Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whose Eyes Were Watching God?

Dear Zora Neale Hurston,

I have discovered your work (imagine) after all these years. "Why," I thought, "had I never heard of you?" Then, I realized, that it was a matter of timing.

Alice Walker rediscovered you in 1975, the very year I left educational institutions behind and cloistered myself in a world of non-fiction and children's books, laundry and camping trips, churches and crock pots, Chinese culture (a blog topic for another day) and an occasional opera.

So Zora Hurston, author of Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God and, Seraph of the Suwanee was for me unknown until the renowned scholar Brannon Costello, author of Plantation Airs, pointed you out to me. At first, your work seemed a curiosity, for I started with Mules and Men. Almost quaint. I think I was surprised. As I read about your research I was reminded of some work I had done once in a small library operated in the basement of the Smoky Mountains tourist center. There, I sat sifting through old documents looking for curiosities of the region to supplement a project I was doing for a technology company.

I found stories written by "oldtimers," as they were called; I met people who had lived in the park area before they were forced to move out by FDR; I joined in some shaped note sings and generally fell in love with a very distinct cultural experience.

Your work carries that same beautiful colloquial feel, but it is different too. It liberally brandishes dialects and expressions, stories and myths, but I say the work is almost quaint because of my own quaint ignorance. It is not quaint, I think. It is instead, not written for me, not contingent upon me as a reader at all. It is not trying to charm me with its vernacular approach, but is simply exposing me to it. Me, an outsider, me, the stranger, me, odd man out.

Is that the power of your books resurrected in 1975 to a new life beyond the grave of the 50's and 60's? Is the immensity of your influence as a writer to been seen not in the remarkable anthropological assiduity of your work, but in the acceptance of the full human dialogue represented in the architecture of this language form. And you, Zora, refused to allow that dialogue to go unrecorded.

You said in your autobiography, "Research is formalized curiousity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein."

Need I say that I'm impressed.

Betsy

2 comments:

Anne G G said...

I think I managed to do a whole report on Zora Neale Hurston in college without ever becoming fully immersed in her writings. I'll have to make a return. She does seem to have been a unique woman in her ability to say, "I'm not concerned with what you think."

brd said...

Yes, I think she broke a barrier of some kind of honesty as a writer. And I think Toni Morrison was able to walk through the gap that she left. I don't think that even Richard Wright was able to write in a way that lacked contingency upon the white community that Hurston achieved. Of course what do I know.