“ I mean to live and die by my own mind,” Zora Neale Hurston told the writer Countee Cullen. Arriving in Harlem in 1925 with little more than a dollar to her name, Hurston rose to become one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, only to die in obscurity. Not until the 1970s was she rediscovered by Alice Walker and other admirers. Although Hurston has entered the pantheon as one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, the true nature of her personality has proven elusive.
Now, a brilliant, complicated and utterly arresting woman emerges from this landmark book. Carla Kaplan, a noted Hurston scholar, has found hundreds of revealing, previously unpublished letters for this definitive collection; she also provides extensive and illuminating commentary on Hurston’s life and work, as well as an annotated glossary of the organizations and personalities that were important to it.
From her enrollment at Baltimore’s Morgan Academy in 1917, to correspondence with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Langston Hughes, Dorothy West and Alain Locke, to a final query letter to her publishers in 1959, Hurston’s spirited correspondence offers an invaluable portrait of a remarkable, irrepressible talent.
Whatever happened to Zora Neale Hurston? In the 1930s her stories, novels, folklore studies, and plays were all over the bestseller lists. By the '60s she was forgotten--a reversal of fortune captured in the extraordinary collection Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
Why did Hurston's star fade? Simple weariness, her correspondence suggests. She was happier, it seems, tilling her Florida garden than revealing her soul to the world. She was also not shy of crossing swords with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, and in a time of growing militancy and the awakening civil rights movement Hurston became increasingly conservative, developing political stances that, editor Kaplan writes, "have often baffled her admirers." Hurston developed a pen-stilling, probably ungrounded suspicion that anything she wrote would be stolen by other writers, who would "then hate me for being alive to make their pretensions out a lie. And then take all kinds of steps to head me off."
Having enjoyed early fame, Hurston died alone and in poverty. This well-assembled and very welcome book traces her sad path, and it adds much to our understanding of the once-neglected writer. --Gregory McNamee