Zora Neale Hurston, Undefeated - [TEST] The Objective Standard

When she died in a Florida welfare home in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave, Zora Neale Hurston already had been largely forgotten. Once a leading figure of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance, a friend of such prominent intellectuals as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois, she had vanished from the spotlight. Her books were out of print, and publishers had rejected her last four manuscripts. Not until the 1970s, when author Alice Walker led a revival of interest in her work, did the public rediscover Hurston. Today, she is widely revered, quoted in presidential speeches, studied at scholarly conferences, and even was featured in a Google Doodle in 2014. Her novels, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God, originally published in 1937, sell hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

It’s easy to understand her appeal. With her brilliant ear for dialogue—certainly the finest writer of idiomatic American English in the generation after Mark Twain—and her lush and witty prose style, Hurston polished virtually every sentence in her books to a shine that often verges on poetry. But more than this, her work expressed a steadfast individualism that sets it apart from the collectivist—even communist—writings of her Harlem Renaissance colleagues.

They, in fact, were Hurston’s harshest critics. They condemned her for not writing “protest literature”—that is, for not centering her stories on the evils of racism and the alleged wrongs of capitalism. And it is true that she refused to write propaganda (a word other Harlem Renaissance authors actually embraced). Although hardly silent on racial and political controversies, Hurston did not want to confine herself to transitory political subjects. She was tired, she told a friend, of being asked, “Why don’t I put something about lynchings in my books? As if all the world did not know about Negroes being lynched!”1 She chose to focus instead on broader, more universal themes: on ideas about independence and beauty, and to give voice to her own joyful sense of life—to “sing a song to the morning,” as she put it.2 That is what makes her writing genuine and lasting literature.

Singing a Song to the Morning

Hurston’s four novels and three nonfiction books—plus plays, short stories, and articles—focused on two major themes. The first was the beauty of black American folk culture, particularly its music and colorful language. Most of her stories incorporated clever neologisms (such as “monstropolous” for huge, or “asterperious” for snooty), vivid metaphors, and idioms of black Southerners for whom she had such affection. To view these as evidence of a distinct culture, rather than as a bastardized, hand-me-down version of white culture, was a controversial idea in the 1920s and ’30s. Whereas Native American cultures had long been a focus of study, Hurston was among the first college-trained anthropologists to argue that black Americans, too, had developed an elaborate and beautiful tradition of their own, which included art that deserved to be taken seriously. She collected much of this art herself, traveling throughout the southern United States and the Caribbean, meeting locals, and learning their folktales, music, and vibrant vernacular.

Black English, she believed, was a legacy of 17th-century colonialism. Slavery and its consequences had retarded the linguistic evolution that had occurred more rapidly in the industrialized North, with the result that the “colorful language that characterized Shakespeare and his contemporaries and made possible the beautiful and poetic language of the King James Bible got left over to an extent in the rural South.”3 This gave birth to a distinct linguistic style, rich in epigrams and imagery. Religion had evolved in a similar way, with black Southerners enjoying ornate ceremonialism and ecstatic rituals not found among white congregations or even northern black churches. “White people strive to achieve restraint,” she explained, but “we strive to pile beauty on beauty, and magnificence on glory.”

One reason for this was that poor black laborers craved beauty and could find few other sources of it. They “do not read literature,” she wrote, so “the preacher must satisfy their beauty-hunger himself. He must be a poet and an actor.”4 The elaborate preaching and singing of the black church tradition was, she believed, as much an art form as the free verse or folk music created by white Americans. Hurston devoted much of her career to capturing this distinctive aspect of American society.

Beyond its beauty, Hurston believed that black culture and art manifested virtues such as resilience and good humor that had helped black Americans survive the time of slavery without lasting bitterness. The most important of these virtues was an internal sense of freedom and joy—a belief in “the power of love and laughter to win by their subtle power.”5 That unvanquished inner light marked a refusal to surrender one’s own sense of self-worth to the demands of oppressors. And one persistent element in Hurston’s fiction was that those who do surrender that sense of self-efficacy suffer a sense of bitterness and envy worse than any cruelty that another person could inflict. Her fierce rejection of socialism originated in her view that anticapitalist politics was rooted in precisely that kind of envy. Instead of “whining” or “sobbing” over oppression, Hurston believed, black Americans should devote their energies to pursuing happiness.6 “No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.”7

This belief was interwoven with Hurston’s other major theme: individualism and, especially, her effort to comprehend the psychology of those who lacked a sense of self-sufficiency—those she called “slouchy people.”8 Her books strove to grasp the mind-set of people who, having accepted their own defeat, transform it into resentment toward the strong and successful. She hoped to offer an alternative vision—one of life undaunted, self-reliant, and free from bitterness. She expressed that warm and magnanimous alternative especially well in the closing passage of Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which the main character, Janie—having tragically lost her beloved husband (Tea Cake)—thinks how grateful she is to have had him in her life:

The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.9

The Harlem Renaissance

Hurston’s own life was almost as colorful as her novels.10 Born in a tiny Alabama town in 1891, she later claimed to have been born ten years later in Florida. Biographers learned the truth only in the 1970s, and they have yet to uncover any details about the “missing decade,” 1905–1915, except the few she shared in her delightful but unreliable memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road.11

Her father was a preacher, a stern and conceited man with a reputation as a womanizer. Her mother, patient and kind, instilled in Zora a sense of self-esteem and a commitment to improve her life. “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”12

When her mother died in 1904, Zora was at her bedside and forever mourned her loss. But Zora’s father swiftly got remarried—to a woman he had been sleeping with behind his late wife’s back. The children were appalled, and Zora left home shortly after. That began the “missing decade” omitted in her memoir—which skips ahead to 1915 when she got a job with a group of traveling actors. She wound up in Baltimore and, concealing the fact that she was a decade older than the other students, began attending high school. There she discovered poetry—particularly Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Milton. It bowled her over. “This was my world, I said to myself, and I shall be in it, and surrounded by it, if it is the last thing I do on God’s green dirt-ball.”13

After graduating, she moved to Washington, D.C., and entered Howard University, where she began to write poetry and short stories. Always restless, she left Howard without a degree and moved to New York to join in the Harlem Renaissance. Her 1924 story “Drenched in Light” quickly brought her to the attention of the movement’s leaders, and it proved a prelude to her literary career. The story is a simple tale of an amiable black child named Isis, modeled on Hurston herself, who enjoys standing on a fence post waving at drivers who come through town. Isis charms a visiting white woman so much that the traveler hires her to sing at a hotel. “I want brightness and this Isis is joy itself,” she tells the girl’s grandmother. “I want a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I need it.”14 This theme—of the abiding happiness that could be found in black culture and its capacity to enrich the lives of those who historically had spurned it—would persist throughout her writing.

The next year, her play Color Struck won a prize in a contest sponsored by some of the Harlem Renaissance’s major figures. Regarded today as an apprentice work, Color Struck’s most interesting feature is its articulation of an idea that would reappear throughout Hurston’s literature: the tendency of some people to nurse their own resentment in ways that cause them to live, unnecessarily, in darkness.15 The two-act tragedy begins at a party that features a “cake walk” (similar to a dance contest). The main character, Emma, has arrived with her boyfriend, John, intending to participate—but at the last minute she refuses, when she becomes convinced that John is more attracted to the lighter-skinned girls at the party. John tries to persuade her otherwise, but she sits sulking against the wall, and he escorts another girl instead.

