Saturday, September 21, 2013


Zora Neale Hurston’s first published novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), was loosely based upon Hurston’s parents.  The main character, John Pearson, is the bi-racial son of a poor woman married to a brutal sharecropper in rural Alabama just after the end of the Civil War.  The first half of the novel is taken up with his struggle to make his way in the world.

While working for his mother’s former master, Judge Alf Pearson (who is probably John’s father but the novel never says so), John gets an education and learns to read.  John falls in love with Lucy Potts, the daughter of a well to do black family.  Lucy’s mother strongly disapproves of John and refuses to attend John and Lucy’s wedding.  After injuring Lucy’s brother in a fight, John is forced to flee Alabama.  John re-locates to Eatonville, Florida, an all black town north of Orlando.  Finally able to be re-united with his wife and children, John become a prominent preacher and a prosperous carpenter.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine refers to the biblical story of the prophet Jonah and the gourd vine. (Jonah 4:6-10).  In the Bible story, the Prophet Jonah sleeps under a gourd vine which grows in a day and shelters him from the sun.  A worm comes along and eats the gourd vine, leaving Jonah exposed.  Most critics view John Pearson’s marriage to Lucy and his prosperous career as a minister as being the comforting gourd vine. Pearson’s sins, especially his affairs with other women, are the worm which destroys the fragile sanctuary of his marriage and career.

The Prophet Jonah asleep under the Gourd vine.

Just like John Pearson, Hurston’s father had remarried soon after the death of her mother.  Hurston’s step mother was a cruel women who forced Hurston and her sister from the home.  Lucy Potts, the character modeled on Hurston’s real life mother Lucy, is presented as a tragic figure who stayed loyal to her husband through all of his adulterous affairs and abusive behavior.  On her death bed, Lucy says that she has been to sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots.  In the novel, John’s gold digging second wife, Hattie, brings him nothing but trouble and causes John to loose his position as a pastor.  (Hattie goes to the local hoodoo “root doctor” to be able to cast a spell on John to make him love her and stay with her).

Although John tries to reform and is given another chance at a happy and prosperous life with his third wife, Sally, in the end his sinful and weak nature win out and lead to his death.  Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a great work of American literature.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960) was one of the black artists who formed the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” and was a novelist, playwright and anthropologist.  Dying in poverty and anonymity in 1960, Hurston's work was re-discovered by students of literature and black feminist artists like Alice Walker, who found Hurston’s unmarked grave and put a marker on it proclaiming Hurston “A Genius of the South.”

I read Jonah’s Gourd Vine in the Library of America edition of Hurston’s novels and selected short stories. Highly recommended.  There is definitely more Zora Neale Hurston to come on The Eclectic Reader.

Pax Et Bonum.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Black Mischief

Something zany is going on in the East African Kingdom of Azania in the early 1930s.  Seth, the new Oxford educated emperor, wants to modernize the country.  This means that the army must wear boots instead of going barefoot, the cannibalistic natives must stop eating human flesh, they must have an economy based upon worthless paper money just like the Europeans, and they must have lots of birth control.  In support of this mission Emperor Seth brings in his old chum from Oxford, Basil Seal, to run the Ministry of Modernization.

In brief this is the plot of Evelyn Waugh’s 1932 dark comedy Black Mischief.  Waugh wrote Black Mischief after traveling to Ethiopia to observe the coronation of Emperor Haile Salassie in 1931.  Waugh had written a travel book, Remote People, about his travels in Africa in which he was very much not impressed.  

The always politically incorrect Evelyn Waugh smoking a politically incorrect cigar.

Black Mischief is racist, sarcastic, outrageous and over the top.  It is also very funny.  As one reviewer on Goodreads said it’s like reading the script for an extended Monty Python sketch.  The native troops who have never worn shoes boil their new shoes and eat them.  A family moves into an overturned truck in the middle of the highway (this is apparently something Waugh actually witnessed in Africa!).  A group of cannibal natives eat the daughter of the British Ambassador and feed her to her unsuspecting boyfriend. Black Mischief is composed of one farcical scene after another.  

The book does have a serious point.  Waugh is satirizing “modernization.”  Whatever is deemed “modern” Emperor Seth has to have.  No doubt taking a jibe at the rising fascist states in Europe in the early thirties, Waugh has his English Modernization Minister say:

 “we’ve got a much easier job now than we should have had fifty years ago.  If we’d had to modernise a country then it would have meant constitutional monarchy, bicameral legislature, proportional representation, women’s suffrage, independent judicature, freedom of the press, referendums . . .”
“What is all that?” asked the Emperor.
“Just a few ideas that have ceased to be modern.”

