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Looking for Zora

January 5, 2003, Sunday

Looking for Zora, By Ann duCille

ZORA NEALE HURSTON A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan.
Illustrated. 880 pp. New York:
Doubleday. $40.

The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.
By Valerie Boyd.
Illustrated. 527 pp. New York:
A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner. $30.

''I AM not tragically colored. . . . I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.'' When Zora Neale Hurston published what is arguably her most famous essay, ''How It Feels to Be Colored Me,'' in 1928, she was at the beginning of what she no doubt hoped would be a brilliant career. She was 37 years old but passing for a good 10 years younger. Her words have all the arrogance, optimism and innocence of youth, although some might argue that, whether 16 or 60, Hurston was never innocent. Confident to the point of conceit, she was by most accounts a flamboyant, infinitely inventive chameleon of a woman, who could make herself equally at home among the Haitian voodoo doctors who informed her research and the Park Avenue patrons who financed it. She was a lightning rod of contradiction and controversy. A devoted daughter of the rural South, she was, on the one hand, a fierce cultural nationalist who championed the black folk at every turn of the page, and on the other a political conservative who declared in print that slavery was the price she paid for civilization and famously opposed the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision.

Most often associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the black cultural revolution of the 1920's, Hurston, a country girl from the ''pure Negro town'' of Eatonville, Fla., did go on to have a productive, if not entirely brilliant, career -- more than one, in fact. Trained in anthropology at Barnard and Columbia, she did pioneering ethnographic fieldwork in the Caribbean and the rural South in the 20's, 30's and 40's, publishing two important collections of folk tales based on her research, ''Mules and Men'' (1935) and ''Tell My Horse'' (1938). She also published an autobiography, ''Dust Tracks on a Road'' (1942); four novels, including her much-lauded folk opera of black female development, ''Their Eyes Were Watching God'' (1937), which today is considered a feminist classic; and close to 100 short stories, essays and articles, most centered on black folk culture, ''the Negro farthest down,'' as she put it. In addition to the fiction and folklore for which she is best known, she wrote, produced, directed and performed in plays, musical revues and folk concerts that toured the country, including ''The Great Day,'' which received rave reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1932 with a retinue of Bahamian fire dancers.

Of course, Hurston's work has inspired as much ranting as raving. At the height of her career in the 1930's, she was simultaneously acclaimed and denounced for her attention to the vernacular. White critics of her day praised her ''authentic'' renderings of ''primitive'' Negro life, even as many black intellectuals -- including her fellow writers Sterling Brown and Richard Wright, and Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P. -- scorned what they saw as her old-folks-at-home hunky-doryism at a time when the living was anything but easy for colored people. Wright, who was committed to art for protest's sake, accused Hurston of putting on a minstrel show in print that played to the tastes of white audiences. When Hurston was quoted (misquoted, she insisted) as claiming that Jim Crow worked, Wilkins quickly launched a counteroffensive, labeling her a wisecracking publicity hound who sold out her people in order to sell books.

Fair or not, out of the mouths of great black men such pithy criticism had a longer shelf life than either the work or the woman it disparaged. And Hurston's politically incorrect prose and posture -- that is, the inexplicably backward things she actually did say and do -- likewise did nothing to ensure her an afterlife in the hearts and minds of her people. For all her labors in multiple fields -- fiction, folklore, journalism, music, dance, drama -- she died in 1960 out of funds, out of print and out of favor, if not tragically colored, certainly light-years removed from the kind of rock-star celebrity and commercial cachet that attend her name today.

Carla Kaplan's collection of Hurston's correspondence, ''Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,'' and Valerie Boyd's biography, ''Wrapped in Rainbows,'' are the latest contributions to the torrent of scholarship that has been flooding the market ever since Hurston was rediscovered in the 1970's as part of the feminist reconnaissance mission that reclaimed dozens of ''lost'' women writers. In addition to the seven books Hurston published during her lifetime, there are nearly a dozen different posthumously published collections of her short stories, essays and folk tales currently in print in several editions and languages. Two of her plays have recently been produced, and Hurston and her work are the subjects of scores of critical studies, conferences, dissertations and documentaries. There are festivals, foundations, literary societies, endowed chairs, journals, honors and awards in the name of Zora. And the thrice-married one-time queen of the black literati has even been wedded in death to her old enemy, Richard Wright, through the establishment of the Hurston/Wright Foundation -- a pairing that probably has both writers turning over in their respective graves.