In the second act, twenty years later, Emma is living in a ramshackle cabin with her daughter Lou, who’s suffering from a dangerous fever. There’s a knock at the door, and it’s John. Now a widower, he’s come to find Emma and marry her at last. Lou’s father, we learn, was an unknown white man. Yet John is willing to accept her as his own. Nevertheless, Emma withdraws, unable to believe that he could possibly love her for herself and so addicted to a sense of victimhood that she won’t send for a doctor to help Lou. She even refuses to light a lamp in the cabin, telling John she prefers the dark. In the end, when John tries to give Lou some water, Emma shoves him away, calling him a “half white skin.” Shocked, John leaves, muttering, “She so despises her own skin that she can’t believe anyone else would love it.”16

Though expressed in racial terms, the broader theme of both “Drenched in Light” and Color Struck—the contrast between people like Isis or John who seize the opportunity to make the most of their lives, and those like Emma who withdraw into a self-darkened world of resentment and consequently refuse to take the steps necessary to thrive—reaches beyond race.

At an awards dinner where Color Struck was honored, Hurston was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, and she started in 1925, as its first black student, to study under the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. She continued to write on the side and soon befriended Langston Hughes, then a little-known poet, who introduced her to a wealthy patroness of the arts named Charlotte Mason. For the next five years, Mason’s aid enabled Hurston to travel throughout the South and the Caribbean to study folk traditions.

On one trip, Hurston happened to encounter Hughes in Alabama, and the two traveled together for weeks, gathering folklore in small towns. They decided to collaborate on a play, eventually called Mule Bone, to make use of some of the comical tales they had heard. Their partnership, however, swiftly collapsed. The details are still disputed, but it’s clear that Hurston did almost all of the actual writing and came to view Hughes as a literary moocher.17 When he later had his lawyer threaten to sue her over the play, she snapped back, “I think it would be lovely for your client to be a play-wright but I’m afraid that I am too tight to make him one at my expense. . . . [W]hy not do him one yourself?”18 She could not bear Hughes’s attempt to steal her work—or his increasing devotion to communism.

In fact, it dawned on Hurston—the only Harlem Renaissance writer who actually grew up in the South and had firsthand experience with Jim Crow—that many of the Renaissance writers were communists, including Hughes, DuBois, and Wright, and that they wanted not to celebrate black culture but to take advantage of it—and of black people—for their own collectivist political goals. “The things our ‘leaders’ are fighting for are privileges for the intellectuals not benefits for the humble,” she told Charlotte Mason. They preferred to “get on . . . the backs of the poor Negro and ride his misery to glory” rather than “waste time and golden syllables telling the bottom black what to do to help himself.”19 When Hughes went to Russia a year later to make a propaganda film for Stalin’s government, Hurston was disgusted.

Her opposition to communism was rooted in her fierce individualism. Subjecting people to the service of the state in hopes of gaining subsistence from its allegedly benevolent rulers struck her as merely another form of slavery—“just the thing we are striving to get away from”—and hardly likely to benefit a racial minority already suffering widespread discrimination at the hands of the government.20 She preferred instead a free society where individual gumption and hard work could be rewarded. “Why would we want to swap freedom for bondage?” she asked. “Why [would the black man] kill the boss? He might be the boss himself next year. It has been done time after time and again. Every man a king when he gets his break.”21 Everything that makes the world beautiful and grand, she thought, comes from the independence that collectivism wars against.

After splitting with Hughes in 1930, Hurston continued writing, primarily for the stage. In fact, she spent most of her career as a dramatist, traveling the country to write, organize, and even perform in concerts and stage comedies designed to showcase authentic black culture to white audiences who generally had no exposure to such things.22 She also continued writing fiction and, in 1933, published a story called “The Gilded Six Bits,” an intimate tale of romance and forgiveness that captured the attention of publisher Bertram Lippincott. He wrote to ask if she was working on a novel. The real answer was no, but she told him yes—and immediately began writing what became Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hurston’s career is that she gradually transformed herself from a literary naturalist into a romanticist. Naturalism—a literary movement that sought to represent reality as it is, as opposed to articulating a perspective on how life ought (or ought not) to be—was at its height of popularity in the 1930s, after such writers as Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser published novels that broke with Victorian literary styles and strove for a “realistic”—often bleak and deterministic—depiction of the world. Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1925) were especially successful, winning him the Nobel Prize in 1930 and exerting an enormous influence on other writers of the era.

Like Lewis’s novels, Jonah’s Gourd Vine portrays the world the author knew firsthand—in Hurston’s case, the black culture of Florida. Its main character, John Pearson, is based on her father, and the story is of his life as he rises from day laborer to itinerant preacher and eventually to prominence. His wife, Lucy, is modeled on Zora’s mother. She is a picture of mercy and tenderness, driven to an early death in part by John’s philandering. Eventually run out of town for his misdeeds, John finally meets a woman who accepts him and offers him the possibility of renewed happiness. Yet his weakness drives him once more into an affair, and, distraught at his own behavior, he drives away in a car—only to be killed in an accident (one modeled on the accident that killed Hurston’s own father).

The novel’s distinction lies in its lively language; in folktales, sermons, and jokes taken from the stories and songs Hurston had gathered in her travels. These elements often disrupt the flow of the story—her characters, one scholar notes, “often perform instead of talk”—and many pages of the novel are devoted to amusing digressions instead of the plot.23 Yet at a time when black culture usually either was ignored or belittled, such respectful and charming depictions were truly innovative, and Hurston’s skills at dramatizing them were impressive.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine captivated readers with its prose. It is “the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has been written by a member of the Negro race,” said one critic.24 But lively as it is, it is a firmly naturalistic novel, seeking to document people as they are instead of dramatizing any philosophical outlook. The characters do not so much make decisions as follow preordained trajectories as relentlessly as the characters in Dreiser’s and Lewis’s novels. “I do not attempt to solve any problems,” Hurston wrote of the book. “I tried to deal with life as we actually live it.”25

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine was successful enough that Lippincott hastened to publish Hurston’s next work, Mules and Men, an anthology of folktales she had collected in her travels and assembled into a loose narrative. The next year, Hurston won a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to travel to Haiti and Jamaica to study voodoo.26 While there, she wrote her most celebrated novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Completed in only six weeks, Their Eyes was inspired by Hurston’s intense romance with a college student named Percival Punter, whom she met when he performed in one of her plays. Punter was twenty-three years her junior, and he was not her first love. She had married a medical student named Herbert Sheen in 1927, only to have that marriage collapse within months, in part because he wanted her to abandon her career. Hurston married twice more, in 1939 and 1944, and those marriages also failed rapidly. She was always secretive about these relationships, but her romance with Punter was intense enough that she described it in her memoir (without using his name) as “the real love affair of my life.”27

Their liaison alternated between moments of ecstasy and bitterness. Punter’s intelligence and brash personality awed Hurston—he had “a bright soul,” she said—but he also had a crippling lack of self-confidence that sometimes exploded into resentment toward her.28 He “suffered so much through doubting that he could hold me” that “when I had to meet people on business, or went to literary parties and things like that, it would drive him into a sulk, and then he would make me unhappy.”29 Time and again, the couple found themselves sharing transcendent pleasure, only to have it come crashing down into arguments driven—or so Hurston believed—by his jealousy toward her writing. “He begged me to give up my career, marry him and live outside of New York City. I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do, but that one thing I could not do.”30

In her devotion to her literary ambitions, Hurston likely was following the advice of her mother, who had instilled in her a sense of self-reliance that Hurston tried to express in her novels. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, the character Lucy, on her deathbed, gives her daughter some parting advice: “Don’t you love nobody better’n you do yo’self. [If you] do, you’ll be dying befo’ yo’ time is out.”31 Throughout her life, Hurston would follow this principle, and in 1936, she seems to have thrown herself into her Caribbean work in hopes that it would help ease her breakup with Punter. Their connection, however, would linger on until the 1940s, and he ultimately inspired two of her novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee.

