When she died in a Florida welfare home in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave, Zora Neale Hurston already had been largely forgotten. Once a leading figure of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a friend of such prominent intellectuals as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois, she had vanished from the spotlight. Her books were out of print, and publishers had rejected her last four manuscripts. Not until the 1970s, when author Alice Walker led a revival of interest in her work, did the public rediscover Hurston. Today, she is widely revered, quoted in presidential speeches, studied at scholarly conferences, and even was featured in a Google Doodle in 2014. Her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, originally published in 1937, sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.
It’s easy to understand her appeal. With her brilliant ear for dialogue—certainly the finest writer of idiomatic American English in the generation after Mark Twain—and her lush and witty prose style, Hurston polished virtually every sentence in her books to a shine that often verges on poetry. But more than this, her work expressed a steadfast individualism that sets it apart from the collectivist—even communist—writings of her Harlem Renaissance colleagues.
They, in fact, were Hurston’s harshest critics. They condemned her for not writing “protest literature”—that is, for not centering her stories on the evils of racism and the alleged wrongs of capitalism. And it is true that she refused to write propaganda (a word other Harlem Renaissance authors actually embraced). Although hardly silent on racial and political controversies, Hurston did not want to confine herself to transitory political subjects. She was tired, she told a friend, of being asked, “Why don’t I put something about lynchings in my books? As if all the world did not know about Negroes being lynched!”1 She chose to focus instead on broader, more universal themes: on ideas about independence and beauty, and to give voice to her own joyful sense of life—to “sing a song to the morning,” as she put it.2 That is what makes her writing genuine and lasting literature. . . .
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1. Zora Neale Hurston, Letter to Countee Cullen, March 5, 1943, in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 482.
2. Zora Neale Hurston, “Art and Such,” in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings, edited by Henry Louis Gates (New York: Library of America, 1995), 908.
3. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, October 2, 1947, in A Life in Letters, 559.
4. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Lewis Gannett, May 12, 1934, in A Life in Letters, 303–4.
5. Zora Neale Hurston, “High John de Conquer,” in Folklore, 930.
6. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to the Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 1955, in A Life in Letters, 738; Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” in Folklore, 827.
7. Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” 827.
8. Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, in Zora Neale Hurston: Novels and Stories, edited by Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995), 876.
9. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in Wall, Novels, 333.
10. There are only three full-length biographies of Hurston: Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribner, 2002), and Deborah G. Plant, Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007). Peter Bagge’s Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2017) tells her story in a graphic novel format.
11. Among other things, Hurston’s memoir omitted any discussion of her 1927 first marriage, of which biographers only learned long after her death. It is even possible that she may have been married before that—during the “missing decade.” Clues indicating this include the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God—in which the main character is married three times; the latter two husbands are known to be based on real people—and the 1926 story “Under The Bridge,” about a young woman married to a much older man. See Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, edited by Genevieve West (New York: Amistad Press, 2020), xxx. But for now, at least, Hurston’s reasons for silence about these aspects of her life remain unknown.
12. Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, in Folklore, 572.
13. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 668.
14. Zora Neale Hurston, “Drenched in Light,” in Novels, 947–58.
15. Hemenway, Literary Biography, 47.
16. Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays, edited by Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 50.
17. Yuval Taylor, Zora and Langston (New York: Norton, 2019), effectively establishes that Hurston was overwhelmingly responsible for the content of Mule Bone.
18. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Arthur Spingarn, March 25, 1931, in A Life in Letters, 215.
19. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Charlotte Mason, October 15, 1931, in A Life in Letters, 234.
20. Zora Neale Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” American Legion Magazine, June 1951, 56.
21. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” 59.
22. Remembering this is essential to appreciating Hurston’s writing. Many of her novels include long passages of dialogue that are really adaptations of dramatic set pieces. In the pacing of these scenes, the tenderness and beauty of her characterization, and the vivid language she gives her characters, Hurston’s work is easily comparable to that of Shakespeare. For example, the passage in Their Eyes in which Janie first meets Tea Cake is easily on par with the similar scene in Romeo and Juliet in which the star-crossed lovers first meet. It is hard, in fact, to believe that Hurston did not have Shakespeare’s precedent in mind when composing this scene, which is among the loveliest in American literature. Hurston’s plays can be found in Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).
23. John McWhorter, “Thus Spake Zora,” City Journal, Summer 2009.
24. Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 257.
25. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Fannie Hurst, December 1933, in A Life in Letters, 286.
