Feb 26, 2010

Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston

Mules and Men is a collection of black folklore collected by Zora Neale Hurston in Florida and Louisiana in the late 1920’s and early 30’s. The book is divided into two sections – for the first one, Hurston returned to her native Eatonville and collected the stories told by the local community. To write the second part, she moved to New Orleans for four months and was initiated by several Hoodoo (or Voodoo) doctors.

One of the things that makes Mules and Men so interesting is the fact that Zora Neale Hurston, though a trained academic, doesn’t try to present herself as a detached anthropological observer. I suppose the technical term for what she is is an observant-participant, but I’ll focus on the effect this has on readers, which is to give us what feels like a real glimpse of storytelling as an intimate activity; as something that's part of the inner life of a community. It’s important to note that Eatonville was Hurston’s own hometown, and that many of the people who told her these stories were people she knew growing up. With Hurston’s guidance, readers feel like they’re on the inside.

Let me tell you how part one is structured: more than a collection of folktales, it’s a narration of Zora Neale Hurston's visit to Eatonville, in which she inserts the folk stories as they come up in conversation. This is of course a reconstruction of what actually must have happened, but it feels natural and real – clearly she wrote this book with a novelist’s sensibility. She was criticised for lack of academic rigour, but her approach makes it much better as a creative work and as a piece of storytelling, if not as a reference book. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr says in the afterword, “…even Hurston’s academic collections center on the quality of imagination that makes these lives whole and splendid.

As for the folk stories themselves, they’re written in dialect (as is much of the dialogue, but not Hurston’s narration). Probably because I read Their Eyes Were Watching God first, the use of Ebonics gave me no trouble at all, and I thought it added a lot to the feel of the book – the language often makes the folk tales sound so much richer. The tales are sometimes of European origin but with added local flavour; other times they're animal stories of the Brer Rabbit kind and other varieties; and they're also often stories dating back to slavery about a folk hero of sorts, John, who repeatedly outsmarts Old Massa, the white slave-owner.

There are also quite a few “just so” stories – stories that explain the way the world is in some form or other. Some of these surprised me, because they’re not really stories that ask questions or suggest alternatives, but rather stories that explain the world in a way that legitimatises oppressive social structures such as slavery, segregation, and racial inequality. Still, it’s easy to see how they’d have originated, and they feel very human for that very reason. Stories are how we make sense of the world, after all, and when people are faced with situations that feel too big for them to change, justifying them brings a sort of comfort. It’s a form of power to come up with a story to explain why one is less fortunate, even if the story justifies why this should be so. So even though many of these stories adhere to racist stereotypes, I often found them moving, and also surprisingly funny at times.

But not all of the tales are about explaining away the way the world is: many seize power in more obvious way, like the many stories in which a seemingly powerless character (often the aforementioned John) outsmarts and defeats a stronger one. Again, it’d be tempting to approach them sociologically and say that this makes sense considering the conditions of segregation and economic disparity in which they were created. But then again, this is such a common theme in the stories we tell, through the ages and across cultures, from the earliest myths to modern day novels, TV shows, or films. So I’m more inclined to say that the reoccurrence of this theme is just a sign of our common humanity.

I found the second section of the book even more interesting than the first, but that probably has to do with my fascination with New Orleans. Even more so than part one, this is not a detached account – Hurston does retell hearsay stories about Marie Laveau and other more contemporary Voodoo doctors, but mostly she describes rituals and experiences she herself participated in. As I mentioned above, she’s initiated as a Voodoo doctor and becomes an apprentice to several of the most well-known local experts.

I don't believe in the supernatural, but I can suspend my disbelief very easily when reading about other people's experiences. And I do consider them valid, even if personally I'd interpret them in a different light. All this to say that it's not incongruous for me to read stories about magic that are presented as non-fiction. And let me tell you, these were wonderful to read. It’s to Zora Neale Hurston’s credit as a storyteller that even a complete sceptic such as myself thought that there was some creepy, creepy stuff here. I think that when it comes to a religion such as Voodoo, I’d rather read the account of a believer than that of an outside observer anyway. Regardless of how I interpret these stories, I think it takes someone like Hurston, who was willing to fully immerse herself in the culture and to experience the rituals as a believer experiences them, to report what this faith feels like to people.

A warning, though: many of the ceremonies Hurston describes involve animal sacrifice, including one of the horrible-things-being-done-to-cats variety. If there's one thing in the world I'm squeamish about, this is it, so reading these sections was very uncomfortable for me. I don't blame Hurston for including them - she's describing what she saw and experienced, after all - but I hope against hope that I’ll be able to erase certain things from my mind.

I read Mules and Men as part of the Harlem Renaissance Classic Circuits Tour, so let me end this by thanking Rebecca and all her helpers for giving me an excuse to get to this wonderful book at last.

Also reviewed at:
Becky’s Book Reviews


  1. I have never read anything from Hurston, however I really feel like I need to. Not only is she an excellent author, but Eatonville is just a handful of miles up the road from Orlando. They have an annual celebration through Zora Days, and every time I see them talking about it, I feel left out that I have never experienced her work!

  2. I've had Tell My Horse on my wish list ever since you reviewed that one, and now I *really* want to read this one, too. So...which one should I get first?

  3. I love Hurston's writing style. The dialect has never bothered me and I love being immersed in a culture that is very outside my experience. I'm glad she wasn't detached in writing this because an academic-observer look, by itself, would be far less interesting I think than the experiences of it from within.

  4. I'm feeling such Zora love this month since reading Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  5. This does sound fascinating. I really need to read more Hurston, since I have enjoyed the two I've read so much.

