Mules and Men is one of the books that brought Zora Neale Hurston back onto the literary scene after her work had faded almost into obscurity. It was rediscovered by Alice Walker, and she spoke about it in her article to Ms. Magazine titled “In search of Zora Neale Hurston.” After this article, Mules and Men was put back into print, and is today regarded as one of Hurston’s most important contributions to African American cultural studies (Mules).
Mules and Men was the culmination of the anthropological field work Hurston had been conducting under various grants, Franz Boas’ mentorship and under Charolette Mason’s funding. Hurston is known both for her ethnographical work and for her literary tendenices. Mules and Men is a fascinating piece as it deals with anthropology in a very story-like way. Indeed, her inter-dialogue gives the collection a plot, characters, and narration. Framing her scientific novel in this way, Hurston expanded her audience beyond just those in academia, and allowed for the general public to read about the lives of the southern black folk. At the time though, she feared that this between talk would lessen the credibility of her folklore in the scientific community (Wall).
Indeed, the general literary public adored her story like characters and dialogue. Henry Lee Moon in “The New Republic” said “the intimacy she established with her subjects, she reproduces on the printed page, enabling the reader to feel himself a part of that circle.” However, among the scientific community, many felt that this inter-dialogue took away from the anthropological material contained in the book. Hurston’s own mentor Franz Boas even declined to write a full introduction for the book based on this premise. Despite his concerns however, Franz Boas did write a small forward for Mules and Men which increased its credibility in the scientific community, and helped the collection’s reception. In this intro he stated “It is the great merit of Miss Hurston’s work that she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted as such by the companions of her childhood (Lee).” Regardless, this book is still often regarded as more of a literary collection of folktales than a scientific report of manners.
Many memebers of the Harlem Renaissance movement felt that Zora presented too idyllic of a view of black life, and others said she did little to criminalize ” Ole Massa” in the tales she told. It was widely received in the this community as excluding some essential parts of the southern black experience such as exploitation, misery, and fear. Sterling Brown, a prominent intellectual in the field said of the book: that while it was refreshingly authentic, it was incomplete. “Mules and Men should be more bitter, it would be nearer to the truth (Cotera).”
By the mid 1950’s, almost all of Hurston’s works had gone out of print, and she was working as a maid to a white woman. She died in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Years later, Alice Walker named Mules and Men among her top books to read, and this sparked the re-circling of it in print. It is used today as a valuable piece of academia both in regards to the understanding of the black south and for its literary merit. “Mules and Men argues for the re-evaluation of the black folk aesthetic on its own terms…testifies Hurston’s belief that “folk were creating an art that didn’t need the sanction of art to affirm its beauty (Hemenway).””
Today, literary critics applaud Hurston’s use of between-talk, stating that it exemplifies the process of collecting such folklore, while increasing the interest of the audience in the material. “The manipulation of the “between-story conversation and business, is the means through which Hurston is able to give voice to women in her text (Wall).”
Wall, Cheryl A. “Mules and Men and Women: Zora Neale Hurston’s Strategies of Narration and Visions of Female Empowerment.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 23, no. 4, 1989, pp. 661–680.
Cotera, MariÌa Eugenia. Native Speakers: Ella Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Jovita GonzaÌLez, and the Poetics of Culture. Austin, Tex, University of Texas Press, 2010.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography. Urbana, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Lee Moon, Henky. “Big Old Lies.” New Republic, vol. 85, no. 1097, 11 Dec. 1935, p. 142.
By H.I. BROCK. “The Full, True Flavor of Life in a Negro Community.” New York Times (1923-Current file), Nov 10, 1935, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times,
“Mules and Men: Ways of Seeing: Introduction.” Mules and Men: Ways of Seeing: Introduction, Univesity of Virginia, xroads.virginia.edu/~ma01/grand-jean/hurston/chapters/ways/introduction.html. Accessed 19 Mar. 2017.
Book Review Digest. New York, H.W. Wilson.