It may seem strange to begin a post about one writer by first addressing another, but like so many readers, I came to Zora Neale Hurston through Alice Walker.
Walker is widely credited for sparking renewed interest in Hurston’s work in the 1970s. She helped to see that Hurston’s works were reprinted and the focus of scholarly attention, a mission that was both activist and artistic:
“We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. And if they are thrown away, it is our duty as artists and as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children, and, if necessary, bone by bone.”
Hurston was certainly one of those geniuses who needed to be collected again. Although a celebrated literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance – a novelist, playwright, journalist, and ethnographer – Hurston fell into obscurity in the last decade of her life. She worked as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and took jobs as a librarian, substitute teacher, and maid to make ends meet. Troubled by poverty and ill health, Hurston died in 1960; her friends took up a collection for her funeral but could not afford a grave marker.
Hurston’s most celebrated work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, which tells the story of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman seeking freedom and love through three marriages.
The character of Janie is remarkable – a sensuous, poetic woman filled with dreams and desires. Hurston rejected the strict polarities that governed the representation of African-American women: she did not adhere either to the Racial Uplift movement’s political and aesthetic agenda or to the negatives stereotypes of the culture at large. Hurston used her ethnographer’s skill to observe the language and culture of her beloved African-American communities of Florida, where she had grown up.
The book was both praised and criticized in its time. The African-American novelist and essayist Richard Wright condemned the book harshly: “Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.”
There are all sorts of issues and ideas raised by this book that would work for UConn Reads. Hurston’s own life provides a window on the complex social and political issues of the day. The book would invite in some wonderful African-American women writers – Alice Walker, to be sure, but also Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara… There are complex literary issues, too: many readers today struggle with the aesthetics and politics of dialectical language in American literature, and there’s an interesting tension between ethnography and fiction to be explored.
In thinking about how this book and how Zora Neale Hurston, as a writer and historic figure, might work for UConn Reads, I keep coming back to that statement by Walker, her fierce determination to recuperate Hurston and her work. There’s not only a question of “the canon” in this, the literary and cultural enterprise of identifying great literature. There’s a larger issue here, too, and one way to articulate that issue came to me, strangely enough, through an unexpected resonance between Walker’s statement and a passage from another one of our finalists – the famous statement at the end of The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald’s narrator says:
They were a careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….
The intersection between these two statements, Walker’s and Fitzgerald’s, opens up a a series of essential and troubling questions about American society. How and when are certain people or groups empowered to discard and devalue others – whatever the basis, be it race or class or gender or any other arbitrary reason? Who can counter that? What is our role, as a University community, in that struggle?
Please feel free to share your thoughts here, or to extend the discussion to Twitter via our new hashtag, #UConnReads.
Walker’s book of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens includes two essays about Hurston: “Looking for Zora” and “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and A Partisan View.”
The Zora Neale Hurston website is a useful place to start learning about the author; the site includes a wonderful audio excerpt of Ruby Dee reading Their Eyes Were Watching God.