Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters [NOOK Book]

Overview

“ I mean to live and die by my own mind,” Zora Neale Hurston told the writer Countee Cullen. Arriving in Harlem in 1925 with little more than a dollar to her name, Hurston rose to become one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, only to die in obscurity. Not until the 1970s was she rediscovered by Alice Walker and other admirers. Although Hurston has entered the pantheon as one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, the true nature of her personality has proven elusive.

Now, a ...
See more details below
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK Study
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$13.99
BN.com price

Overview

“ I mean to live and die by my own mind,” Zora Neale Hurston told the writer Countee Cullen. Arriving in Harlem in 1925 with little more than a dollar to her name, Hurston rose to become one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, only to die in obscurity. Not until the 1970s was she rediscovered by Alice Walker and other admirers. Although Hurston has entered the pantheon as one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, the true nature of her personality has proven elusive.

Now, a brilliant, complicated and utterly arresting woman emerges from this landmark book. Carla Kaplan, a noted Hurston scholar, has found hundreds of revealing, previously unpublished letters for this definitive collection; she also provides extensive and illuminating commentary on Hurston’s life and work, as well as an annotated glossary of the organizations and personalities that were important to it.

From her enrollment at Baltimore’s Morgan Academy in 1917, to correspondence with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Langston Hughes, Dorothy West and Alain Locke, to a final query letter to her publishers in 1959, Hurston’s spirited correspondence offers an invaluable portrait of a remarkable, irrepressible talent.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
In this large, new volume of Hurston's collected letters, however, we have a real contribution to our understanding of her life. — Vivian Gornick,
Publishers Weekly
Many of the questions that Hurston scholars have asked are addressed, and occasionally answered, in this momentous collection of letters by one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance: Why did she constantly alter her age? Did she take a job as a maid toward the end of her life out of desperation or, as she claimed, for a lark? Why did she switch from writing about blacks to writing about whites? And why didn't she ever write anything about her teen years? Kaplan, a leading Hurston scholar at the University of Southern California, calls the letters "one of the few existing sources of personal commentary by a black female intellectual on American life and literature." Spanning the 1920s to the 1950s, Hurston's letters reveal an energetic writer of many voices. The collection includes confiding, sharp-tongued missives to close friends Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten; correspondence with Franz Boas, one of the fathers of American anthropology and Hurston's mentor at Barnard College; and her saccharine (and perhaps ironic) notes of gratitude and supplication to wealthy white patron Charlotte Osgood Mason. A portrait emerges of a heterodox woman who alienated many of her supporters with her increasingly conservative politics and was hampered all her life by financial troubles and romantic disappointments. At 864 pages, this volume contains numerous mundane letters, but it is a comprehensive document of the notoriously unself-revealing woman, beautifully executed. Illus. (On sale Oct. 1) Forecast: Given Hurston's belated prominence, this will receive major review coverage, though some reviews may be delayed to be joined with Valerie Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, which Scribner publishes in January. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
In her introduction to this valuable study, Carla Kaplan, a Hurston scholar, notes that Zora Neale Hurston lived in an era when letter writing was the way to communicate with friends and associates. And communicate Hurston did. From 1917 to 1959, she wrote to her teachers, her benefactors, her editors, her colleagues and her friends. She left behind her a brilliant if not always self-revealing record of her ambitions, her triumphs, and her pain. Kaplan has arranged these letters by decade and she provides the reader with a carefully documented and clearly written account of Hurston's life during each decade as an introduction to each segment of letters. The reader who might not have read Hurston beyond a required reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God is supplied thereby with a framework that is a guide through the letters, a chronicle that places Hurston's correspondence in perspective. Kaplan also provides the reader with a summary chronology of Hurston's life and a detailed glossary that carefully identifies every person mentioned in the letters. A bibliography of Hurston's own works as well as a selected bibliography for the study of Hurston is also included. Highly recommended for anyone seriously interested in Hurston. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Anchor, 880p. illus. index., Ages 15 to adult.
—Patricia Moore
Library Journal
Arguably one of the most significant figures in the African American literary tradition of the 20th century, Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960) has only recently been acknowledged for her superb achievements. The author of four novels, including the highly acclaimed Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), plus an autobiography, numerous essays, and two books on black folklore, she became the first black student to graduate from Barnard College and later studied anthropology at Columbia. A principal in the Harlem Renaissance, she shared fame with her contemporaries, including Langston Hughes and Dorothy West. But recognition was limited; Hurston had to endure a string of menial jobs and died penniless and obscure. This collection of over 500 letters, chronologically arranged and carefully edited and annotated by noted Hurston scholar Kaplan, reveals a gifted yet complex personality at once humorous, cynical, and analytical. These letters to friends, editors, fellow writers, and others trace a life of humble beginnings, turmoil, and frustrations. Interest in Hurston is on the rise, as indicated by the recent publication of Every Tongue Got to Confess, a recently rediscovered collection of folklore she gathered, recommending this for all academic libraries and larger public libraries with extensive literature collections. Richard K. Burns, MSLS, Hatboro, PA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“An astonishingly brilliant artist . . . In these letters we encounter Zora Neale Hurston as if for the first time.” --Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"Smart, sparkling lettters . . . a fascinating collection" --O, The Oprah Magazine

