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Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Valerie Boyd, Scribner: 528 pp., $30 Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, Edited by Carla Kaplan, Doubleday: 896 pp., $40

March 23, 2003|Vivian Gornick | Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Zora Neale Hurston is an American original. A rural black Southerner born in the 1890s, she grew up to become both a skilled anthropologist and a writer of reputation during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, spent her final years in poverty and obscurity, and would now be forgotten had she not written a minor masterpiece, the 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Today, she is enjoying a flourish of attention due to the recent publication of her collected folk tales ("Every Tongue Got to Confess"), as well as a new biography and her collected letters.

To best understand Hurston, one must know that she was raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla. -- a social oddity which meant that, although the same poverty and ignorance applied here as elsewhere for blacks, what you had, if you were growing up in Eatonville, was the sight of your own relatives and neighbors taking all the positions otherwise occupied "out there" by educated white men. In Eatonville, black men were the heroes and the villains; they failed and they succeeded; they were intelligent, stupid, hard-working, lazy, faithful, unreliable; and they were magnificent fantasists whose tall tales spun out on the porch of the general store delivered all the riches of spirit and imagination that a growing writer could want. Oh yes, one other thing: These very same men who suffered subservience out in the white world didn't hesitate to inflict it on their women.

Eatonville was the formative experience for Zora Hurston. It became the basis of both her lifelong championship of rural black culture and an angry insistence that black women were the "mule of the world." This interwoven devotion shaped and informed the best of her work and at least once suffused her story sufficiently to produce a novel that grew large and went deep, transcended its own material, entered a tradition.

Reading over Hurston's work in its entirety, one can feel her kinship with a number of others like herself who also wrote endlessly, in the idiom of their time and place, about the power struggle between women and men, and also left behind a single small masterpiece: the white Southerner Kate Chopin ("The Awakening"), the Jewish immigrant Anzia Yezierska ("Bread Givers"), the Western itinerant Agnes Smedley ("Daughter of Earth"). This is the tradition to which Hurston's great novel belongs, and it is one that enriches American literature

Harlem in the 1920s was the very best place to be if one was black and wanted to write, and the time, the place and the person were well met in Hurston's arrival in 1925. After a runaway life (she left home at 14), culminating in a late-bloomer degree from Howard University, Hurston showed up on 125th Street and almost instantly made herself visible, if not central, to the literary scene then in progress. She had a brash, wild, where's-the-party personality and an unmatched capacity for drawing attention to herself. In no time at all, she had the affection of well-connected whites as well as that of rising black writers.

As large, life-loving and engaged as her presence could feel, that's how cunning, secretive and intemperate she could actually be. She made three short, disastrous marriages -- her closest friends knew nothing of her husbands -- to men who later testified to her murderous temper. Her politics, like her marriages, were equally volatile. She had a peculiarly narrow view of the "Real Negro" that separated her from the black literati and caused her to take exasperating public positions, such as opposing the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision on the grounds that she would never want to associate with people who didn't want to associate with her. The extremes of her personality never abated; they left neither her nor anyone else in peace. In time, she quarreled with almost everyone she knew, and at last this recklessness did her in.

In 1948 -- the Renaissance over, Hurston now broke and often lonely, her friendships disintegrating, her manuscripts being rejected -- from out of the blue Hurston was charged with sexual abuse of a 10-year-old boy. Eventually she was cleared of the patently false charge, but the scandal demoralized her. She left New York for good and returned to Florida, where she lived until 1960 in deepening poverty, bad health and isolation. Her grave bore no tombstone until 1975, when Alice Walker famously placed one there, and the gradual rediscovery of Hurston's work was begun.

In "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Hurston pulled together what she knew of life so fully and so richly that, writing characters who speak dialect, she made marriage for a woman into the equivalent of a bildungsroman: a picaresque journey into self-discovery.

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