Zora & Me: Writing the Life of a Literary Legend

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Writing the life of a literary legend

In Fort Pierce, Fla., two stocky evergreens guard the grave of Zora Neale Hurston. As a warm January breeze blows across the nearly barren burial ground, the trees gallantly bow to greet me.

I have come to this cemetery at the dead-end of North 17th Street to ask the novelist and anthropologist for her permission to write a book about her life.

From what I understand, Zora was that kind of woman. The kind you had to ask before you acted on her behalf. The kind you couldn't be too presumptuous about.

Still, despite a healthy respect for my ancestors, I am not in the habit of talking to the dead. But something about Zora remains vibrantly alive - and that living spirit has called me here on this day, some 40 years after her death.

A woman of enormous talent and remarkable drive, Zora Neale Hurston was the most successful, most prolific and most significant Black woman writer of the first half of the 20th century. Over a career that spanned more than 30 years, she became an outstanding novelist, respected anthropologist, journalist, critic and playwright - publishing four novels, two books of folklore an autobiography, numerous short stories, and several articles and plays.

Although Hurston managed to become a somewhat popular author in her own time, greater acclaim has come posthumously. During the past 20 years, with the reissue of all her major works, Hurston has become an essential part of the American literary canon - her work is required reading in countless university courses - and an important part ot the popular culture.

Many Black women writers - and, increasingly, writers of all cultures and colors - cite Hurston as a literary foremother. Her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a protofeminist tale of a Black woman's quest for independence, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker has said of the novel: "There is no book more important to me than this one." And Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has called Hurston "one of the greatest writers of our time."

In her writing, and in her style, Hurston was ahead of her time - though she sometimes sought to make time stand still where her age was concerned. Born in 1891, Zora lopped a whole decade off her life and shaved off a few more years here and there whenever she saw fit. In 1917, for instance, she entered night high school in Baltimore after several years of "wandering," as she vaguely described it. Embarrassed to be a 26-year-- old high school student - and needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling - she gave her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901, confounding Hurston scholars for generations to come. Similarly, in 1939, the 48-year-- old writer briefly married a 23-year-old man; for the marriage certificate, she gave her age as 29.

Apparently, she had the looks to pull it off. Hurston once characterized her face as looking "like it had been chopped out of a knot of pine wood with a hatchet on somebody's off day." Photographs, however, reveal that she was a handsome, big-boned woman with playful yet penetrating eyes, high cheekbones and a full, graceful mouth that was never without expression.

In addition to her expressive mouth - which often irked her critics - Zora had a fiery intellect (she graduated from Barnard College in 1928), an infectious sense of humor and "the gift," as one friend put it, "of walking into hearts." Zora used these talents - and dozens more - to elbow her way into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, befriending such luminaries as poet Langston Hughes and popular singer/actress Ethel Waters.

Though Hurston didn't drink, fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, "when Zora was there, she was the party." Another friend remembered Hurston's apartment - furnished by donations she solicited from friends - as a spirited "open house" for artists. …