Sunday, October 17, 2021

John Redding Goes to Sea

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

A banana and pineapple vendor, c. 1912, postcard with a hand-tinted black and white photograph printed by the Cochrane Company, Palatka, Florida. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Palatka is about halfway between Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville (to the south) and Jacksonville (to the north).
Forty years ago, during the 1981–82 academic year, Howard University librarian and historian Elinor DesVerney Sinnette interviewed Ophelia Settle Egypt, a retired social worker known for her research work with sociologist Charles S. Johnson and her oral histories of formerly enslaved African Americans. While a student at Howard University in the early 1920s, Egypt had been a member of Zeta Phi Beta; founded in 1920, it was the newest of Howard’s three sororities. During one of the interviews, the women discussed Egypt’s sorority sister, Zora Neale Hurston, who spent the last years of her life in poverty and oblivion and yet had unexpectedly become a household name two decades after her death in 1960. “She was sort of a loner,” Egypt remembered. “But she was brilliant, and she was writing even then. . . . But we always thought of her as a rather odd person. She was just too brainy for us.”
Hurston in Washington, D.C., 1920, when
she was a student at Howard University.
University of Florida Collection

In her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston recalled what Howard University meant to a young woman coming from the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida, with hardly a penny to her name:
Now as everyone knows, Howard University is the capstone of Negro education in the world. There gather Negro money, beauty, and prestige. It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites. They say the same thing about a Howard man that they do about Harvard—you can tell a Howard man as far as you can see him, but you can’t tell him much. He listens to the doings of other Negro schools and their graduates with bored tolerance. Not only is the scholastic rating at Howard high, but tea is poured in the manner!
Hurston arrived in Washington in 1918, where she worked first as a waitress and then as a manicurist in a Black-owned barber shop that served whites only. After a year in Howard’s preparatory school, she entered the college and majored in English. Her schoolmates did not realize that the nineteen-year-old student was actually twenty-nine years old (a ruse she maintained for the rest of her life), but her outsider status had more to do with her rural background and poverty than with her age. “Behold the Jimson weed putting out roots in the solarium of the orchid,” she self-deprecatingly wrote a couple of years later. In 1921 she joined the school’s literary society and her first published story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” appeared in the May issue of the club magazine The Stylus.

“The Stylus was limited to 19 members, two of them being faculty members,” Hurston wrote in her memoir. “Dr. Alain Leroy Locke was the presiding genius and we had very interesting meetings.” As Valerie Boyd notes in her recent biography of Hurston, Locke was “notorious at Howard for warning female students on the first day of class that they would likely receive Cs, regardless of their ability.” Yet Locke saw in Hurston’s work something unique that seemed to support his belief that “under the sophistications of modern style may be detected in almost all our artists a fresh distinctive note that the majority of them admit as the instinctive gift of the folk spirit.” Hurston’s incorporation of Black folk traditions in her writing represented the very esthetic of the literary renaissance he would help spearhead. Based on her work for The Stylus, Locke recommended Hurston to Charles S. Johnson, the founding editor of the literary magazine Opportunity (and the same scholar who would later work with Ophelia Egypt). Four of Hurston’s stories would appear in Opportunity during the mid-1920s, and in 1925 Locke would publish the influential anthology The New Negro, gathering works by such up-and-coming writers as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jean Toomer, as well as Hurston.

For a first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea” is a cut above the typical student exercise, and it has become something of a fan favorite among her readers; it is included as the opening selection in every collection of her stories. Some reviewers have dismissed it for its lack of subtlety and particularly for the dearth of the humor that makes Hurston’s later work so memorable. Other critics, however, have focused on its biographical insights, since John Redding’s dilemma pits Hurston’s own wanderlust against her anxieties about having left Florida. While literary scholar John Lowe acknowledges the apprentice nature of the tale, he also points out how it anticipates her later fiction in its portrayal of “male-female conflicts, a plethora of local-color touches, and references to conjuring and superstition” and especially for its depiction of “a warm relationship between a black father and son (which Hurston would reprise in Moses, Man of the Mountain).” Boyd similarly argues that the story should be read as a preview of what’s to come, because it “illustrates that Hurston was on the verge of an epiphany: She had begun to realize that the lives—and the language—of ordinary black country folk had enormous literary potential.”

Note: The St. John River (more familiarly, St. Johns River] flows north past Eatonville and empties out in the sea near Jacksonville.

Ophelia Settle Egypt’s statement about Hurston is from Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.

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The villagers said that John Redding was a queer child. His mother thought he was too. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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