Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee: Views from 1948 & Beyond
By Nava Atlas | On June 13, 2023 | Comments (0)
Seraph on the Suwanee, Zora Neale Hurston’s fourth and last published novel (1948), was an outlier among her works, which included numerous short stories and ethnographic collections. The reason: it was her only book that was written about white people — specifically, Florida’s “white crackers.”
Exploring the cultural differences between the meek and colorless heroine, Arvay and her handsome, enterprising husband Jim, the novel received mixed-to-positive reviews by the white press.
Some reviewers bent over backwards to praise the fact that a Black writer produced a novel that wasn’t about race issues, bringing to light the lives and dialect of the turpentine people of Florida.
Kirkus Reviews’ succinct 1948 review read: “The colorful Florida ‘cracker’ language holds the mood throughout, and the total effect is one of charm and readability. Recommended.”
On the other hand, The New York Times titled their review “Freud in Turpentine” and wrote: “Arvay never heard of Freud … but she’s a textbook picture of a hysterical neurotic, right to the end of the novel.”
Black reviewers have been generally critical of the novel. I was unable to find full reviews of Seraph on the Suwanee in any Black newspapers from 1948, but commentary about the book by contemporary critics is readily available.
Professor John C. Charles, in a 2009 essay titled “Talk About the South: Unspeakable Things Unspoken in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee” wrote that compared with Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora’s much lauded and studied, Serpaph:
“… has received a far chillier response and until recently often condemned or dismissed out of hand … Seraph has tended to baffle and disturb even Hurston’s most devoted readers. Critic Mary Helen Washington, for example, dismisses Seraph as ‘an awkward and contrived novel, as vacuous as a soap opera.’ And Bernard Bell expels it from his influential study on the African American novel because ‘[it] is neither comic, nor folkloric, nor about Blacks.’
Late literary critic Claudia Tate, in a 1997 essay titled “Zora Neale Hurston’s Whiteface Novel” wrote, “Despite the tremendous popularity of the works of Zora Neale Hurston over the last two decades, Seraph on the Suwanee is still a marginal work.”
Following are three 1948 sample reviews from the perspective of white reviewers.
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In the Turpentine Country
From the original review by Virginia Oakey in the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, October 24, 1948: Arvay Meserve, heroine of Seraph on the Suwanee, is not a woman one would choose to spend a single evening with, for she is without humor or perception and suffers from pathological timidity. Yet the story of her life is definitely worth an evening or two.
This unenviable creature was born in the turpentine country of West Florida where life, as described by Miss Hurston, is a mean and degrading mistake. A few chapters into the book, Harvey is seduced by and married to (in the space of a summer afternoon) the most sought-after young man in the county, Jim Meserve.
Arvay’s suffering from her near-psychopathic feeling of inferiority is only increased by her excellent marriage. She takes a feeling of guilt to her wedding bed, for she has lived in mental adultery with her sister’s husband for several years. Now she lives in fear of the exposure of her secret.
The first of Arvay’s children is an imbecile. She believes this to be her punishment, so she decides the boy must remain with her — a decision that results in one of the most tragic incidents in the story.
Two other children are born to Arvay and her “high-toned, independent, money-making” husband. They are handsome, intelligent children; Arvay never believes herself worth of them, nor of her husband.
This goes on for twenty years. Jim Meserve’s patience is exhausted; yours certainly will be, too. However, those years aren’t without drama, and occasionally, in spite of Arvay, considerable humor. Arvay is forced to face herself. This she does with her customary cowardice until a death and a storm intervene —and she is equal to both.
Miss Hurston writes authoritatively of the “teppentine” (turpentine) country, the citrus belt, and life aboard a shrimping boat, all of which provide a background for Arvay’s “high-Christian” humility. The author has caught the patois of those areas; it’s colorful, often crude, and frequently poetic.
She writes of “the raw-head-and-bloody-bones of lonesomeness” and of a young girl dressed in her best clothes “looking as if she had wallowed in a rainbow.” In one instance “the hours stumbled by on rusty ankles.” In another, hours were like “raw, bony, homeless dogs — whining of their emptiness.”
“Teppentine” people do not say “She has eaten humble pie.” They say, “She has been to hell’s kitchen and licked out all the pots.” Indirect action they describe as “hitting a straight blow with a crooked stick.” A person who is living beyond his means is “giving a mighty high kick for a low cow.”
Despite Arvay’s meagre spirit, Miss Hurston has written a book that is extremely pleasant company.
Way Down Upon the Suwanee River
From the original review of Seraph On The Suwanee by Lewis Gannett in The Mirror (Los Angeles), October 18, 1948: I wish that Zora Neale Hurston had more to say in her new novel, for I love the speech rhythm with which she can make anything she writes a delight.
This is a story about a Florida cracker girl named Arvay and her ways of loving Jim Merserve. You could say about Miss Hurston’s story what Jim says about Arvay: she “took long enough to stumble round the teacup to get to the handle.”
