, Brer Dawg, Brer Rabbit, Ole Massa and his wife were walking the earth like natural men way back in the days when God himself was on the ground and men could talk with him.” (10–11) The fact that she has to introduce John Henry directly suggests how internalized this folklore became to Americans since the 1930s.

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As James Scott suggests in The Art of Not Being Governed, there is a great power in oral cultures, an advantage that literate cultures do not have. It is actually suggested in the quote in the last paragraph. Literature cultures, Scott suggests, are bound by the texts they create. Members of literate cultures are blinkered by what they wrote down, often centuries earlier. Sure, they can reinterpret, but oral cultures are much freer to adapt texts to the new conditions. For many of the stories we read in Mules and Men, their direct use as a mental survival strategy in slavery is clear. Masters are mocked, their oppression and violence explained, and the people at the bottom of the system are able to prove their worth and turn the tables. One may even suspect that the ruling class in the old South was foolish to prevent slaves from reading, because by keeping most of them illiterate, they forced them to create their own narratives of Christianity, a much more liberating narrative.

The fact that the narrative is contested is not even that important, because it becomes the fuel for social interactions. Hurston narrators a humorous (but apparently serious) disagreement about why alligators look the way they do. We are given three different stories, each building off the last as story tellers try to improve on the last speaker. This series began earlier with discussions about other animals. Story telling (and adapting or improving on stories) was a part of community building. This is missing in cultures that share stories through the ages through books. (Yes, the library really is to quiet sometimes.)

There are many stories that can be enjoyed in this volume (around 70). There are several important motifs I came across in the book. Since these stories are liquid there is not a single analysis of any one theme, so I will not attempt to provide it here. There are some tensions pointing in certain ways but many of these have variations. The most important theme running through most of the stories has to do with shifting the nature of hierarchy. Someone on the top of a natural or artificial hierarchy is undone by someone below them. Whether it is a slave outsmarting a slave owner, a woman getting the best of a man, or even men fooling God, we find that these stories challenge social divisions, class, and caste. As a corollary to these we are often presented with bosses or masters as manipulative, corrupt, foolish, or naive. This turns the tables on the hierarchy in another way. Often this narrative is replayed in the animal kingdom.

Mules and Men should be more widely read and appreciated. I suspect that most people know Zora Neale Hurston for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and never get the chance to come across this beautiful work. In the second half of my coverage of this Mules and Men, I will talk about what she has to say about voodoo in the second part of the book and perhaps come back to some of the folklore.

 

Herman Melville, “Uncollected Prose”

“A miserable world! Who would take the trouble to make a foutune in it, when he knows not how long he can keep it, for the thousand villains and asses who have the management of railroads and steamboats, and innumerable other vital things in the world. If they would make me Dictator in North America a while, I’d string them up! And hang, draw, and quarter; fry, roast, and boil; stew, grill, and devil them, like so many turkey-legs—the rascally numskulls of stokers; I’d set them to stokering in Tartarus¬—I would.” (1204–1205)

Toward the end of the third volume of Herman Melville’s work, published by the Library of America, we find a rather hefty collection of his published writings. Unlike Hawthorne, who worked mostly in short-fiction and published many collections of his essays, Melville only put out The Piazza Tales, but in the 1850s he wrote several more stories. They are all included here, as are six of his book reviews.

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Of the book reviews, I will only highlight two, simply because they deal directly with texts this blog recently examined. Melville wrote a positive review of Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. Melville was quite impressed with Parkman’s ability to turn his trip into a vibrant examination of frontier adventures. However, he was ambivalent about Parkman’s attitude toward Indians. He noticed (who could not) that Parkman harbored many prejudices toward Indians, which seemed to make it difficult for him to accurately describe the people he lived with. Melville’s point is well-taken here. All people were barbarians once, and most still are. “Why, among the very Thugs of India, or the bloody Dyaks of Borneo, exists the germ of all that is intellectually elevated and grand. We are all of us—Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks, and Indians—sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter. . . The savage is born a savage; and the civilized being but inherits his civilization, nothing more.” (1146). Next is “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” which is less of a book review than an attempt at finding a place for Hawthorne (who Melville clearly saw as America’s greatest voice) in world literature. Like others at the time, Melville was looking for the American voice in literature and seeking cultural independence from Europe. As he concludes: “Let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this Bostonian leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England. If either must play the flunkey in this thing, let England do it, not us.” (1164) As we know, these two would become life-long admirers of each other.

