When publisher Bertram Lippincott read Zora Neale Hurston's short story “The Gilded Six-Bits” in Story magazine in August 1933, he wrote to inquire whether she was working on a novel. She was, and by early October she sent him the manuscript of Jonah's Gourd Vine. It was published the following May. Loosely based on the lives of Hurston's parents, Jonah tells the story of Lucy and John Pearson's courtship and marriage, John's swift rise to prominence as a Baptist preacher, his equally swift fall, Lucy's strength and perseverance, and the family's ultimate dissolution. All this takes place against a background of social and technological change occurring in the South at the turn of the century. These changes are subordinate to the cultural traditions that remain intact: the sermons, work songs, courtship rituals, aphorisms, children's rhymes, and hoodoo beliefs and practices. In the foreground are the experiences of Lucy and John.
In their hometown of Notasulga, Alabama, Lucy is a daughter of a well-to-do farmer, while John's family lives “over-the-creek.” She excels in the classroom, while he has mastered the arts of the vernacular culture. After marrying Lucy, John decides to move the family to Florida, where his preaching wins him respect and status. But John's philandering costs him that respect and he almost loses his pastorate, until Lucy advises him how to win it back. He does, but resentful of her help, he soon is caught in the same sin. After Lucy dies, he remarries quickly and unwisely. The novel ends when John, married a third time, is killed when his car is hit by a train, the image the novel associates with him.
As Hurston confided to fellow writer James Weldon Johnson, her protagonist represents the love of eloquence and beauty that she believed was pervasive among African Americans. But John was to represent more: in the pulpit “he becomes the voice of the spirit.” As is true throughout Hurston's fiction, the spirit invoked in the novel fuses Christian theology and African belief, imaged here as the drum. Yet the novel never adequately explores the reasons John, the gifted preacher-poet, repeatedly contravenes the dictates of the spirit and misreads his own metaphors.
Lucy is also unable to achieve an identity between word and deed, even though she possesses the insight that her husband lacks. In a passage echoed in the maternal deathbed scene in Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Lucy Pearson warns her daughter, “Don't you love nobody better'n you do yo'self. Do you'll be dying befo' yo' time is out.” Loving John too much, Lucy has acquiesced in her own suppression. At her death, she remains on the threshold of self-discovery.
Jonah brims with the lore Hurston had spent six intensive years collecting. Some critics argue that the folk materials overwhelm the narrative. But others assert that Jonah is an experimental novel that dramatizes Hurston's theories of African American culture, particularly its African retentions and the primacy of spirituality.
Cheryl A. Wall
Related content in Oxford Index
Zora Neale Hurston (1891—1960)