"Mamma," John began slowly, "it hurts me to see you so troubled over my going away; but I feel that I must go. I'm stagnating here. This indolent atmosphere will stifle every bit of ambition that's in me....I want to do something worthy of a strong man. I have done nothing so far but look to you and papa for everything. Let me learn to strive and think--in short, be a man."And how about this:
"High John de Conquer came to be a man, and a mighty man at that. But he was not a natural man in the beginning. First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song. Then the whisper put on flesh. His footsteps sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing-drum."
The second passage might be more recognizable: the lyrical language, careful control of rhythm, and love for African American folklore point clearly to Zora Neale Hurston, who wrote this description in "High John De Conquer" (1943).
But what about the first passage? Stilted dialogue, melodramatic pauses, lack of attention to rhythm and sound--just try saying out loud "This indolent atmosphere will stifle every bit of ambition that's in me." It sounds like a very bad soap opera, but no: it comes from "John Redding Goes to Sea," a short story written in 1921 by Zora Neale Hurston.
"John Redding" is a very odd short story that follows the nineteenth-century convention requiring the hero to speak in standard English even if everyone around him speaks in dialect. John's mother says, "Ah nevah wuz happy an' nevah specks tuh be," and his father says things like "we mus' let John hoe his own row. If it's travlin' twon't be foh long. He'll come back to us bettah than when he went off. What do you say, son?"
What John says is the first passage above, and it's just as ridiculous in context as out.
The remarkable thing here is not so much that Hurston was capable of writing bad sentences, but that she could so completely leave behind the stilted sentiments of John Redding's speech as she gained control over rhythm and sound. "High John De Conquer" is a minor work, loosely structured and lacking the impact of frequently anthologized short stories like "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits," but look at this sentence: "First off, he was a whisper, a will to hope, a wish to find something worthy of laughter and song." The sibilants shuffle through the sentence while the Ws carry us forward in a rhythm that feels loose but controlled. You can't pronounce that sentence quickly.
You can't say John Redding's sentences quickly either, but that's because they're constructed for the eye rather than the tongue. No one outside of melodrama ever said "Let me learn to strive and think--in short, be a man," but it's easy to imagine a front-porch storyteller leaning forward in a rocking chair to say, "High John de Conquer came to be a man, and a mighty man at that. But he was not a natural man in the beginning."
Zora Neale Hurston came to be a writer, and a mighty writer at that, but these passages suggest that she had to work really hard to develop the style that sounds so natural. But here's the question: how did she make it look so easy?