“I feel that I have lived. I have had the joy and pain of strong friendships….I have loved unselfishly…and I have hated with all the power of my soul….I have touched the four corners of the Horizon, far from hard searching it seems to me that tears and laughter, love and hate, make up the sum of life.” – Zora Neale Hurston
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Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Virginia Lynn Moylan as part of the promotion for her biography, Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade. Ms. Moylan was a good speaker with an obvious appreciation for her subject (I expect this from a biographer, but don’t always see it), and I was a bit embarrassed by the fact that I knew so little about Zora, considering that she’d lived in a town so close to mine and was a highly respected literary figure. I was a latecomer to the Zora Neale Hurston party…yet even after reading Moylan’s meticulously researched work, I still felt like something of an onlooker.
The reason was largely summed up in words from Hurston’s editor, Burroughs Mitchell, who, responding to her last major literary work, on King Herod, commented: “In spite of your knowledge of your subject and your clearly deep feeling about it, the book does not seem to us to accomplish its intention. I mean to say that it does not vividly recreate the man and his time.” There is much to appreciate in the depth of the author’s research, taking us from the child who “would risk a whipping” to eavesdrop on her elders’ tales and gossip from the front porch of Joe Clarke’s general store in the all-black town of Eatonville, to her status as “the most published black woman in America”; from anthropological researcher and folklore collector to the horror of a child molestation charge; and finally, from the proud optimist who treasured her independence and refused to give up on the work she regarded to the end of her life as her masterpiece, to the woman racked by health and financial issues and finally left unable to communicate by a stroke at age 68. Yet Zora’s colorful, even flamboyant personality never really lived and breathed for me in a narrative style that is informative but not lively.
In all fairness, it is perhaps difficult to fully capture the spirit of a woman who penned such lines as these:
“[Janie] was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.” (“Their Eyes Were Watching God“)
Or: “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (“Dust Tracks on a Road“)
But I also felt the book could have benefited from additional photos of Zora (there are only two, and in one from 1928 her features are indistinguishable), more description of her intimate relationships (her two marriages lasted only four years and seven months, respectively) and more samples of her literary voice: for example, Hurston’s weekly coverage of a 1952 murder trial for the Pittsburgh Courier is described as “seasoned with…characteristic rich descriptions and folksy phrases…” but only a couple of examples are given.
I am, however, indebted to the author for revealing the remarkable arc of Zora’s life, with its seemingly improbable successes as well as achingly relatable struggles, particularly in her last days. She was not only gifted with an ear for dialect and storytelling, but bravery and indefatigable persistence, disappointed by many of her race even as she tirelessly promoted black culture. Moylan’s book is a good introduction to the facts surrounding Zora, but like any author of note, her essence truly lives within her own words.