At home only in the word
Zora Neale Hurston is an American original. A rural black Southerner born in the 1890s, she grew up to become both a skilled anthropologist and a writer of reputation during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, spent her final years in poverty and obscurity, and would now be forgotten had she not written a minor masterpiece, the 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Today, she is enjoying a flourish of attention due to the recent publication of her collected folk tales (“Every Tongue Got to Confess”), as well as a new biography and her collected letters.
To best understand Hurston, one must know that she was raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla. -- a social oddity which meant that, although the same poverty and ignorance applied here as elsewhere for blacks, what you had, if you were growing up in Eatonville, was the sight of your own relatives and neighbors taking all the positions otherwise occupied “out there” by educated white men. In Eatonville, black men were the heroes and the villains; they failed and they succeeded; they were intelligent, stupid, hard-working, lazy, faithful, unreliable; and they were magnificent fantasists whose tall tales spun out on the porch of the general store delivered all the riches of spirit and imagination that a growing writer could want. Oh yes, one other thing: These very same men who suffered subservience out in the white world didn’t hesitate to inflict it on their women.
Eatonville was the formative experience for Zora Hurston. It became the basis of both her lifelong championship of rural black culture and an angry insistence that black women were the “mule of the world.” This interwoven devotion shaped and informed the best of her work and at least once suffused her story sufficiently to produce a novel that grew large and went deep, transcended its own material, entered a tradition.
Reading over Hurston’s work in its entirety, one can feel her kinship with a number of others like herself who also wrote endlessly, in the idiom of their time and place, about the power struggle between women and men, and also left behind a single small masterpiece: the white Southerner Kate Chopin (“The Awakening”), the Jewish immigrant Anzia Yezierska (“Bread Givers”), the Western itinerant Agnes Smedley (“Daughter of Earth”). This is the tradition to which Hurston’s great novel belongs, and it is one that enriches American literature
Harlem in the 1920s was the very best place to be if one was black and wanted to write, and the time, the place and the person were well met in Hurston’s arrival in 1925. After a runaway life (she left home at 14), culminating in a late-bloomer degree from Howard University, Hurston showed up on 125th Street and almost instantly made herself visible, if not central, to the literary scene then in progress. She had a brash, wild, where’s-the-party personality and an unmatched capacity for drawing attention to herself. In no time at all, she had the affection of well-connected whites as well as that of rising black writers.
As large, life-loving and engaged as her presence could feel, that’s how cunning, secretive and intemperate she could actually be. She made three short, disastrous marriages -- her closest friends knew nothing of her husbands -- to men who later testified to her murderous temper. Her politics, like her marriages, were equally volatile. She had a peculiarly narrow view of the “Real Negro” that separated her from the black literati and caused her to take exasperating public positions, such as opposing the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision on the grounds that she would never want to associate with people who didn’t want to associate with her. The extremes of her personality never abated; they left neither her nor anyone else in peace. In time, she quarreled with almost everyone she knew, and at last this recklessness did her in.
In 1948 -- the Renaissance over, Hurston now broke and often lonely, her friendships disintegrating, her manuscripts being rejected -- from out of the blue Hurston was charged with sexual abuse of a 10-year-old boy. Eventually she was cleared of the patently false charge, but the scandal demoralized her. She left New York for good and returned to Florida, where she lived until 1960 in deepening poverty, bad health and isolation. Her grave bore no tombstone until 1975, when Alice Walker famously placed one there, and the gradual rediscovery of Hurston’s work was begun.
In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston pulled together what she knew of life so fully and so richly that, writing characters who speak dialect, she made marriage for a woman into the equivalent of a bildungsroman: a picaresque journey into self-discovery.
At 16, the beautiful but orphaned Janie Crawford is married off against her will to a local farmer; within a year she realizes that she will never love her husband, and life begins to feel like a prison sentence. Along comes Joe Starks, an ambitious man who looks upon Janie as a prize and swears to her that if she comes with him she will live like a queen. That sounds good, and off she goes. Janie thinks him devoted, but one day at the general store, she’s asked her opinion, and he slaps her down in public. She sees then that she is there only to be “worshipped.” The insight makes her yearn suddenly for the freedom to think and speak as she pleases, to laugh, speculate and imagine out loud.
Joe Starks dies, and enter Tea Cake, young, sexy, exuberant. His idea of a good time includes Janie being herself. They go off together and, indeed, she has a wild and passionate time of it. But Tea Cake is immature, volatile, violently impulsive; and soon he, too, dies. Janie is relieved to be alone -- alone with her own thoughts, now that she has thoughts.
The progress in Janie Crawford from dumb feeling to articulated thought -- accomplished through Hurston’s signature technique of mixing dialect speech with literary narrative -- runs like a current beneath the vivid surface of the novel, endowing its prose with a powerful, accumulating inwardness that is unforgettable. At the time of publication, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was denounced by black writers (especially Richard Wright) as an insignificant love story and a dangerous piece of Aunt Tom writing. Today, I think it safe to assume that anyone reading it -- black or white, male or female -- will readily see it for the existential fable it so clearly is.
Valerie Boyd’s biography is a serviceable presentation of facts and events, but no real improvement on the one written by Robert E. Hemenway in 1977. In this large, new volume of Hurston’s collected letters, however, we have a real contribution to our understanding of her life. Written to almost everyone she knew over the years -- friends, teachers, editors, relatives, critics and acquaintances -- these letters are uniformly the work of a woman always on her guard. They are so chatty, easygoing and informative, that it would take a while -- perhaps a lifetime -- for any of her correspondents to realize that nowhere in them does Hurston risk making herself vulnerable. The letters are written to entertain, reassure, throw out a line of connection while the writer herself remains masked, unknowable, always at a self-protecting distance; yet, at the same time, the mockery in them is palpable. Almost invariably, a sizable portion of each letter is devoted to lavish praise and appreciation of the person to whom she is writing -- sometimes the praise is mild, sometimes it’s laid on thick, either way it never feels benign -- and an astonishing number are signed “Your devoted and obedient servant” or “Your little pickaninny.” What is heartbreaking about the letters is how well written they are: all those good words, useful to their author only in the work, not at all in the life. It is impossible not to be moved by the woman whose extravagant and exuberant consciousness -- trapped in the bitter triumph she wrested from being black in a white world -- condemned her to a noisy loneliness everywhere except in her writing, exactly as it did two of the other writing women whose life Hurston’s so strongly resembles.
Smedley and Yezierska (also born in the 1890s) emerged from the same kind of underclass as did Hurston -- one from a family of unskilled laborers endlessly drifting west, the other from New York’s Jewish ghetto -- and they too grew into clever, nasty, secretive creatures who, hungry for the world, wrote their way out of a buried-alive life but could make themselves integrate only in the writing, never in the life. The books they wrote -- raw, hard-won, brilliant, really, in their cunning -- are a testament to the power of American self-creation and the iron loneliness that so often goes with it. Each and every one of them lived with a foot in the world they’d come from and another in the world whose borders they crossed like immigrants: a sure recipe for alienation from both. Within themselves, they remained stateless, living on visas they were never certain would be renewed. Forever divided between what had been and what might be, each bitterly feared self-revelation -- without which there can be no wholeness of life -- and each died alone: Yezierska in a rooming-house on New York City’s Upper West Side, Hurston in unspeakable straits in Florida, Smedley on an operating table in England, en route from a place that didn’t want her to a place that didn’t know her. Their lives are emblematic, their work a small glory.