Variations around a theme : the place of Eatonville in the work of Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston is a complicated figure whose work has always aroused contradictory responses. During her lifetime she was often more readily appreciated by white readers who enjoyed her boisterous accounts of apparently unthreatening 'Negroes', than by other African American writers who felt that she pandered to white stereotypes, simplifying the black experience and the black psyche. Neglected for several decades, Hurston was again brought to the attention of literary and cultural critics in the late seventies by Robert Hemenway and Alice Walker, who published seminal reconsiderations of her work. Since then Hurston has become a central figure, not only in the African American canon, but also in the mainstream, becoming, to paraphrase the critic Hazel Carby, a veritable industry in her own right. Yet she remains a writer who evokes mixed responses. For some she is an exemplary Womanist and an uncomplicated role model. For others, though, she is a reactionary individualist who offers her readers little more than escapism and unexamined nostalgia. Particularly contested is the sort of African American space Hurston describes in her work. Centred on the all-black town of Eatonville, it has seemed to some an ideal space worth recovering for the potential it possesses for sustaining a model of authentic African American life. For others though, it has seemed an irrelevant and reactionary retreat from the complexities and realities of twentieth century life and an ideal, which has little relevance for an increasingly urban black population. In this thesis I intend to examine more closely the space and place that Hurston creates in order to argue that the Eatonville of her texts is more complex and ambiguous than either of these accounts allow.