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Hurston's tales illuminate rural black culture

Spunk, The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston. Berkeley, Calif.: Turtle Island Foundation. 106 pp. $8.95. The stories in ``Spunk'' dramatize the struggles of a young black woman caught between the beginning of the modern world and the oppressive, Victorian atmosphere of 19th-century black and white America.

Hurston wrote from an ``insider's'' perspective. Her use of black dialect may often create a superficial realism which, by verging on racial stereotyping, overlooks the experiences and motivations of her characters. Nonetheless, in this collection the reader may discover much about Hurston's own views -- even more than from her autobiographical writings.

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``Spunk'' has a historical and literary significance that the book's introduction (by Bob Callahan) fails to identify. The reader might therefore become confused by the naivet'e of the characters vs. the difficulty of the dialect, as the stories must be seen in the context of the period during which the first black Americans born free of slavery were beginning to articulate themselves.

Also, the material in this volume is ``apprentice work,'' and one of the stories was actually published when Hurston was an undergraduate at Howard University in the early 1920s. ``Isis,'' originally titled ``Drenched in Light,'' concerns a child by that name who defies her grandmother by dancing in a red tablecloth and is defended by whites who find her behavior charming.

``Sweat'' is about a man who tries to kill his long-suffering wife with a rattlesnake. These and other stories are the result of a writer discovering her subjects and learning to master her language.

No collection of Hurston's short fiction was ever published during her lifetime and, for that reason, this volume may do much to deepen our understanding of a writer who has been so often misunderstood. Hurston worked within the folk idiom and was heavily influenced by it. In reference to the black impact on American life and culture, she wrote: ``everything he [the Negro] touches is re-interpreted for his own use.''

Nevertheless, like many writers of the Harlem Renaissance, her literary background involved extensive association with white intellectual life. Although from the rural South, Hurston studied anthropology with Ruth Benedict and Frank Boas and was part of a generation of young, college-educated blacks who learned to write by reading white writers. She therefore retained a strong attachment to values now defined as ``conservative.''

Hurston's was a generation aware of the limits placed on it both by whites and by blacks who feared white reprisal. Lynching and rioting were commonplace then, and black American life was a complex mixture of reserve, bigotry, promise, and compromise.

One senses in these stories a conflict between a longing for the rural life and a revulsion from it. In this desire for an almost pastoral simplicity, Hurston is not far removed from Henry David Thoreau, or from contemporary poets who seek to return to the farms of their youth. It is to Hurston's credit that, as these stories depict, rural life was not always an easy life.

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Sam Cornish teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.

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