26. Hurston’s interest in voodoo primarily was anthropological, but her own beliefs regarding religion are not entirely clear. “I have not been converted [to voodoo beliefs],” she reassured a friend during one of her research trips, “tho I am not a christian either [sic].” Letter to Henry Allen Moe, January 6, 1937, in A Life in Letters, 391. Yet although her writings—particularly her book-length study Tell My Horse (1938)—treat voodoo as a social and cultural practice, they at times appear to lend credence to the reality of magic spells. She claimed, for example, to have seen an actual zombie (Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 299). In Dust Tracks and other writings, however, she characterized herself as wholly secular. “Life as it is does not frighten me,” she wrote. “I have made peace with the universe as I find it.” She considered religion to be “collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.” Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 764.
27. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.
28. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.
29. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.
30. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.
31. Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in Novels, 110.
32. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 194.
33. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 183.
34. Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in Novels, 366–67.
35. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 217.
36. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 236.
37. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 232.
38. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 238.
39. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 232.
40. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 244.
41. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 250.
42. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 293.
43. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 293.
44. Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 307.
45. Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” New Masses, October 5, 1937, 22–23.
46. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Dorothy West, March 24, 1934, in A Life in Letters, 297.
47. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” American Legion Magazine, June 1951. Along with Native Son, Hurston singled out Langston Hughes’s 1935 play Mulatto, Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel Strange Fruit, and Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow’s play Deep Are the Roots (1945) as examples of the grievance-obsessed literature she despised. See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to William Bouie, September 6, 1954, in A Life in Letters, 719.
48. Hurston, letter to William Bouie, 719.
49. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burton Rascoe, September 8, 1944, in A Life in Letters, 503.
50. Hurston, “Art and Such,” 908.
51. Zora Neale Hurston, “Stories of Conflict,” in Folklore, 913.
52. Hurston “Art and Such,” 908. Late in life, Hurston attributed her rejection of protest literature to the poet and scholar James Weldon Johnson, who in her college days had urged her “not to waste time” writing it. See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to William Huie, May 14, 1954, in A Life in Letters, 709.
53. Hurston, letter to Burton Rascoe, in A Life in Letters, 503.
54. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism”; Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” 827.
55. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 765.
56. James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 18.
57. Hurston later came to have a different view of Moses. He was a “dictator” who “worked out an idea for a theocratic government” and treated the Hebrews as “available laboratory material”—slaughtering them when they resisted his religious commands. She hoped to write a novel that would portray their resistance to Moses in an heroic light, as “the 3000 years struggle of the Jewish people and the rights of man.” See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Carl Van Vechten, September 12, 1945, in A Life in Letters, 529. Hurston was drawn to writing stories based on biblical figures, including not only Moses, but Herod the Great and, in her play The First One, Noah and his children.
58. Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in Novels, 522.
59. Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, 522–23.
60. Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, 483.
61. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 590–91.
62. For example, see, Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Edwin Osgood Grover, October 12, 1939, in A Life in Letters, 422.
63. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 792.
64. Zora Neale Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” in Folklore, 945.
65. Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” 947.
66. Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” 948.
67. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Claude Barnett, July 1946, in A Life in Letters, 543.
68. Hurston, letter to Claude Barnett, 543.
69. For example, see, Hemenway, Literary Biography, 336.
70. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 492–93 (1954).
71. Brown v. Board of Education, 494.
72. Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the Brown ruling for the same reason in his separate opinion in Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70 (1995).
73. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to the Orlando Sentinel, 738 (emphasis added).
74. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 782.
75. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 732.
76. Susan Ware, It’s One O’Clock and Here is Mary Margaret McBride (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 10.
77. Hurston, Letters, 443. See examples quoted in Deborah G. Plant, “The Inside Light”: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 37.
78. Hurston, letter to William Bouie, in Letters, 720.
79. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 758–59.
80. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 830.
81. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 836–37.
82. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 840.
83. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, October 2, 1947, in A Life in Letters, 558.
84. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 750.
85. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 841.
86. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 562. In 1953, Hurston wrote to her ex-husband, “Like a mother hen, I tried to stand between you and hurt, harm and danger, and learned that that is something nobody can do for another.” Letter to Herbert Sheen, March 13, 1953, in A Life in Letters, 694.
87. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 847.
88. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 877.
89. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 876.
90. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 913.
91. See, for instance, Deborah G. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 168.
92. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 920.
93. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom, 178.
94. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 558.
95. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 562.
96. The primary distinction is that while in the film, Rhett Butler is an admirable character who grows to realize the misguided nature of his love for Scarlett O’Hara—leading to tragedy when he leaves Scarlett at just the moment that she realizes the error of her ways—he is not an admirable, or even particularly interesting, character in the novel.