Sawley on the Suwanee, where courting was public
Down in Sawley on the Suwanee, courting was public. The doings were something like a well-trained hound dog tackling a bobcat, and everyone looked on.
Jim Meserve had a face full of grin, and when he was around, Arvay just couldn’t make her face look like she’d been feasting off green persimmons. For the first time in her life, her vanity put on a little flesh. While Jim was talking, she almost forgot that she had given up the world after her sister snatched the Rev. Carl Middleton away from her.
Sawley, they said, was a town that wore out the knees of its breeches sliding to the Cross and wore out the seat of its pants backsliding, but outside of Arvay, few Sawleyites got thin thinking about the Reverend Middleton.
Some of them said you couldn’t even raise a tune if you put a wagonload of good compost under him and ten sacks of commercial fertilizer.
The world seems sad and dreary
Arvay just couldn’t believe how happy she was, married to Jim. She couldn’t get over what Jim called that old missionary distemper. She was afraid of admitting she was herself. And there came a time when Jim shouted at her that he didn’t want a standstill kind of love; he wanted a knowing and doing love, and Arvay loved like a coward.
Sometimes Miss Hurston, whose father was Mayor of the all-Negro town of Eatonville, Florida, hasn’t much use for people of any color who lack get-up-and-go and spend their spare time bewailing bad luck.
Lightning bugs in daytime
Arvay tries to disapprove of Jim, but her resolutions are:
“… just like the lightning bugs holding a convention.They met at night and made scorning speeches against the sun and swore to do away with it and light up the world themselves. But the sun came up the next morning and they all went under the leaves and owned up that the sun was boss-man in the world.”
Arvay was always throwing the rabbit into the briar patch.
Unfortunately, the lightning bugs don’t hold a convention on every one of Miss Hurston’s pages her boss-man is a little too perfect, and the Rev. Carl Middleton sits a little lower in the grass than the lowest insect along tobacco road. Even with Miss Hurston’s imagery flashing all about him, one gets a little tired of Jim Meserve’s he-man loving and Arvay’s stumbling around the teacup.
One hopes that Miss Hurston will put into her next novel more solid soup stock. She has a rare talent for cooking with words — as she proved with Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Mules and Men. But in Seraph On The Suwanee, she is wasting it on wilted turnip greens.
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A Novel About Poor Whites in the South, Without a Racial Issue
From the original review by Carter Brooke Jones in The Evening Star, Washington DC, October 17, 1948: It might be pointed out, before considering other merits of this novel, that Miss Hurston has done at least one thing noteworthy in these times.
She has written about the much-chronicled poor whites of the South without condescension, pity, or sentimentality.
She has presented a group of poor Southerners as recognizable human beings. Her characters aren’t fools because they have little formal education and speak a form of English that approaches a patois.
Some of them, indeed, are exceedingly shrewd, make money, and do well enough for themselves. Others are dumb, lazy, and hopeless. But so are some college graduates.
If the successful ones are underprivileged, they haven’t heard about it. They aren’t oblivious to the advantages of schooling, and most of their sons and daughters go to college. Their problems and emotions are pretty much those of people everywhere, which may come as a surprise to readers of Caldwell, Faulkner, and their disciples.
Miss Hurston has managed to write of the contemporary, or recently past South without bringing in a lynching or touching on the race problem. In fact, the friendship of a Southern white man and a black man is an outstanding phase of this story. All this sidestepping of social and economic issues no doubt will disturb Marxist critics if they bother to examine the book.
In the citrus belt
The story starts in a little town on the West Coast of Florida when Arvay Henson, daughter of a bedraggled poor family abandons her intentions of dedicating her life as a Baptist missionary and marries Jim Meserve. Jim is the strongest and best-looking young man in the turpentine camp. He moves Arvay and their baby south to the citrus belt.
Before long, he is the owner of a nice piece of land. He ends up owning a fleet of fishing boats, a citrus grove, and part of a swanky real estate development.
It’s essentially the story of Arvay and her struggle to understand and utilize a world strange to her. She is narrow and afraid of anything new. Jim, with little more education than she had, is daring, clever, and resourceful. He is also domineering, and Arvay sees only his obvious traits, overlooking the sacrifices he makes and the changes he takes for her and their children.
Years pass before she appreciates Jim, and her awakening comes almost too late, for his patience has worn out at last.
What about the war?
Earthy humor and the pathos of groping and misunderstanding mingle in Miss Hurston’s narrative. A novel of considerable merit should be allowed some deficiencies. In Seraph on the Suwanee, some minor episodes are overdeveloped, while others are passed over quickly.
The characters she describes might have had little interest in the outside world, but sure more than she indicates. The story starts in the early 1900s and continues for more than twenty years; yet the First World War, which must have had a measure of influence on some of the people in the story, isn’t even mentioned.
More about Seraph on the Suwanee
- Zora Neale Hurston and the WPA in Florida
- On the official Zora Neale Hurston website
- Reader discussion on Goodreads