Zora Neale Hurston and Haiti

Miss Zora Neale Hurston has gone afield from the scenes of her previous work . . . and turned in the inexhaustible mines of Voodoo and witchcraft in Haiti and Jamaica. Tell My Horse is a curious mixture of remembrances, travelogue, sensationalism, and anthropology. The remembrances are vivid, the travelogue tedious, the sensationalism reminiscent of Seabrook, and the anthropology a mélange of misinterpretation and exceedingly good folklore . . . . As one observer said, ‘She’d find Voodoo in anybody’s kitchen.’

But Haiti is full of the real thing. Seabrook exposed it in sensational, wishful terms. Dr. Herskovits exposed it in its coldest mathematical terms. Miss Hurston tries both. To an extent she is successful, for Voodoo in Haiti is both warmer, possessed of more poetry, than Dr. Herskovits realized, and less wild and orgiastic than Seabrook intimated. Tell My Horse is full of fine things. Miss Hurston has an immense ability for catching the idiom of dialogue, of seeing the funniest of exaggeration, or recognizing the essence of a story.

And yet, though these qualities do carry through at all times, there is a constant conflict between anthropological truth and tale-telling, between the obligation she feels to give the facts honestly and the attraction of (as one of her characters says in Mules and Men) the ‘big old lies we tell when we’re jus’ sittin’ around here on the store porch doin’ nothin’.

That Miss Hurston loves Haiti is obvious, but there is a general feeling that the material was not completely digested.

Elmer Davis, “Review of Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica,” Saturday Review (October 15, 1938). Reprinted in the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive.

Image: Zora Neale Hurston, Tell my horse: Voodoo & Life in Haiti & Jamaica [dust wrapper.], 1938. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

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