One danger of being a writer of criticism and critique of art is that my writing evolves into art itself. There is an aphorism I used to tout fairly regularly that states, “Writing is a conversation, extended throughout time.”. What I write about is not only another post in a thread, it is a sheet of metal, soldered onto a great ship, giving it further reinforcement to sail these great waters of existence. Which leads my critiques to be open to criticism.
When great minds collide in these sorts of threads, they might forget just how many more others will read their words and join in that conversation. So, it is always incumbent upon persons such as myself burdened with literary aspirations to be mindful of how large an audience based on a conversation extended throughout time can grow.
One example of such collisions of giants reverberating through eras is Richard Wright’s review of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. In his article for New Masses, he stated:
It is difficult to evaluate Waters Turpin’s These Low Grounds and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is not because there is an esoteric meaning hidden or implied in either of the two novels; but rather because neither of the two novels has a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation. Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction. . . .
New Masses 5 October 1937, Between Laughter and Tears, Richard Wright, pg 22-23
It has to be stated here because often we as writers of critique and criticism forget our culpability when addressing our contemporaries. By most accounts, Zora died penniless and in destitution. I can easily argue that without Alice Walker’s resurrection spell, Zora’s work might still be in obscurity waiting for another sorceress to give her life again. Her children are grand testimonial to that one bit about pens and swords.Yes, by “children”, I mean her tales of Black life.
Initial reads of Wright’s scathing assessment of Zora’s work left me wondering if it was solely a misogynistic stance. It may have been that case, I also would extend, especially in light of my own reading of Carol Batker’s explanation of intraracial class antagonism leading to a set of treatments ultimately rendering Zora’s art invisible, that there is a class-based element of scorn and psychological warfare here. Not only is it possible that Wright had no context with which to reasonably assess Zora, he also was disturbed that a woman associated with “low brow” renderings wrote it. His reading that her story had no direction, no purpose, and ultimately, no significance was not so much that her writing did not have those things. Only that he wishes his readers to believe they did not.
Just as a heads up, my reasoning is borne of rereadings of this particular paragraph from his review:
Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.
Mind you, this is being penned by that same mind that brought us laughs and cries, killing and raping as trope and excuse, “Bigger Thomas”. I have that utmost respect for anyone that can pen novels, but let us be clear. We are discussing that guy that would go on to concoct that quintessential urban Black Male trope. “Bigger Thomas” is Donald Trump’s urban dweller, for christ’s sake! If Mr. Wright has trouble seeing direction, purpose, and what ultimately amounts to message and moral in Zora’s “Janie”, I have trouble seeing how while crafting his own “Bigger Thomas”.
Being a poorer artist may have saved Zora from that great affliction of successful artists in academia. Namely, that need to appear more serious and be taken more gravely, than actually being something serious and worthy of urgent attention. I do not take for granted how easy it is to be swept away in romantic interpretations of times I did not live through. However, as I cordially add my post to this growing thread, I do hope it is understood that I clearly stand with Zora, and Mr. Wright is blinded by some projection or need to project for audience.