Mules and Men (Hurston)

I knew enough of Hurston’s biography to know of this project, but I was never sure of the form it took or whether, if I made the time to read it, I’d even understand it. It certainly is anthropology, and Hurston dives right in. In fact, though anthropological writing may dictate the removal of the narrator in the name of objectivity, I think the strongest parts were those which include Hurston herself, right in the middle of the storytelling action.

Her collections of stories from among those she knows in Florida is remarkable. I’m sure that patterns can be detected and conclusions inferred. But mostly I just enjoyed the stories and the way  people relished telling them as well as Hurston’s ability to capture the teller’s voice on the page.

The sections on voodoo taken from her apprenticeships in New Orleans are amazing, both for her willingness to immerse herself in the voodoo practices and for her non-judgmental language.

Though there are flaws in Hurston’s writing in her classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which can perhaps be attributed to the speed with which she wrote it, she can write a sentence like few others. Her third sentence: “When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of negroism.” Awesome.

I’ve long disdained the superficiality of statements like, “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.” History itself has proven that untrue. And unTrue. But to collect stories, before they are forgotten — they are the key, I think, to understanding something both true and True, something as necessary as air.

(I don’t know if they are in every edition, so I suggest getting the Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition of this book. The illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias are amazing.)


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