It is clear as one reads through these two volumes of Zola Neale Hurston’s works that above all else she valued a good story told in vivid language. The Library of America’s choice of Hurston as the first African American woman to include in its canon of “America’s greatest writers” not only acknowledges the influential position her work has come to have in the last quarter of the twentieth century but also provides access to a broad spectrum of her writings, including some that were not always easily accessible.
Since the late 1970’s, Hurston’s best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has delighted countless readers, been analyzed and deconstructed by numerous critics, and become a staple of American literature courses. Even the redoubtable Harold Bloom included the novel as part of his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). Hurston’s other novels and her nonfiction works are much less celebrated and sometimes puzzled over, especially by critics or champions who have a particular political or literary point to make. The Library of America’s edition serves to allow the reader to experience a substantial bulk of Hurston’s writings and to understand them in relation to one another. Editor Cheryl Wall’s thorough biographical chronology supplements and corrects the “lies” (Hurston’s own word for stories) sometimes found in her autobiography,Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). The complexity of Hurston’s experiences and ideas enriches the reader’s experience of the individual works, while definite themes and authorial preoccupations begin to emerge.
Zora Neale Hurston was a self-made woman who probably could not have created herself had she not grown up in one proud and vibrant community and later been adopted into another creative and intellectual community. The old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child is particularly illustrated in the nurturing of young Zora in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated African American town in the state. Despite her claim to have been born in Florida in 1901 or 1903, she was actually born in Georgia, the fifth of seven children of Lucy Ann Potts and John Hurston, who moved to Eatonville when Zora was three. It was Eatonville, entirely owned and governed by its citizens, that instilled in Zora her joy in her African American culture and reinforced the self-confidence that her mother encouraged when she told her daughter to “jump at de sun.” It was to the front porch of Joe Clarke’s general store in Eatonville that the Barnard College graduate returned to collect the “lies” that she would publish in Mules and Men (1935), her groundbreaking collection of African American folklore, and that she would continue to scatter through her novels and short stories. Eatonville has celebrated its daughter since 1990 with an annual festival in her honor.
Yet it was by leaving Eatonville that Hurston managed to enter a wider world and gain the distance and education that would allow her to become its voice. When Zora was thirteen, her mother died, and she was sent to a secondary school in Jacksonville along with her elder sister. This education abruptly ended when her father remarried and stopped supporting his children. Zora and her younger siblings lived with various relatives until 1915, when she joined a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe as maid to one of the singers. Landing in Baltimore, she attended Morgan Academy and then Howard University, earning an associate degree. After she published a story, “Drenched in Light” (1924), in the literary journal Opportunity, its editor, Charles S. Johnson, a leading proponent of the “New Negro” movement, encouraged her to move to New York. In 1925 she followed his advice and moved into the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Harlem Renaissance.
The artists and intellectuals, both black and white, who created and supported the Harlem Renaissance welcomed the audacious Zora Hurston into their community. She became friends with such luminaries as poets Langston Hughes and Countée Cullen, author Carl Van Vechten, and novelist Fannie Hurst, for whom she served as chauffeur for a time. Under the sponsorship of Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College, she integrated the college and began to study under and work for Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas.
The contradictions and correlations between her anthropological training and her artistic sensibilities run through much of her work. Like most significant artists, she is both observer and performer. Hurston’s impulse to perform was well noted by her New York associates; Hughes, remarking on the circle of Harlem artists with whom they socialized and worked, said, “Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books—because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself.” Robert Hemenway, her biographer, has pointed out that her inspiration came from the oral sources of storytelling in Eatonville and that she was the only member of the Harlem Renaissance literati less than a full generation removed from the actual folk traditions they...
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