“Kaplan has made the letters remarkably accessible” --The New York Times

“Not merely a collection of letters but a comprehensive introduction to an important American writer” --Booklist

“Captures the myriad facets of Hurston’s genius, not least as it radiated in the legendary life she crafted from humble beginnings.” --The Washington Post

“This is a wonderful addition to what we need to understand about a spirited, extraordinary life.” –Alice Walker

“[Hurston’s] letters have a freshness, humor and immediacy that make you forget how long ago they were written” –Quarterly Black Review

“The letters in Ms. Kaplan’s collection tell a life story of exceptional interest.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Hurston’s reputation–and her place in the canon of truly great writers–only deepens as we encounter the complex and compelling intelligence of this astonishingly brilliant artist. In these letters, we encounter Zora Neale Hurston as if for the first time.” –Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

“ [An] epic collection . . . .The arrival of these letters is like a beacon cast on Hurston’s life.” –Orlando Sentinel

“From her letters emerges an . . . articulate but qualitatively different voice, or better yet, chorus of voices, compounding the contradictions of an undeniably courageous life. We can finally see her . . . served up raw.” –Africana.com

“Hurston’s letters reveal an energetic writer . . . . Beautifully executed.” –Publishers Weekly

“Sublime and intimate. . . . An intriguing installment in the study of Hurston’s work and life.” –Upscale

“The Hurston we revered before this book was only an illusion. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters gives us a flesh and blood Hurston with sharp edges and dark corners and endless, enchanting layers.” –Emily Bernard, author of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307430366
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/18/2007
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 682,957
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Carla Kaplan is Professor of English, Gender Studies, and American & Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California, and a noted Hurston scholar. She is the author of The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, and the editor of Dark Symphony and Other Works, by Elizabeth Laura Adams, Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States, by Zora Neale Hurston, and Nella Larsen’s Passing.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

"DE TALKIN' GAME"

The Twenties (and Before)

First and foremost a storyteller, with profound appreciation for the power of a well-crafted tale, Hurston moved to New York in 1925 and used her storytelling talent to refashion her life along mythic lines, erasing everything that didn't contribute to the new person she had determined to create. That person would have known hardships and hard times, but mostly in a general way. She might have disappointments, but they would never become obstacles. She would be tough and independent and young (in her early twenties, like her friends). Above all, she would be game for everything, full of enthusiasm and ideas. Nothing would be beyond her. She would live up to her proud heritage as a daughter of Eatonville, America's first incorporated all-black town--even if that meant starting over from scratch.