Published in 1937, Their Eyes tells the story of Janie Crawford, a poor black Floridian raised by her grandmother. Despite her poverty, Janie grows up with an idealistic spirit. “She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was beautiful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making.”32 As a teenager, she has an experience that convinces her of the possibility of love and happiness, if only she can find them:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.33

Yet Janie’s grandmother, a former slave who yearns for Janie to have a respectable start in life, arranges her granddaughter’s marriage to a hardworking but dull and much older farmer. Life in his home is joyless toil with no prospect of fulfillment or adventure and little pretense at romance. When a brash young traveler named Jody Starks passes by the house one day, she finds herself mesmerized by his ambition and passionate personality, and she runs away with him to Eatonville, Florida (the city in which Hurston grew up), where Jody opens a store and becomes mayor.

Like John Pearson in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Jody is based on Hurston’s own father—who, indeed, served as Eatonville’s mayor—and, like her father, he proves domineering, petty, and jealous. His public image matters more to him than his accomplishments in life; and instead of appreciating Janie’s spirit, he treats her like a trophy, “always being skotched upon a flag-pole . . . and forced . . . to sit there.”34 He insists that she cover her beautiful hair at all times and forbids her from joining in the storytelling sessions at the store because she’s “Mrs. Mayor Starks,” and it’s bad for his reputation for her to participate.35

She comes to feel like a “rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.”36 Jody begins demeaning her in front of the townspeople, and her efforts to defend herself accomplish nothing. “He wanted her submission, and he’d keep on fighting until he had it.”37 When she finally lashes out by ridiculing his age (“Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look like de change uh life”), he beats her.38

Their love morphs into recrimination and loneliness. “The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom.”39 Their estrangement grows until Jody falls ill and, refusing to see a doctor, accuses Janie of trying to poison him. They confront each other on his deathbed. “You ain’t the Jody ah run off down de road wid,” Janie says. “You wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”40 Eventually, Jody wastes away.

Janie’s first act upon her husband’s death is to uncover her pretty hair. She takes charge of the store and manages it well, appreciating her newfound independence. “Ah just’ loves dis freedom,” she tells a friend.41 For months, she brushes off suitors who flirt with her—until one day a handsome man enters the store. Charming, intelligent, honest, hardworking, and joyful, he goes by the name Tea Cake because he’s so sweet. He’s half Janie’s age, but his self-sufficient spirit is entrancing. Their love is what Janie has longed for—a mutual celebration of each other’s lives.

Tea Cake embodies the self-confident, life-affirming spirit Hurston so admired, and the novel’s climax comes when he laughs to scorn Mrs. Turner, who, like Emma in Color Struck, resents the world and her own self because she’s black. Most of all, Mrs. Turner—whom Hurston subtly likens to W. E. B. DuBois—feels contempt for black people who go about their lives in happiness, because she secretly wishes they would conform to her own conception of collective virtue—a conception subconsciously premised on an acceptance of black people’s inferiority to whites. Tea Cake considers her standards ridiculous. “Aw, don’t make God look so foolish,” he tells her, at last. “Findin’ fault wid everything He made.”42 Yet he and Janie do not so much resist Mrs. Turner as disregard her. “It didn’t affect Tea Cake and Janie too much,” writes Hurston. “It just gave them something to talk about in the summertime.”43

The couple’s romance is glorious—but it’s cut tragically short when a hurricane strikes and Tea Cake is bitten by a terrified dog. Rabies sets in, and he slowly goes mad—moving through stages of paranoia to jealousy and resentment. When at last he tries to shoot her, Janie is forced to kill him in self-defense. After a brief trial, she is acquitted of murder and returns to her hometown, where she ignores the gossiping neighbors and recounts her story to her best friend. Then, alone in her dark house, she mourns her loss but thinks of how grateful she is to have had Tea Cake in her life.

Hurston’s most impassioned and eloquent novel, Their Eyes is a masterpiece of style and sympathy that brilliantly captures a spirit of love and gratitude. Like Jonah’s Gourd Vine, it bursts with asides and anecdotes—although, unlike the earlier novel, these do not distract from the pacing of the plot. And although it is still an ultimately naturalistic novel, concerned with documentation more than dramatization, it incorporates many romantic elements, most notably the theme of embracing life, unforgettably embodied in the character of Tea Cake. It’s little wonder that Their Eyes remains a best seller more than seventy years after publication.

But whereas reviewers for prestigious journals applauded the novel, Hurston’s black peers were less pleased. Philosophy professor Alain Locke, a guru to the Harlem Renaissance writers, praised her “gift for poetic phrase” but condemned her for failing to “come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction,” by which he meant her failure to expressly include political or racial themes in the novel.44 Richard Wright was harsher in his review for the communist journal New Masses. Hurston’s novel “carries no theme, no message, no thought,” he wrote. It was “not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.” Her use of black English was essentially a minstrel-show stunt, “which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the ‘superior’ race.”45

Wright’s and Locke’s reactions were unsurprising. They thought black writers should devote their energies solely to protest fiction, as exemplified by Wright’s 1939 Native Son, in which the black main character commits murder and is defended at his trial by a communist lawyer whose courtroom speech—to the effect that the crime really should be blamed on racist capitalism—consumes many pages.

Hurston rejected that approach to writing. She did not ignore racial conflict in her novels, but she refused to confine herself to it, because literature that focused exclusively on such injustices only tended to “pander to our inferiority complex” rather than to articulate universal human values.46 The results were not genuine art but blandly formulaic novels such as Native Son and its countless imitators, each “as morbid and as ugly as the devil’s doll-baby,” none of which said anything but, “you can’t win, Negro, you can’t win!”47

“In vain do you search for dignity and self-respect” in such literature, Hurston observed.48 Instead, authors such as Wright “seek out and praise characters of the lowest type and most sordid circumstances and portray the thing as the common state of all negroes, and end up with a conclusion that the whites, and particularly the Capitalist whites are responsible.”49 These writers typically were hailed as “brave,” their work celebrated “by the ‘champions’ who want to hear the same thing over and over again,” but “the truth is, [such writings are] the line of least resistance and least originality.”50

When she reviewed Wright’s book Uncle Tom’s Children a year after his negative review of Their Eyes appeared, she was even more explicit. “This is a book about hatreds,” she wrote. “The reader sees the picture of the South that the communists have been passing around of late.” Wright’s “solution, is the solution of the PARTY—state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing, not even feeding one’s self. And march!”51

Especially regrettable was the fact that prominent critics praised such work while ignoring or blasting books that offered a different perspective—one rooted in heroism, joy, and triumph. In Hurston’s view, Wright, Hughes, Locke, and their allies were handicapping young black writers by teaching them to focus exclusively on matters of racial grievance. Imagine a black poet who wants to “sing a song to the morning,” she wrote.

Up springs the song to his lips, but it is fought back. . . . [H]e mutters, “Ought I not to be singing of our sorrows? That is what is expected of me. . . . If I do not some will even call me a coward. . . . I will write of a lynching instead.” So the same old theme, the same old phrases get done again to the detriment of art.52

This was a crime against literature and an injustice to black Americans, most of whom, Hurston believed, were far more optimistic and ambitious than Native Son implied. Black people include “every kind of people from high to low,” she told a white friend.

We have just as high and as fine and industrious individuals among us as any other group, and . . . our “friends” do us a terrible injury to put us all in a lump. If our “friends” portray us as sub-human varmints, the indifferent majority can only conclude that we are hopeless. They have laid down the proposition that we have no ability to survive in this civilization. I know different, and you do too.53

Just as “the majority of American Negroes indignantly refuse the role [of] . . . the pitiful object” in politics, Hurston rejected the “sobbing school of Negrohood” in aesthetics, and for the same reasons: because it was condescending, unjust, and counterproductive.54 Most of all, she recognized that for novelists to devote their energies to political protest, or to romanticize futile violence, as Wright and Hughes did, were not acts of defiance but of surrender. “To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness,” she wrote. “It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat.”55 However awful Jim Crow might be, black writers who wallowed in hatred were allowing others to set their aesthetic agenda instead of living life on their own terms.

