The Newly Complicated Zora Neale Hurston

Three stories never before reprinted underscore another side of the Harlem Renaissance author

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Zora Neale Hurston, circa 1940s
January 02, 2011

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 her stories that we knew of. Even more surprising, the stories were set in the New York City of the Harlem Renaissance; they reminded us less of the canonical Hurston than of authors like Rudolph Fisher and Nella Larsen, who are more closely associated with stories of migration from the country to the city and with sophisticated novels of manners in urban settings.

Of course we were aware that Hurston had written a few short stories in which she depicted New York and attempted to capture, with her unmistakable sense of humor, the new urban sensibility and language of migrants to the city. Her "Story in Harlem Slang," published in 1942 in H.L. Mencken's American Mercury, with a glossary and with illustrations by the New York theater cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, has long been cited, and an uncut version ("Now You Cookin' With Gas") was published posthumously, as was "Book of Harlem," the story of the Southern migrant Mandolin's going to "Babylon" (ruled by "tribe Tammany," a recognizable stand-in for New York), told in the biblical format of numbered verses.

That work tends to be glossed over, however, although the scholarly tide might be beginning to change. In 2004, Hugh Davis wrote an essay on the previously undocumented urban story "She Rock" in the Zora Neale Hurston Forum, and in 2005, Margaret Genevieve West discussed "She Rock" and another urban story, "The Country in the Woman," in her book, Zora Neale Hurston & American Literary Culture. Indeed, we later discovered that West found the same three stories we had in a microfiche collection called Black Literature, 1827-1940, and listed them in her bibliography. Like us, she knows of no place the stories have been reprinted. She wrote us that she shares our belief that "they deserve wider attention."

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. The first story we found is a different, somewhat funnier version of "Book of Harlem," with the subtitle "Chapter I.," suggesting that Hurston may have envisioned it as the beginning of a longer migration tale. The second story, "Monkey Junk: A Satire on Modern Divorce," adheres to mock-biblical storytelling to satirize urban divorce, with the duped husband going back to Alabama at the end. It closes with the exclamation "Selah," an equivalent of "Amen" or "so sayeth the Lord" from the Book of Psalms and an ending that Hurston also used as a tongue-in-cheek valediction in a 1927 letter in which she expressed hope for a large automobile.

While "Monkey Junk" tells the classic migrant tale on the country mouse/city mouse theme, the third find, "the Back Room," is as fully immersed in the most sophisticated 1920s upper-crust Harlem party life as any story previously known from the Harlem Renaissance: "West 139th street at ten p.m. Rich fur wraps tripping up the steps of the well furnished home in the two hundred block. Sedans, coaches, coupes, roadsters. Inside fine gowns and tuxedos, marcel waves and glitter. People who seemed to belong to every race on earth—Harlem's upper class had gathered there her beauty and chivalry." In the background of the story are the human entanglements of a night at a party that also features a Charleston dance contest. The ambience: "Everybody being modern. Cigarettes burning like fireflies on a summer night." ("Monkey Junk" is reproduced in its entirety on Page B9, and all three stories will be included in a forthcoming issue of Amerikastudien/American Studies.)

A major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was very much part of the modern ambience she makes vivid in her New York stories. So why did she downplay the urban aspects of her life and work? She devotes precious little space in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), to the period shortly after her arrival in New York and her matriculation at Barnard—about two pages—and renders it in matter-of-fact language: "So I came to New York through Opportunity, and through Opportunity to Barnard."

She had won an award from Opportunity, a magazine associated with the Harlem Renaissance, for her story "Spunk," about an intense and tragic duel between two men over a woman, as well as for her play Color Struck, which focuses on a controversial topic, intraracial prejudice. "Spunk" was selected for Alain Locke's landmark anthology, The New Negro (1925). The play would be republished in 1926 in Fire!, a literary journal created by Hurston and other notable Harlem Renaissance figures as a challenge to narrow contemporary notions of race and sexuality, since it included a contribution openly depicting homosexuality by the writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent.

The literary journal existed only in its debut issue and did not have a wide circulation. But it did leave evidence that many of the principal figures of the Harlem Renaissance were critical of its blind spots and commercial aspects. In fact, Hurston and Wallace Thurman famously coined the term "Niggerati" to satirize African-American artists and intellectuals willing to produce mediocre work that pandered to white patrons eager for exotic representations of blackness and that supported the largely bourgeois ideals of the movement.

Hurston's urban period reminds us that she was a central player in the Harlem Renaissance—but also one of its fiercest critics. Later she consciously distinguished herself from other Harlem Renaissance writers by focusing on rural black life. That brought her recognition, since everyone else seemed to be writing about urban black life, but also criticism (from Wright and others) that she romanticized "the folk" and reinforced stereotypes of black ignorance.

