Friday, April 25, 2014

The Fire and the Cloud

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
From Zora Neale Hurston: Novels & Stories

Jacket illustration for the hardcover first edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939).
For more than five years Zora Neale Hurston worked on a novel that would blend the work she had done in African American ethnography and folklore into a retelling of the life of Moses. When she finally published Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1939, she explained why the Old Testament story appealed so strongly to black Americans: “Who has the power to command God to go to a peak of a mountain and there demand of Him laws with which to govern a nation? . . . That calls for power, and that is what Africa sees in Moses to worship.” The late African American critic and editor Blyden Jackson summarizes Hurston’s novel in an introduction to the 1984 paperback edition:
Hurston is writing an allegory, telling the story, at one level of her narration, of some Hebrews caught in Egypt and their march to a promised land. . . . It does not deviate by one essential whit from the same story as it is told in the Bible. Yet, from beginning to end, her novel is also, on a second level of narration, a story about black America, not because Hurston anywhere says that it is, but because Hurston’s folklore everywhere happily transports Hurston’s reader to a position from which every Jew in Goshen is converted into an American Negro and every Egyptian in Old Pharaoh’s Egypt into a white in the America where Hurston’s folk Negroes live. . . .

. . . Moses is also satire. Both witty and profound are Hurston’s observations about black America with its, as it seemed to her, regrettably wide and deep division in loyalties among its upper class, its black bourgeoisie, and the Negro masses from whom her folklore came.
In 1934, when Dorothy West launched the new magazine Challenge, she requested a piece from Hurston. West’s biographer Cherene Sherrard-Johnson surmises that the editor of the new publication, established to further the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, was disappointed with what her friend offered: a “folksy” retelling of Moses’s death scene on Mount Nebo. Although we don’t know the precise nature of West’s reaction, Hurston did offer to withdraw the story and responded, “If you do not like this un-Negro story, why not go to ‘Story’ magazine and get permission to re-publish ‘The Gilded Six-Bits’ [a story published the previous year]?” Yet West apparently had a change of heart, since “The Fire and the Cloud” appeared in Challenge’s second issue.

This short story was Hurston’s first stab at the ending for her novel. The final scene of the book version, however, retains little from the original story other than the basic elements: Moses’s grave, his rod, the talking lizard, and the swarms of flies. Here, readers have the opportunity to read an alternate ending, a different vision of the death of Moses—one that presents a more comic portrait of the exhausted and resigned leader of the Israelites.

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Moses sat upon his new-made grave on Mount Nebo. His back stooped wearily, but his strong gaze leaped the Jordan and travelled over the land of Canaan. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.