Collected letters offer insight into Hurston
By Hillel Italie
NEW YORK -- In 1960, Zora Neale Hurston died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave. She had imagined a better way to go.
"Why do you not propose a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead?" she wrote to author and activist W.E.B Du Bois in 1945. "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness."
But thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker and others, Hurston has re-emerged in the past 30 years as a canonical writer and anthropologist who is read, taught and analyzed throughout the world. Her burial site, in Fort Pierce, Fla., now bears a dedication Walker placed in 1973: "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South."
Along with Ernest Hemingway, Hurston also stands out as a prime source for posthumous literature. She wrote far more than she published and her estate is still sorting through plays, stories and articles.
"Every Tongue Got to Confess," folk-tales she had compiled, came out last year. An unpublished play, "Polk County," was performed this spring in Washington, D.C. In the fall, her collected letters are being released, providing the most personal insights yet into an artist both scorned and adored for doing as she pleased.
"Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters" includes about 600 letters from Hurston, many of them unseen even by scholars, with Hurston's correspondents including Du Bois, and fellow writers Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson.
"A character does not have to be lovable to make good reading," she once observed. In language salty and sweet, Hurston commented on love, art, politics and the general state of the world, revealing herself as both blunt and deceptive, quarrelsome and sensitive, boastful and despairing.
"Her whole life seemed a way of saying, 'This is who I am and you're going to have to deal with it,"' says the book's editor, Carla Kaplan, a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Southern California.
Fans of Hurston's autobiography, "Dust Tracks on the Road," knew she had a passion for invention, especially about her past. Kaplan and other scholars believe she was born in 1891, in Notasulga, Ala., years sooner then the author would claim. Not only did she pass as much younger in person, but even on paper Hurston could play tricks with time.
She arrived in Harlem in 1925 with $1.50 to her name. She was in her mid-30s, with much experience behind her, but she seemed as besotted with life as a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
"I shall try to lay my dreaming aside. Try hard. But, Oh, if you knew my dreams! My vaulting ambition! How I constantly live in fancy in seven league boots, taking mighty strides across the world, but conscious all the time of being a mouse on a treadmill," she wrote in 1926 to Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College.
"I wonder the actual sparks do not fly so that they be seen by all men. Prometheus on his rock with his liver being continually consumed as fast as he grows another, is nothing to my dreams."
Hurston's friendship with Meyer led to a scholarship at Barnard, where she studied under the great anthropologist Franz Boas and mastered the social arts as practiced during the Harlem Renaissance. "She seemed to know almost everybody in New York," observed Langston Hughes, whom she met at an awards dinner given by the literary journal Opportunity (Hughes won first prize for a short story contest, Hurston was runner-up).
In an admittedly uncrowded field, Hurston became the country's most prominent black woman writer. She published novels, notably "Their Eyes Were Watching God," short stories and newspaper articles. She staged theater productions, compiled music for the Library of Congress and served on numerous anthropological committees.
Dedicated to the honor of "His Majesty, the man in the gutter," Hurston traveled throughout the South and the Caribbean, gathering information about local cultures. She was convinced that great art would more likely be produced by a "humble Negro boy or girl who has never heard of Ibsen" than by a black intellectual who "goes to Whiteland to learn his trade! Ha!"
Hurston published consistently until the late 1940s, when she was arrested for making sexual advances against a 10-year-old boy. Although the charges were dismissed, she felt humiliated and betrayed.
"I care nothing for anything anymore. My country has failed me utterly," she told a friend at the time.
Hurston's last few years, spent in Florida, were a triumph of persistence more than accomplishment. The Harlem Renaissance was long gone, black writers were having a harder time getting published and Hurston's luck, never steady, was slipping away. She even worked briefly as a maid, although she insisted it was research for an upcoming book.
"All kinds of miseries camping on my tail. Financial worry, illness, and whatever else you can think of, happened to me," Hurston had confided to Maxeda Von Hesse, a speech coach for Eleanor Roosevelt. She died of heart disease in early 1960, her name misspelled on the death certificate.