Zora Neale Hurston: American literature as World Literature?

August 14, 2013

The polemical essay, “World Lite,” just out in n+1, is perhaps generating more heat than light.  But it does raise an interesting question: what exactly is “world literature”?  How broad its scope, and what could be in its vicinity, its neighborhood?

Zora Neale Hurston is a case in point.  As far as I know, she’s never called anything other than “American.” Her books are never mentioned in the same breath as “world literature.” And yet, putting these two together momentarily, strategically, might give some sense of the heuristic value of that term.

After all, how else to call Tell My Horse (1938)?

Flying in the face of intellectual trends inside and outside Harlem, Hurston decided to take Voodoo seriously, to write a book about it, and to do so on-site, in Jamaica and Haiti.  Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was written, in fact, when she was in Haiti.  Tell My Horse has been eclipsed by that work, and one can perhaps see why, although what makes it less popular is also what’s interesting about it: “let it be said that the Haitian gods, or mysteres, or loa, are not the Catholic calendar of saints done over in black as has been stated by casual observers.”  And Hurston goes on to name some of these loa, an interminable list, the good ones, she says, originating in Dahomey, and the bad ones brought over from the Congo.

Not the stuff American literature is typically made of — which is why “world literature” could be useful sometimes, trailing a question mark.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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