In 1949, James Baldwin would voice the same criticism when he condemned Native Son on the grounds that Wright “admits the possibility of [the black man] being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed at his birth.”56 This Hurston would never do. Her characters reject the “brutal criteria” of racism by treating them as insignificant and going about the business of relishing life’s beauty. That was what triumph truly meant. And it is what makes her novels as fresh today as when they were written.

Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

The idea of rejecting resentment plays an important role in all of Hurston’s fiction. But it came to serve as a major theme in her next novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain.

Moses was an ambitious novel with an inspired premise: Hurston reimagines the Biblical story of Exodus by giving the Hebrew characters the language and culture of southern black Americans instead. This enables her to use a figure whose myth had served as an inspiration to black Americans since the days of slavery as well as a chance to explore the relationship between revolutionary leaders and the people they seek to liberate.57

In Hurston’s telling, Moses is an Egyptian prince, brother to the reigning Pharaoh, and although he feels compassion toward the enslaved Jews, he has no particular interest in freeing them. What he really wants is to be a solitary scholar. Yet, when he accidentally kills a slave driver who abuses a Hebrew laborer, he becomes a folk hero for the oppressed. They revive an old rumor that he is secretly of Hebrew ancestry, and the Pharaoh’s deputies grow increasingly suspicious of him. When at last they try to assassinate him, Moses flees the country. He joins the Hebrews after all and uses his education and military experience to lead them out of Egypt and destroy the pursuing Egyptian army.

This proves only the beginning of his challenges, as the newly free Hebrews fall to bickering and complaining about having to earn their own bread. Plagued by fear, self-doubt, and envy, they even grow nostalgic for the good old days when their masters provided for them. “I wish to god we had died whilst we was back in Egypt,” one cries. “There we was sitting down every day to a big pot of meat and bread. If this God you done got us mixed up with just had to kill us, we sure wish He had of killed us down in Egypt on a full stomach.”58

Moses is flummoxed. “I had the idea all along that you came out here hunting freedom. I didn’t know you were hunting a barbecue. Freedom looks like the biggest thing that God ever made to me, and being a little hungry for the sake of it ought not to stop you.”59 But the grumbling continues, and the people, forgetting the torments they suffered in bondage, blame Moses for their hardships and complain about having to undertake difficult tasks, such as military service.

“They say they was under the impression that you had found some god who was going to save us,” one deputy tells him. “They didn’t know they had to join the army.”

“God himself can’t save people who won’t try to save themselves,” Moses replies.60 In the end, he realizes that there are limits to what he can do, and that he still can be proud of what he has accomplished:

He had meant to make a perfect people, free and just, noble and strong, that should be a light for all the world and for time and eternity. And he wasn’t sure he had succeeded. He had found out that no man may make another free. Freedom was something internal. The outside signs were just signs and symbols of the man inside. All you could do was give the opportunity for freedom and the man himself must make his own emancipation. He remembered how often he had had to fight [his followers] to halt a return to Egypt and slavery. Responsibility had seemed too awful to them time and again. . . . Perhaps he had done as much as it was possible for one man to do for another. He had put the future in their hands to do with it according to their hearts and their talents. . . . They might not be absolutely free inside, but anyway he had taken from them the sorrow of serving without will, and had given them the strife of freedom. . . . They had the blessing of being responsible for their own.61

Moses is a flawed novel, as Hurston admitted.62 Among other things, its plot fails to unite all of the abstract ideas she introduces. But it is still an astonishingly creative work, and it marks a step toward romanticism and away from the naturalistic style with which its author began. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, she had tried faithfully to depict life by creating characters meant not to embody values but to document real people. Their Eyes Were Watching God also fundamentally was naturalistic, although amusing and benevolent, and with considerable romantic touches.

Moses, by contrast, is a novel about choices and values. Moses’s decisions drive the action and illuminate the book’s moral perspective. The novel’s focus is not on specific incidents and case studies but on values in conflict. Although it retains many naturalistic features, Moses marks Hurston’s transition into romanticism. Its primary shortcoming lies in its failure to organize its abstract ideas into a plot that satisfyingly articulates its themes. At times, it appears like a series of episodes more than an integrated novel. Yet in terms of imagination and drama, along with Hurston’s usual deftness of style, Moses is an impressive achievement.

Dust Tracks on a Road (1941)

That novel, and a nonfiction book Hurston published about voodoo, were successful enough that she was asked to write a memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, which appeared only after publishers removed some of its more arresting—and politically incendiary—passages in light of the United States’ entry into World War II. Among other things, Hurston had condemned President Franklin Roosevelt for refusing to speak out against segregation. “Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms to some people right here in America before he takes it all [abroad],” she wrote, “and, no doubt, he would do it too, if it would bring in the same amount of glory.”63 These words and more would not see the light of day until the book was published in unexpurgated form long after Hurston’s death.

Yet she did find opportunities to criticize the hypocrisy of fighting for freedom elsewhere while maintaining racist policies at home. “They tell me this democracy form of government is a wonderful thing,” she wrote in 1945.64 “The only thing that keeps me from pitching headlong into the thing is the presence of numerous Jim Crow laws on the statute books of the nation.”65 Those laws were not merely unjust; they were also symptoms of a loathsome psychological disease: “It has two edges”: first, “to promote in the mind of the smallest white child the conviction of First by Birth, eternal and irrevocable”; and, second, to instill in “the smallest dark child” a sense of “inferiority, so that it is to be convinced that competition is out of the question.”66

Hurston’s indignation against the racist tyranny of the Jim Crow era was profound. Yet she rejected the idea that government assistance was the solution. Roosevelt-era welfare programs were merely new forms of “patronage,” both “insulting” and dangerous. Black Americans were not “inferior wards of the nation” but “citizens being denied their rights.”67 More than a decade later, her refusal to accept what she viewed as racial condescension would even lead her to denounce the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which she called an affront to “the self-respect of my people.”68

That sentiment shocked many readers, and today some scholars attribute her reaction to Brown to her ignorance of the deplorable condition of black schools in the South.69 Yet Hurston was right to detect a degree of condescension in the ruling. The court, after all, did not base its decision on the inequality of resources allotted to the separate school systems, but actually went out of its way to reject that premise, asserting (falsely) that the “buildings, curricula, qualifications and salaries of teachers, and other ‘tangible’ factors” in black schools “have been equalized, or are being equalized.”70 Instead, the court found segregation unconstitutional because it “generates a feeling of inferiority” in black children “that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”71

Putting it that way meant integration was an act of white charity toward inferiors rather than a recognition of equal rights, a proposition that struck Hurston as offensive pity—an absurd presumption that blacks could never be happy without white approval.72 “The American Indian has never been spoken of as a minority and chiefly because there is no whine in the Indian,” she wrote. “I take the Indian position.”73

Hurston’s views on race always differed from those of her peers because she refused to think in terms of racial categories. “The solace of easy generalization was taken from me,” she wrote, “but I received the richer gift of individualism.”74 Individualism meant that she prided herself solely on her own achievements and admired the accomplishments of other people as people, rather than as members of racial categories. In her view, it made no more sense to feel pride in a black man’s achievement due to his being of the same race as herself than for her to feel shame for the wrongdoing of a black man simply because their skin was the same color.

She also saw no point in cultivating resentment toward whites; that would do nothing to erase the past and only would hinder one’s own pursuit of happiness in the future. In Dust Tracks she put this point in a parable:

I neither claim Jefferson as my grandpa, nor exclaim, “Just look how that white man took advantage of my grandma!” It does not matter in the first place, and then in the next place, I do not know how it came about. Since nobody ever told me, I give my ancestress the benefit of the doubt. She probably ran away from him just as fast as she could. But if that white man could run faster than my grandma, that was no fault of hers. Anyway, you must remember, he didn’t have a thing to do but to keep on running forward. She, being the pursued, had to look back over her shoulder every now and then to see how she was doing. And you know your ownself, how looking backwards slows people up.75

Dust Tracks is a marvel—alternately hilarious and moving—and it displays all the exuberance of Hurston’s formidable intellect. Yet, as with her previous works, it was denounced by leading black intellectuals for failing to focus on the evils of segregation in the way they preferred. Of course, these critics were unaware of the excised portions of the book, but today, some Hurston scholars still scorn even the unexpurgated Dust Tracks for not expressing a more militant political viewpoint. She would have seen such criticisms as examples of the wrongheaded insistence that black writers serve as members of a collective instead of being individuals with their own dreams, disappointments, and triumphs.

