“A Culture of Orality” in a Troubled Southern Society: Understanding Where John is Truly Leaving for in “Jonah’s Gourd Vine.”

As John makes is way to Alf Pearson’s plantation, he hears a sound which rattles his conscience, as the rumbling of a locomotive thunders by (Hurston, p.15). Astonished, by the “fiery-lunged monster, John tries to find words, but they allude him, “Ah lakted dat. It say something but Ah ain’t heered it” (Hurston, p. 16). Transfixed by the powerful train, John pledges to learn more, “Ahm comin’ yeah plenty mo’ times and den Ah tell yuh whut it say” (Hurston, p. 16). This seen serves as a frame for Professor Gary Ciuba’s argument in “The Worm Against the Word: The Hermeneutical Challenge in Hurston’s “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (2000). In his article, Cuba argues that the process of John finding himself through oral and written traditions in African-American literature is based through the use of hermeneutics, as seen through his hermeneutical endeavor to understand his journey and experiences through writing and oral skills, even though he ultimately fails (Cuba, p. 120).

From a sociological perspective, hermeneutics is the process of understanding one’s pre-existing internal prejudices while interpreting literature. This technique for learning is used with biblical texts and ancient texts such as the works of Plato.

This form of understanding the self through, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “signs, symbols and texts” in African-American literature is the central argument of Ciuba’s work, but I disagree with his interpretation of John crossing the river as a moment when “Nature’s own percussion sounds his full membership in the culture of orality, where speech is filled with power, and the cosmos is ‘an ongoing event with man at its center’ (One 73) (Ciuba, p. 120). I view the crossing of the creek in the lens of scholar’s Hazel Carby, Martyn Bone, and Rich√© Richardson who focus on the role of migration in Hurston’s work.I agree with Ciuba that John crossing the river is a significant event, but I do not believe that he is being introduced to the culture of orality, but rather a broader southern society with many faults. I believe that the stark contrast between John crossing the creek on pages 12 and 86 represent the faults in John’s life and Southern society that are evident in the work between these two events. How would you interpret John crossing the river on pages 12 and 86?



2 thoughts on ““A Culture of Orality” in a Troubled Southern Society: Understanding Where John is Truly Leaving for in “Jonah’s Gourd Vine.”

  1. Sam, I think you have a compelling case for your interpretation of the creek-crossing scenes! I want to add to your theory with some of the imagery present in each of the scenes. On pg 12 when John is crossing over for the first time, it almost feels like a scene from an animated Disney movie. John crosses while “singing a new song and stomping the beats,” and a “hound dog” is howling along with him, which are all joyful things. All the while John imagines what life will be like over the creek, where “maybe people laughed and maybe people had lots of daughters” (Hurston 12). This language is very simple and surface-level–what a young person might wonder about their new home–as compared to the scene later in the novel. On pg 86 John faces more difficulties crossing the river. Violent imagery is used to describe the wind “gouging” and “beating up” the surrounding environment, as well as the “red water…talking about trouble.” Further, more serious topics are tackled in this scene, as John’s horse is mentioned to have lost “faith in the judgement of man” (Hurston 86). This intense, dark scene shows John facing more troubles and complications in his journey than the earlier scene, which could connect back to your claim about society making the difference in these two moments. Let me know what you think!

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