  6. You had me wanting this right up to the animal sacrafices. Poor pussy cats! I would love to read about Marie Laveau, especially after Voodoo Dreams.

  7. This does sound different.
    I havent read Their Eyes Were Watching God yet, but its on my TBR.
    Yeah, that whole animal sacrifice thing would creep me out.

  8. I have to admit, I gave up on Their Eyes Were Watching God after the first 20 pages or so. But this Hurston sounds MUCH more like something I could easily get in to - especially the second part. I, too, kind of have this obsessive fascination and love for New Orleans. Thanks for the great review!

  9. I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God when I read it in college. I'll have to add this to my list. It sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review.

  10. I didn't know about this book. But I think I couldn't make it through the bad-things-being-done-to-animals parts, even if (or especially if!) they were just depicting realities!

  11. There is an absolutely beautiful documentary of sorts about Zora and her experience collecting these stories as well as her upbringing and college experience, etc. I didn't know she was such a fascinating individual!

  12. I really don't know if I can handle Hurston's dialect! I feel like I'd rather read her than Toni Morrisson, though... decisions, decisions!

    Interesting as it seems a lot of the books for the Harlem Renaissance Circuit were written in dialect.

  13. That does sound like a good book, but I'm not sure I could stomach reading about animal sacrifices.

  14. You had me when you mentioned NOLA and Marie Laveau--I'm just a little obsessed with her and love stories that involve voodoo (don't ask me why).

  15. I haven't read any Hurston yet, although I do have Their Eyes Were Watching God neatly stacked on my bookshelf.

    This book sounds pretty intriguing, and depending on how I get on with Their Eyes Were Watching God, I'll give it a go. I do have high hopes for TEWWG, so, it's just a matter of time.

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention - hadn't even heard of it before!

  16. I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God and yet have never picked up anything else by Hurston. I'm very much a book person and very much not an author person (if that makes sense). Perhaps this is something I can work on this year.

  17. Just had one of those "Oo, oo I read that and liked it too" moments when I saw the topic of this post. You know how exciting it is when you see one you like but never see it discussed on other blogs?

    It does feel real and natural, doesn't it? And like you, I also have a fascination with New Orleans and so enjoyed the second part of the work more than the first. This book is such a triumph in bringing the oral traditions of African American culture to an accessible print version. Feel like so much of what she brought out of these places would have been lost without her.

    This book is also for teaching a traditional lit unit for elementary or middle school - full of folk tales, trickster tales and the like.

    Great post!

  18. Thanks for the post! I am surprised I haven't heard of this. I took a Southern Lit. & Folklore class in college. At some point in school I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and enjoyed it. This description kind of reminds me of Charles Chesnutt's collections. A lot of his stories take place in NC, where I'm from. :-)

  19. I have never read anything from Hurston. But the book does sound interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  20. I am ashamed to admit that I am only a mere twenty minutes away from Hurston's Eatonville and have never participated in her annual festival! :(

  21. Their Eyes Were Watching God is right here, barely begun. Very interesting woman, Ms. Hurston. Very brave to immerse herself in the voodoo traditions in that way. Don't know that I could handle the bad-things-done-to-cats scenes, but you make me curious about the rest of the book for sure. After the novel, though.
    Thanks for giving us such an informative review, as always!

  22. Sandy: You need to read her, go to the festival, and then tell us all about it :P

    Debi: I enjoyed Tell My Horse a bit more, but they're both excellent.

    Amanda: Yes, exactly.

    Bybee: Isn't that a great book?

    Rebecca: Same here!

    Vivienne: At least that part is short and easy enough to skip. But yes, poor cats :\

    Naida: It was horrible, but overall the book was great. I look forward to your thoughts on Their Eyes...!

    Chelsea: You're welcome! I hope you can get into this one. I know that some readers find her less than appealing because of the dialect, but I got on with it just fine, much to my surprise.

    Carol, you're welcome! I hope you like it.

    Jill: I know :\ But it's just a chapter, so easy enough to skip.

    likeglass: Oooh, I would love to watch it!

    Aarti: I actually prefer Morrisson, but I love Zora too. But the dialect is not for everyone, I know, and I understand why.

    Kathy: It's really just a short section :)

    Heidenkind: Me too! And I don't know why either :P

    anothercookiecrumbles: I look forward to your thoughts on TEWWG!

    Trisha: That does make perfect sense. And I've had enough bad experiences with second books by authors of a book I loved to be more cautious these days.

    Frances: I love those moments too :D I can see this working really well in schools. In fact, she originally meant it as an anthropological textbook, but it was controversial for being so novelistic. Which, ironically, is part of what makes it so perfect - it's not one bit dry.

    Andrea: I haven't read Chesnutt before, so I'm a big fan of folklore, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for him.

    Andreea: You're welcome :)

    Christinia: You and Sandy both need to go this year and share the experience with your fellow bloggers :P

    ds, I very much look forward to your thoughts on the novel! She does sound like a fascinating woman. I'd love to pick up her biography at some point.

  23. I am a huge fan of "Their Eyes Were Watching God", and your comments on "Mules and Men" convince me that I should read it as soon as I can. I am very drawn to folk tales as a whole, and Zora Neale Hurston fascinates me.

    Thanks for sharing this info.


  24. I have never heard of this book, but it does sound very, very interesting. The use of ebonics in the narrative also intrigues me, because I have never read a book that has included ebonics before. I am off to look up this book and see if I can grab myself a copy. Great review, Nymeth. Another book that I would have never found without your help!


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