(It is ironic that Waugh took a pro-fascist stance in favor of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1935.)

Although Waugh had recently converted to Catholicism, Black Mischief was not well received by the Catholic press.  Ernest Oldmeadow, the editor of the Catholic newspaper The Tablet complained that Black Mischief was “ a disgrace to anyone professing the Catholic name.” *    Outraged by the sexual references in the book, Oldmeadow was particularly outraged by Waugh’s description of a Nestorian Monastery which was based upon Waugh’s real life visit to a monastery of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

“A well substantiated tradition affirmed that the little river watering the estate was in fact the brook Kedron conveyed there subterraneously; its waters were in continual requisition for the relief of skin diseases and stubborn boils.  Here too were preserved among other relics of less certain authenticity, David’s stone prised out of the forehead of Goliath (a boulder of astonishing dimensions), a leaf from the Barren Fig Tree, the rib from which Eve had been created, and a wooden cross which had fallen from heaven quite unexpectedly during Good Friday luncheon some years back.”

English Catholics were not the only people who were not too happy with Waugh’s humor.  When Waugh traveled back to Ethiopia to cover the Italian invasion for a London newspaper, the British Embassy, offended at Waugh’s lampooning of British diplomats in Black Mischief, refused to offer him any assistance.**  

If you can overlook the racist nineteenth century “White Man’s Burden” viewpoint and juvenile humor (Waugh was only 31 when Black Mischief was published), Black Mischief is still a great deal of fun.  

* Humphrey Carpenter,  The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, p. 241.

**  Ibid p. 282.

Sunday, September 1, 2013


Well, I understand that I’m only 26 years late. I just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s blockbuster novel about the decadence, excess and injustice of 1980s New York, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).
Bonfire was Wolfe’s first novel. Prior to that he had specialized in the so called "New Journalism" which sought to apply the descriptive techniques used by fiction writers to journalism. Bonfire was Wolfe’s attempt to write a novel which criticized modern American society in the same way that William Thackery Makepiece satirized 19th century England in Vanity Fair.

The book was first published as a serial in Rolling Stone magazine. The idea of serializing the novel appealed to Wolfe who thought of himself as a modern day Dickens. However, substantial changes were made to the story before publication in book form.

I’m not going to bore everybody with a play by play of the plot and characters. This is easily available elsewhere on the net and this book has been widely read.

Although Wolfe’s characters are almost characterizations, and many of his scenes and situations are grossly exaggerated, I found his exaggerations to be rooted firmly in fact. It is a fact that the Young Turks of Wall Street, making millions of dollars on each trade, viewed themselves as "Masters of the Universe," just like Sherman McCoy does.

Sherman is so wrapped up in his power and wealth that he works all the time and is never home. Although he loves his 6 year old daughter deeply, he has become bored with Judy, his wife, as she approaches the old age of 40.

Since Sherman brings down a million dollars a year, enough to pay his daughters tuition at an exclusive private school, and the $21,000 a month mortgage payment on his Park Avenue apartment, he thinks he deserves sexual excitement which his wife is not providing him with. The exciting beautiful gold digger Maria satisfies Sherman’s sexual fantasies and is the cause of his downfall.

It turns out that all of Sherman’s power as a "Master of Universe" is an elaborate house of cards. When Sherman and Maria take a wrong turn off the freeway into the Bronx things go terribly wrong. Blocked on a freeway entrance ramp by a tire in the middle of the road, Sherman and Maria believe they are being robbed. When Maria takes off in the car in a panic she hits Henry Lamb, a young black teenager from a housing project in the Bronx.

And it takes off from there. Henry Lamb, who is considered an honor student just because he shows up in school every day, lies near death in a coma in the hospital. An Al Sharpton - Jesse Jackson type character, the Reverend Bacon, uses the cause of Lamb and his struggling mother as a political football to manipulate New York public officials.

From his posh world on Wall Street and Park Avenue, Sherman is thrust into the criminal justice system in the Bronx. Wolfe describes the crime ridden streets of the Bronx as a jungle and the criminal courts are another jungle for Sherman.

Wolfe’s description of the criminal courts rings very true to me. Although I was an Assistant District Attorney in a rural area in the Deep South, much that Wolfe describes about what goes on at the Bronx Criminal Courts is very familiar territory.

Sherman McCoy is not the only character in this vast sprawling novel who is attached to some vanity which is ultimately cast into the fire. The only characters who come out well are Fallow the muck raking tabloid journalist and the Gold-Digging Maria who is pretty much willing to do anything for her own pleasure and advancement.

This novel still holds up well and has much to recommend it. I have no doubt it will still be being read a century from now.