There is another parallel, too. Just as Gone with the Wind uses Rhett and Scarlett’s marriage to express a broader theme about southern history, so Hurston’s theme in Seraph is also applicable to broader issues, including racial politics. On one level, Arvay and Jim’s handicapped first child represents the United States’ early struggle with slavery: Earl is the monstrous consequence of the couple’s corrupt initial joining, perverted before birth by Arvay’s backwardness (representing the slave society of the South) and by Jim’s aggression (which stands for the northern-dominated slave trade). At the novel’s end, Arvay reflects that “Earl had been bred in her before she was even born, but his birth had purged her flesh . . . and the way was cleared for better things.” Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 918. His escape and the manhunt that results in his death—an incident in which Jim is almost killed by his son—is a metaphor for the Civil War, and the aftermath is a replay of the Reconstruction era, with its brief respite from oppression, and the gradual return of fears, hatreds, and cruelties. After Jim leaves Arvay, she transforms her jealousy and self-hatred into racism against Jim’s black and immigrant friends. Racial prejudice, Hurston is suggesting, is just one of the “sanctioned vices” adopted by those who suffer from “poverty of soul.” The independent and entrepreneurial Jim, by contrast, is not a racist, and while turning his efforts to building his fortune through hard work, he also maintains close friendships with minority characters whom Arvay initially spurns—and whom she befriends only after overcoming her resentment.
97. Anna Lillios, Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011).
98. Hurston, letter to Carl Van Vechten, in A Life in Letters, 467.
99. See Plant, “The Inside Light.”
100. There is no evidence that Hurston was familiar with The Fountainhead, or knew Rand personally, but both were members of the American Writers’ Association, a group founded in the 1940s to oppose the so-called Cain Plan, a proposal to force authors, in effect, into a union that would control their copyrights. See Richard Fine, James M. Cain and the American Authors’ Authority (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 129. It is possible they could have met at one of its functions.
101. Ayn Rand, “Don’t Let it Go,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, New American Library, 1982), 258.
102. Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 298.
103. Letter to Jane Belo, December 3, 1938, in A Life in Letters, 417.
104. Gone with the Wind, The Fountainhead, and Seraph on the Suwannee share another, more complex similarity: each features an episode of rape used as a literary device. In The Fountainhead, Roark’s actions are motivated by Dominique’s desire to be overpowered by a man of superior strength. See Andrew Bernstein, “Understanding the ‘Rape’ Scene in The Fountainhead,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, edited by Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). In Gone with the Wind, Rhett’s action results from his doomed desire to obtain Scarlett’s respect. In Seraph, Jim rapes Arvay just before their marriage (resulting in Earl’s conception). As in Gone with the Wind, Jim’s actions represent his effort—ultimately futile and counterproductive—to break through Arvay’s self-imposed psychological boundaries, including by force; to “hunt” her and “free her soul,” as he later puts it. See Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 840. Hurston was not, of course, implying approval of or leniency toward rape; on the contrary, she was dramatizing the misguided nature of Jim’s efforts to compel Arvay to understand him. This, of course, he cannot do; only she can change herself, as he eventually comes to realize. Just as, in Hurston’s previous novel, Moses learns that freedom cannot be given to someone but must come from within, so Jim learns that he cannot force Arvay past her boundaries. Thus, the rape is the consequence of Jim’s faulty premise—one he learns to reject when he finally leaves Arvay years later, in his own “frankly, my dear” moment. This explains why the consequence of Jim’s rape is Earl, who persistently is portrayed as the fruit of a poisonous tree, even as a demon. As for the “remorseless sweet” feeling Arvay experiences after the incident, it does not indicate Hurston’s approval of Jim’s act (A Life in Letters, 443) but rather the haunting possibility of genuine love that Arvay is incapable, at that point, of truly grasping. The rape passage, therefore, parallels the episode with the snake (when she again resists giving herself fully to the marriage) and the climactic moment on the boat, when she finally does take the initiative and, by rescuing Jim from the panicking crewman, commits herself to a “doing kind of love.”
105. Three of these manuscripts—one on the life of businesswoman C. J. Walker, one based on the town of Eatonville, and an adventure story called The Secret Lives of Barney Turk—have been lost. The fourth, on the life of Herod the Great, exists only in a partially destroyed manuscript.
106. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, in A Life in Letters, 670.
107. In reality, Herod died four years before the birth of Jesus. Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version (New York: Knopf, 1992), 27–31.
108. Hurston, letter to Herbert Sheen, in A Life in Letters, 755.
109. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, in A Life in Letters, 741.
110. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 768–69.
111. Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms., March 1975; Hemenway, Literary Biography.
112. Julia Marsh, “Oprah-Halle Movie Spurs Author Family Feud,” New York Post, October 21, 2013.
113. “Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail,” city of Fort Pierce, https://www.cityoffortpierce.com/386/Zora-Neale-Hurston-Dust-Tracks-Heritage- (accessed December 20, 2019).
114. Plant, Biography of the Spirit, 137–38.