Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston

Once again, Zora Neale Hurston, who died in 1960, has been published. She’s like the literary Tupac these days. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is a collection of short stories Hurston wrote between 1921 and 1937 (which is when her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God was published). According to the introduction, eight stories within the collection were “lost,” though I’m not sure why lost is in quote marks. That’s not explained.

Much like Bleak House by Charles Dickens is improved by knowing how English law worked at the time, it’s important to know the context of black Americans during the 1920s to understand the importance of Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Harlem went through a renaissance of art, music, writing, dance, and theater, all done by black artists. Looking down upon their “ignorant” brethren in the Southern states, artists in Northern states fought to create art that represented “The New Negro,” a person who was intelligent, avoided reinforcing stereotypes of minstrel shows and the easily fooled individual who dare believe in conjuring, and most definitely not an embarrassment to his race.

But Zora Neale Hurston disagreed with the movement. She suggested that to get into the thick of a culture, one had to represent that culture faithfully because trying to be impressive (i.e. act white) was impossible with power differences between races. Where other Harlem Renaissance writers felt Hurston’s characters were embarrassing “low-down folks,” she saw them as complex people. This is her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, she’s writing about, not a concept. Thus, Hurston was despised by many Harlem artists.

For a collection that is purported to focus on Harlem writing, Hurston doesn’t make much of Harlem as a place in her stories. Oftentimes, someone who has been up north returns to the south and tells folks that Harlem was so wonderful, a place where there’s nice clothes and women and dancing. Upon getting to Harlem, characters quickly learn they don’t fit in any better than a horse at an auto garage. Though Hurston touches on the culture shock of the two million black Americans who participated in the Great Migration, it isn’t fully explored how they made that transition.

Instead, the stories are about what it means to be a man. Hurston is most famous for her strong, amazing female characters, and although resolute women appear throughout, it’s more how those women shape guys into MEN either directly or indirectly. In “Muttsy,” the title character makes a living as a gambler. But when he meets a young woman newly migrated from the south who doesn’t believe gambling is decent, he quits to find an “honest” job so he can marry her and be a real man. When Muttsy’s old gambler friends get jealous, they try to lure him away from his new life. Is a man one who cares decently for a woman, or one who makes his own choices?

A similar theme appears in “John Redding Goes to Sea.” A young man vows to follow the local river out to the sea to explore the world for two years, an opportunity his father missed. But when his mother badgers him for trying to leave her, he stays and marries. Again the urge to travel arises, but now he has a wife and mother shaming him for trying to follow his dreams. Although the ending is a bit saccharine, it’s also poignant and suggests that no woman controls a man’s dreams through manipulation.

A man having choices doesn’t mean he just be selfish. He has to consider his situation. When the husband in “The Country in the Woman” moves from the southern states to Harlem, he decides Harlem is such a big place that he can easily court girlfriends and his wife will never notice. Upon the wife’s arrival to the big city, she stands out — like every horror the subscribers of “The New Negro” fear — with her clodhopper slang and in homespun clothes, and her willingness to make a scene in public. Like when she finds her husband flirting with other women. If he wants to hold onto his image as a refined Harlem man, he has to consider his wife, too.

This wouldn’t be a Zora Neale Hurston book if it wasn’t painfully funny. I’ve never seen someone take a story about migrating from the southern to the northern states, but use phrasing from the Bible, and to such hilarious effect. One such Biblical/1920s mash-up describes a man who thinks he knows all about women, until he realizes no woman wants him. But there is one special lady:

“And in that same year a maiden gazeth upon his checkbook and she coveted it. . . . Then did he make a joyful noise, saying, ‘Behold, I have chose a wife, yea verily a maiden I have exalted above all others, for see I have wed her.'”

Not all stories are written in this playful Biblical style. Classic Hurston means dialect and idioms. And that may turn off many readers. Take the title, which is an idiom: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. If you’re struggling to figure out what that means, you’ll likely be challenged by any Hurston you read. The dialect can be learned, and I’ve been working on it for years. Continuing to practice helps, and I also spent a few years going through Paul Laurence Dunbar’s entire collected poems (available for free on Project Gutenberg). He writes about 50/50 in dialect and standard English. Here is a challenging example from Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick:

“No, but ah’d jes lufter go.”

“Git yer bunnet an’ we’ll jues run eround dere dis ehenin.”

What’s a good way to practice with dialect from black writers around the the late 1800s to early 1900s? Try some Dunbar poems, as I mentioned, and also get the audiobook and physical copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God and read along as Ruby Dee narrates.

My verdict? Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick feels like a book for hardcore fans like myself. Some stories read as incomplete and more amateur than I’m used to from Hurston, but these were her first years as a writer, so it’s to be expected. Plus, she’s writing her way around (using that crooked stick) racism and sexism. While it’s enjoyable, I could see Hurston basically writing her way through ideas that would later make up her future successful novels.

15 comments

  1. I guess lots of authors have “lost” stories – writing that for good reason, or bad luck, remained hidden in a stack of papers and then one day turns up again, usually when the author is famous and we’ll read anything she wrote. I probably specialise in “lost” works myself, works that have made their way to the backs of shelves and are now overlooked in any account of the period.

