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Indy Study: Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston

Seraph on the Suwanee, lyrically at least, is a beautiful story. Hurston has a gift for hearing and representing speech in a way that I've only ever encountered in the work of James Joyce and Irvine Welsh. The story focuses on Arvay Henson, a self identified Florida "cracker", and her marriage with Jim Meserve. Set in Florida in the early 20th century, the novel primarily focuses on the Arvay's psychological issues surrounding her identity and marriage. Arvay's lack of self-confidence prohibits her capability to connect with others and truly love her family, until she breaks with her past (she quite literally burning it) and accepts her role as a submissive wife. Arvay finds happiness and contentment when she finally assumes a position of hero worship towards her husband, "I'm so proud and pleased with how you have done, that I want to go along with you and see you handle thing" (322). Of course, this is what Jim has wanted from their marriage all along.

Obviously, this novel is extremely problematic when read for its comments on gendered relationships. It is somewhat progressive in the depth and complexity it gives to Arvay's identity as a woman, wife, and sexual being. Yet quite unlike Hurston's better known Their Eyes Were Watching God, the heroine's salvation does not come through a more equitable relationship. Rather, Arvay's salvation comes through submission and repression of her past and individual desires.

Unlike the previous two "white life" novels I've read, Suwanee takes place in a biracial world. There is regular contact and cultural interaction between whites and blacks. This enables Hurston to depict both Arvay's racism (though it is not a central aspect of the story), as well as an image of culture appropriate through Arvay's son Kenny's adaption of black music and his eventual career as a musician.

Does the focus on white characters make race more or less visible?
Even though the main characters in the novel are white, many of the secondary characters are black. However, there is little comment on race relations or identity. The presence of black characters is a reflection of life in Florida at the start of the 20th century.

Are these books meant to be critical of their subject or are the lack of racial differences meant to allow the author to focus on other issues?
The lack of focus on racial issues is certainly meant to allow Hurston to investigate issues of gender -- though even with all the gender questions and issues present, the focus of the novel is really on its characters and their development, not so much the ideas they represent. In a letter Hurston wrote (quoted in the Foreword by Hazel Carby), she explained that she was fighting against the convention of "Negroes not writing about white people" (x). Through this sentiment, as well as the depiction of Kenny adopting black music and making it "American", Hurston seems to desire to create a cultural artificat that dialectically represents the movement from black and white to "American".

How does the fact that these works are written by black, rather than white, authors change my reading and understanding of the book?
Similar to Savage Holiday, there are certain depictions of black characters that reinforce certain racial stereotypes. Had I not known the author was black, I might have viewed these as a product of the author's own racism. However, it rather seems that Hurston was trying to create the world as scene through Arvay's eyes.
How does writing at a time of drastic racial change effect how the author deals with issues in a homogeneously racialized world?
It is very interesting that all three "white life" books I've read so far have been written by the authors while outside of the United States (Hurston wrote this while doing filed work in Honduras). Hurston's desire to write an "American" novel could be read as a reflection on the growing movement towards integration that was brewing at the time, but there are really no explicit commentary on the then current situation in America.

Work Cited: Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991. (Originally published in 1948).

Next: Country Place by Ann Petry

Previous Independent Study Posts:
Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White Edited by David Roediger
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Next Set of Books
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Savage Holiday by Richard Wrights

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