Sunday, February 21, 2021

Spunk

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

A country store in Georgia. From “Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A.,” a series of photo albums compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) for display at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. Library of Congress.
“Joe Clarke’s store was the heart and spring of the town,” recalled Zora Neale Hurston in her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road, as she reminisced about the town of Eatonville, Florida, and the country store that was across the street from her childhood home.
Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions. Women stood around there on Saturday nights and had it proven to the community that their husbands were good providers, put all of his money in his wife’s hands and generally glorified her. Or right there before everybody it was revealed that he was keeping some other woman by the things the other woman was allowed to buy on his account. No doubt a few men found that their wives had a brand new pair of shoes oftener than he could afford it, and wondered what she did with her time while he was off at work. Sometimes he didn’t have to wonder. There were no discreet nuances of life on Joe Clarke’s porch. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at.
The town was her first stop when she did research for Mules and Men, her book on African American folklore. “I hurried back to Eatonville because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm or danger,” she wrote in the introduction. “As a child when I was sent down to Joe Clarke’s store, I'd drag out my leaving as long as possible in order to hear more.”

In the essay “Hurston’s Portrait of a Community,” Johnanna L. Grimes points out that Joe Clarke’s country store serves as a setting not just in Hurston’s autobiographical writings and her folklore studies but also in her novels and stories. “Hurston preserved for her readers a portrait of a particular community in a specific time and place inhabited by characters who are linked to their milieu by specific traditions, beliefs, and verbal expressions, which have their analogues in southern rural folk culture.” A prominent community leader by the name of Joe Clarke shows up throughout Hurston’s books, usually as a shopkeeper, but also as a mayor, postmaster, or judge. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the lead character, Janie, marries a man who becomes the mayor and storeowner of the town; his name is Joe Starks.

The real Joseph E. Clark (Hurston added the “e” to his last name in her writings) and his younger, less successful brother, Isaac (Ike), were two of the 27 cofounders of the all-black town of Eatonville. Joseph’s great-granddaughters, who cowrote a recent biography, admit that “much of what we know about Joseph Clark has been derived from [Hurston’s] writings” but also note that, just as the character of Clarke changed from one of Hurston’s stories to the next, his real-life counterpart did not seem to share the traits of the “mean-spirited” incarnation of her later fiction.

One of Hurston’s early stories to feature the men congregating at the store is “Spunk,” which takes place almost entirely inside the building and on its porch. Although Joe Clarke isn’t mentioned, brother Ike shows up to light the store’s lamps at dusk. Like her debut story, “Drenched in Light” (also set in Eatonville), “Spunk” appeared in Opportunity, a literary monthly sponsored by the National Urban League. The story, short as it is, resulted in a series of remarkable and fortuitous consequences for its author.

Five months before its publication in June 1925, Hurston had arrived in New York with $1.50 to her name. She was 33 years old yet passed herself off as 23 and had been a part-time student at Howard University for the previous five years, struggling to make ends meet in multiple jobs while taking classes. In New York she quickly made friends and somehow survived until May, when her two submissions in Opportunity’s literary contest—the play Color Struck and the story “Spunk”—each won second place in their categories, giving her $70 in prize money. At the awards dinner, she met Langston Hughes (who won first prize in poetry for the collection The Weary Blues), Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Annie Nathan Meyer (a founder of Barnard College), and other luminaries, many of whom were overawed by her vivaciousness and wit at both the ceremony and an after-hours party. Meyer subsequently saw to it that Hurston received a scholarship that fall at Barnard, where she was the only African American student. The next year “Spunk” was included by Alain Locke in The New Negro, which is still regarded as the signal anthology of the Harlem Renaissance. Within a year of her arrival, then, Hurston was well placed to launch her career as a writer.

Yet she was still broke. A month into the semester she owed over $100 for fees, books, and other school necessities and her available cash was eleven cents. Help appeared unexpectedly: at the awards ceremony earlier in the year, Fannie Hurst—well on her way to becoming one of the best-selling authors in the world—had presented Hurston with the prize for “Spunk.” Like many others at the event, she was impressed by the young author’s energy and subsequently asked Van Vechten for her address, hoping to invite her for tea. After she sent the invitation, Hurst found out from Meyer about Hurston’s dire situation; when the famous author met with the student, they both hit it off, and Hurst offered her a position as her personal secretary, with flexible hours that would allow Hurston to attend classes and complete her schoolwork.

Hurston soon moved in with her new patron, who later recalled that “her shorthand was short on legibility, her typing hit-or-miss, mostly the latter, her filing a game of find-the-thimble. Her mind ran ahead of my thoughts and she would interject with an impatient suggestion or clarification of what I wanted.” Hurston’s secretarial job lasted barely more than a month but by early December the two women had become fast friends. Hurston moved back up to Harlem and became Hurst’s social companion and intermittent chauffeur during the following months. Their friendship—and Hurst’s patronage—would last for years.

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