Sample Research Paper On Eatonville, The Landmark Of Zora Neale Hurston's Life And Work
The life and the career or Zora Neale Hurston constantly revolved around Eatonville, a small town in Florida. This corner could very well match Robert Frost's description "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in" (quoted by Trubek). That sort of "home" was Eatonville for Hurston, except that, rather than being taken in by Eatonville, she took it into her heart and gave life to it in her work. In fact, many of her works are set here, Hurston writings abounding in historical and cultural facts and her characters being mere disguises of real residents. In order to understand these works, it is vital to understand the historical, personal and literary significance of their setting for the author.
Eatonville History Bits
The town's history could very well be recreated from Hurston writings. One of the most relevant works for her perception of the town's history and meaning for the writer is Dust Tracks on a Road, her biography, published in 1942. For example, in it, she evoques the period after the Proclamation of Emancipation was signed, when the town was formed and named after Josiah Eaton (white captain of the army residing in Maitland). Following the first civic elections, the black Joe Clarke became the Maitland marshal. She refers to the event writing: “I do not know whether it was the numerical superiority of the Negroes, or whether some of the Whites, out of deep feeling, threw their votes to the Negro side” (quoted by Trubek).
One year later, the marshal made the decision to form an all-black town, supported by Eaton and by a New York based white philanthropist, Lewis Lawrence. The land was received as a donation, the town hall and a church were built. The events are presented in Hurston's biography as follows: “On August 18, 1886, the Negro town . . . received its charter of incorporation from the state capital at Tallahassee, and made history by becoming the first of its kind in America" (quoted by Trubek). She sees this move as a an attempt at self-government of the Negroes, and she recounts that the black Eatonville and the white Maitland lived over more than half a decade next to one another, with no enmity instances. The examples could easily continue, because, in order to make herself understood, to send the message she was trying to send, the writer had to make the historical and political context clear, and she did so, in most of her works, no matter if they were fictional novels, folklore collections or her own biography.
Hurston writes about Eatonville with empathy: she was not born in the black neighborhood of some average town, but in what was, at that time, "a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all” (28). This clarification is very important, as it emphasizes the fact that she, and the rest of the inhabitants, did not feel the oppression other blacks were experiencing around the country. They were masters of their own destiny, ruling themselves and organizing their lives as they saw fit.
And she had a rather happy childhood, as she engages her readers with wild youth stories, like: “I used to climb to the top of one of the huge chinaberry trees, which guarded our front gate, and look out over the world" (Wall, 81). The horizon was the most interesting sight she could enjoy from there, and it made her want to walk out to it in order to get a glimpse of the world's end. Perhaps her pride and empathy towards the town are not obvious at first sight, but they must be there, considering that Hurston was actually born in Alabama and her family only moved to Eatonville when she was one.
But, besides, love, empathy and realism, one cannot help noticing a sense of isolation in Hurston's depictions. While she was happy in Eatonville, she also felt different, alone, unable to mingle with other children or their family, detached from their simple and happy living. She recounts: “Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care (42)". She used to ask herself why this happened, why she could not be a regular child, but had to be followed by that "cosmic loneliness", but that feeling of detachment that made her feel like no one and nothing around could really touch her.
However, even with this feeling of loneliness and detachment, Eatonville was preferable to any other place, or at least that is what Hurston makes it look like. Referring to her time in Jacksonville, where she was sent to school, after her mother's demise, she recounts feeling the burden of racism: “made me know that I was a little colored girl” (48), which was never felt in Eatonville.
Her return to the small town was short and unsuccessful. Her father had remarried a woman with no love or sympathy for his children, and, after a fight, Hurston left town again. According to Valerie Boyd “She not only vanished from Eatonville, but also from the public record" (65). Although the archives from that period were checked in detail, over and over again, no census listings city directory entries, school files, marriage licenses or hospital reports with her name were found. Of course, it was quite easy for a woman to avoid records at that time. Maybe life outside Eatonville was simply not worth living and Hurston wanted no records of it.
After several years of tumultuous struggles to continue her education and build a life, by 1933, Zora Neale Hurston was maybe the first black American woman trying to earn her living by writing, and most of her writings were spread with recollections and depictions of Eatonville.
Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, for example, describes an all-black fictional town very similar to Eatonville, the town's former mayor closely resembling the author's father. This novel is an attractive mix of autobiographical facts, fiction and folklore. The very voice of Eatonville flows in an authentic story, based on the life of the Baptist preacher John Pearson, inspired by the author's father, who had been born a slave, but exceeded his condition supported by his wife, Lucie, being a gifted poet. John's greatest flaw is his philanderery. After his wife's death, although feeling guilty, he remarries and his congregation eventually casts him out. The novel describes traditions, celebrations, food, and a great deal of “lies” told on the Eatonville general store's porch. John’s sermon of farewell, for example, is based on a sermon the author collected while in the region.
Eatonville's depiction continues in Mules and Men. Hurston gave it the form of a story within a story, putting folklore into the context and creating two distinct roles for herself –the colllector and narrator (1st person) and the observer, the social scientist (3rd person). Her introduction states her method and her identity, bringing her Eatonville past and the curious researcher together.
Moses, Man of the Mountain was published in 1939, towards Hurston’s career end. A complex novel, it relies on virtuos characters, complex backgrounds, colored language, numerous themes, and a great deal of satire. It is a briliant blend of Eatonville and Africa, a quest for freedom. At the basis of the novel, we find voodoo and African approaches to Moses, who is seen as a powerful man who could talk to the divinity, and a huge similarity between the American black slaves and the Jewish slaves from the Bible.
While the action is said to take place in Egypt and in the Promised Land, in fact, the characters are rather Eatonville black inhabitants. The Jewish slaves from the Bible are just a façade for black Americans, while the Egyptions and their Pharaoh are just a façade for the whites in Florida.
Zora Neale Hurston gives Eatonville a feisty, humorous voice, which caused some black intellectuals and leaders to complain about the author's narrow focus on Eatonville. They claimed that she ignored many of the negative aspects of the southern black existence. There is no bitterness in Moses, Man of the Mountain. Instead of making it a protest novel and exposing the South's racial injustices, Hurston turned it into a literary celebration of the black culture.
While the black were despised and even marginalized in other corners of the country and in the works of other writers of the time, they were at home in Eatonville, they ruled it, politically, economically and spiritually. This was the place where she felt safe, where she felt at home.
Despite the dominating churches, the “the heart and spring of the town” (quoted by Hemenway, 12) was the porch of Joe Clarke's store. This place, recreated in several of her writings, is most influential in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the writer's masterpiece, in which Joe Clarke became Joe Starks.
Men sat on benches and boxes, passing the world, the right and the wrong through their mouths. The women only stood around them on Saturday nights, when their purpose was to prove to their community how their husbands glorified them and what great providers they were.
No secrets and no discretion were possible on Joe Clarke’s porch in Eatonville. "There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. It was a case of ‘make it and take it" (quoted by Watkins, 95). Hurston's tone is empathetic, but realistic.
She does not idealize the town or its inhabiters. On the contrary, she recounts how some men bragged with their violent behavior towards their wives. It was all a mixture of good and bad, of peace and violence, of work and leisure, the monography of a common yet unique and lively small town that she loved as it was, and called it "home".
Eatonville, was the inspiration source for many of Hurston’s writings and, maybe, the explanation for the independent streak and the passion for folklore she showed on more than one occasions. As Boyd shows, growing up in the all-black town was a formative, positive experience that helped Hurston distrust any form of “forcible association” of the black and the white.
Boyd quotes someone else describing Eatonville “like a four-walled room” in which the black lived freely, unnoticed by the white. This town was the background of Hurston's life and work, she loved the “city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail-house” (quoted by Boyd, 22), and she made it famous.
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003. Print.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neale. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing And Then Again: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1979. Print.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
Trubek, Ann. “Zora’s Place”. Humanities 32.6 (November/December 2011). Web. Jan. 3 2015. http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2011/novemberdecember/feature/zoras-place
Wall, Cheryll A. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Watkins, James. Southern Selves: From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons A Collection of Autobiographical Writing. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
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