    I always enjoy your reviews of early African-American culture, a subject on which you are knowledgeable, and which demonstrates that there is a lot more to pre-WWII US writing than just Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

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    • I took a grad class on Modernist Literature (typically defined as the “Make it New” crew of Ezra Pound) and found that all the writers were white men writing “experimental” poetry and prose. Now, I do not profess to be well-versed in modernism, but I can’t help but notice that it skips over the innovation in writers like Hurston, writing in the same time period and experimenting with a clash of genres in a way others were not. I get why Hurston was shuffled into the Harlem Renaissance box, but her work says just as much about the American experience, even a universal one, than it does about Harlem. The books I read in the modernist lit class, most memorable the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos seemed less “made new” and more like a rehash of going off to war, cheating on your best gal, and coming home with syphilis to a world unrecognizable, and committing suicide. Whether it was racism or some other reason, Hurston should have been more widely known during her lifetime (and especially pre-WWII).

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  2. Great review! I’ve not yet read any of Hurston’s work, though I’d like to. It sounds like this wouldn’t be a great place to start, and Their Eyes Were Watching God certainly seems like a more obvious entry point. I think I’ll start with that one on my TBR, and go from there!

    I don’t specifically seek out books written in dialect, but I tend to really like the effect. I like the puzzle of figuring it out at first, and then the immersive feel it lends to the story.

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    • Ah, so you might be the perfect person to try the physical copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, since you like the puzzle of figuring it out. I remember the first time I read Trainspotting (in Scottish dialect and idioms) and just being SO LOST, but over the years I’ve realized I can follow along like a second language.

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  3. I have yet to read anything by Hurston but I’d really like to and even have a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God somewhere around. I didn’t realize she used that combo of Biblical phrasing but I feel like I would enjoy that.

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    • Read the first chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God and let me know how you do! If you get really stuck, listen to the audiobook while you read along. It’s a great feminist novel that feels timely in 2020, and scared people when it was originally published. I know there is a film version with Halle Barry, but I’ve never watched it for fear of what Oprah and company may have done to my beloved book. I feel like Oprah can be so off the mark sometimes.

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      • In general, I’m not much of an Oprah fan so I’m not likely to watch the movie. But I like your idea of reading along with the audio book. When I’ve struggled with dialect/language in other books before I’ve found it helpful to read aloud to myself.

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  4. Wonderful review, Melanie! I appreciate the mini-history lesson as we as the exploration into Hurston’s use of dialect. I always learn something valuable when I read your book reviews.

    Did you read this book, or listen to the audio? I assume the former, as this isn’t in your audiobook format, but since you mentioned Ruby Dee, I was unclear. I enjoyed listening to Ruby Dee read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I didn’t have a physical copy with me, but I found it easy to understand most of the dialect when listening to her read it aloud. Some words were lost on me, but context helps.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever take the time to properly learn this dialect. I like to listen to poetry in audio form as well, and I’m not much of an academic, so perhaps this isn’t for me. I’m so glad there are people who are taking the time to learn. Is this dialect lost yet, you think?

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    • Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is only out in paperback form right now, to my knowledge, and I read it. Their Eyes Were Watching God is read by Ruby Dee, so I was saying that if someone wants to enjoy Hurston but can’t get over that written dialect, try Dee’s reading and follow along in the book, too.

      I don’t see or hear the idioms Hurston uses much, but the dialect is everywhere, still. It’s just capturing the way people sound. So, depending on where you are in the U.S. today, people will sound more like Hurston wrote. This is why the audiobook of Their Eyes is pretty simple to follow along with; the words are ones we hear pronounced, but don’t think about the spelling. I’m always reminded of the way we in Michigan say “fer” instead of “for.” In a Hurston book, she would write “fer” because that’s how someone said it. But when you and I talk in person, you can understand me just fine (I think, lol).

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      • Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Well, at some point Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick will be on audiobook. I know it will. Then I don’t have to try so hard with the dialect. 😉

        Don’t worry, I can understand you just fine when you make sense. You’ve got all the right words, but sometimes (we both) get them in the wrong order. ❤

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  5. hmmm hopefully “lost” doesn’t mean “the author didn’t want these published”! I suppose we will never know for certain, but interesting that no detail is given…

    Why do you love Hurston’s writing so much? What makes you a big fan? I’m just curious when people say they have favourite authors-is it because her writing makes you feel a certain way? Or her humour?

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    • I’m half wondering if some of them weren’t even complete, meaning she wouldn’t have sought publication. I love the way Hurston is SO FUNNY. Since my background is in creative writing, which I studied because it seemed like a natural fit for the way I think about words and story construction, I really appreciate the idioms. They’re incredibly clever and a unique way to communicate something that may be more complicated to describe that one wants to do. Even the title — it basically means that when there is a way to do something in a straightforward fashion, that may not be the best way to accomplish it. You have to go at it from a different angle that doesn’t make as much sense on the surface. Instead of explaining what I just said, Hurston will say something fun like “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick,” which has the bonus of rhyming and sharp consonant sounds that are delicious to say aloud.

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  6. The dialogue in this does look incredibly tricky, (southern im guessing?) I’m imagining it out loud and in a southern accent and that seems to help. But still- there are some intriguing bits here (the biblical Tie in story sounds awesome).

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