Accordingly, the only full-scale biography of Zora Neale Hurston starts by describing how "in the first week of January, 1925, Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York."1 Hurston begins her life over again in the twenties, establishing herself as a writer, social scientist, and active member of the nation's first major upsurge of African American arts.

During this period, she developed her own aesthetic: an embroidered realism equally committed to liveliness and accuracy. Her developing style as a writer mirrored her personality: hardheaded and sentimental, constrained and effusive, objective and fanciful, all at the same time. The Harlem Renaissance--for all its own self-conscious mythmaking--afforded Hurston the necessary ground on which to build this new life. It gave her a collective enterprise in which she could play a valued role. Among its many circles she could find the publishers, editors, writers, artists, scientists, intellectuals, producers, directors, and patrons she needed to develop all the venues in which she sought to bring the African American vernacular to the American public. This period opened the door to a number of intimate friendships, an inner circle of confidants among whom Hurston hoped to find soulmates who could bridge their differences of race, class, gender, and upbringing. Characteristically, Hurston seemed unfazed by the dazzle of New York's Roaring Twenties. Whereas Harlem was a revelation for many African Americans who had never before been in such a teeming community of black people, Hurston had been raised in an all-black town and was well accustomed to urban life by 1925. She knew that this brief flourishing of America's interest in black culture was a golden moment-perhaps she even sensed how very fleeting that fascination would be-and she wasted no time in using it to advance her personal and artistic goals.

Fashioning a serious career in this period meant becoming a good correspondent, keeping in touch with colleagues, friends, agents, editors, and publishers. Frequently, Hurston wrote multiple letters on a given day. Occasionally, she wrote more than one letter in a day to the same person. As far as can be determined, only one letter survives from earlier than the mid-twenties, although it is almost certain that she wrote to family and friends when she was attending Morgan State Academy and later Howard Preparatory. Without such a record, however, much of her early life remains a mystery. This may be how she wanted it.

What Hurston has written of her early years is peculiar. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she offers a story of her origins that reads like pure fiction. She even marks it as "hear-say," a tall tale in the American tradition she called "lying."
As she tells it, her mother found herself without benefit of midwife, friend, or the strength to "even reach down to where I was."2 If an elderly white gentleman had not chanced on her birthing, she would surely have died. Like a "fairy godmother," he counsels Hurston on her future. Included in his advice is an admonition not to "be a nigger" because "Niggers lie and lie." Hurston's only comment on this strange advice is to insist that he was color-blind and harmless. Why did Hurston choose to repeat--or invent--that story in her autobiography? Was she positioning herself as a daughter of two worlds, black and white? Was she suggesting that white patronage--for good or ill--had always been a feature of her life? Did she want her life to read like a racial fairy tale? Or to make a parody of American fairy tales of race?

Wherever we look for information on Hurston's early life, we find interesting fictions she has left behind. The birth dates she gave for herself throughout her life-1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1910-are all inaccurate, as scholars have recently discovered.3 Hurston was born on January 15, 1891, making her between seven and nineteen years older than she claimed.4 Neither was she actually born in Eatonville, as she claimed.

Like her parents, Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, a place she describes as "an outlying district of landless Negroes, and whites not too much better off. It was 'over the creek,' which was just like saying on the wrong side of the railroad tracks…There was no rise to the thing." Hurston speculates that "the ordeal of share-cropping on a southern Alabama cotton plantation was crushing to [her father's] ambition."