Yet despite the hot pursuit, Hurston has remained elusive, not least because of what her first biographer, Robert Hemenway, calls the ''willful subterfuge'' that was her modus operandi. A natural-born storyteller, Hurston was as much a con artist as she was a creative artist. She was not above -- or beneath -- fawning and flattering the cash out of white cultural patrons (''Negrotarians,'' she called them) in the service of her life's work. She loved a good lie and a great liar, one thing she was quite honest about. Lying was for her both an art form and a methodology. When her shiny, late-model car made her suspect among the poor country folk she hoped to interview, she pretended to be a bootlegger on the lam in order to further her fieldwork -- or so Hurston claims in ''Mules and Men.'' Such ruses gained her enormous, virtually unprecedented access to her research subjects, but it was not only in the name of social science or artistic license that she invented different selves. Her autobiography is an exercise in omission and misinformation, full of fantastic adventures but ultimately telling us very little about her art, her ideas, her amours or even her age.

Lots of people try to hide how old they are, but Hurston gave so many different dates of birth, even on official documents like marriage licenses, that literary historians have grown old and gray trying to determine when (and where) she was born. (Her second husband was 23 when they wed; she was 48, although she gave the year of her birth as 1910, rather than 1891, as scholars have now determined. She also claimed Eatonville as her birthplace throughout her life, although we now know -- or think we know -- that she was actually born in Notasulga, Ala., a far less exotic locale.) Even her letters, in which she might be expected to be candid and self-revealing, suggest instead that she changed personas the way Imelda Marcos changed shoes. ''She performed such different selves for her various correspondents,'' Kaplan writes in her introduction, ''that her letters sometimes seem written by different people.''

Herein lies the rub of the Hurston renaissance. The fictions she spread about herself, especially in her putative autobiography, ''Dust Tracks on a Road,'' have made it difficult for scholars to ferret out the facts of her life. The nearly 500 letters that Kaplan has collected, edited and annotated shed a different kind of light on the knowns and unknowns of Hurston's shadowed past. They tell us something of how she viewed the outside world and clarify some of her thinking about art and politics -- why she opposed the Supreme Court school desegregation decision, for example -- but they are by no means a key to the workings of her mind, let alone her heart. In other words, the letters do not tell us what made Hurston tick. They may, in fact, as Kaplan herself suggests, leave the reader even more baffled than before by the colorful figure who emerges from her own correspondence more of an enigma than ever.

There is a not entirely surprising lack of intimacy to the letters even when they are addressed to intimates like Langston Hughes, who was a close friend before the two of them quarreled over the property rights to ''Mule Bone,'' the play on which they collaborated. Hughes was not only a favorite correspondent but a favored subject of correspondence before the falling-out. Afterward, Hurston seems to have thought nothing of vilifying Hughes to Charlotte Osgood Mason, the wealthy white patron to whom they were both at the time indentured. Hughes's relationship with ''Godmother,'' as Mason insisted on being called, was disintegrating around this time, as Hurston's would as well. In both cases, Mason wanted complete control over her protégés' lives and art. Hurston was too much her own woman to be reined in indefinitely by someone else's whims, no matter how desperately she needed the financial backing.

And Hurston's financial situation was often desperate. Her letters are full of money woes. Many of these letters are among the hardest in the collection to read, particularly those that hail Mason as ''Godmother dearest, far-seeing one'' or as the ''dearest, little mother of the primitive world.'' In other letters to Mason and to Annie Nathan Meyer, the founding mother of Barnard who helped Hurston gain admission to the college, the supplicant seems to bow down even lower as she signs herself ''your little pickaninny.'' One can argue, as both Kaplan and Boyd do, that Hurston, a master of double-entendre, was ''playing'' Mason and Meyer the way a trickster might play the master -- feather-bed resistance,'' she calls it in ''Mules and Men.'' Perhaps, but the old folks would say Zora was two-faced.

Correspondence is another form of intercourse that, ideally, takes two. Even when they are revealing, letters to without letters from are only part of a conversation, half of a coupling. Part of what makes Hurston's letters sexy even without their mates is the care with which they have been collected and presented. Kaplan, who teaches English, gender studies, and American and ethnic studies at the University of Southern California, has made the letters remarkably accessible by organizing them chronologically by decade, with introductory essays for each section and with detailed annotations for each, providing both a historical context and a critical commentary. The chronology and glossary of people, places and events at the end of the book help to orient and inform the reader further.

