Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston (1934)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960) was this eminent author’s first novel, published in 1934. It’s the story of a Black plantation worker who aspires to be a preacher. Once he achieves his goal, he gives powerful sermons on Sundays, and the rest of the week indulges in much extramarital dallying with the women of his congregation.

While studying with the noted anthropologist Franz Boas, Zora was recognized for her talent for storytelling and abiding interest in black cultures of the American South and Caribbean. Her background as an anthropologist and folklorist was one of her great gifts, and what made her work, both fiction and nonfiction, so unique. She was already established in the field when this novel came out, as well as having published a number of short stories and nonfiction works.

After decades out of print, HarperCollins reissued Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 2008. From the publisher’s description:

Jonah’s Gourd Vine tells the story of John Buddy Pearson, ‘a living exultation’ of a young man who loves too many women for his own good. Lucy Potts, his long-suffering wife, is his true love, but there’s also Mehaley and Big ‘Oman, as well as the scheming Hattie, who conjures hoodoo spells to ensure his attentions.

Even after becoming the popular pastor of Zion Hope, where his sermons and prayers for cleansing rouse the congregation’s fervor, John has to confess that though he is a preacher on Sundays, he is a ‘natchel man’ the rest of the week.

And so in this sympathetic portrait of a man and his community, Zora Neale Hurston shows that faith, tolerance, and good intentions cannot resolve the tension between the spiritual and the physical. That she makes this age-old dilemma come so alive is a tribute to her understanding of the vagaries of human nature.”

Zora’s inspiration and intention

Zora describes her intent for Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which is possibly based on her own parents’ dysfunctional marriage. The novel provides an unflinching view of Reconstruction-era African-American life, with black families adjusting to freedom and migration.

Aspiring to better himself through education and religion, yet unable (and unwilling) to master his philandering ways, John Buddy Pearson’s divided nature leads to his inevitable downfall. In Zora’s own words:

“While I was in the research field in 1929, the idea of Jonah’s Gourd Vine came to me. I had written a few short stories, but the idea of attempting a book seems so big, that I gazed at it in the quiet of the night, but hid it away from even myself in daylight.

For one thing, it seemed off-key. What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such and so, regardless of his color.”

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Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

Jonah’s Gourd Vine  by Zora Neale Hurston on Amazon

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An original 1934 review of Jonah’s Gourd Vine

Here is George S. Schuyler‘s original review in The Pittsburgh Courier from May 12, 1934:

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston is a first class novel by a brilliant young woman. Like Elmer Gantry, it tells of the rise of a man of god, only John Pearson is a big, strong, magnetic mulatto* [note from Literary Ladies: this term is no longer used, it was a common term to describe a mixed-race person in the time this review was written].

Like Elmer Gantry, however, John cannot keep away from the sisters, and of course, that is his undoing. If this were all, Jonah’s Gourd Vine would still be a fine novel, because Zora Hurston knows all about our reverend clergy.

But this novel is a mine of folklore; a study of social life in the rural south, which the author knows so well. Julia Peterkin, Du Bose Heyward, and Roark Bradford have written about the Black rustic but they have all described him with the cool objectivity of an outsider. Miss Hurston writes of her folk with the knowledge and warmth of understanding that comes only with the intimate spiritual association.

She knows her people and loves them, but she is not blind to their faults, their fads, or their foibles. She knows their weakness and their strength.

Her ear for Southern country dialect is superb and in setting it down she excels any Dixie writer of today … I confess that I read Jonah’s Gourd Vine with progressively increased interest and rapidly mounting enthusiasm. It is smoothly written, a finished piece of work, valuable alike as literature and sociology. When I laid it down, I voted it one of the best novels ever written about the Southern Negro farmers.

More about Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston

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