Two of the stories collected here are the most notable it seems to me. “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!” (from which the opening quote derives) and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” due to their commentary on progress and inequality. The later story (really two combined sketches) is easier to see in this light for we are given a clear picture of the global division of labor. The “paradise for bachelors” is the urban professional, educated young men in London. “It was the very perfection of quite absorption of good living, good drinking, good feeling, and good talk. We were a band of brothers.” (1264) The second part of the story takes us into a horrible paper factory in New England worked by emaciated and pale young women. In this factory, the line between human and machine is blurred. “Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low, steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery—that vaunted slave of humanity—here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringely as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.” (1271) Said now, after a century of scientific management, this may seem trite, but it is hard not be to be in awe of his prescience. Combined with the first part of the story it works as a model of the exploitation of the periphery. Something to keep in mind during the so-called “holiday season.”

“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” is a much more bizarre story. It begins with a polemic against progress. “Great improvements of the age! What! To call the facilitation and of death and murder an improvement! Who wants to travel so fast! My grandfather did not, and he was no fool.” (1205) We can juxtapose this to the previous story and see their relationship, although the remainder of the story is a sometimes baffling account of men’s observations and judgments on the cowing of a cock named Trumpet. Driven to desperation, I search around for some interpretations and found it seems to have much to do with Melville’s relationship to Wordsworth, and by extension English literature itself. It seems to be a polemic for national cultural independence, but I fail to see it. I will take from it, the very convincing questioning of the absolute valuing of everything simple because it is “progress.” One character, who refused to put a price on his cock, take everyone aback. I rather enjoyed that part.

Today's Tartarus of Maids

Today’s Tartarus of Maids

“The Fiddler” is a nice story on talent, genius, criticism, and the artist. Melville’s frustrations over the commercial failings of his works come out strongly in this tale. Hautboy was a brilliant fiddler who enjoyed fame as a youth, but found happiness in obscurity. “Once fortune poured showers of gold into his lap, as shows of laurel leaves upon his brow. To-day, from house to house, he hies, teaching fiddling for a living. Crammed one with fame, he is now hilarious without it. With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king.” (1202) I suppose this was partly Melville coming to terms with the fact that he would never enjoy success as a writer. I wonder if he believed it, however. Was he truly happier in the custom’s house?

Many of these stories and even the book reviews carried with them dualisms. America or Europe. Poor man’s pudding or rich man’s crumbs. Savage or civilized. Paradise or hell. Genius or the fancies of critics. As a believer that justice can be located and measured. We need to remember that the prosperity of the rich people of the world comes at the expense of the poor. This was never far from the surface of Melville’s writings.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1835–1837)

“Votaries of the May-Pole merrily, all day long, have the woods echoes to your mirth. But be this your merriest hour, my hearts! Lo, here stand the Lord and Lady of the May, who I, a clerk of Ocford, and high priest of Merry Mount, am presently to join in holy matrimony.” (362)

In 1837, the first edition of Twice-Told Tales came out, collecting eighteen of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories. This appears to be a turning point in his life. He met his future wife in 1837 and gained the recognition of his classmate Henry W. Longfellow. Not long after, he began his work on children’s stories, which would continue throughout his life. I keep coming back to the story “Little Annie’s Ramble,” which seems to encompass so much of Hawthorne’s message. This may be lost if we focus too much on the “dark romanticism” and the sinister themes seen in “Young Goodman Brown” and other such stories. Like Philip K. Dick actually, Hawthorne fears the static and frozen world of the old, embracing the more creative, exuberant, and joyful perspective of children. From 1836 to 1837, his pace of writing slows a bit from the very impressive 1835. Partly this is due to his taking a job in Boston in a publishing company that quickly went bankrupt.

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The next ten stories I examined were “Sketches from Memory,” “The Wedding-Kneel,” “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Old Ticonderoga,” “A Visit to the Clerk of the Weather,” “Monsieur du Miroir,” “Mrs. Bullfrog,” “Sunday at Home,” and “The Man of Adamant.”