She was also more complicated than the anti-establishment thinker some 1970s feminists wanted her to be. Focusing on Their Eyes Were Watching God, they traced a black woman's resistance to male domination; the heroine Janie Crawford's search for a voice and for fulfillment became the touchstone for viewing Hurston as a progressive foremother. Yet Hurston's rural folk orientation seemed to go along with her conservative leanings and made some of her views compatible with those of the Southern Agrarians like Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. She thought Reconstruction was a deplorable period, favored Booker T. Washington over W.E.B. Du Bois even decades after Washington's death, and opposed the New Deal; in 1954 she also opposed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Still, Hurston's conservatism had its roots in a racial consciousness that did not differ substantially from that of critics like Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison, and Wright. She was well aware of the racial violence of her country, and she criticized Jim Crow. Her major objections to Reconstruction, and later to Brown, were not that the problems they sought to solve were unimportant, but that the solutions sought to bring about change in the wrong way. Hurston idealized Eatonville, the town where she grew up, because it was, as she put it, a "pure Negro town," a self-sufficient, independent place, a "burly, boiling, hard-hitting, rugged-individualistic setting," filled with black pride and self-determination. She rejected what she called the "sobbing school of Negrohood," famously declaring that she did not feel "tragically colored." She believed in empowering black individuals and communities to gain economic and social justice for themselves, instead of depending on white Northern liberals or the federal government. To her, Brown assumed the inferiority of black culture and life, imposing a supposedly more developed white culture on black people.

Hurston paid dearly for her conservative stance: The obscurity into which she lapsed in the later stages of her career is probably due to her political views. When Alice Walker helped bring Hurston's work back to public attention, writing "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in Ms. Magazine in 1975, she did so selectively, highlighting the author's purportedly protofeminist spirit while downplaying her political conservatism. Yet "Monkey Junk," like many of Hurston's other works, challenges the feminist mantle. The mock biblical mode in which the story is rendered gives it much of its humor, through the juxtaposition of the high and sacred with "low" urban colloquialisms and modern times. At the center of the story are the foibles of a migrant who is undone not by urban life, as one might expect, but by feminine guile. This is how Hurston announces the courtship that ends in the divorce of the full title:

6. And in that same year a maiden gazeth upon his checkbook and she coveted it.

7. Then came she coy and sweet with flattery and he swalloweth the bait.

The object of the story's satire is not so much divorce per se but the fact that the woman is able to use her sexuality to get her way, first with her husband and, after milking him for his money and cheating on him, in court:

43. And she gladdened the eyes of the jury and the judge leaned down from his high seat and beamed upon her for verily she was some brown.

44. And she turned soulful eyes about her and all men yearned to fight for her.

45. Then did she testify and cross the knees, even the silk covered joints, and weep. For verily she spoke of great evils visited upon her.

The lady in the story is decidedly not a feminist heroine. Hurston was quite capable of highlighting male oppression of women, as is clear from her brilliant story "Sweat," included in Fire!, in which a woman kills her abusive husband. She also explored more-ambiguous aspects of femininity through the female characters in Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), who wrestle with opposing impulses of loyalty to and rebellion against male figures. Those novels, unlike Their Eyes Were Watching God, also focus on male protagonists. With similar nuance, Hurston depicts marital strife (in Jonah's Gourd Vine, even divorce), laying bare the often contradictory and self-destructive aspects of the players involved.

As in "Monkey Junk," where she takes up similar themes in a broad comic mode, she was also interested in experimenting with form, particularly the biblical diction with which she humorously elevated the black-migration story to the mythical level and through which, particularly in Moses, Man of the Mountain, she was able to display her versatility as a writer who was not only the first trained African-American anthropologist, but also one deeply familiar with the Bible. On display in "Monkey Junk" and her other urban stories is also a humor that derives not from play with rural black dialect but from the employment of modern and secular urban black slang as it clashes with the ancient sacred and formulaic language derived from the Bible. "But I shall surely smite thee in the nose—how doth old heavy hitting papa talk?" asks the husband as he threatens his wife with violence. At the beginning of the story, the man announces that he knows everything about women. By the end, he is a "hunk of mud" and needs to go back to Hurston's native Alabama "to learn things" and pick cotton. If the cheating wife is no feminist hero, her greenhorn husband is no male exemplar.

To our knowledge, no Hurston scholar has analyzed "Monkey Junk" and "The Back Room." Perhaps Hurston's self-consciously crafted image as a writer of Southern folk culture has predisposed critics to explore her oeuvre accordingly. But the tendency to overlook Hurston's Harlem period may also be due to the fact that she was a terrible bookkeeper, making the task of collecting her work and even learning her full biography hard for scholars. As we've already noted, she was evasive in her autobiography, keeping people in the dark about even her age, among other facts, for a long time. The tombstone that Alice Walker put on the unmarked grave that she found for Hurston has a birth date that is off by 10 years.

We were thrilled to read the three "new" stories, and it's quite likely that other scholars will find more. New discoveries will require us all to expand our understanding of who Hurston was and what she produced. If we think of her within only one of the categories of protofeminist, political conservative, Southern folk writer—or even a combination of those—we will miss the "cosmic Zora" that existed betwixt and between, and even fully outside, such categories.

Update 1/18/11: In the second-to-last paragraph, the first sentence was amended by the authors to read "To our knowledge, no Hurston scholar has analyzed 'Monkey Junk' and 'The Back Room.'" It originally appeared as, "'Monkey Junk' and the other stories we found."

Glenda R. Carpio and Werner Sollors are professors of English and African and African American studies at Harvard University.