"Cosmic Zora": Three, never-before-reprinted, Hurston short stories

Two professors of English and African and African American Studies, have come across three apparently never-before-reprinted stories from Zora Neale Hurston that help to flesh out her canonical persona: "The three stories are important because they provide fuller insight into Hurston's engagement with urban black life. They show us that Harlem was of more than just passing interest to the author, and ask us to dig deeper into the phase of her life before she became so identified with Eatonville [Florida].”

The concept of observing the observer has always been an intriguing, if ironic, concept to me. But it is an important one that promotes both understanding and the standing on top of boxes (and canons?). Ever the observer, Zora’s proclivity for playing literary hide-and-seek with her characters fascinates me and lends itself to a certain cosmology that smokes out the absurdity of attempts to divorce the story teller from the story. But we know these things. And we know it cuts both ways. Afterall, it’s all connection, we’re just dealing with degrees. In the same way an invested observer can enrich a narrative, a disengaged (intentional or otherwise) one can pervert it. I’d argue that the same can be said of the inverse. Maybe Zora would too. Either way, I appreciate the footnotes she has left behind not nearly as much for the insight they provide into her varied contexts, as I do for the insight they provide about her and the intricacies of her complexities (her complexity being a given).

The Newly Complicated Zora Neale Hurston

(SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Education)

Last spring began with no hint of any but the usual excitement of a new class. We were team-teaching a course on Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, writers who represent opposing literary and political tendencies, intellectuals who disliked each other's work and said so in print. Wright found Hurston's prose in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) cloaked in "facile sensuality" and complained that she "voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the 'white folks' laugh.'" Hurston mocked Wright's collection Uncle Tom's Children (1938) as "a book about hatreds. Mr. Wright serves notice by his title that he speaks of people in revolt, and his stories are so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live. Not one act of understanding and sympathy comes to pass in the entire work." She was especially troubled by his language. "Since the author himself is a Negro, his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly he does not write by ear unless he is tone-deaf."

It was Wright, the Mississippi-born political critic of the Jim Crow South speaking from his homes in Chicago, New York, and, finally, Paris, versus Hurston, who preferred Southern rural settings in her work, most especially her beloved Eatonville, Fla., which, although she was Alabama-born, she regarded as her native home. Wright, the most popular African-American literary ancestor of the radicals of the 1960s, and Hurston, reclaimed as feminist foremother in the 1970s, yet pronounced by John H. McWhorter in 2009 as "America's favorite black conservative."

The opposition promised to make for good drama in class. But we also wanted our undergraduate and graduate students to challenge the calcified visions of the authors that have become standard. Hurston (1891-1960) embraced her Southern roots, but she also spent considerable time in New York, where she lived on and off from 1925 through 1940, and abroad (the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras), a fact that is often obfuscated by the locations in most of her fiction. After attending Howard University, she trained as an anthropologist and folklorist at Barnard College, where she was admitted in 1925, and then at Columbia University, where she studied under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, as well as with a fellow student, Margaret Mead.

While Hurston published four novels and more than 50 short stories, essays, and plays, she is often discussed only in the context of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel attacked for its humor and use of dialect but praised for its central focus on a black woman's voice in the context of her small town in early-20th-century Florida.

Wright (1908-1960) is best known for his novel Native Son (1940) and his autobiography, Black Boy (1945), although he produced 10 novels (A Father's Law was published posthumously in 2008), a collection of haiku, several books of essays, and other nonfiction works (on subjects including the black urban migration of the early 20th century, African decolonization, his travels in Spain, and transnational communism). As an expatriate in Paris, he wrote (among other works) his novel The Outsider (1953), and Black Power (1954), an account of his travels to the Gold Coast of Africa before it became independent Ghana. Like Hurston, Wright lived a rich and varied life and produced an equally rich and varied body of work. Yet critical attention has focused almost exclusively on the sociological and psychological insights that his fiction offers on racial strife in America, at the expense of exploring his sophisticated modernist aesthetics and his prescient views of political modernity.

We were working with the two-volume Library of America editions of both authors, augmented by many additional texts, including manuscripts. We read their early and best-known works as well as their least-studied novels (Seraph on the Suwanee, written by Hurston in 1948, and Savage Holiday, written by Wright in 1954). We encouraged students to do original research -- some went to the Beinecke Library, at Yale University, and examined Wright's papers; others read through Hurston's letters in the edition by Carla Kaplan. And we poked around on our own, browsing through old newspapers, looking for previously unnoticed references to the authors.

Searching for traces of Hurston on microfilm, we found her, for example, as a dinner party guest with A'Lelia Walker—a businesswoman who was an important patron of African-American artists—at a table set for 10 at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. And then one afternoon we were burrowing through what felt like the umpteenth reel of microfilm from the 1920s and early 1930s, a time when Hurston had already published stories but before her first novel came out. Anyone who has used microfilm of newspapers knows how tedious scanning its often blurry print can be. Then Werner stopped. He had come upon a short story by Hurston that neither of us knew about. We kept looking. The next day, we found two more, all from 1927. As we looked into them, we discovered that not one was listed in the bibliography in Robert Hemenway's biography of Hurston, or included in any collections of {CONTINUED}

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).