Definitive Zora Bio Yet to Come
Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
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by Valerie Boyd
Format: Hardcover, 528pp
Pub. Date: January 2003
Reviewed by Thumper
Zora Neale Hurston ensured her place of prominence in the American literary
canon with her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her career was filled
with highs and lows, accomplishments, poverty and tragedy. Hurston's life is the
subject of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston written by
Valerie Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows is an average biography that doesn't clear all
of the clouds of mystery surrounding Hurston's life, but, despite its
deficiencies, is still enjoyable.
Wrapped in Rainbows succeeds in bringing Hurston from near mythical heights back to earth for a close up, objective once over by exploring her personal history, politics, writings, and anthropological research. As Hurston was unveiled, she became even more complex. Was she liberal or conservative, activist or an Uncle Tom, truth teller or a liar who cloaked herself behind toothy grins, a feminist or an embarrassment of the black race for writing books which relayed the language of poor black folk as it was spoken, and not in proper English? Upon completion of the book, I was left with the crystal clear impression of Hurston as a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, written in the form of a question.
I've been a fan of Hurston's novels for many years, and I have read other biographies and essays on her work. I was hoping Boyd would address the following controversial issues in this biography: Was Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks in the Road, accurate or an elaborate lie; The beginning and end of her friendship with Langston Hughes, including the dispute over the authorship of their play Mule Bone; Hurston's relationship with her benefactor Charlotte Mason, aka Godmother; Hurston's family history, youth, and role in the Harlem Renaissance; And finally, the circumstances surrounding her last days. Boyd plowed through these matters. Some of her work sated my curiosity, but some of her answers and conclusions left me dissatisfied.
Boyd did an excellent job depicting Hurston's relationship with Charlotte Mason, Langston Hughes, and her ground breaking anthropological research treks. I found these portions of Hurston's life fascinating. Boyd's defense of the accuracy of Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks in the Road, was sound. Basing her conclusions on letters written by and to Hurston as a foundation, Boyd's assessment of these dimensions of Hurston's life reads like a well-told story. I couldn't have asked for more.
However Boyd gets off track on several points. In examining Hurston's youth, Boyd injects opinions of today's child psychologists to explain Hurston's emotions concerning her mother's death. This tactic was unwarranted. Besides the fact that the quoted professionals never met Hurston, including their viewpoints belies the purpose of a biography -- a truthful written account of an individual's life, and not conjecture. The author indulged in another form of speculation when Boyd expressed what Hurston would feel if she knew the truth behind the actions of people she believed to be her friends. For example, when Hurston first applied for the Guggenheim Foundation award, she asked several supporters to provide references, including her instructor, Franz Boas, one of the country's leading anthropologists, and the popular novelist, Fannie Hurst. Both submitted negative judgments of Hurston and her worthiness for such an award. Boyd then proceeds to hypothesize how Hurston would have felt had she known of her associates' betrayal. Although Boyd's conclusion is believable, who is to say what Hurston would have thought?
Periods of Hurston's life that might have been enlightened by her family are missing. I assume Boyd did not receive the cooperation of Hurston's family. It is not a necessity to have Hurston's family's input, but the relationships with her siblings and parents are essential components in the development of Hurston's character. There were also periods in which Hurston left no paper trails. Here the family could have provided some light on these unknown times.
There are moments when the biography might have included more scholarship. Boyd missed the opportunity by not including reviews or essays in their entirety. One such controversy that would have benefited by such submissions was the tiff, for lack of a better word, between Hurston and Richard Wright. Boyd did surmise Wright's written opinion of Their Eyes Were Watching God and briefly described Hurston's annoyance. If Wright's entire review were reprinted here, as well as Hurston's response and Hurston's thoughts of Wright's Native Son, I would have had a better understanding of what transpired. Missteps such as these prevented this biography from being a definitive one.
The rich cream of this biography was the introduction to the political side of Hurston. She wrote essays expressing her political views on education, segregation, and the ramifications of Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, and the budding civil rights movement. These are issues that I wasn't aware Hurston had an opinion. I got excited. I falsely believed I was about to be introduced to Hurston's writings that I had not read before. When Boyd touched on this, she had my full and undivided attention, but it soon wavered because Hurston's essays were not integrated into the text.
Wrapped in Rainbows is a nice introduction to Zora Neale Hurston. Taking into account the few shortcomings of Wrapped In Rainbows, it was time well served. Since I read the biography, I now know more about Zora Neale Hurston than I had previously. I am also confident that I have no idea who Zora Neale Hurston was. I guess her own life was one tale Hurston did not want told.