Dust on the Bookshelf

Vernon, Florida: early musings on mule tales
September 26, 2011, 09:14
Filed under: Films | Tags: , , , , , ,

They said he was 65 years old. i dont know about that now that’s a long life for a mule. but he eventually died. they rooted him over into that pond that old skeleton lying there with the hide all on him just as tough as anything you ever seen. and a big hole in his throat here where the buzzards and things had eaten him, eaten him up him they couldn’t have eat him all. i was a fishin’ in there one day and  dropped my bait down there in that hole. that old mule laying in there all puffed up. dried up on the skeleton. and there’s a big warmouth perch run out of it up here and bit my hook, took it in that old mule right that quick you know and he got off of there got loose. and i went to pull the hook out and i must of hung it on one of his ribs and i had to break it off. but i put on another hook and dropped down there and i caught a big one you know. the bones had come out of his legs, the skin was laying there you know just as tough as a, just tough as a bear you know. and i got over this deep in the water and went down there and got ahold of them legs and dug that old mule out there on the hill and there was one hundred and fourteen warmouth in him, was warmouth perch. i could hear em a flutterin’ just quick as i run out on hill with him, the water run out of him and i could hear them a flutterin’ in there you know. [laughter]

Now, I’ve heard fish tales. And I’ve heard mule tales. In fact, I wrote a whole paper (it was more of a list) on mules in Faulkner’s story “Old Man.” Mules also pervade the work of Zora Neale Hurston. But this epic combination of the two is from the Eroll Morris documentary Vernon, Florida. An unnamed resident of Vernon quite candidly tells the documentary crew about his big catch. Here he is:
Objectively, the story is hard to believe and would be disgusting if true. Can you imagine pulling on the bone-less legs of a dead mule? Let alone eating the fish that had been living in the carcass… But examining it as a cultural phenomenon, the American mule tale, is quite fascinating to me. Mules pop up all over Southern fiction, from Faulkner and Hurston to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Half the time they are dead and the other half they are mocking humans.

Traditionally, mules were bred in America for labor and used in war. They are known for their productive resilience and stubbornness. They can take paths and climbs that are impossible for horses. Apparently, American military currently uses them in the war in Afghanistan.

Mules are the offspring of a male donkey mated with a mare. They are notoriously sterile. Scholars have pointed to the historical association of mules with mulattos (people of mixed race, white and black). Pseudo-race sciences often argued that mulattos were sterile, while, paradoxically, much of society feared the “one drop” of African blood staining its progeny. As people liked to view the construction of race to represent distinct “species”  of man, the mule, an animal hybrid, was a natural analog for some.

I hope to do more work on the subject of mules in Southern fiction. Vernon, Florida has only reinvigorated my interest. Why did Southern authors use mules so often in their work? Was it because they were such a large part of Southern every-day life? Why do they frequent folklore? Why are they often tied to Florida? If you have any thoughts on mules I’d love to hear them. If you’ve encountered one (I have not) I am curious about your experience. For now I leave you with this image, and a simile:

Some said that President Truman was as stubborn as a mule.

Truman with the Missouri state animal: The Missouri Mule









**Love and credit for this post go to Ernie and Giovanna

Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
August 21, 2011, 11:53
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , ,

Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”

Zora Neale Hurston captured the old blues song. Charlotte Perkins Gilpin wrote the novel. But most recently it has been discovered that a certain species of mites has been doing it without men, though not without some incest…

Check out this National Geographic headline: Cloned Fathers Mate with Insect Daughters–From Inside: The self-fertilizing females may eventually make males obsolete, model suggests”

As the image might not suggest, sometimes, when female cottony cushion scales “develop in fertilized eggs, excess sperm grows into tissue within the daughters. … This parasitic tissue, genetically identical to the female’s father, lives inside the female and fertilizes her eggs internally—rendering the female a hermaphrodite and making her father both the grandfather and father of her offspring, genetically speaking.”


According to the article, this parasitic male is like “an epidemic” that will eventually render all male scales obsolete.  The female cottony cushion scales will rule and create an unprecedented all-girl world, if on a minuscule…scale.

However, this world is not a new conception. It was imagined in early-twentieth century American fiction with the 1915 novel, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilpin. (CPG is most famous for her wonderfully creepy short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” –read it!)

Herland is about these male explorers who discover the isolated all-female world of Herland. After losing all of their community’s men in a volcanic eruption and slave rebellion and finding themselves geographically isolated by a mountain range, the women of Herland decided to continue life until they died out. Until one day a funny thing happened.

One of the women realized that she was with child even though she had not been with a man. Essentially, this sort of immaculate or hermaphroditic conception becomes a genetic trait of the clan– and thus Herland grows.

These women live off the land and are proud of their independence from men. Over time, many generations cannot remember men or have never seen any– until the society is penetrated by the sociologist explorers. The tale is interestingly narrated by a man, the student Van.

Gilpin’s utopian story reflects on societal constructions of gender and marriage, what it means to be a man or woman, husband or wife. It ends with uncertainty as one of the women leaves with Van. What her fate will be in American society is uncertain at best.

Returning back to the old blues lyrics that Zora Neale Hurston recorded in 1930’s for the Federal Writers’ Project, it is clear that this sort of post-male world has long been imagined if not pined over and feared by Americans.

“Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.
Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man.”

The ominous tone of these lyrics suggests that the time is coming when a woman won’t need a man. It is upon us, the singer says. In this blues line, the repetition of the exact same phrase means that the alteration in tone can only be found in the melody or the inflection of the singer. Instead of a blues riff that said something like, “Comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time when a woman won’t need no man. Oh, comes at a time that we can’t understand,” this riff is consistant. To me, this adds to the ominousness– we cannot imagine what this “time” will mean for society, we can only repeat the prophecy over and over.

Gilpin took a stab at imagining this world, but did not come to a firm conclusion. The blues laments and warns of this unknown society. I Guess all we can do is keep watching the scales.