If Alabama was a desolate place, with conditions one longtime resident described as "outrageous [in] every way that you can think,"5 Eatonville, Florida, when the Hurstons arrived in 1892,6 represented opportunity. The Hurstons prospered there. Hurston's father, John, became a Baptist minister and pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church, then served as Eatonville's mayor from 1912 to 1916. John Hurston was known as "a vocal and knowledgeable politician...instrumental in the development of some of Eatonville's first municipal laws."7

Eatonville was a fascinating small town founded in 1887 (Hurston gives the date as 1886), distinguished by being the nation's first incorporated black town-and perhaps the nation's oldest continually all-black town as well.8 Hurston's Eatonville is more distinguished yet: a utopian, imagined world where blacks lived near whites "without a single instance of enmity," people lived a "simple" life of "open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, [and] envy," "you got what your strengths would bring you," and where the Hurston family enjoyed a nice "piece of ground with two big Chinaberry trees shading the front gate," many bushes and flowers, "plenty of orange, grapefruit, tangerine, guavas and other fruits in our yard," and an eight-room house. In Hurston's Eatonville, "we had all that we wanted."

Jonah's Gourd Vine, Hurston's first novel, is largely autobiographical and one of two novels (the other never published) that Hurston set in Eatonville. It provides as much (maybe more) information about Hurston's early life as anything else she wrote, including her own autobiography. John "Buddy" Pearson, modeled on Hurston's father, John, is a larger-than-life character. He can carry his little brother "under his arm like a shock of corn." He is a "fine stud" and "splendid specimen" who grows into manhood as "a walking orgasm" and "a living exultation."9 John's sexual energy leads to "meandering" that proves fatal. Like this character, Hurston's father was so powerful that his children called him "Big Nigger." Like John Pearson, he was without "steering gear," a man whose "share" of weaknesses derailed his life and sabotaged his daughter's. He and Hurston were estranged for years. When he died on August 10, 1918, in Memphis, Hurston was living in Baltimore and, according to her autobiography, had already left him behind. It was her mother, not her larger-than-life father, who had always encouraged her to "jump at de sun."

Little is said about this supportive and encouraging mother, just as Hurston would have little to say in print about any of her marriages. Jonah's Gourd Vine and Dust Tracks on a Road both describe the scene of her mother's death, on September 19, 1904,10 when Hurston was thirteen (not the "nine year old" child she claims to have been in Dust Tracks) in almost identical terms. With her arms pinned behind her, Hurston watched her neighbors perform their local rituals of death: clock and looking glass shrouded in cloth, pillow taken from under the deceased's head, deathbed turned to the east (to disable the corpse's reflection, hasten dying, and protect the household), all countermanded by her mother's own dying instructions to avoid all superstition. Hurston referred often to the "years of agony" she suffered over failing to carry out her mother's deathbed directions. My mother "depended on me for a voice," she wrote, but she had let the townswomen triumph.

Of the years immediately following her mother's death, little is known, except that they were difficult. Hurston's teen years, from 1905 to 1912, consequently, are often known as "the missing decade" or the "lost years," years Hurston hid by changing her age and by revealing nothing from that time period. What is known about these years comes largely from Dust Tracks, a notoriously unreliable, guardedly written, heavily censored book. That story, also fictionalized, goes like this: Hurston's father remarried shortly after her mother's death, and Hurston's new stepmother was intolerable. Rather than accept being an outsider in her own home, Hurston left: living in a boarding school, with two of her brothers in Jacksonville, with friends of the family, with families for whom she worked as a domestic, with her brother Dick in Sanford, Florida, and with her brother Bob in Memphis. Finally, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where her sister Sarah lived and where, after working as a waitress, she enrolled at Morgan Academy to complete her high school education. Between Memphis and Baltimore, Hurston traveled with a Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe as a maid.

Looking for these "lost" years encoded in Hurston's writing has occupied much of the scholarship on Hurston. This research is suggested by African American women's arts which hint at a secret language: quilts, gardens, music, folk art, preaching and other forms of religious expression. This coded language, Alice Walker writes, is how "our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not…handed on the creative spark . . . like a sealed letter they could not plainly read."11 In the case of Hurston's lost years, however, we must ask whether her novels truly address a special reader who knows how to read between her lines or whether Hurston choses--I believe is the case--to keep certain information from the public and to heavily edit her own life story.