Seraph on the Suwanee (1948)

Dust Tracks was a hit, winning a prominent literary award and landing Hurston on the cover of Saturday Review and on the nationwide radio program of Mary Margaret McBride, the Oprah Winfrey of her day.76 In the years that followed, Hurston wrote articles for major magazines such as American Mercury and Saturday Evening Post. Yet for all of these successes, fortune still eluded her. In fact, Hurston never was able to support herself by writing and never received a significant amount of royalties.

In 1943, she moved to Daytona Beach, where she lived on a houseboat and worked on plans for a voyage to Honduras. She was unable to afford that trip until 1947, but once there, she began writing her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee.

Critics rarely have known what to make of Seraph—calling it “ludicrous,” “bewildering,” “confusing and hard to understand”—largely because they have been distracted by one of its unusual features: The novel’s main characters are white.77 Few black novelists at that time had tried to write about the lives of white people. But although race plays a significant role in Seraph, that is not its primary focus. Instead, it is devoted to a broader theme: the difference between the envious mentality—what Hurston elsewhere called “poverty of soul”—represented by the main character, Arvay Meserve; and the enterprising, individualistic, ambitious mindset embodied by her husband, Jim.78 Seraph also represents Hurston’s complete transformation from a naturalist to a full-fledged romanticist.

The story begins with Arvay as a teenager, living in poverty in the Florida town of Sawley. Jealous of her older sister and hungry for attention, Arvay pretends to experience supernatural revelations that take the form of seizures. But she does not fool the handsome Jim Meserve, who finds her beautiful and decides he wants to marry her. One day, when she goes into a pretended fit, he grabs a bottle of medicine and “accidentally” spills some in her eye. She leaps up, howling in pain—and Jim, to her humiliation, coolly points out that her seizure has stopped.

Thus begins a sort of competition between the two. The hardworking Jim strives to prove himself and provide for Arvay, as well as to break through the shield of pretense and fear that always seems to surround her heart. Meanwhile, Arvay manages, in every instance, to find ways to interpret his gestures as affronts or slights. Her bitterness eventually is symbolized by their first child, Earl, who is born with such severe birth defects that the couple keep him locked in his room for fear he might hurt someone. When he becomes a teenager, he escapes and rapes a local girl. A posse gathers to capture him, and Jim joins it, hoping to bring his son in safely. But when Earl shoots at him with a rifle—barely missing his head—they gun Earl down.

Their son’s death proves a relief of sorts, but it’s short lived. Arvay’s sense of worthlessness bars her from fully accepting Jim’s love and makes her secretly resent those, including Jim and his black friend Jeff, who try to improve their fortunes through hard work. Rather than embracing life, she waits for things to happen to her—and her marriage suffers for it.

Jim confronts her about this, accusing her of practicing an “out the window” style of love: “It ain’t really love when you gamble with your stuff out the window,” he explains. “[When you] leave all your best things outside and come in and get in the game, and soon as you win a little something, jump and run.”79 Reluctant to commit herself fully and risk being hurt, in love or anything else, Arvay holds back, refusing to make the effort to pursue values—or even to comprehend them—and instead waits to accept or reject those Jim offers. That very reticence, however, prevents her from understanding or appreciating Jim’s character, and she resents him for devoting attention to his work instead of somehow shoring up the weaknesses of her soul.

Things come to a head when Jim, laboring in the field one day, finds an enormous snake and picks it up to show it to Arvay. It turns out to be stronger than he thought and it wraps itself around him and begins to squeeze. Jim cries out for help, but Arvay is paralyzed. “She went into a kind of coma standing there. Fear surrounded her. . . . She could neither run to the rescue nor flee away from the sight.”80 Eventually, Jim’s friend Jeff comes to his aid instead.

The incident proves to be a breaking point. “I swear I didn’t want you to get hurt by that old snake,” Arvay tells Jim that night.

“That only makes things worse,” he replies.

Maybe you couldn’t of done one thing to help me, but you could of showed what you was made out of by trying. . . . I don’t want that stand-still, hap-hazard kind of love. I’m just hungry as a dog for a knowing and a doing love. You love like a coward. Don’t take no steps at all. Just stand around and hope for things to happen out right.81

Jim—who long has labored in hopes that Arvay will come to understand both him and herself—gives up. “I’m sick and tired of waiting for you to meet me on some high place and locking arms with me and going my way. I’m tired of hunting you and trying to free your soul.”82 He decides to leave Arvay, and he gives her an ultimatum: He will stay away for a year on the Florida coast, working on a shrimping boat that he’s just purchased, and wait for her to come to him of her own accord. If she does not, he will divorce her.

Up to this point, Arvay’s poverty of soul has rendered her incapable of truly loving Jim. Love—the feeling of relishing another person’s self for its own sake—is only possible to one who already appreciates herself. Yet Arvay does not, and that lack of self-confidence prevents her from fully appreciating her husband. As Hurston explained to her editor, a person with a “strong sense of inferiority” cannot be “confident that she is wanted,” even when she feels an emotional tug in that direction—as Arvay does.83 Jim “was a miracle right out of the Bible,” Arvay thinks. “For some reason, still and as yet not revealed to Arvay, this miracle of a man had married her.”84 Yet it is this very inability to grasp the reason for his love that makes her feel subservient, inadequate, and paranoid—and, in Jim’s words, makes her “choose to be insufficient.”85

Jim realizes this; even before their marriage, he noticed her fundamental fear of life. Yet he fantasized about somehow rescuing her—of forcing her, violently, if necessary, to see things differently. Some men, Hurston observed, seem willing to “fight like a tiger to protect some alluring, weakly thing,” and this is what Jim does—until the incident with the snake forces him to face the fact that his efforts to make Arvay love him never will succeed.86 What he really wants is not an alluring weakly thing but a genuine partner who can understand him, rather than regard him as an incomprehensible “miracle.”

Alone in the house, Arvay simply waits, hoping Jim will change his mind and return. When he doesn’t, she turns bitterly against Jeff, calling him racist names. Depression begins to darken her mind, when suddenly a telegram arrives from her sister, informing her that her mother is dying. She rushes to her mother’s bedside, only to discover that her sister and brother-in-law—whom she once idolized as glamorous figures—have stagnated in poverty and backwardness, and that Sawley, the hometown she remembered so fondly, is actually a dreary Nowheresville. When she tells a taxi driver that “in the good old days” the townspeople were “good and kind,” he laughs scornfully. “Lady! You must not know this town too good. . . . Such another back-biting and carrying on you never seen. They hate like sin to take a forward step.”87

Arvay tends to her mother while her sister and brother-in-law hover, hungry for an inheritance. When her mother dies and Arvay goes into town to make funeral arrangements, they steal everything. She returns, and, looking around the empty rooms, realizes something she had not understood before:

It was no house at all. It was an evil, ill-deformed monstropolous accumulation of time and scum. It had soaked in so much of doing-without, of soul-starvation, of brutish vacancy of aim, of absent dreams, envy of trifles, ambitions for littleness, smothered cries and trampled love, that it was a sanctuary of tiny and sanctioned vices. . . . Its fumes and vapors had stuck to her.88

She at last determines to brush off that legacy and take a forward step. When a neighbor suggests she call the sheriff to reclaim her mother’s possessions, Arvay decides there would be no point to that. “Slums like them would just as soon scour the floor with Mama’s tablecloths as not,” she explains.

