Book Excerpt – Zora Neale Hurston: A Life In Letters
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life In Letters
by Carla Kaplan
Copyright © 2003 Penguin Random House/Carla Kaplan No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
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 GrimkÃ©, 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."