Muddy Modern Love
Zora Neale Hurston’s literary career is one that seems to be under continual transformation, in spite of the fact that she died more than fifty years ago. Controversial among fellow writers in the Harlem Renaissance scene (many of whom, like Richard Wright, thought she kowtowed to white stereotypes and sensibilities), Hurston fell into relative obscurity, only to be revived as an intellectual and cultural force in the 1970s, especially thanks to Alice Walker. She’s now “required reading” in countless high school and university literature courses—but still, perhaps, not sufficiently understood. Last week, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece that makes claims to further complicate Hurston’s literary legacy. Harvard professors Glenda Carpio and Werner Sollors have uncovered three of Hurston’s stories—published in newspapers in the 1920s but since neglected by Hurston scholars). The Chronicle has made one of them, “Monkey Junk: A Satire on Modern Divorce,” available on its website.
Carpio and Sellers suggest that these stories (especially “Monkey Junk”) complicate popular views of Hurston as a writer of the rural south—the setting of her most widely-read novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). These stories reveal, they suggest, a more cosmopolitan Hurston who shared the concerns of urban black life. But what I find especially interesting about “Monkey Junk” is its formal (and, I would say, theological) experimentation.
The story—written in 1927—is a kind of diatribe against the money-hungry city diva, with a rabid taste for the accoutrements of modern industrial life. It’s a moral fable with prophetic undertones, written in a mock-biblical style from its very opening: “And it came to pass in those days that one dwelt in the land of the Harlemites…” The tale ends tragically, as the man-who-thought-he-knew-how-to-handle-modern-women is sucked dry of his financial resources in divorce court and returns home to pick cotton in Alabama. It’s a stylized prophetic judgment on girl-power gone wrong.
Of course, biblical prophecy was not so much Hurston’s aim. Alice Walker celebrated Hurston for her bold irreverence, charging that she was a woman brave enough to “believe in her own gods.” In a 1925 letter to Annie Nathan Meyer (founder of Barnard College), Hurston confessed that the only reason she ever picked up a Bible was for the Old Testament storytelling. “Such magenta speech figures! You can’t beat the Psalms for word music, nor the prophets for prose-poetry!” she wrote. She especially liked that bad boy David, who she called an “old heathen.”
Why, he’s a hundred best sellers rolled into one! He had a way with him. He could do anything and make it respectable. I love the old devil more than any character in either history or literature. With one hand he plays divinely on the harp, slays his enemies with the other, keeping one eye out on the ladies and the other on his workmen building cities.
Hurston’s characters sometimes found an ally in that storied old patriarch. In a rare moment of boldness, Janie Crawford—heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God—manages to claim divine guidance as she scolds the arrogance of men-who-think-they-know-women. “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks his inside business,” she says (and this is, of course, Hurston’s classic dialect that Wright so disliked). “He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do.” Hurston’s women had, it seems, a particular way of conversing with the divine figure.
Later in the same novel, Hurston gives us a tiny little seed of a glittery, glimmering, flashy, and bejewled creation fable—or, at the very least, a fabrication that might be most appealing to those creatures trained in the arts of glamour (a craft, at certain points in history, associated with those gendered female). Janie, Hurston tells us, is trying to figure out a way to protect and reveal the little jewel she senses deep down inside herself—that flashy, little thing that seems to be a kind of spillover from the great diva himself. “When God made The Man,” Hurston writes,
he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but he still glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb.
The mud in which we modern creatures—trying so hard, in all of our blindness, to find our modern lovers—are covered and buried must have been a theme that Hurston meditated on for years. Their Eyes Were Watching God was published a decade after “Monkey Junk,” but there’s already plenty of mud-slinging going on. At the end of “Monkey Junk,” the savvy city diva calls her ex a “hunk of mud” and tells him to go hang out with monkeys. She dismisses him coldly, in other words. She’s trying her best to dehumanize and demoralize him, to banish him from the place where the successful and the professional go to get out of the dirt. She’ll be earning a hundred “shekels” a month off the poor guy, so she can buy her silk drawers and hosiery in the “marketplace.” But Hurston seems to suggest that this diva has maligned her priorities, that her sense of value is skewed. She thinks, perhaps, the ease and comfort of the city has cleaned her of that mud and allowed her to gleam and shine, to become glossy and precious. But she still, apparently, has mud in her eyes, for she’s entirely missed the glimmer and glamour of her fellow. Perhaps all of her fellows.
It’s a morality tale that seeks to expose the extent to which—in spite of the slick tricks of the city’s shop windows and lights—modern lovers are still (as they ever were) drowned in mud. They hunt and they hunt, but the mud keeps them from simply seeing each other’s glitter and flash, or hearing the weird little hum of that strange old love song as it plays on, and on.