Fact in Fiction
Elias Rodriques’s useful review of Zora Neale Hurston’s best-selling Barracoon [June 18/25] is marred by minor errors and the omission of some large issues. Minor errors: Barracoon, according to Hurston, is not from a single interview but from her many with Cudjo Lewis, who was sold by Africans and shipped to Alabama; Timothy Meaher (who was behind the slave ship’s operation) was not on that voyage; and the Meahers did not divide the slaves only among themselves, for about 50 went to other whites.
Significantly, Rodriques omitted what Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway reported in 1977: that she had heavily plagiarized in her 1927 article on Lewis. That finding raises issues, such as whether others’ editorial work, after Hurston’s death, quietly eliminated that problem for the published volume. More important: Can Barracoon’s text be trusted, or is it partly fictional?
Much remains to be explored in understanding Hurston, Barracoon, and its publicity, despite weeks of stonewalling by the publisher on key questions. The results of a study could be enlightening, and unsettling. It might build partly on works by Hemenway, Jeffrey Anderson, Carolyn Long, Sylviane Diouf, Carla Kaplan, Lynda Marion Hill, Hannah Durkin, Natalie Hopkinson, and Rebecca Panovka, and closely examine Deborah Plant’s flawed commentary in the published Barracoon.
Barton J. Bernstein
palo alto, calif.
Elias Rodriques Replies
I first want to thank Barton Bernstein for his close attention to detail and his correction of the three minor errors in my review. Being as they are minor, however, I want to focus on what he terms a significant omission, which was purposeful. Deborah Plant provides an outline of and defense against the accusation of plagiarism in her introduction. Whether or not one agrees with Plant’s claim that the accusation was misplaced, she does clarify in the published volume where Hurston’s text uses the exact language of other texts and cites the original source. As a result, the book that Amistad published and that I reviewed cannot, to my knowledge, be accused of plagiarism, regardless of what claims one might make about Hurston’s 192SSEx7 article or the unpublished manuscript.
Yet it is on the basis of this allegation that Bernstein asks whether Hurston’s text ought to be considered trustworthy or fictional. (I assume the logic behind the question is: If some of the article is plagiarized, perhaps some of the book is falsified.) With regard to the question of fiction or trustworthiness, this is a false binary. There are other options for how people relate to Hurston’s text. A text can be untrustworthy and yet not fiction; fiction can be trusted in particular ways; and so on. As a genre, oral history has long had a complicated relationship to trust—one can always allege that the interviewee misremembered or that an interviewer falsified the interview—but the most vital recent writing on slavery (by Saidiya Hartman, Marisa Fuentes, Jennifer Morgan, and others) has insisted that we should also question the “trustworthiness” of the archives of slavery.
This may all be beside the point with Barracoon. The reader, whom Bernstein’s question obscures in aiming to ascribe meaning to the manuscript (“Can Barracoon’s text be trusted”), assuredly encounters Hurston’s book not just as oral history but also as literature because of Hurston’s fame as a novelist. In other words, the book I reviewed is both trusted and not trusted by readers, myself included. If that means Barracoon is not history, so be it. I prefer Hurston to that kind of history.
AOC Prepares for DC
Re “What’s Next for AOC?” [Oct. 29]: Rhetoric is not action, and I plan to reserve judgment on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez until there is a record upon which to judge. Having said that, her description of John McCain’s legacy as an “unparalleled example of human decency” is so ridiculous on so many levels that I don’t know what to think. And her answer on Israel shows a gaping hole in an incredibly important place that I can only hope will be filled ASAP. The politics of the left is ascendant, but we’ll soon find out if the power of the left is equally so.
Ocasio-Cortez, my Puerto Rican sister, is a breath of fresh air in a progressive movement that has historically marginalized the struggle of the Puerto Rican community. Coming out of that experience, she has incorporated folks of every class, race, gender, and ethnicity in her call for social change. While she must continue to be held accountable by the people, the political correctness and ideological purity of many from the left would drive any newly elected official mad. Many who had nothing to do with her primary win make unrealistic demands and establish litmus tests on what is acceptable. Give Ocasio-Cortez an opportunity to get her bearings before the floggings from the left begin. In my judgment, she should model her congressional office on that of the late Ron Dellums, which became the central headquarters for the peace, racial-justice, and women’s-rights movements. Stay strong, Ocasio-Cortez: In the words of Vito Marcantonio, you need only vote your conscience.
Katha Pollitt’s “When Women Get Mad” [Oct. 29] illustrates in stark detail how the #MeToo movement has exposed the “rules of The Patriarchy.” Predictably, this patriarchy was slickly defended with Republican theatrics during the Kavanaugh vote. Consider, most notably, the speech by Senator Susan Collins, in which she dismissed the serious allegations brought by Christine Blasey Ford—all while two female senators sat behind her, rather than at their usual desks.
Unfortunately, it appears that the rules of The Patriarchy are tribally embedded in this corrupt Republican Party, as evidenced by, among other things, the hyper-partisan performance of the Maine senator.
Sal R. Pauciello
The article “Destination, Lancaster” [Nov. 12] mistakenly stated that the Pennsylvania Republican Party filed a pair of campaign-finance complaints against both Lancaster Stands Up (LSU) and the Jess King for Congress campaign. In fact, the complaint only targeted LSU.
In “The Dual Defeat” [Nov. 12], Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 running mate is referred to as Edward Muskie; his first name, in fact, was Edmund. The Nation regrets these errors.