For literary historians and other serious Hurston scholars, there is tremendous benefit to having all of the available letters collected under one cover as a kind of portable archive. More casual readers may wish for fewer letters, since the drawback of the book is its size, at 880 pages. But what to leave out would be an impossible choice. And even as I suggest less, what I really want is more. I want the letters that either do not exist or have not yet been found. There are girl-friendly letters to her fellow novelist Dorothy West, but I want letters to Jessie Fauset and to Nella Larsen -- letters that place Hurston in conversation with her black female peers. I want to know what Hurston had to say to Alice Dunbar-Nelson, whom she first would have met in Washington in the early 1920's at Georgia Douglas Johnson's literary salons. There are striking similarities between Dunbar-Nelson's unpublished novella, ''A Modern Undine,'' and Hurston's fourth novel, ''Seraph on the Suwanee'' (1948). The heroines of both narratives are white women in their early 20's -- old maids'' by the standards of their Southern societies -- whose jealousy, paranoia and insecurity undermine their marriages to devoted, though domineering, men from outside the close-knit community, whose attention each woman resists rather than cherishes. Both women have deformed sons who die despite the tender care of their overly protective mothers, and each wife blames her husband for the child's death (although, of course, each secretly blames herself). Hurston's novel is more developed than Dunbar-Nelson's unfinished novella, but the similarities in plot, theme, character and dialogue suggest more than mere coincidence. Hurston's heroine is raped by her husband-to-be before the wedding, as Dunbar-Nelson was by her famous husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, before their marriage -- a further suggestion of the likelihood of a ''connection'' between the two texts. Hurston once said that African-Americans are an appropriative people. She, we understand from other evidence, had good reason to know.

Boyd, the arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, gathered her material the old-fashioned way: she culled letters and other primary documents from archives, attics, personal holdings and halls of records around the country. Her biography demonstrates the critical role that letters, family papers, census records, marriage certificates and court documents can play in excavating buried lives. The research is painstaking and thorough. While the book necessarily traverses much of the ground covered by Hemenway in his earlier biography and by other Hurston scholars like Cheryl Wall and Pamela Bordelon -- sometimes in very similar terms -- it also gives careful attention to Hurston's pioneering work in folk music and dance, which scholars are only just beginning to examine.

''Wrapped in Rainbows'' is most successful where it uses primary sources to chronicle and to examine critically Hurston's life. It is less successful where it attempts ''to make Zora Neale Hurston's voice manifest'' by quoting extensively from her autobiography, fiction and folklore. The first several chapters virtually retell the myth of origins that Hurston gives in ''Dust Tracks on a Road,'' ''Mules and Men'' and ''Jonah's Gourd Vine'' (1934). It is interesting reading, but the heavy dependence on ''Dust Tracks on a Road,'' in particular, undercuts the authority of Boyd's book as a definitive biography because its ''facts'' are suspect.

But, of course, biography, like autobiography, is a murky medium, and the conundrum of Boyd's book is also the conundrum of the genre. How do you tell a life? How do you tell a black woman's life when there is little to go on other than her own words? Boyd is aware of what is at stake. She maintains that Hurston ''disguised many truths of her life in a confounding but crackable code'' and chides critics and scholars for dismissing ''Dust Tracks on a Road'' as ''a pack of lies'' while ignoring the evasions and inventions of autobiographies by black men like Hughes's ''Big Sea'' and Wright's ''Black Boy.'' There is a difference, however, between deploying autobiographies as much-mediated cultural artifacts, as many scholars have done with Hughes and Wright (as well as with Hurston), and employing them as transparent historical facts. The difference is one of critical distance. Boyd is too close to her subject.

Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but I have long thought that critique is the greater tribute. It honors a text to take it seriously enough to examine its parts, to see what it's made of, what it can take as well as what it has to give. Too often, the urge to celebrate what was clearly a remarkable life lived large and full has sidelined, if not derailed, the hard-core critique that Zora Neale Hurston's work -- and the larger traditions to which it belongs -- deserves. In the new perspectives on Hurston's life they offer and in the future scholarship they will inspire and enable, these two books help to keep the train on the track.

Ann duCille teaches English and African-American Studies at Wesleyan University.

Published: 01 - 05 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 12

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