The Mark of Zora

March 08, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

At the end of her haunting autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road," author Zora Neale Hurston attempted to explain her philosophy on life. This noted free spirit and rebel professed not to be concerned by life's vagaries and whims: "I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world."

This was typical of Hurston's defiance and belief in self, and it became even more poignant in the last decade of her life. She was constantly sick, and she wrote little, supporting herself by working as a maid and a library clerk.

Hurston died in January 1960 at the age of 69, in poverty and obscurity -- her days as a leading black American author in the 1930s and '40s just a memory. When she was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida, Zora Neale Hurston seemed destined for literary obscurity.

But, if anything, Hurston is an example of just how transitory literary standing is. In the 1970s, black female writers such as Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison championed her works. Her books were reissued, and she was the subject of an excellent biography by Robert Hemenway. Soon, colleges across the country were teaching her works, especially her semi-autobiographical novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Today, Hurston's literary resurrection is complete. There is a Zora Neale Hurston Society devoted to the study of her works, and a Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Fla., where she lived much of her life. A documentary on her is in the works. Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones hold the film rights to "Their Eyes Were Watching God." And now, her writings have been given the official blessing of the literary establishment: They have been reissued by the Library of America, making her the first black female author and only the fourth black writer to be so honored.

Now, alongside volumes of the works of Twain, Poe and Faulkner rest those of this restless visionary, who once summed up her life experiences with this memorable line: "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots."

'So many stole from her'

No one is happier at the revival of Ms. Hurston's reputation than Ruthe T. Sheffey, a professor of English at Morgan State University. It was Dr. Sheffey who founded the Zora Neale Hurston Society in 1984, thus encouraging the scholarly discussion and debate about one of America's most intriguing writers.

"My heart rejoices to see her coming out of the shadows and assuming her rightful place," Dr. Sheffey says. "So many people stole from her -- James Weldon Johnson for one -- and she did so much and got so little credit. All of her work was a labor of love, and I'm delighted she's getting the recognition she is now."

Many writers have gone out of fashion before being accepted into the literary canon. In the case of Faulkner, he was considered by many to have exhausted his talent before Malcolm Cowley edited "The Portable Faulkner." That book's publication in 1946 is widely thought to have resuscitated a fading career.

But few have moved more quickly up the pantheon than has Hurston. In a development that has surprised even the people at the Library of America, the two-volume Hurston set is selling faster than any other anthology since it began publishing in 1982. The first printing of 23,000 is just about gone, and a second printing is in the works, according to Max Rudin, the Library's publisher.

"This compilation really seems to have touched a nerve," he said. "We thought there was an audience for Hurston in an authoritative compilation, but we weren't prepared for this kind of response."

After an initial screening by a nationwide group of scholars, the Library's publications committee makes the final decision -- choosing about five authors a year, Mr. Rudin said. Hurston had been a candidate for years, he said, but this year seemed to be her time.

"We saw a real opportunity to make a contribution with a collection of her volumes," Mr. Rudin said. "Her works are available in different volumes, but several items were unavailable -- short stories, essays and the text she herself wanted published of her autobiography.

"We wanted to show the interrelationship between her fiction and her nonfiction -- the similar impulse to preserve the African-American tradition for art. For she was also a pioneering ethnologist as well as a pioneering short-story writer and novelist."

Dr. Sheffey said she first became seriously interested in Hurston when she was asked to write an article for a university newsletter about the writer, who had attended the school in 1917-1918 when it was called Morgan Academy. Shortly afterward, Dr. Sheffey began teaching Hurston's works.

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