Some of these stories are centered on a marriage of some sorts and this is worth a few comments. “The Wedding-Knell” touches on something that I have examined a few times in this blog, the horror of the eternity implied in marriage. Of course, the time when people took such vows seriously is perhaps past, but the cultural assumptions are still there. The story is about the marriage of the dead, but is that not what married couples are in some ways. At least that is how they appear in popular fiction, especially romantic comedies. The story ends with the marriage, for what is to be said after that? It is the modern equivalent of “happily ever after.” In Hawthorne’s words: “‘Come, my bride!’ said those pale lips. ‘The hearse is ready. The sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be married; and then to our coffins!’” (357)

The symbolism of marriage is given a sharp edge in “The Minster’s Black Veil,” about a minister who takes to wearing a black veil in everyday life, horrifying the people around him, including his wife. With the black veil a funeral and a wedding are thematically united. “When Mr. Hooper came, the first thing that their eyes rested on was the same horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil to the wedding. Such was the immediate effect on the guests, that a cloud seem to have rolled duskily from beneath the black crape, and dimmed the light of the candles. . . .The bride’s cold fingers quivered in the tremulous hand of the bridgegroom, and her death-like paleness caused a whisper, that the maiden who had been buried a few hours before, was come from her grave to be married.” (376)

It seems to me weddings are far too golly affairs. I much prefer the horrible imagery Hawthorne presents in these two stories. If more weddings were properly seen as funerals perhaps people would enter into marriages a bit more philosophically and perhaps the divorce rate would fall.
The theme from “Young Goodman Brown” of the relationship between the foundation of Puritan New England with dark rituals is in “The May-Pole of Merry Mount.” Here the pagan rituals become a source of joy before being repressed. I found it much more fun as the ritual is not a witch’s Sabbath but more of a bacchanalia. Dionysius himself does not make an appearance but there is plenty of pagan celebration around the May-Pole, which united with Indian festivals. These are suppressed by the Puritan elders, specifically Governor Endicott. “As the moral gloom of the world overpowers all systematic gaiety, even so was their home of wild mirth made desolate amid the sad forest. They returned to it no more. But, as their flowery garland was wreathed of the brightest roses that had grown there, so, in the tie that united them, were intertwined all the purest and best of their early joys.” (370) What do you know, yet another wedding. How wonderful! Whither those early joys?

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It seems again and again in these stories, the joyful and free is so fragile and so quickly taken in by moral absolutism, which always seems to form a dark spot in the world. I do not really want to face Little Annie after she grows up, although we know her fate. “The Man of Adamant” tells of a man who seeks moral purity by fleeing into a cave with his Bible. In the end he becomes a corpse “embalmed” in the cave. Yet the spot remains a black hole for the community. “Yet, grown people avoid the spot, nor do children play there. Freidnship, and Love, and Piety, all human and celestial sympathies, should keep aloof from that hidden cave; for there still sits, and, unless an earthquake crumble down the roof upon his head, shall sit forever, the shape of Richard Digby, in the attitude of repelling the whole race of mortals—not from Heaven—but from the horrible loneliness of his dark, cold sepulcher.” (428)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1830-1832)

I am going to take a leisurely approach to reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, using as many entries as necessary in order to come to an understanding of him and his place in the American tradition. Over the course of a couple of extended delays, I have come to terms with impossibility of the schedule I set for myself. And as this project of reading the entire Library of America from an anarchist perspective is a wonderful experience, I see no reason to rush things too much.

Hawthorne’s work is divided into two volumes: the stories and the novels. The volume of tales collects Hawthorne’s stories from Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. I suppose there are about 100 stories collected within. My rough plan is to take on around 10 of these a day and see what comes of it. The editors arrange the stories in order of publication so we will be beginning along with Hawthorne’s literary career, in 1830. (Fanshawe was self-published a couple years earlier and we will get to that in due time).

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Hawthorne was 28 when his first sketches and tales were published and he had not yet left New England, but he had seen the whole of it, from rural Maine to Boston. Something we notice straightaway from Hawthorne is that New England provides one of the central tensions in his work. New England was home to both an American literary tradition as well as an authoritarian tradition (seen in colonial-era British aristocracy and in the Puritan autocrats) and it was never very clear which tradition was dominant.  In any case, breaking free from the influence of tradition was a near impossibility.

