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Hurston: The world stands corrected

As the writer's legend spreads, new books reveal the 'true' Zora Neale Hurston.

March 31, 2003|Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writer

The pop-culture version of Zora Neale Hurston's life is bleak with tragedy, her final days reduced to a freeze-frame image of her dive from literary grace. True, in the years before she died at 69 in Florida, Hurston was living in poverty and, at one point, forced to work as a maid. Hurston, a larger-than-life writer who ran with Langston Hughes, a two-time Guggenheim fellow who had a brief flirtation with Hollywood, had been forgotten; all her books were out of print. A cloud of pathos shrouded her legacy in 1960, after she was buried in that place of ineffable sadness, an unmarked grave.

These days, the pathos sometimes overshadows her work. But two major books on Hurston -- the first in 25 years -- are painting a fuller portrait of the writer's enigmatic life.

Hurston was complex, despite the facile, heart-tugging assumptions about her life, insists USC English professor Carla Kaplan, editor of the recently released biography and collection of letters "Zora Neale Hurston" (Doubleday). It's not true, for instance, that Hurston was alone at the end, that she died in a county welfare home or was relegated to a lonely pauper's funeral, Kaplan said. Such lore has been perpetuated amid Hurston's emergence as a figure who is "well on her way to becoming our next Frida Kahlo in an American context," she noted.

Hurston was the most published African American woman of her time. She was known as a folklorist, essayist, playwright and anthropologist, and for her 1937 novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," a classic story of a woman's self-discovery. Her writing captured "the Negro farthest down," in places such as juke joints and the mule camps of Alabama, or in Jamaica, where she met the descendants of escaped slaves.

In the mid-'70s, writer Alice Walker helped spark a renaissance of interest in Hurston. Her image now sells calendars and coffee mugs and, earlier this year, was released on a U.S. postage stamp. This summer, production is scheduled to begin on an "Oprah Winfrey Presents" TV movie based on "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Halle Berry has signed to star in the racy love story.

"It's wonderful," Kaplan said of the exposure, "but the downside, the risk of that, is a commercialization of her that fails to understand again who she was.... Even as we feel the tragedy of her life, it's easy to romanticize away pieces of the reality."

Kaplan's book, along with the new biography "Wrapped in Rainbows" (Scribner) by Valerie Boyd, builds on the work of Hurston's first major biographer, Robert E. Hemenway. Hemenway's initial research for "Zora Neale Hurston," published in 1977, inspired Walker to search for Hurston's unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, on the east coast of Florida, and buy it a marker. Walker wrote about her quest for Ms. magazine in 1975, helping to touch off the revival of interest in the writer, whose seven books now are back in print.

Boyd, arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, heard Hemenway speak about his biography in 1994. Hemenway was saying it was time for a new book on Hurston, preferably written by an African American woman because "he thought there were things he missed because he was a white man," Boyd said.

"I'm writing from the inside out," she continued. "My goal was to help the reader see what it was like to be Zora Neale Hurston ... be inside her skin. I wanted to paint an intimate portrait of her life, where I think his biography was an academic look at her life. There was some distance there."

"Wrapped in Rainbows," for instance, examines Hurston's sexuality and details her struggle to make a living as a writer. Boyd is speaking to groups around the country about Hurston.

Hurston finally is being accorded the recognition she deserves, said Hemenway, now chancellor of the University of Kansas. Hemenway, who wrote the foreword for Kaplan's book, is happy to see Hurston back in the public eye, but "the danger is, whenever a writer becomes iconic ... you lose the true history of the writer and the history of the imagination of the writer. The thing I feel so positive about is we've got two brand-new books that give you the true Hurston, who sometimes takes positions that don't make everyone comfortable but who lived a life of imagination and who's a writer that teaches us a lot about our culture."

Forever a paradox

Hurston was a whiskey-slamming party lover, charismatic and difficult, who sometimes drew fire for her political views, like the time she criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the landmark school desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. It's not that Hurston favored segregated schools, Kaplan pointed out. But Hurston considered the decision condescending, writing to a friend: "I actually do feel insulted when a certain type of white person hastens to effuse to me how noble they are to grant me their presence."

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