Sunday, June 25, 2006

Return to the Shack

Dear Zora Neale Hurston,

I have been investigating the term “Shack” and it’s derived forms, “shacking, shack-up, shacked” and so forth. In my search, I have visited your work, Mules and Men, originally published in 1935. It is a fascinating work, revealing your community to me in an intimate way.

As I read the book, I discovered that your hometown, Eatonville, Fla., reminded me, on the surface, of the town in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. However her paradise is very dark while yours is quite light. The warmth and laughter of your town is rather heavenly. Hers just gropes in the twilight hoping for such bliss.

At any rate, in a passage of banter between storytellers Gold and Willie Sewell, you capture some classic repartee like that heard in cultures everywhere since the dawn of gender. After a long tale explaining how man became stronger and woman earned the keys to dealing with that, Willie says, “Y’all lady people ain’t smarter than all men folks. You got plow lines on some of us, but some of us is too smart for you. We go past you jus’ like lightnin’ thru de trees, . . . and what make it so cool, we close enough to you to have a scronchous time, but never no halter on our necks. Ah know they won’t git none on dis last neck of mine.”

“Oh, you kin be had,” Gold retorted. “Ah mean dat abstifically.”

“Yeah? But not wid de trace chains*. Never no shack up. Ah want dis tip-in love and tip yo’ hat and walk out. Ah don’t want nobody to have dis dyin’ love for me.”

Richard Jones (another of the tale tellers) said; “Yeah, man. Love is a funny thing; love is a blossom. If you want yo’ finger bit poke it at a possum.”

Well, Zora, this is interesting talk, and according to information shared provided by comments to my last survey, it is the first literary usage of the term shack up. Here I would interpret that it means marriage or a permanent relationship, not a one-night stand. In fact Willie’s term for that may be tip-in love.

You seem to see love as passing like “Lightnin’ thru de trees,” too.

In Dust Tracks on a Road, you wrote about love: "Under the spell of moonlight, music, flowers, or the cut and smell of good tweeds, I sometimes feel the divine urge for an hour, a day, or maybe a week. Then it is gone and my interest returns to corn pone and mustard greens, or rubbing a paragraph with a soft cloth. Then my ex-sharer of a mood calls up in a fevered voice and reminds me of every silly thing I said, and eggs me on to say them all over again. It is the third presentation of turkey hash after Christmas. It is asking me to be a seven-sided liar. Accuses me of being faithless and inconsistent if I don't. There is no inconsistency there. I was sincere for the moment in which I said the things. It is strictly a matter of time. It was true for the moment, but the next day or the next week, is not that moment. No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes. Like snowflakes, they get the same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together. But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them. Each moment has its own task and capacity; doesn't melt down like snow and form again. It keeps in character forever. So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night's moment to a day which has no knowledge of it. That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms. That same expression of today is utter counterfeit; or at best the wildest of inflation. What could be more zestless than passing out canceled checks? It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that. What to do?" (1942). (Quoted in Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society.)

My love just doesn’t pass like that. I fall in love for sure, with this one and that one, and it’s electric, but it stays in some form or other, inside me. My heart holds it as in waiting for some paradise when the days are eternal enough to grant those intercourses** I long for here and now.

The meaning of the word “shack up” has deteriorated. You might really appreciate the change. I, for one, would rather have had it remain as a more permanent expression of a love that can last and last even in the most difficult of circumstances.



gorjus said...

I am horrified to bring this up, but "tip-in love" . . . might that refer to the, uh, well, supposedly non-committal act two people messing around perform?

As Vince Vaughn says in "Wedding Crashers," "I'll put the tip in and we'll see how it feels."

brd said...

My husband and I were discussing this possibility at breakfast this morning. We retracted our thought though and concluded that it all must relate to the tipping of the hat as a greeting upon arrival and departure.

I'm much more comfortable with that. How 'bout you?