In the twenties, Hurston did embrace publicity. At school, her writing quickly caught the attention of her teachers, Dwight O. W. Holmes, William Pickens, Lorenzo Dow Turner, Montgomery Gregory, and finally, Alain Locke at Howard, where Hurston joined the literary society and began to publish in its magazine, Stylus. The rich African American literary community of Washington, D.C., welcomed Hurston. She fell in with Bruce Nugent, Jean Toomer, Marita Bonner, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Fauset, Angelina Grimké, May Miller, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, who became a good friend. Being accepted at Howard--"to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites"--was "ecstasy," Hurston wrote.12

Nonetheless, Hurston felt like an outsider. A short story from this period, "John Redding Goes to Sea," reveals some of the anxieties of these years. This story's main character is immediately set off from his community and their narrow-minded view that he was "a queer child." What John Redding wants is a bigger sphere, "the wide world--at last." His devotion to his family and town, however, pulls him back, and he ultimately drowns in the very river on which he had hoped to escape. This is not one of Hurston's best stories, but it suggests her ambivalence about the costs of leaving home. How could Hurston not have worried? She had arrived at Morgan Academy with one dress and no change of underwear. Her classmates had secure funding and family support, but she was scrambling. "I had heard all about the swank fraternities and sororities and the clothes and everything, and I knew I could never make it."

Hurston did, of course, "make it." Her arrival in New York City in 1925 may have been a "long step for the waif of Eatonville," but it was also a celebrated event.13 And she could take pride in having written her way up from Florida. The story "Drenched in Light" appeared in Opportunity in 1924 and brought her Charles S. Johnson's attention. Johnson, the magazine's founder, was one of the "midwives" of the Harlem Renaissance, "the root" of the entire movement, Hurston called him.14 Johnson encouraged Hurston to enter Opportunity's first literary contest in 1925 and to come to New York to join the "New Negro" Renaissance.15 She won second place (first place went to Langston Hughes) for the short stories "Black Death" and "Spunk" and the play Color Struck. This was all the letter of introduction to the Harlem literati Hurston could ever need. At the awards dinner, Hurston met Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Annie Nathan Meyer, and Fannie Hurst.

The first Hurston letter from the twenties we can locate, written in 1925, thanks writer Annie Nathan Meyer for help getting into Barnard. There, Hurston caught the attention of her future mentor, Franz Boas, among others. "I suppose you want to know how this little piece of darkish meat feels at Barnard," Hurston wrote her friend Constance Sheen. "I am received quite well. In fact I am received so well that if someone would come along and try to turn me white I'd be quite peevish at them."16 "I am tremendously encouraged now," she told Meyer. "My typewriter is clicking away till all hours of the night."17 Hurston could not afford to antagonize Meyer, who was helping her through Barnard: "I must not let you be disappointed in me," she wrote.18 As Hemingway notes, "the authentication that Meyer and Hurst offered should not be underestimated. Just as William Lloyd Garrison assured readers of Frederick Douglass's Narrative that his life deserved white notice, Meyer and Hurst spotlighted Zora at Barnard. For her sister students to know that Barnard's one black student, despite her poverty, socialized with one of the most popular novelists in America and had dined the evening before with the college's founding mother, granted instant recognition and respect."19 But at the same time, she clearly enjoyed talking shop with a successful fellow novelist. "I wont try to pretend that I am not thrilled," Hurston wrote Sheen of her new circle in one of the rare times when she did seem dazzled by the glitter of her new life. "I love it! I just wish that you could be here, Connie. To actually talk and eat with some of the big names that you have admired at a distance, if no more than to see what sort of a person they are."20

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter 1

"DE TALKIN' GAME"

The Twenties (and Before)

First and foremost a storyteller, with profound appreciation for the power of a well-crafted tale, Hurston moved to New York in 1925 and used her storytelling talent to refashion her life along mythic lines, erasing everything that didn't contribute to the new person she had determined to create. That person would have known hardships and hard times, but mostly in a general way. She might have disappointments, but they would never become obstacles. She would be tough and independent and young (in her early twenties, like her friends). Above all, she would be game for everything, full of enthusiasm and ideas. Nothing would be beyond her. She would live up to her proud heritage as a daughter of Eatonville, America's first incorporated all-black town--even if that meant starting over from scratch.