It’s just like my husband says. He says folks makes a bad mistake when they call places slums. He says folks are the slums instead of the places they live in. Places don’t get nasty and dirty and low-down unlessen some folks make ’em like that. . . . Leave land alone by itself, and it’ll grow up into trees and flowers. It don’t grow up into slouchy people.89

When the neighbor leaves, Arvay burns the cabin to the ground.

Freed of her “soul-starvation,” she rushes to reclaim her marriage. She joins Jim on board his shrimping vessel and throws herself into the work. Jim remains distant at first, but things change when they come upon some rough water and a crewman panics. Grabbing Jim’s leg, he tries to force Jim to turn the boat around—which Jim knows would actually sink them. Arvay, remembering the incident with the snake, leaps to Jim’s defense and drags the crewman off, helping to save the ship. The two reconcile in a passionate night. Later, alone on deck, she thinks of her journey and her newfound determination to make her marriage succeed. “This was all hers until death if only she had the courage and the strength to hold it,” she thinks.90

Arvay’s transformation explains something that has puzzled some readers: At the novel’s end, she appears to surrender herself to Jim.91 Lying in bed on the shrimping boat, she holds him while he sleeps and reflects that she is a wife and that serving him and “mothering” him is her natural role; “she was serving,” she thinks, “and meant to serve.”92

Some have seen this as a reactionary celebration of conventional feminine meekness—even, oddly, as evidence of an “inferiority complex” on Hurston’s part.93 But that is a superficial reading. Arvay’s realization is better seen as the result of her arrival at a deeper sense of self-value: She is at last willing to devote herself to her marriage—to the “miracle” she experienced but never fully comprehended—because she finally has overcome the stultifying weakness of resentment. With her newfound sense of pride—her refusal to be “slouchy” any longer—Arvay comes to see no conflict between femininity and individuality, to accept and enjoy her role as Jim’s partner. Seraph is not a paean to servitude but a tale of victory by a woman who rises above fear and resentment and so finally becomes capable of truly loving another.

Hurston made her intentions with the novel clear in a letter to her editor, who complained that he found it hard to like the character of Arvay. Arvay is, indeed, unlikable at the story’s beginning, Hurston replied. That was for a reason:

Have you ever been tied in close contact with a person who had a strong sense of inferiority? I have, and it is hell. They carry it like a raw sore on the end of the index finger. You go along thinking well of them and doing what you can to make them happy and suddenly you are brought up short with an accusation of looking down on them, taking them for a fool, etc. . . . It colors everything. For example, I took this man that I cared for [Punter] to [a party] one night so that he could meet some of my literary friends. . . . What happened? He sat off in a corner and gloomed and uglied away, and we were hardly out on the street before he was accusing me of having dragged him down there to show off what a big shot I was and how far I was above him. . . . The sufferers do not seem to realize that all that is needed is a change of point of view from fear into self-confidence and there is no problem.94

Arvay manages to change her point of view, and that transformation is the climax of what Hurston called Arvay’s “stumbling advance to discover herself”—a victory of individual pride and a refusal to surrender to smallness and bitterness.95

Seraph on the Suwanee marked Hurston’s complete transition from a naturalist writer, seeking to portray life as it is, to a romanticist, seeking to represent life as it can and should be. The novel’s plot is not a mere series of incidents but an integrated course of actions that depend on the characters’ choices and values, all organized around the author’s own views about human life and the world. The characters are not journalistic portraits, though they are modeled on some real people Hurston knew. Instead, they embody and act in accordance with particular moral views.

In that, the novel bears comparison to two other notable romantic works of the era. In its depiction of a marriage between a husband whose personality is bold and determined and a wife whose lack of self-esteem manifests an “envy of trifles” and “smothered cries,” Seraph brings to mind Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind—or, more precisely, the 1939 film based on it.96 The plot structures are similar: Like Rhett Butler, Jim Meserve struggles to gain his wife’s appreciation, only to finally give up—although, unlike Scarlett O’Hara, Arvay changes in time to save her marriage. There’s no proof Hurston was influenced by Gone with the Wind, but the circumstantial evidence is suggestive. Mitchell’s novel had been a spectacular best seller, particularly in the South, when it was published in 1936, just as Hurston was beginning her career as a novelist, and the film premiered three years later, also to enormous success.

Hurston and Mitchell had a mutual friend in novelist Margaret Kinnan Rawlings, whose book The Yearling was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1946, and to whom Seraph is dedicated.97 Hurston—who worked hard to interest Hollywood in her work as early as Jonah’s Gourd Vine and was even employed by Paramount in 1941—told a friend before she began writing Seraph that she had “a sort of commitment from a producer at RKO,” and she strove to interest other studios in it, too.98 Both Warner and MGM seriously considered making it into a film.99 Whatever the details, Seraph’s cinematic qualities have long convinced critics that Hurston had a movie in mind while writing it, and Gone with the Wind naturally would be among the most significant models for such a project.

Consider another intriguing parallel. Seraph’s primary focus is on the contrast between Arvay’s mentality of envy—her secret resentment and her fixation on the opinions of others—and Jim’s spirit of enterprise and creativity. In The Fountainhead, published in 1943 and made into a film in 1949 (the same year Seraph was published), Ayn Rand set out to contrast what she called the creator and the “second-hander”: the soul of the man whose primary focus is on the conquest of nature and the disciplined realization of his own vision with that of the man whose primary focus is on the approval or disapproval of other people.100 Whereas The Fountainhead approaches this distinction from a philosophical perspective, Seraph considers it in psychological terms.

Arvay suffers from what Rand once called “mindless, fear-ridden, envy-eaten smallness,” which causes her to resent those who are more competent or confident than herself—and generates a narrow personal obsessiveness, whereby she views everything solely in terms of how it affects her immediate desires.101 This renders her incapable of love, because, as philosopher Tara Smith writes, “loving a person is different from simply valuing a person’s service toward some utilitarian end, such as free meals or a job.”102 Instead, it means appreciating and resonating with another independent soul.

Arvay’s attitude sometimes is misperceived as selfishness, but it is actually the opposite: Arvay has no real self. She is, instead, what Hurston elsewhere called a “puling weakling . . . who would sap your vital fluid”—a person whose psychological existence depends on the opinions of others.103 This makes her terrified of other people’s individuality and ferociously protective of their loyalty to her—characteristics that obstruct her relationship with her husband and, later, with her children.104 Only when she rejects this “slouchy” mentality—symbolized by burning her mother’s home—does Arvay become capable of loving herself, and, in turn, of loving her family. Arvay is no Dominique, and Jim is no Howard Roark, but in its portrayal of the difference between psychological dependency and self-sufficiency, Seraph of the Suwanee sits comfortably alongside The Fountainhead.

‘I Can Sit Around and Write for Myself’

Seraph was supposed to be Hurston’s comeback novel; her publisher had prepared a major publicity campaign, and the book was expected to do well. Yet within days of its publication, Hurston faced a shocking personal tragedy when she was arrested on false charges of child molestation. Three children, one of whom she had known distantly, accused her of having paid them for sex.

The charges were dismissed five months later when the children admitted to having lied, but by that time, the story had been widely reported, humiliating Hurston and hindering book sales. Despair overtook her, and she even contemplated suicide. Although she slowly recovered and returned to writing articles and short stories, she was unable to pay her bills. In 1950, she took a job as a maid. When her employer learned who she was, she called the newspapers, and Hurston, humiliated by the publicity, promptly quit. She took a job as a librarian, but that job also didn’t last long.

She continued to write, preparing manuscripts for several novels, but these failed to interest publishers.105 She earned some money for magazine and newspaper articles, but it was not enough, and she sometimes had to pawn her typewriter to pay the rent. Yet her final decade seems in some ways to have been her happiest. Living by herself with two dogs and a cat in a small house in Eau Gallie, Florida, she relished gardening and watching the sunsets, “living the kind of life for which I was made, strenuous and close to the soil.”106 In 1959, she suffered a series of strokes and was admitted to a county nursing home where she died in January 1960.

