Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston can be a hilarious read at times, all while giving insight into 1930s Floridian black communities in the swamps. Yet, this collection can struggle because it ultimately doesn’t know how to be what it wants to be.
Mules and Men started as a project handed down from Hurston’s college mentor, professor of anthropology Franz Boas. She was to travel and research folk tales for a book. Thus, Mules and Men is the result of what Hurston gathered from 1930-1932, but it wasn’t published until 1935. Hurston researched in her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, and nearby communities, and then later in New Orleans, that the material was a beast to put together. Thus, publishers couldn’t envision it as a book.
In it’s final form, the folk tales are collected by Hurston’s location instead of theme. The sentences are written almost entirely in Southern black dialect, so if you’re not practiced with it, or if English is not your first language, you’ll likely struggle. My copy, pictured below, comes with a lot of extra materials, too, including some illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias.
But is the final book cohesive? The main text is in two sections — Part I: Folk Tales (from Florida), and Part II: Hoodoo (from New Orleans). Both parts are tremendously different in tone and style. Sections of Part I are narrated in first-person, with Hurston inserting herself in her travels instead of writing as a quiet observer. Other times, she isn’t mentioned for chapters on end. We get a series of stories from the people she meets, who call their tales “lies.” These lies are indented from the rest of the text, so it’s clear on the page what’s happening. Some lies are why the snake has teeth and a rattle, or stories of John, a famous slave who always outsmarts his master. Part I reads like a series of narratives and is rich, hilarious, insightful.*
In Part II, everything is through Hurston’s eyes. The hoodoo doctors and their customers she meets are all clearly filtered through her, whereas an anthropological text typically steps back and has the writer observing without being present. As a result, Part II reads more like the Zora Neale Hurston Instruction Manual of How-To Hoodoo. The writing style is almost entirely a list. Part II felt tacked on.**
Despite the separate feel to the book, it can be quite interesting. Part I: Folk Tales demonstrates “the dozens” at its best. The dozens is a game played in black communities in which participants try to best each other with lies or insults. In my review of Dust Tracks on a Road, I mentioned Hurston’s experiences with folks trying to out-insult each other. The insults get more creative, more humorous. Though the dozens seems mean at times, such as when a group argues over who has the darkest skin, it’s in good fun.
In Part I of Mules and Men, the dozens appears all over, including scenes with people trying to lie to a group about who knows the ugliest person, who lived through the hottest day ever, and who has the best gun. One man tells his friends that he knew a man so ugly, “he didn’t die — he jus’ uglied away.” It’s the rhythm of the exchanges that’s best. Typically, one person tells their lie, for example, about who is ugliest, then another person tries to tell a better lie, starting by dismissing the previous lie: “Those men ya’ll been talkin’ ’bout wasn’t ugly at all. Those was pretty.” The liar proceeds to tell who they think is truly the ugliest and why. On and on it goes. The exchanges are hilarious, and the group laughs heartily along with the reader.
But Part II isn’t nearly as interesting. Hurston works her way around New Orleans to find hoodoo doctors. She meets many, and each make her go through an initiation ritual to prove she can assist the doctor. There are a lot of instructions for the initiations and for customers of the doctors, which I noticed I skimmed at times:
Use six red candles. Stick sixty pins in each candle — thirty on each side. Write the name of your sweetheart three times on a small square of paper and stick it underneath the candle. Burn one of these prepared candles each night for six nights. Make six slips of paper…. ETC.
Because Hurston wrote in first-person, I felt like I was reading an autobiography. There is a branch of anthropology co-created by Franz Boas called Participant Observation, which “entails active participation in the events, daily lives and special ceremonials, with an eye on observing the detail and meaning and then recording the event.” Perhaps this is what Hurston was doing. Mules and Men led me further down the rabbit hole when I contacted Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Mayus, who wrote to me that there are two ways to study a culture:
The anthropologist is often an outsider looking into a culture, rather than a true participant in that culture. Some authors may choose to highlight their “otherness,” while others may not. . . .
While [etic versus emic approaches to ethnography] aren’t specific to any single theoretical paradigm, they tend to be broadly employed to describe an ethnography style that privileges either the experience of the researcher/observer (etic) or the cultural participant/subject (emic).
Some of the extra material in the book addresses my concerns about how close Hurston is to her work, though. First, a very short preface from her anthropology professor, Franz Boas, that is unnecessary. There’s a foreword by Arnold Rampersad that puts Hurston and her work in the context and discusses the integrity of Mules and Men from a research perspective, which I found helpful. Hurston includes an introduction that reiterates some of Rampersad’s section and is unnecessary. Finally, the work itself. Part I: Folk Tales is 172 pages, but Part II: Hoodoo is a mere 63 pages. These should have been two different books, in my opinion.
Hurston includes a glossary and appendix for things like “Negro Songs with Music” and “Paraphernalia of Conjure.” In footnotes throughout the two Parts, Hurston writes, “See Appendix.” Uh, which page? I couldn’t follow based on clues. Then, we get a selected bibliography of Hurston’s works and works about her and a chronology of her life.
Next is the essay Alice Walker wrote and published in Ms. magazine in 1975 that re-introduced Hurston to the public. At the time, all of Hurston’s books were out of print. I giggled when I discovered that Alice Walker was mad that Zora Neale Hurston loved to eat and was 200lbs. Walker writes, “What! Zora was fat!”
The book has an excerpt from Hurston’s biography. Finally, the text concludes with all the covers and synopses of her books. If you really want all sorts of information and tidbits, the extra materials will please you. I found a lot repeated, especially since I had already read Dust Tracks on a Road, but Alice Walker’s essay and Arnold Rampersad’s analysis/context were important pieces.
Have you studied anthropology in school? Do you like all the extra materials that come in re-published books?
*Hurston’s second collection of nonfiction, Every Tongue Got to Confess, takes her back to the Gulf Coast states to gather more folk tales. The collection is organized differently: “Arranged according to subject — from God Tales, Preacher Tales, and Devil Tales to Heaven Tales, White-Folk Tales, and Mistaken Identity Tales…” I look forward to reviewing it later on Grab the Lapels.
**I also look forward to reading Tell My Horse, Hurston’s third nonfiction collection that focuses solely on hoodoo in Jamaica and Haiti.
***I read later that there is a branch of anthropology called “Participant Observation,” which is “a formal technique pioneered by Franz Boas (1852-1942) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942).