Counting the glossary I discovered this morning, I only have a few pages left in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. I have refrained from looking up reviews and analysis until after I finish the book and give it some thought. The book makes sense to me so far. It is the story of the life of John Pearson. He was in the first generation of African Americans born free after enslavement. It begins with him as a strapping seventeen year old and before he is done he has married many women and become a successful preacher.
The title of the book comes from the story of Jonah in the Bible. When the gourd appears in the story Jonah is unhappy. He was unhappy that he had spent time in the great fish’s belly. He was unhappy that when he finally did preach to Nineveh they basically ignored him. He was especially unhappy that the gourd or vine in more modern translations had died and no longer provided shade for him as he sat and brooded on a hillside.
So Jonah’s gourd is both a pleasant shade for a troubled person and subsequently a symbol of fate that both comforts and then leaves us to our unhappiness.
Jonah’s gourd has been mentioned twice so far in the novel. I’m still pondering how it all comes together.
Thurston writes dialog that reflects how she hears people actually talk. At first it feels a bit like derisive minstrel show exaggeration. But the more I read her dialog the more it seems that she is rendering an honest transcription of how real people talk. There is also an excellent transcription of an important sermon in the life of John Pearson. It made me think of James Joyce’s inclusion of sermons in his work.
Hurston’s way of telling her story was contrary to many of her contemporaries. Her shrewdness and excellent story lines went unnoticed. This lack of recognition eventually became so pronounced that after producing many books and plays she famous died in obscurity earning money as a substitute teacher and a maid..
In 1934, Langston Hughes published his collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks. He had collaborated a few years early with Hurston on a play, Mule Bone. According to Wikipedia, this is when their friendship fell apart.
The same year, George Orwell published Burmese Days; Ezra Pound, An ABC of Reading; Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors; Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust; Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer; P. L. Travers, her first Mary Poppins novel; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night; and Agatha Christie several mysteries including Murder on the Orient Express.
Good year for books. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to be a reader at that time. I have read several of the books mentioned above but I’m not sure I would have been aware of them in the thirties if I had been alive.
When I read a good book, it takes me some time to process it. With pages to go in Hurston, I am chomping at the bit to quit writing here and go finish it and think about it.