Read Jonah's Gourd Vine Online
Authors: Zora Neale Hurston
With a Foreword by Rita Dove
and An Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Who is one of the long-wingded angels
Right round the throne
Go gator and muddy the water
When the publishing house of J. B. Lippincott inquired ifâ¦
God was grumbling his thunder and playing the zig-zag lightningâ¦
There was a strange noise that John had never heard.
One morning in the early spring John found Amy sittingâ¦
There was work a plenty on the Shelby place. Johnâ¦
It was dusk-dark when John walked into the tie-camp. Atâ¦
John and Zeke got back to Notasulga in time forâ¦
A If Pearson welcomed John back with a bluff cursingâ¦
You Lucy!” Emmeline scolded as she struggled along behind Johnâ¦
A month after he was married John had moved upâ¦
Duke came panting up to Lucy's late the next afternoon.
John's destination was purely accidental. When he came out uponâ¦
As John and his mate stepped off the train atâ¦
People in Sanford began to call Lucy aside. There wasâ¦
An' Dangie Dewoe's hut squatted low and peered at theâ¦
Lucy was lying sick. The terrible enemy had so gnawedâ¦
They put Lucy in a little coffin next day, theâ¦
Deacons Hambo, Watson, Hoffman and Harris waited on Rev. Pearsonâ¦
The Lord of the wheel that turns on itself slept,â¦
Hattie was rubbing in the first water and dropping theâ¦
The fourth Sunday came shining with the dangerous beauty ofâ¦
Harris, Hattie and one-eyed Fred Tate went on with theirâ¦
Time is long by the courthouse clock.
Second Sunday in the month came rolling around. Pastoral day.
Sally, you never ought tuh bought me no car. Dat'sâ¦
Two hours later when John found himself dressing in aâ¦
“You laks dat ole train Ah see,” the Negro said to John, watching him as he all but fell down into the railroad cut, trying to keep sight of the tail of the train.
“Yeah, man Ah lakted dat. It say something but Ah ain't heered it 'nough tuh tell whut it say yit. You know whut it say?”
“It don't say nothin'. It jes' make uh powerful racket, dass all.”
“Naw, it say some words too. Ahm comin' heah pleny mo' times and den Ah tell yuh whut it say.”
When the publishing house of J. B. Lippincott inquired if the author of the short story “The Gilded Six Bits” was working on a novel, Zora Neale Hurston took paper and pencil and headed for home. She rented a room in Sanford, Florida, next door to the all-black town where she had grown up, and began to write
Jonah's Gourd Vine.
In October 1933, a scant four months later, the manuscript was accepted for publication.
Jonah's Gourd Vine
takes the classic form of the
John, an unlettered but determined young man, ventures forth to make his fortune. What he learns of the world and his own nature form the trajectory of his life and the novel.
Like those of many black Americans, John's origins are
murky. His mother Amy bears him while working on Alf Pearson's farm; she marries Ned Crittenden and moves to the other side of Big Creek. Ned, who was raised a slave, despises John for what he representsâfor there is every indication that John is the illegitimate son of the white judge.
Even as a young man, John is aware of the power of utterance. His fear of the first locomotive he sees is quickly replaced by the desire to understand it. And though he never learns to speak to his own soul, he is fascinated by the infinite variety of nature's music:
â¦John sat on the foot-log and made some words to go with the drums of the Creek. Things walked in the birch woods, creep, creep, creep. The hound dog's lyric crescendo lifted over and above the tree tops. He was on the foot-log, half way across the Big Creek where maybe people laughed and maybe people had lots of daughters. The moon came up. The hunted coon panted down to the Creekâ¦[t]he tenor-singing hound dog went home. Night passed. No more Ned, no hurry. No telling how many girls might be living on the new and shiny side of the Big Creek. John almost trumpeted exultantly at the new sun. He breathed lustily. He stripped and carried his clothes across, then recrossed and plunged into the swift water and breasted strongly over.
This passage contains all the elements of John's spiritâhis exuberant masculine energy, his gift for language, and his intense relationship between his interior self and the natural world, both his headstrong lustiness and his ability for provident forethought. (He carries his clothes across the river, then recrosses before swimming over.)
This scene, however, occurs right after his mother's repeated warning not to swim the Songahatchee and John's parting promise to her to stop “runnin' and uh rippin' and clambin' trees and rocks and jumpin'.” The seeds of his inner conflict are evident.
