Honors in the Major: Mallory Malman and “Writing History: A Metahistorical Interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Work (1891-1960)”

Thu, 07/13/23
Honors in the Major: Mallory Malman and “Writing History: A Metahistorical Interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Work (1891-1960)"

Honors in the Major: Mallory Malman and “Writing History: A Metahistorical Interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Work (1891-1960)”

Hi, I am Mallory, a senior double-majoring in History and English. I am also a Presidential Scholar at FSU, and I graduated this past Spring Semester. My research looks at the overlap between history and literature, examining how fiction can be a source for historical research and for crafting historical narratives where archival material might be lacking.

I came to FSU as a Philosophy major and a pre-law student wanting to be an appellate lawyer. During my freshman year, I participated in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, where I worked with Dr. Kurt Piehler at the Institute on WWII and the Human Experience. While working at the Institute, I archived different sources, including letters, journals, and photographs. My research was so fascinating that I decided to become a History major. Writing has always been a strong interest of mine, so I chose English as my second major. Over time, the combination of the two subjects has become important to me. I plan on going back to graduate school to continue working in this area of research.

What is your project about?

The title is ‘Writing History: A Metahistorical Interpretation of Zora Neale Hurston’s Work (1891-1960).’ I am examining two of Zora Neale Hurston’s novels through a metahistorical lens. Metahistory is a historiographical scholarship popularized by Hayden White in the 1970ss. It advocates for using novels as a valid historical source; history is written in a narrative arc like novels, and metahistory looks to break down how fiction is constructed to mine it for history.

I focus on Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and writer, and prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Many of her novels draw from her ethnographic and anthropological studies, and her lived experiences as a Black woman. Black women’s stories are very underrepresented in the archival field and history. Using literature as a source to amplify their voices can help us understand their historical experiences. I specifically investigate her books, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ set in Eatonville where Zora Neale Hurston grew up, and ‘Seraph on the Suwanee,’ the last book she wrote.

Comparing the two books, one looking at Black southern life and the other at white southern life, allows me to examine how Zora Neale Hurston describes racial, gender, and class dynamics during the early 20th century. I am using the novels and supplementary archival material to craft a narrative of Southern life.

Zora Neale Hurston was a trained anthropologist and a novelist. Her unique perspective allowed her to give a valid historical account through her fictional literature on life in the U.S. South in the early 20th century, particularly on women's experiences through the trials and tribulations of daily life.

How did you come up with the project?

Originally, I wanted to look at a 1960s voting rights case from Thomasville, Georgia. However, it would have been very expensive to order the necessary legal documents, and the case was so old the documents were near impossible to find. So, I had to switch topics in the middle of my HITM prospectus semester. In reviewing other topics of interest, I came across the Harlem Renaissance, which led me to Zora Neale Hurston. Additionally, I found a master’s thesis that used the metahistorical framework to study novels written by women. I researched metahistory, and how academics in literature had used this approach. This led me to apply metahistorical analysis to the works of Zora Neale Hurston.

What sources are you using?

In addition to analyzing the two novels, I am also looking at the Eatonville oral history tapes, the author's letters, and a manuscript for one of the novels. Eatonville, located just outside of Orlando, was the first all-Black town in America. I looked into some of its records to help me understand the town’s history.

I went to the University of Florida, as their special collections have a comprehensive Zora Neale Hurston Archive. Many letters and photographs have been digitized, but on one of my drives home – I am from Fort Lauderdale - I stopped in Gainesville and looked at their physical holdings. They have a manuscript of ‘Seraph on the Suwanee,’ however, the document had severe burn damage. When Zora Neale Hurston died, she died penniless and a ward of the state with no known living family. The nursing home she died in began putting her belongings into an incinerator. A friend intervened and stopped them from burning all the material. It was not until the 1970s, when Alice Walker rediscovered her that her work became widely known. When I looked at the manuscript of ‘Seraph,’ it was half burned, and many pages are unreadable, evidencing the silence in archives that are common when researching marginalized communities.