Accordingly, the only full-scale biography of Zora Neale Hurston starts by describing how "in the first week of January, 1925, Zora Neale Hurston arrived in New York."1 Hurston begins her life over again in the twenties, establishing herself as a writer, social scientist, and active member of the nation's first major upsurge of African American arts.

During this period, she developed her own aesthetic: an embroidered realism equally committed to liveliness and accuracy. Her developing style as a writer mirrored her personality: hardheaded and sentimental, constrained and effusive, objective and fanciful, all at the same time. The Harlem Renaissance--for all its own self-conscious mythmaking--afforded Hurston the necessary ground on which to build this new life. It gave her a collective enterprise in whichshe could play a valued role. Among its many circles she could find the publishers, editors, writers, artists, scientists, intellectuals, producers, directors, and patrons she needed to develop all the venues in which she sought to bring the African American vernacular to the American public. This period opened the door to a number of intimate friendships, an inner circle of confidants among whom Hurston hoped to find soulmates who could bridge their differences of race, class, gender, and upbringing. Characteristically, Hurston seemed unfazed by the dazzle of New York's Roaring Twenties. Whereas Harlem was a revelation for many African Americans who had never before been in such a teeming community of black people, Hurston had been raised in an all-black town and was well accustomed to urban life by 1925. She knew that this brief flourishing of America's interest in black culture was a golden moment-perhaps she even sensed how very fleeting that fascination would be-and she wasted no time in using it to advance her personal and artistic goals.

Fashioning a serious career in this period meant becoming a good correspondent, keeping in touch with colleagues, friends, agents, editors, and publishers. Frequently, Hurston wrote multiple letters on a given day. Occasionally, she wrote more than one letter in a day to the same person. As far as can be determined, only one letter survives from earlier than the mid-twenties, although it is almost certain that she wrote to family and friends when she was attending Morgan State Academy and later Howard Preparatory. Without such a record, however, much of her early life remains a mystery. This may be how she wanted it.

What Hurston has written of her early years is peculiar. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she offers a story of her origins that reads like pure fiction. She even marks it as "hear-say," a tall tale in the American tradition she called "lying."
As she tells it, her mother found herself without benefit of midwife, friend, or the strength to "even reach down to where I was."2 If an elderly white gentleman had not chanced on her birthing, she would surely have died. Like a "fairy godmother," he counsels Hurston on her future. Included in his advice is an admonition not to "be a nigger" because "Niggers lie and lie." Hurston's only comment on this strange advice is to insist that he was color-blind and harmless. Why did Hurston choose to repeat--or invent--that story in her autobiography? Was she positioning herself as a daughter of two worlds, black and white? Was she suggesting that white patronage--for good or ill--had always been a feature of her life? Did she want her life to read like a racial fairy tale? Or to make a parody of American fairy tales of race?

Wherever we look for information on Hurston's early life, we find interesting fictions she has left behind. The birth dates she gave for herself throughout her life-1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1910-are all inaccurate, as scholars have recently discovered.3 Hurston was born on January 15, 1891, making her between seven and nineteen years older than she claimed.4 Neither was she actually born in Eatonville, as she claimed.

Like her parents, Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, a place she describes as "an outlying district of landless Negroes, and whites not too much better off. It was 'over the creek,' which was just like saying on the wrong side of the railroad tracks…There was no rise to the thing." Hurston speculates that "the ordeal of share-cropping on a southern Alabama cotton plantation was crushing to [her father's] ambition."

