Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Spunk" by Zora Neale Hurston- Short Story from the Harlem Renaissance

"Spunk" by Zora Neale Hurston (1925, 5 pages)


Zora Hurston (1881 to 1960-Alabama, USA) was one of the leading writers of the  Harlem Renaissance.   Hurston had a very interesting life.     Born in relative poverty she attended   Howard University until she was offered a scholarship  to attend Barnard college, an elite women's college at which she was the only person of color in attendance at the time.    She graduated, along with her very famous co-student Margaret Mead, with a degree in anthropology.     Her anthropological focus was on  the customs and speech of African-Americans living in the rural south of the USA.    Hurston studied and wrote about people from small towns in the Alabama and Florida very much as her mentor and former professor, Ruth Benedict did in her famous studies of the customs of the people of Polynesia.    Hurston also wrote and published a number of short stories, and novels.    Her most famous work was her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. ( Halle Barry played the lead character in a recent movie based on this novel.    It is too bad Hurston who died in poverty did not live to see this movie made!)   She co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes.  

In one of my posts for the Literary Book Blog Hop I said one of the things I do not really like in the works I read is attempts by writers to capture the speech of "country" people.    They often come across to me as patronizing, or worse.    "Spunk", in my opinion, illustrates why I said this.

"Spunk" is set in the deep rural south.   (You can almost localize it to rural Florida through the references to the trees in the story.)      "Spunk" centers on a married woman, her lover and her husband.   In a quarrel the lover kills the husband when he confronted him.        The husband had been pushed into fighting the other man by a group of his peers hanging out in front of a local store.     The lover then tells everyone he has been threatened  at night by a black bob cat who entered his house.    There is an interesting line at the close of the story so I will not tell more of the plot.

Hurston fell into disfavor among many people for her depiction of the speech of the characters in this story (and in her work generally.)      Her critics say she depicts the speech of the characters in her story in a fashion just as an extreme racist would.     As I read  the story how I thought that no publisher today would dream of publishing this story.    In addition to possible issues with the speech patterns the characters are depicted as violent people driven by their sexual impulses to kill one another over quarrels.   Hurston replied to her critics at the time, who included Ricard Wright, that she was simply a scientist recording what she saw.

"Spunk" is pretty good story.     It is historically interesting and you can read it online in under five minutes.
It is hard in 21th century not to see the depiction of the people in "Spunk" as pandering to the racial attitudes of Americans in  the 1920s.     You can decide in this brief sample if her critics might be right.

“Aw, Ah doan’t know. You never kin tell. He might turn him up an‘ spank him fur gettin’ in the way, but Spunk wouldn’t shoot no unarmed man. Dat razor he carried outa heah ain’t gonna run Spunk down an‘ cut him, an’ Joe ain’t got the nerve to go up to Spunk with it knowing he totes that Army 45. He makes that break outa heah to bluff us. He’s gonna hide that razor behind the first likely palmetto root an‘ sneak back home to bed. Don’t tell me nothin’ 'bout that rabbit-foot colored man. Didn’t he meet Spunk an‘ Lena face to face one day las’ week an‘ mumble sumthin’ to Spunk ‘bout lettin’ his wife alone?”


It only took me a few minutes to read this story.  It is well narrated and kept me interested.       I would endorse the story with the warning about the speech patterns.   It is part of American history.     Maybe it takes us a bit out of our comfort zone of political correct writing  styles but that is good once and a while.   


Teachers, would you teach a story like this today?




If you have read her work, what are your thoughts on her legacy?




Mel u

2 comments:

emeire said...

I remember you saying that about the speech pattern. I was just thinking about it today. At the time I had said that it didn't bother me and I had Faulkner in my mind.
I have just finished The Best Laid Plans and one of the characters is of Scottish origins and at times Fallis tries to reproduce the accent (dinnae) and it annoyed me. Maybe because it wasn't a constant and when it happened was trying to figure out why or trying to hear how the word would be pronounced and it kind of broke the rhythm...
So I guess that for me it depends on the way it's done.

Your review is interesting. I'll have a look at that story at some stage.
Em

mel u said...

emeire-I guess my biggest reason not to like attempts to recreate speech patterns is it breaks the pace of my reading!