Anthropologist, novelist, folklorist, essayist and luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston dazzled her peers and patrons almost immediately upon her arrival in New York City in 1925, when she made a show-stopping grand entrance at a formal literary affair, flinging a red scarf around her neck and stopping all conversation with her animated storytelling and antics. “I would like to know her,” declared Langston Hughes. She had a “blazing zest for life,” opined celebrity writer Fannie Hurst. Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, did them one better: She promptly offered Hurston entrance into Columbia University’s sister college, making her the first black student to attend Barnard.
Over the course of her life, Hurston would publish several dozen essays, short stories and poems, and seven books, including her notoriously deceptive (some would say ingeniously “dissembling”) autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. Nine more books–essays, folklore, short stories and a play–would appear in print posthumously, following Alice Walker’s “rediscovery” of Hurston in the 1970s. According to Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters and a professor at the University of Southern California, this resurrection of the long-forgotten writer has yielded over 800 more books (including sixteen for children), articles, chapters, dissertations, reference guides and biographical essays about Hurston over the past three decades. That some 2,000 spectators showed up at Central Park last summer for a reading of her work is further evidence that Zora mania continues to be in full swing.
Yet, even with Kaplan’s 880-page tome (complete with exhaustive introductory essays, annotations, footnotes and glossary), and Valerie Boyd’s gracefully penned biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (the first since Robert Hemenway’s landmark 1977 effort, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography), we’re left with the same dogged question: Who was Hurston, really? What makes such a dreamer dream? What fuels the inner life and spirit that it may reach beyond its present circumstances? We’ve heard much about Hurston the enigma; the Zora of contradictions and paradox and light. And by all accounts, including the two latest contributions, Hurston was indeed a bold and iconoclastic force.
Picture Zora: flagrantly smoking Pall Malls in public with an openly gay male friend; measuring the heads of strangers on Harlem street corners in famously brazen anthropometry experiments; driving a car (alone, female, along backwoods Southern roads in the 1920s, packing a chrome-plated pistol); marrying men decades her junior and promptly leaving them, while habitually lopping ten years or more off her own age.
We’re intrigued by this Hurston: the Harlemite partygoer who loved music and dance, the folk, “lying sessions” and home-cooked pots of fried shrimp and okra served with “gingerbread and a jug of buttermilk.” This was Zora “with her harmonica and head full of stories…all greased curls, bangles, and slashes of red.”
And then there’s my favorite image: a time when Hurston was so broke that she actually borrowed money from a beggar. “On her way to catch the subway,” writes Boyd, arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “she was stopped by a blind panhandler holding out his cup. Taking some change from the cup for her subway fare, Zora said: ‘I need money worse than you today. Lend me this! Next time, I’ll give it back.'”