In an ironic twist recalling the incestuous relationships in the South, John leaves home to find work under Alf Pearson, who remarks, “Your face looks sort of familiar but I can't place you” before giving him the cast-off clothes of his legitimate son. But when the judge's wife objects to John driving their coach, he is put to work in the barns.
John, who adopts Pearson as his surname, is an immediate success among the black workers, especially the women: they seduce him right and left. He focuses his attention on the fiery little Lucy Potts, the smartest black girl in the area. Her excellence inspires John to “eat up dat school,” and he joins the church when he is told that Lucy sings in the choir. After a determined courtship, Lucy and John become man and wife.
Although John left home at the suggestion of his mother, he soon learns the temptation of flight. Whenever things get sticky, he runs away. And, just as he is able to break a promise to his mother minutes afterward without a second thought, John sees no discrepancy in enjoying a stream of women while swearing to love Lucy body and soul. Even before marriage, John must leave the Pearson place and find work at a logging camp to escape a jealous husband; and though he swears to Lucy that “Ah loves you and you alone,” after marriage he still cannot stay away from other women. There is Mehaley and Big 'Oman and then Delphine, who comforts John while Lucy lies in labor with their fourth child. When Lucy's brother takes their marriage bed in partial payment of a debt, John beats him up and is consequently summoned to court. Alf Pearson gives him money along with some “fatherly” advice: “John, distance is the only cure for certain diseases.”
John moves to the all-black settlement of Eatonville, Florida (Hurston's home town) and sends for Lucy. He grows in confidence and takes his place in the community as a man, while Lucy's energy is taken up by children; all her fierce intelligence is channeled into advising her husband. Together they forge John's reputation as minister of Zion Hope Church and eventually mayor in the neighboring town of Sanford.
Actually, John's “disease” is that he is too smooth a talker. He is carried away by his own words, just as he is carried away by his body. His stirring prayers convince him and everyone else at Zion Hope that he has been called to preach, although his wife warns him against confusing talent with commitment:
“Lucy, look lak Ah jus' found out whut Ah kin do. De words dat sets de church on fire comes tuh me jus' so. Ah reckon de angels must tell 'em tuh me.”
“God don't call no man, John, and turn 'im loose uh fool.”
Perhaps his most despicable flight occurs when his younger daughter Isis lies desperately ill; terrified that she will die, he runs into the arms of another woman until she recovers. (Ironically, later it is the nine-year-old Isis who stands by her dying mother.) John returns, shamefaced, with gifts for Lucyâa new dress and a pineappleâthat seem as blasphemous as they are ludicrous.
The procession of women continues until John meets Hattie Tyson, who enjoins the aid of a conjure woman to keep him at her side. Lucy's sound advice grows wearisome to him, and her cautious inquiries into his infidelities finally enrage him. Remembering John's poor track record with promises, it is with foreboding that we hear him swear to Lucy: “Li'l Bit, Ah ain't never laid de weight uh mah hand on you in malice.” When Lucy falls ill, John continues to see other women, and Lucy makes a decisive pronouncement on John's sin-now-atone-later attitude: “You can't clean yo'self wid yo' tongue lak uh cat.” Stung by the truth, John slaps her. She turns her face to the wall, withdrawing her support from him, and dies.
This act of malice, which hastens Lucy's death, is the worm that cuts down the great vine:
And the Lord God appointed a plant, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from this discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day,
God appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered.
Jonah 4: 6â7
Indeed, John Pearson is a rapidly growing vine, and everything he touches blossoms under his hand: he is a favorite with the women, he is popular with the men, he is a good worker and a gifted storyteller, and finally, as minister and mayor, he becomes both a spiritual and a community leader. His philandering ways do not seem to slow him down until he commits the ghastly sin of striking his wife on her deathbed.
The worm, however, could also be Hattie, who is willing to use magic more compelling than feminine wiles to topple the preacher. John marries Hattie, and beats her after discovering that he's been “conjured.” When Hattie slyly pleads her case before Deacon Harris (who is jealous of John's successes with women), Harris assures her, “Ah'd cut down dat Jonah's gourd vine in a uh minute, if Ah had ail de say-so.” When she files for divorce, John does not confute her testimony.
The worm of malice burrows through the church community. Long uneasy about the preacher's philanderings, the congregation of Zion Hope plans to dethrone him. On the day of reckoning, John preaches the sermon of his life.