After her death, her belongings were piled in the yard and burned. Only quick action by a local deputy sheriff—who happened to be passing by and who knew Hurston was a famous writer—managed to save some priceless documents, but many were charred beyond reading. Among them are portions of the manuscript of her final book, a fictionalized biography of the biblical figure Herod the Great.

Hurston struggled for years on this project. Only portions of the manuscript survive, making it difficult to assess what the final product would have looked like, but she explained her fascination with Herod in letters to friends and editors. She saw him as a heroic figure: an educated and civilized man who tried to protect classical scholarship and learning against the threat of increasing religious dogmatism. Enraged, the Jewish priesthood slurred his reputation after his death with propaganda such as the “massacre of the innocents,” which later made its way into the Bible.107

Hurston herself believed she had “made phenomenal growth as a creative artist” while working on the Herod manuscript, which occupied almost a decade of her life.108 Yet when publishers rejected it, she accepted the news with equanimity.109 She seemed to enjoy the process of writing more than the prospect of fame or income from a best seller. “When I get old, and my joints and bones tell me about it,” she had written in Dust Tracks, “I can sit around and write for myself, if for nobody else. . . . All the while my days can be a succession of coffee cups.”110 Alone with her typewriter, she seems to have relished her final years with little regard for what the world thought.

She died without money for a funeral. The town took up a collection to hold a memorial service, and she was buried in an unmarked grave, largely forgotten by the literary world. Yet she was not down for the count.

In 1975, novelist Alice Walker published an article in Ms. magazine honoring her, and two years later, the first biography of Hurston was published by historian Robert Hemenway.111 Within years, her novels were back in print, experiencing a surge of popularity that eluded her during her lifetime. They now sell half a million copies per year.112 An annual festival in Florida bears her name, and the city of Fort Pierce, where she lived her final years, invites visitors to a heritage trail that covers landmarks from her life.113 In 2003, she was featured on a postage stamp, and in 2005, Their Eyes Were Watching God was made into a film starring Halle Berry. In the past three decades, Zora Neale Hurston has become a mainstay of American literature.

That popularity is well deserved. Often scorned and rejected in her own day, she was a pioneering writer who looked beyond the controversies of her time and sought to articulate a lasting vision of life—one free of bitterness or pettiness and full of grace and beauty. Her independence came at a cost, but it was one she happily paid, rejoicing at freedom and at the pleasures of the world—both small and “monstropolous.” “She was supposed to write about the ‘race problem,’ but she wrote about the human problem,” writes Hurston scholar Deborah Plant.

She was supposed to write about “the Negro,” but she also wrote about Anglo-Americans, Jews, and ancient Greeks and Romans. She was supposed to be provincial and chauvinistic, but she had broader views on the world. She wrote less for the public and the publishers than she wrote for herself and for posterity. She was always about “the bigger thing.”114

Often scorned and rejected in her own day, Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneering writer who looked beyond the controversies of her time and sought to articulate a vision free of bitterness or pettiness and full of grace and beauty.
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1. Zora Neale Hurston, Letter to Countee Cullen, March 5, 1943, in Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 482.

2. Zora Neale Hurston, “Art and Such,” in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings, edited by Henry Louis Gates (New York: Library of America, 1995), 908.

3. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, October 2, 1947, in A Life in Letters, 559.

4. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Lewis Gannett, May 12, 1934, in A Life in Letters, 303–4.

5. Zora Neale Hurston, “High John de Conquer,” in Folklore, 930.

6. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to the Orlando Sentinel, August 11, 1955, in A Life in Letters, 738; Zora Neale Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” in Folklore, 827.

7. Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” 827.

8. Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, in Zora Neale Hurston: Novels and Stories, edited by Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995), 876.

9. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in Wall, Novels, 333.

10. There are only three full-length biographies of Hurston: Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribner, 2002), and Deborah G. Plant, Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007). Peter Bagge’s Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story (Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2017) tells her story in a graphic novel format.

11. Among other things, Hurston’s memoir omitted any discussion of her 1927 first marriage, of which biographers only learned long after her death. It is even possible that she may have been married before that—during the “missing decade.” Clues indicating this include the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God—in which the main character is married three times; the latter two husbands are known to be based on real people—and the 1926 story “Under The Bridge,” about a young woman married to a much older man. See Zora Neale Hurston, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, edited by Genevieve West (New York: Amistad Press, 2020), xxx. But for now, at least, Hurston’s reasons for silence about these aspects of her life remain unknown.

12. Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, in Folklore, 572.

13. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 668.

14. Zora Neale Hurston, “Drenched in Light,” in Novels, 947–58.

15. Hemenway, Literary Biography, 47.

16. Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays, edited by Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 50.

17. Yuval Taylor, Zora and Langston (New York: Norton, 2019), effectively establishes that Hurston was overwhelmingly responsible for the content of Mule Bone.

18. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Arthur Spingarn, March 25, 1931, in A Life in Letters, 215.

19. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Charlotte Mason, October 15, 1931, in A Life in Letters, 234.

20. Zora Neale Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” American Legion Magazine, June 1951, 56.

21. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” 59.

22. Remembering this is essential to appreciating Hurston’s writing. Many of her novels include long passages of dialogue that are really adaptations of dramatic set pieces. In the pacing of these scenes, the tenderness and beauty of her characterization, and the vivid language she gives her characters, Hurston’s work is easily comparable to that of Shakespeare. For example, the passage in Their Eyes in which Janie first meets Tea Cake is easily on par with the similar scene in Romeo and Juliet in which the star-crossed lovers first meet. It is hard, in fact, to believe that Hurston did not have Shakespeare’s precedent in mind when composing this scene, which is among the loveliest in American literature. Hurston’s plays can be found in Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

23. John McWhorter, “Thus Spake Zora,” City Journal, Summer 2009.

24. Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 257.

25. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Fannie Hurst, December 1933, in A Life in Letters, 286.

26. Hurston’s interest in voodoo primarily was anthropological, but her own beliefs regarding religion are not entirely clear. “I have not been converted [to voodoo beliefs],” she reassured a friend during one of her research trips, “tho I am not a christian either [sic].” Letter to Henry Allen Moe, January 6, 1937, in A Life in Letters, 391. Yet although her writings—particularly her book-length study Tell My Horse (1938)—treat voodoo as a social and cultural practice, they at times appear to lend credence to the reality of magic spells. She claimed, for example, to have seen an actual zombie (Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 299). In Dust Tracks and other writings, however, she characterized herself as wholly secular. “Life as it is does not frighten me,” she wrote. “I have made peace with the universe as I find it.” She considered religion to be “collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such.” Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 764.

27. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.

28. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.

29. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.

30. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 747.

31. Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in Novels, 110.

32. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 194.

33. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 183.

34. Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in Novels, 366–67.

35. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 217.

36. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 236.

37. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 232.

38. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 238.

39. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 232.

40. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 244.

41. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 250.

42. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 293.

43. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 293.

44. Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, 307.

45. Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears,” New Masses, October 5, 1937, 22–23.

46. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Dorothy West, March 24, 1934, in A Life in Letters, 297.

47. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” American Legion Magazine, June 1951. Along with Native Son, Hurston singled out Langston Hughes’s 1935 play Mulatto, Lillian Smith’s 1944 novel Strange Fruit, and Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow’s play Deep Are the Roots (1945) as examples of the grievance-obsessed literature she despised. See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to William Bouie, September 6, 1954, in A Life in Letters, 719.

48. Hurston, letter to William Bouie, 719.

49. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burton Rascoe, September 8, 1944, in A Life in Letters, 503.

50. Hurston, “Art and Such,” 908.

51. Zora Neale Hurston, “Stories of Conflict,” in Folklore, 913.

52. Hurston “Art and Such,” 908. Late in life, Hurston attributed her rejection of protest literature to the poet and scholar James Weldon Johnson, who in her college days had urged her “not to waste time” writing it. See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to William Huie, May 14, 1954, in A Life in Letters, 709.