If Alabama was a desolate place, with conditions one longtime resident described as "outrageous [in] every way that you can think,"5 Eatonville, Florida, when the Hurstons arrived in 1892,6 represented opportunity. The Hurstons prospered there. Hurston's father, John, became a Baptist minister and pastor of the Macedonia Baptist Church, then served as Eatonville's mayor from 1912 to 1916. John Hurston was known as "a vocal and knowledgeable politician...instrumental in the development of some of Eatonville's first municipal laws."7

Eatonville was a fascinating small town founded in 1887 (Hurston gives the date as 1886), distinguished by being the nation's first incorporated black town-and perhaps the nation's oldest continually all-black town as well.8 Hurston's Eatonville is more distinguished yet: a utopian, imagined world where blacks lived near whites "without a single instance of enmity," people lived a "simple" life of "open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, [and] envy," "you got what your strengths would bring you," and where the Hurston family enjoyed a nice "piece of ground with two big Chinaberry trees shading the front gate," many bushes and flowers, "plenty of orange, grapefruit, tangerine, guavas and other fruits in our yard," and an eight-room house. In Hurston's Eatonville, "we had all that we wanted."

Jonah's Gourd Vine, Hurston's first novel, is largely autobiographical and one of two novels (the other never published) that Hurston set in Eatonville. It provides as much (maybe more) information about Hurston's early life as anything else she wrote, including her own autobiography. John "Buddy" Pearson, modeled on Hurston's father, John, is a larger-than-life character. He can carry his little brother "under his arm like a shock of corn." He is a "fine stud" and "splendid specimen" who grows into manhood as "a walking orgasm" and "a living exultation."9 John's sexual energy leads to "meandering" that proves fatal. Like this character, Hurston's father was so powerful that his children called him "Big Nigger." Like John Pearson, he was without "steering gear," a man whose "share" of weaknesses derailed his life and sabotaged his daughter's. He and Hurston were estranged for years. When he died on August 10, 1918, in Memphis, Hurston was living in Baltimore and, according to her autobiography, had already left him behind. It was her mother, not her larger-than-life father, who had always encouraged her to "jump at de sun."

Little is said about this supportive and encouraging mother, just as Hurston would have little to say in print about any of her marriages. Jonah's Gourd Vine and Dust Tracks on a Road both describe the scene of her mother's death, on September 19, 1904,10 when Hurston was thirteen (not the "nine year old" child she claims to have been in Dust Tracks) in almost identical terms. With her arms pinned behind her, Hurston watched her neighbors perform their local rituals of death: clock and looking glass shrouded in cloth, pillow taken from under the deceased's head, deathbed turned to the east (to disable the corpse's reflection, hasten dying, and protect the household), all countermanded by her mother's own dying instructions to avoid all superstition. Hurston referred often to the "years of agony" she suffered over failing to carry out her mother's deathbed directions. My mother "depended on me for a voice," she wrote, but she had let the townswomen triumph.

Of the years immediately following her mother's death, little is known, except that they were difficult. Hurston's teen years, from 1905 to 1912, consequently, are often known as "the missing decade" or the "lost years," years Hurston hid by changing her age and by revealing nothing from that time period. What is known about these years comes largely from Dust Tracks, a notoriously unreliable, guardedly written, heavily censored book. That story, also fictionalized, goes like this: Hurston's father remarried shortly after her mother's death, and Hurston's new stepmother was intolerable. Rather than accept being an outsider in her own home, Hurston left: living in a boarding school, with two of her brothers in Jacksonville, with friends of the family, with families for whom she worked as a domestic, with her brother Dick in Sanford, Florida, and with her brother Bob in Memphis. Finally, she moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where her sister Sarah lived and where, after working as a waitress, she enrolled at Morgan Academy to complete her high school education. Between Memphis and Baltimore, Hurston traveled with a Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe as a maid.

