Fiction reviewed: Moses, Man of the Mountain (Zora Neale Hurston, 1939)

This novel, written by the prolific author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, was published eight years before I was born. Yet I only discovered and read it in my 75th year of life. I mention this because this simple fact produces very mixed feelings in me. Shame that such a significant novel by such a master storyteller escaped my notice for so long; anger that it was not on a reading list in high school or university; and delight at how powerfully this narrative opened my imagination to worlds so different from my own, populated by historical/fictional characters so real I felt I could hear them speak and act as I read what they said and did.

If that sounds like high praise, I intend it to be. I find Moses, Man of the Mountain a stunning novel that needs to be enshrined as one of the true masterpieces of American literature. And I intend to read more of Hurston’s novels.

I can do no better than to let Deborah E. McDowell, scholar and Alice Griffin professor of Literary Studies at the University of Virginia introduce Zora Neale Hurston. This is from her “Lines of Descent/Dissenting Lines” included as an appendix in my copy of Moses, Man of the Mountain.

If a people’s myths are the fullest expression of its spirit and culture, nowhere is this more evident than in African Americans’ appropriation of the story of Moses, the myth of the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian bondage. As Albert Raboteau writes in Slave Religion, “the symbols, myths and values of Judeo-Christian tradition helped form the slave community’s image of itself.” White colonists also identified with this tradition, seeing “the journey across the Atlantic to the New World as the exodus of a new Israel from the bondage of Europe into the promised land of milk and honey.” But the colonists’ Promised Land was the slaves’ Egypt, a reversal made palpable and immortal in such spirituals as “Go Down Moses,” “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep,” and in the countless refigurations of the Mosaic myth throughout African American literature, oral and written…
            Thus, when Zora Neale Hurston turned to retelling the Exodus story in Moses, Man of the Mountain, she was building on a mountain of a tradition and anticipating its perpetuation. Very early in her literary career, Hurston established her fascination with rewriting the sacred myths of the Judeo-Christian tradition in African American terms and idioms. She saw and manipulated the possibilities that Old Testament stories held for chronicling the movements in the sluggish odyssey of black Americans toward emancipation in the United States.

Moses, Man of the Mountain is a creative and imaginative retelling of the biblical story, mixed with folklore, sprinkled with common sense wisdom born of suffering and oppression, and striking dialogue that transports the idioms, metaphors, and musical verbal rhythms of southern Blacks into the mouths of Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, Joshua, and the rest.

Joshua re-entered the tent of Moses and stood and waited for Moses to recognize him, the way he always did. Moses looked up from his writing. “What’s the matter, Joshua?” he asked.
            “My people! My people!”
            “What’s wrong this time, Joshua?”
            “I reckon you’re going to have to take your rod and do something for ‘em or something to ‘em, one. My people just won’t do. That complaint committee is outside to see you. The people are grumbling again.”
            “Over what?” Moses asked with a touch of impatience.
            “Excuse me, chief, for talking with my mouth wide open. The people is mumbling and grumbling about something to eat.
            “Tell them seventy Elders to come on in, Joshua. Maybe I can make ‘em understand why we are out here, but sometimes I doubt it.”
            The committee of seventy filed into the tent and stood gloomily behind Moses. He turned his chair to face them.
            “All right, get it told. What’s the matter now?”
            “Moses, we’re hungry.”
            “There’s plenty manna. I see to that every day.”
            “But we’re tired of manna. We want something else to eat.”
            “Why don’t you find it then? Nobody is stopping you, are they?”
            “We can’t find nothing around here.”
            “If you can’t find anything except the manna which I provide for you, how do you expect me to find anything?”
            The committee began to boil like a pot. The spokesman whirled and made gestures with his hands. They acted out desperation, despair and futility. “Lawd, listen at that man! Here he done took and brought us out of Egypt where we was getting along just fine. We remember the nice fresh fish we used to get back there in Egypt every day. Nice sweet-tasting little pan-fish and a person could get all they could eat for five cents. Unhunh! and didn’t we used to eat ‘em, too. And the nice fresh cucumbers, and the watermelons, and the leeks and the onions and plenty garlic for seasoning! You could get a decent meal most anywhere before you could turn around. And now look where we’re at—out here in this hungry wilderness with our souls all dried up and nothing but this manna before our eyes. Oh, we wish we had of died down there in Egypt instead of coming off like a pack of fools.”
            Moses listened until the end and then he said, “I’m sure sorry for you all, but not because you are crying after the fleshpots of Egypt. I’m sorry for you because you don’t feel hungry nowhere else except in your bellies. You have lost sight of your high destiny in your scramble after food. You hate me at times for not being more interested in your stomachs than in your hearts. You are looking at this thing from one viewpoint and I’m looking at it from another. Here I am struggling to make a great nation out of you and you are worrying about fried fish and cucumbers! Do you see me eating anything like that?”
            “We don’t know what you eat while you shut yourself up inside this great big old tent.”
            “Where do you reckon I would get it from?”
            “Oh, you got that right hand of yours and that rod, ain’t you? You got quails and this manna and water and a whole heap of other things with it. You could give us anything we wanted if you would.”
            “I see. You trust my ability, but you don’t trust my judgment.”
            “We don’t mean it that way exactly. But it’s hard to love freedom if it keeps you hungry.” [p. 251-252]

I found Hurston’s prose finely crafted, constantly amusing, full of human feeling and deep insight, and always addressing the issues of meaning and purpose that matter most in our broken world. This is not an exegesis of the biblical text; it is an inventive retelling of the biblical story to enlighten and define the experience of Blacks in American history. As such it helps me understand a world very different from my own, brings the biblical text alive in my imagination, and models how the narrative of scripture can help us all better understand our times, our history, and our stories.

Photo credit: Photo taken by author with his iPhone.