53. Hurston, letter to Burton Rascoe, in A Life in Letters, 503.

54. Hurston, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism”; Hurston, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” 827.

55. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 765.

56. James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 18.

57. Hurston later came to have a different view of Moses. He was a “dictator” who “worked out an idea for a theocratic government” and treated the Hebrews as “available laboratory material”—slaughtering them when they resisted his religious commands. She hoped to write a novel that would portray their resistance to Moses in an heroic light, as “the 3000 years struggle of the Jewish people and the rights of man.” See Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Carl Van Vechten, September 12, 1945, in A Life in Letters, 529. Hurston was drawn to writing stories based on biblical figures, including not only Moses, but Herod the Great and, in her play The First One, Noah and his children.

58. Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, in Novels, 522.

59. Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, 522–23.

60. Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, 483.

61. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 590–91.

62. For example, see, Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Edwin Osgood Grover, October 12, 1939, in A Life in Letters, 422.

63. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 792.

64. Zora Neale Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” in Folklore, 945.

65. Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” 947.

66. Hurston, “Crazy for this Democracy,” 948.

67. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Claude Barnett, July 1946, in A Life in Letters, 543.

68. Hurston, letter to Claude Barnett, 543.

69. For example, see, Hemenway, Literary Biography, 336.

70. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 492–93 (1954).

71. Brown v. Board of Education, 494.

72. Justice Clarence Thomas criticized the Brown ruling for the same reason in his separate opinion in Missouri v. Jenkins, 515 U.S. 70 (1995).

73. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to the Orlando Sentinel, 738 (emphasis added).

74. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 782.

75. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 732.

76. Susan Ware, It’s One O’Clock and Here is Mary Margaret McBride (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 10.

77. Hurston, Letters, 443. See examples quoted in Deborah G. Plant, “The Inside Light”: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 37.

78. Hurston, letter to William Bouie, in Letters, 720.

79. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 758–59.

80. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 830.

81. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 836–37.

82. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 840.

83. Zora Neale Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, October 2, 1947, in A Life in Letters, 558.

84. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 750.

85. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 841.

86. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 562. In 1953, Hurston wrote to her ex-husband, “Like a mother hen, I tried to stand between you and hurt, harm and danger, and learned that that is something nobody can do for another.” Letter to Herbert Sheen, March 13, 1953, in A Life in Letters, 694.

87. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 847.

88. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 877.

89. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 876.

90. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 913.

91. See, for instance, Deborah G. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 168.

92. Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 920.

93. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom, 178.

94. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 558.

95. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, 562.

96. The primary distinction is that while in the film, Rhett Butler is an admirable character who grows to realize the misguided nature of his love for Scarlett O’Hara—leading to tragedy when he leaves Scarlett at just the moment that she realizes the error of her ways—he is not an admirable, or even particularly interesting, character in the novel.

There is another parallel, too. Just as Gone with the Wind uses Rhett and Scarlett’s marriage to express a broader theme about southern history, so Hurston’s theme in Seraph is also applicable to broader issues, including racial politics. On one level, Arvay and Jim’s handicapped first child represents the United States’ early struggle with slavery: Earl is the monstrous consequence of the couple’s corrupt initial joining, perverted before birth by Arvay’s backwardness (representing the slave society of the South) and by Jim’s aggression (which stands for the northern-dominated slave trade). At the novel’s end, Arvay reflects that “Earl had been bred in her before she was even born, but his birth had purged her flesh . . . and the way was cleared for better things.” Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 918. His escape and the manhunt that results in his death—an incident in which Jim is almost killed by his son—is a metaphor for the Civil War, and the aftermath is a replay of the Reconstruction era, with its brief respite from oppression, and the gradual return of fears, hatreds, and cruelties. After Jim leaves Arvay, she transforms her jealousy and self-hatred into racism against Jim’s black and immigrant friends. Racial prejudice, Hurston is suggesting, is just one of the “sanctioned vices” adopted by those who suffer from “poverty of soul.” The independent and entrepreneurial Jim, by contrast, is not a racist, and while turning his efforts to building his fortune through hard work, he also maintains close friendships with minority characters whom Arvay initially spurns—and whom she befriends only after overcoming her resentment.

97. Anna Lillios, Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011).

98. Hurston, letter to Carl Van Vechten, in A Life in Letters, 467.

99. See Plant, “The Inside Light.”

100. There is no evidence that Hurston was familiar with The Fountainhead, or knew Rand personally, but both were members of the American Writers’ Association, a group founded in the 1940s to oppose the so-called Cain Plan, a proposal to force authors, in effect, into a union that would control their copyrights. See Richard Fine, James M. Cain and the American Authors’ Authority (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 129. It is possible they could have met at one of its functions.

101. Ayn Rand, “Don’t Let it Go,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, New American Library, 1982), 258.

102. Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 298.

103. Letter to Jane Belo, December 3, 1938, in A Life in Letters, 417.

104. Gone with the Wind, The Fountainhead, and Seraph on the Suwannee share another, more complex similarity: each features an episode of rape used as a literary device. In The Fountainhead, Roark’s actions are motivated by Dominique’s desire to be overpowered by a man of superior strength. See Andrew Bernstein, “Understanding the ‘Rape’ Scene in The Fountainhead,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, edited by Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007). In Gone with the Wind, Rhett’s action results from his doomed desire to obtain Scarlett’s respect. In Seraph, Jim rapes Arvay just before their marriage (resulting in Earl’s conception). As in Gone with the Wind, Jim’s actions represent his effort—ultimately futile and counterproductive—to break through Arvay’s self-imposed psychological boundaries, including by force; to “hunt” her and “free her soul,” as he later puts it. See Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 840. Hurston was not, of course, implying approval of or leniency toward rape; on the contrary, she was dramatizing the misguided nature of Jim’s efforts to compel Arvay to understand him. This, of course, he cannot do; only she can change herself, as he eventually comes to realize. Just as, in Hurston’s previous novel, Moses learns that freedom cannot be given to someone but must come from within, so Jim learns that he cannot force Arvay past her boundaries. Thus, the rape is the consequence of Jim’s faulty premise—one he learns to reject when he finally leaves Arvay years later, in his own “frankly, my dear” moment. This explains why the consequence of Jim’s rape is Earl, who persistently is portrayed as the fruit of a poisonous tree, even as a demon. As for the “remorseless sweet” feeling Arvay experiences after the incident, it does not indicate Hurston’s approval of Jim’s act (A Life in Letters, 443) but rather the haunting possibility of genuine love that Arvay is incapable, at that point, of truly grasping. The rape passage, therefore, parallels the episode with the snake (when she again resists giving herself fully to the marriage) and the climactic moment on the boat, when she finally does take the initiative and, by rescuing Jim from the panicking crewman, commits herself to a “doing kind of love.”

105. Three of these manuscripts—one on the life of businesswoman C. J. Walker, one based on the town of Eatonville, and an adventure story called The Secret Lives of Barney Turk—have been lost. The fourth, on the life of Herod the Great, exists only in a partially destroyed manuscript.

106. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, in A Life in Letters, 670.

107. In reality, Herod died four years before the birth of Jesus. Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version (New York: Knopf, 1992), 27–31.

108. Hurston, letter to Herbert Sheen, in A Life in Letters, 755.

109. Hurston, letter to Burroughs Mitchell, in A Life in Letters, 741.

110. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 768–69.

111. Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms., March 1975; Hemenway, Literary Biography.

112. Julia Marsh, “Oprah-Halle Movie Spurs Author Family Feud,” New York Post, October 21, 2013.

113. “Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail,” city of Fort Pierce, https://www.cityoffortpierce.com/386/Zora-Neale-Hurston-Dust-Tracks-Heritage- (accessed December 20, 2019).

114. Plant, Biography of the Spirit, 137–38.

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