John's final sermon is taken nearly verbatim from Hurston's field notes on a country preacher. It is a meditation on martyrdom and heroism, reflecting John's position before the church; after a brief rhapsodic digression on the creation of earth, he zeroes in on Jesus, come on his “train of mercy” to save mankind. In John's depiction of the Resurrection, the train of mercy turns into the “damnation train,” which in a bizarre but effective conclusion is derailed when the cow-catcher rams into Jesus's side. Final Judgment is pictured as a convention where “de two trains of Time shall meet on de trestle.”
Surrounded by enemies who had once been friends, bitten through at the root, John steps down from the pulpit and walks out of the church. He decides to earn a living as a carpenter,
but his honest efforts fail in the face of the community's delight in persecuting a fallen idol.
Are we to sympathize with John as a victim of malicious ill-wishers, or condemn him for his despicable conduct toward his wife? Since Hattie has a spell put on him, is he to blame for his actions at all?
If we look at the Biblical story of Jonah and the vine, John's “case” becomes clearer: the prophet has predicted the fall of the great city of Nineveh, upon which its inhabitants repent by fasting and covering themselves in sackcloth and ashes. Moved to pity, the Lord revokes his sentence, and Jonah takes to the hills to sulk. After God has caused the vine to wither, he orders the sun to beat down until Jonah bemoans the loss of shade and exclaims that he is “angry enough to die.” The Lord replies:
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grown, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
Sudden growthâfame achieved without thought or laborâmust maintain a precarious balance. Perhaps John's fatal flaw is his inability to listen to himself and consequently his reluctance to put any effort into changing his ways. Unable to accept responsibility for his actions, he either runs away or “licks himself clean” with fast talking. Even the heaped-on tribulations that follow Lucy's death fail to lead him to an understanding of his selfishness: all he can see is the hypocrisy of others. And when Lucy finally returns to him in a dream, he is oblivious to the warning:
He killed the snake and carried Lucy across in his arms to where Alf Pearson stood at the cross roads and pointed
down a white shell road with his walking cane and said, “Distance is the only cure for certain diseases,” and he and Lucy went racing down the dusty white road together. Somehow Lucy got lost from him, but there he was on the roadâhappy because the dead snake was behind him, but crying in his loneliness for Lucy.
Instead of seeing the dream as a condemning portrait of the pattern of his life, John believes he is meant to leave townâto run away again, and to seek his fortune elsewhere. The proper and rich widow Sally Lovelace takes him in, and John's luck begin to turn: they marry, his carpentry business picks up, and Zion Hope asks him back. His triumphant homecoming, resplendent in the new car Sally has bought him, brings with it the admiration of his former enemies as well as the irresistible blandishments of a sweet young thing named Ora. In no time at all, John succumbs to lust again; appalled at his weakness, he flees Sanford and heads back to his wife. So sunk in self-recrimination is he that he fails to see an oncoming train. He is killed instantly. A man who does not learn from his mistakes is doomed to repeat them. In many ways, John has cut himself down.
They called for the instrument that they had brought to America in their skinsâthe drumâand they played upon itâ¦. The drum with the man skin that is dressed with human blood, that is beaten with a human shin-bone and speaks to gods as a man and to men as a God.
Jonah's Gourd Vine
hold up today, apart from its unquestionable value as a portrait of Southern black life in the first decades of the twentieth centuryâor does a sympathetic portrait of a philandering preacher seem antiquated as a work of literature, politically retrograde? As his first name attests, John is Everyman, and Pearson is a surname with multitudinous echoes. In a bitter reference to the lost ancestry of black
slaves, he is someone's (but whose?) son; like that archetypal Son of God, he is “pierced” by those he has trusted; conversely, he is a man, pierced by Adam's rib, and his human frailty eventually causes his downfall.
Lucy, on the other hand, is almost a parody of the faithful, betrayed wife: she subordinates her dreams to his ambitions, she is rebuked and dies, the husband remarries, the children get farmed out. And yet no one can take Lucy's place. She haunts the novel, and her absence is at least as compelling as John's suffering.
For its time, Zora Neale Hurston's first novel, produced in four months when the author was forty-two, is a remarkable achievement. Written in the vicinity of her birthplace,
Jonah's Gourd Vine,
unsurprisingly, does not stray far from the autobiographicalâJohn and Lucy are based on Hurston's father and mother, and Lucy's deathbed scene can be found in its original (with Zora as the nine-year-old daughter) in Hurston's autobiography,
Dust Tracks on a Road.
What is striking, however, is that this young woman did not make one of the major mistakes of first novelistsâsticking too faithfully to the “true story”âbut knew how to fashion of her parents' lives a tale of compelling pathos and majesty.