One of the big struggles of my project has been learning to combine the very different sources I have been using and applying the theoretical framework. As a historical study, I also needed to include archival sources rather than just focusing on the novels. It was particularly rewarding to listen to the oral history tapes, which included recordings of Eatonville residents talking about the people that Zora Neale Hurston had met and based her work on. So, I could compare the ‘real’ historical narrative with the imagined narrative and the versions of people and events I found in her books.

How do you and your mentor interact?

When I switched to History in my freshman year, Dr. Piehler told me: “It’s never too early to start thinking about an Honors in the Major project.” So, even before I had a topic, Dr. Piehler and I had discussed that I would do an Honor’s thesis in my senior year. Over the years, we met to discuss potential topics, and he is my HITM advisor now.

We meet every week and discuss my progress. Dr. Piehler provides me with feedback on my writing and has also helped me find sources and keep my eye on archival material.

Were you nervous about starting such a big project?

It has been a good mixture of nervousness and excitement. I know that I want to do this for my career, and the HITM thesis is a baby step in the direction of learning how to write a bigger thesis. It has been a good experience, and I am proud of creating something rewarding and insightful.

Doing my senior seminar the semester before I started writing my Honors thesis helped me. My senior seminar Director, Dr. Mooney, is also on my Honors committee. When I was getting panicked about writing such a long Honors thesis, she told me to think of it as two or three chapters rather than one long paper. She told me, “You have just written a 20-page paper for your senior seminar. That’s like writing one chapter of your Honors thesis.” Additionally, the experience of researching and writing the senior seminar paper was very useful and gave me great research skills that transferred to this paper.

As I get closer to my defense date, things are becoming more stressful. Throughout the project, I have tried to take time for myself where I don’t do anything school related. Instead, I might watch TV, hang out with friends, or go to the gym.

How do you stay on top of things?

I set up a lighter schedule for this semester. I am only doing 12 credits, and that is a big help in getting things done.

I have a file on my computer just dedicated to my Honors thesis, where I save outlines, and each version of my drafts. On my iPad, the Notability app is my best friend. I have a folder where I keep track of all my secondary sources. While reading sources, I constantly annotate, highlight, and write ideas in the margins. Making folders and properly labeling your work is very important for making your notes accessible and searchable.

At the beginning of each week, I list all the tasks I have for school. On days when I have a lighter course load, I dive into working on the thesis. During my prospectus semester and the first half of my defense semester, I mostly researched, read sources, and took notes. I started writing about halfway through my second semester. I plan how much I want to write on a given day. My writing process consists of making a broad outline for the paper, divided into different sections. In those sections, I list quotes from sources I want to use and my accompanying thoughts. I then turn the outline into a more formal essay.

How do you think completing this Honors project will help you in the future?

Since I want to enter academia and get my Ph.D., this paper has been great preparation for undertaking my future dissertation. The research has been incredibly rewarding. It has forced me to look at history and literature in a different way than I was used to before. I am interested in cultural history and would like to continue theoretical historical research, either refining my study of Zora Neale Hurston or looking at another 20th-century American author.

If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

I would not defend my HITM thesis in the same semester I am graduating. Getting ready for graduation and looking for a job has been very time-consuming, and it has not been easy to balance this with writing my thesis. My advice to others: start in the prospectus in the last semester of your junior year and take the summer to do research. Then defend your thesis in the fall.

Time management is also crucial. You cannot cram everything into one day with a project of this size. Sit down and create a reasonable work plan and then stick to it. In my senior seminar, Dr. Mooney had planned out a number of milestones for us to work towards throughout the semester, X amount of pages by this week, and so forth. As she is also on my HITM committee, I sat down with her at the beginning of the semester, and we discussed creating similar benchmarks for my HITM project.

What advice would you give to other students?

While looking into all the digital sources available for your topic on FSU Libraries One Search is essential, do not forget about the real books! I strongly recommend going into the library early on in your research phase, going into the stacks, and looking at what you can find on the shelves. I have a huge pile of about ten books from Strozier that have been essential for my research.

That also holds true for primary sources. If you can, go and look at them in real-time. Holding the actual manuscript that Zora Neale Hurston wrote in my hands, with her name signed on the last page and the burn marks on it, was a really important moment. I held something in my hands that had been a part of her – as a history student, that was very cool to experience.