Looking for these "lost" years encoded in Hurston's writing has occupied much of the scholarship on Hurston. This research is suggested by African American women's arts which hint at a secret language: quilts, gardens, music, folk art, preaching and other forms of religious expression. This coded language, Alice Walker writes, is how "our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not…handed on the creative spark . . . like a sealed letter they could not plainly read."11 In the case of Hurston's lost years, however, we must ask whether her novels truly address a special reader who knows how to read between her lines or whether Hurston choses--I believe is the case--to keep certain information from the public and to heavily edit her own life story.

In the twenties, Hurston did embrace publicity. At school, her writing quickly caught the attention of her teachers, Dwight O. W. Holmes, William Pickens, Lorenzo Dow Turner, Montgomery Gregory, and finally, Alain Locke at Howard, where Hurston joined the literary society and began to publish in its magazine, Stylus. The rich African American literary community of Washington, D.C., welcomed Hurston. She fell in with Bruce Nugent, Jean Toomer, Marita Bonner, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Fauset, Angelina Grimké, May Miller, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, who became a good friend. Being accepted at Howard--"to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites"--was "ecstasy," Hurston wrote.12

Nonetheless, Hurston felt like an outsider. A short story from this period, "John Redding Goes to Sea," reveals some of the anxieties of these years. This story's main character is immediately set off from his community and their narrow-minded view that he was "a queer child." What John Redding wants is a bigger sphere, "the wide world--at last." His devotion to his family and town, however, pulls him back, and he ultimately drowns in the very river on which he had hoped to escape. This is not one of Hurston's best stories, but it suggests her ambivalence about the costs of leaving home. How could Hurston not have worried? She had arrived at Morgan Academy with one dress and no change of underwear. Her classmates had secure funding and family support, but she was scrambling. "I had heard all about the swank fraternities and sororities and the clothes and everything, and I knew I could never make it."

Hurston did, of course, "make it." Her arrival in New York City in 1925 may have been a "long step for the waif of Eatonville," but it was also a celebrated event.13 And she could take pride in having written her way up from Florida. The story "Drenched in Light" appeared in Opportunity in 1924 and brought her Charles S. Johnson's attention. Johnson, the magazine's founder, was one of the "midwives" of the Harlem Renaissance, "the root" of the entire movement, Hurston called him.14 Johnson encouraged Hurston to enter Opportunity's first literary contest in 1925 and to come to New York to join the "New Negro" Renaissance.15 She won second place (first place went to Langston Hughes) for the short stories "Black Death" and "Spunk" and the play Color Struck. This was all the letter of introduction to the Harlem literati Hurston could ever need. At the awards dinner, Hurston met Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Annie Nathan Meyer, and Fannie Hurst.

The first Hurston letter from the twenties we can locate, written in 1925, thanks writer Annie Nathan Meyer for help getting into Barnard. There, Hurston caught the attention of her future mentor, Franz Boas, among others. "I suppose you want to know how this little piece of darkish meat feels at Barnard," Hurston wrote her friend Constance Sheen. "I am received quite well. In fact I am received so well that if someone would come along and try to turn me white I'd be quite peevish at them."16 "I am tremendously encouraged now," she told Meyer. "My typewriter is clicking away till all hours of the night."17 Hurston could not afford to antagonize Meyer, who was helping her through Barnard: "I must not let you be disappointed in me," she wrote.18 As Hemingway notes, "the authentication that Meyer and Hurst offered should not be underestimated. Just as William Lloyd Garrison assured readers of Frederick Douglass's Narrative that his life deserved white notice, Meyer and Hurst spotlighted Zora at Barnard. For her sister students to know that Barnard's one black student, despite her poverty, socialized with one of the most popular novelists in America and had dined the evening before with the college's founding mother, granted instant recognition and respect."19 But at the same time, she clearly enjoyed talking shop with a successful fellow novelist. "I wont try to pretend that I am not thrilled," Hurston wrote Sheen of her new circle in one of the rare times when she did seem dazzled by the glitter of her new life. "I love it! I just wish that you could be here, Connie. To actually talk and eat with some of the big names that you have admired at a distance, if no more than to see what sort of a person they are."20
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)