28 July 2015

Zora Neale Hurston: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)

This Virago edition of Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine has an Afterword by Holley Eley dated 1987, in which it states that hitherto Hurston's first novel had been 'inexplicably ignored'. Now, copies can be found in abondance online. And it's well worth reading.

Whereas Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around the strong female character Janie Starks, the main character here is John Pearson, whom we follow from his mid-teens until his untimely death in, perhaps, his early fifties. Despite the image on the book cover, John is half-white and called a 'yaller nigger' by some. After a fight with his step-father Ned, John leaves to work for the sympathetic Alf Pearson, who gives him his name and there are perhaps subtle suggestions that Pearson may even be his father.

The early section of the book in Alabama is largely taken up by his partly chaperoned relationship with Lucy, who is several years younger and marries him a few years later. But following a violent attack on his brother-in-law over a minor debt, he is forced to flee and goes to Florida, where Lucy and their baby join him later.

Lucy, although a force behind John's highly successful profession as a preacher, is nevertheless content to have several children by him and almost turn a blind eye to his infidelities: Alf Pearson had much earlier called the tall, well-built and very handsome John 'a walking orgasm' and this was a strongly prophetic statement because John finds women as irresistible as they do him.

John – now State Monitor as well as the most powerful preacher in Florida – has problems with the church leaders over growing rumors about his relationship with a woman called Hattie. Things come to a head when Lucy dies and John marries Hattie just three months afterwards, and he loses his State Monitor status.

And the knives are still out, within the church and within John's home: the marriage is failing and Hattie – incidentally a great believer in voodoo – is (
with a church official) plotting a divorce on the grounds of adultery, plus John's professional demise. John doesn't exactly put up a fight and walks out of the church to recommence working as a carpenter, although his name is mud and he fails miserably to reassert himself professionally.

Until, that is, he moves to another town and meets the rich widow Sally who has admired him for years, so they marry and she buys him a Cadillac, in which he pays a short visit to his former town. On the way back the greying John takes a young gold digger – who's unsuccessful on this occasion – to a hotel room: old habits die hard.

The first time John saw a train he was frightened, although when he escaped from Alabama and took one for the first time – into Sanford, FL – he was mightily impressed by the monster. As he finally drives home toward Sally he meets another train, only this time it crashes into the Cadillac and kills him. Florida mourns.

My other posts on Zora Neale Hurston:

Zora Neale Hurston in Fort Pierce, FL
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God

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