I read the following stories: “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” “Sir William Phips,” “Mrs. Hutchinson,” “Dr. Bullivant,” “Signs from a Steeple,” “The Haunted Quack,” “The Wives of the Dead,” My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Some of these are short stories, but others are biographical sketches. “Mrs. Hutchinson” (1830) is one of these, retelling the story of the life of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan heretic. Hutchinson’s life essentially maps out the conflict between the authoritarian and the libertarian. Her crime was a rejection of the spiritual authority of the Puritan clergy and her argument for the spiritual equality of believers. Of course, brought before the court made up of these established clergymen, the outcome was not in doubt. Her punishment was exile and she was transformed into a vagabond, traveling first to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was later killed by Indians. This, as we see in other early Hawthorne tales is one of the central conflicts in New England. The conflict between vagabondage and belonging parallels the conflict between authority and freedom.

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Take for example, the description of a changing society in “Dr. Bullivant,” another biographical sketch. They sketch is set in the context of a changing New England, under siege from an English state eager to reign in the colonies, which they attempt under the leadership of the much maligned Sir Edmund Andros. A passage from this sketch is worth quoting at length: “The early settlers were able to keep within the narrowest limits of their rigid principles, because they had adopted them in mature life, and from their own deep conviction, and were strengthened in them by that species of enthusiasm which is as sober and as enduring as reason itself. . . . When therefore the old original stock, the men who looked heavenward without a wandering glance to earth, had lost a part of their domestic and public influence, yielding to infirmity or death, a relaxation naturally ensued in their theory and practice of morals and religion, and became more evident with the daily decay of its most strenuous opponents. This gradual but sure operation was assisted by the increasing commercial importance of the colonies, whither a new set of emigrants followed unworthily in the track of the pure-hearted Pilgrims. . . . Freebooters from the West Indies and the Spanish Main, — state criminals, implicated in the numerous plots and conspiracies of the periods, — felons, loaded with private guilt, — numbers of these took refuge in the provinces, where the authority of the English king was obstructed by the a zealous spirit of independence.” (36–37) The point here, is similar to the one Melville made in some of his Pacific writings. Mobility is a key to freedom, stagnation is its enemy.

A changing New England

A changing New England

Another theme in these early Hawthorne tales is burden we carry from history. It is in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” about a young beautiful woman who visits an old crone in an attempt to wash away her dubious past sins. However, washing away these sins is not as easy as walking away or moving to a distant land. This is the lesson of the rather humorous tales “The Haunted Quack” (1831). It is about an apprentice quack doctor who learned to brew and sell false potions to gullible people. After venturing on his own, the doctor (Hippocrates Jenkins), poisons an old woman and flees, only to be haunted every night. He flees and spends the last of his money running from the police. Eventually, he turns up at the place he started and learns that the old woman did not die and that he was sought after for his incredible healing skills, not for prosecution. He returns to his old craft of peddling fake medicines. The ghostly appearances are not explained but were likely a psychic projection of his guilt, a guilt that could not stop him from his immoral career.

It is most striking in the longer tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” (1832) which combines the legacy of British aristocratic traditions with the burden of the past and the necessity of independence from it. The story follows a young man who is seeking Major Molineux, a British military officer for a job. He is in the old mindset of patronage, duty, and family duties. He is an outsider in Boston and therefore is taken to be a tramp. Indeed he has all the appearances of a tramp since he has little money, no local connections he can call on except for the “Major Molineux,” and no job. Furthermore, with the American Revolution brewing in the background, most Bostonians are not eager to help this sniveling youth find his aristocratic patron. All the youth can do is wander around the town asking for leads on Molineux. He is finally discovered as old, frail, and in the process of being publicly humiliated by the Bostonian crowd (tar and feathered). The narrator is advised to seek his own way in the world. In a real sense, they are asking him to take his place as one of the American revolutionaries, overthrowing the old system, represented by the aging and weak Major Molineux. With this, Hawthorne seems to place himself on the side of rough, contentious liberty. This does not mean that the past will always be easily overcome.