by Zora Neal Hurston
This is the autobiography of the great Zora Neal Hurston, whom I first learned of when Jerry started reading aloud from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, at breakfast. The novel was, to me, a totally astonishing book – perhaps the only book about romantic love written in English the 20th century that takes it entirely seriously and rings true. With all the grit of the real thing.
If we want to know, who was this woman who wrote about that most enviable thing as if she knew it from the inside? — Dust Tracks on a Road gives some part of the answer.
Most of her childhood was passed in a Florida town inhabited and governed by black Americans, themselves a generation or two out of slavery. So she grew up as free from internalized self-diminishment as it was possible to be in that era (or any era for a member of any group that the majority denigrates).
She rose to levels as high as a writer’s career can go: a peer of the best of her time (the 1930’s and 40’s) – recognized as an exciting, original talent.
Then she sank out of sight. In my college days, I never heard of her. Nobody I knew spoke of her. The men were talked of – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison. They were torch-bearers for the politics of race with the sharpened awareness accompanying that.
For her, the grants dried up, fellowships dried up and royalties had never been that royal. She – who could charm a roomful of New York talent and grab hold of any nearby lifeline – was suddenly out of style, out of order, out of line.
From the fine Afterward by Henry Louis Gates, one gathers that the men wrote her out of the writer’s public space. Particularly Wright (whom I knew in Paris and was a positive influence in my life). She was not race-conscious enough or politically combative enough, perhaps. She had another calling.
When black women writers discovered her, it had to do with recovering and honoring their own voices. Alice Walker made her way through waist-high weeds and snake-haunted ground to the abandoned Jim Crow cemetery in Florida where Zora Neal Hurston lay in a grave almost unmarked. Walker had a stone placed there with the writer’s name and the line that rightly identifies her:
Genius of the South.
Hurston’s writing is incandescent. If I quoted any of it, you’d have no trouble seeing what I mean.
Inevitably, one sees another woman in the terms one sees oneself. When I ask myself why this strangling of the voice and public presence of a woman writer as important as any in our time, I don’t buy Henry Louis Gates’s answer: “Put simply, Hurston wrote well when she was comfortable, wrote poorly when she was not.” Maybe, but I see it another way.
Chapter 14 of Dust Tracks is titled “Love.” It concerns a romantic encounter, a love affair that she says she mined to its very depths in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In real life, Hurston married and divorced twice, ending as she began: solo. So this singular true love, of whom she writes in Dust Tracks, must either be a distillate of the best qualities she found in both husbands – or else a glimpse into her encounter with some other man whose existence and name is unknown to her biographers.
What she does tell is that, in her prefeminist era, the man she loved wanted her to give up her work for the life of a full-time wife to a man who wanted to take care of her. Her work, however, was a calling that she could not dodge.
It is at this point that, for the first time and very oddly, Hurston actually tells the reader that she won’t tell what happened. “What I do know, I have no intention of putting but so much in the public ears.”
Of all true writing, it can be said that the public doesn’t need to know. A writer makes herself liable to be, as it were, flayed alive. Not because the public “needs to know,” but because
writing that rings true
comes from the truth.
From that very place in the memoir where she informs the reader that she’s not obliged to make her personal life public, her writing changes. The two chapters that follow read like spin-offs from discoveries she made in earlier chapters where they had appeared new and freshly earned. Despite Gates, it’s unlikely that her economic circumstances changed between writing chapter 14 and 15.
Here I think of the choice I faced when I fell in love with Jerry. I had a position in the world, an apartment and neighborhood to live in that many would have (as the saying goes) “killed for.”
Suppose I left all that to make a joint life and it turned out a mistake? Suppose, deprived of the position that had supported my work, I simply dwindled in self-approval and effectiveness? Jerry might still love the remains of me, but the life I had fought so hard to achieve would be pretty much ruined. The risks I saw were enormous, the outcome far from guaranteed.
But there were risks on the other side too. As a carpenter works with wood, I worked with words. I spoke and wrote from a record of saying what I actually thought and doing what I said I would do. If, playing it safe, I refused a personal summons so large — one in line with my lifelong trust that true love is real — could I ever trust my own words again?
According to her own memoir, Zora Neal Hurston had lived a life where, despite incredible risks, she’d been thrown one lifeline after another, time after time.
Could it be that, finally, she refused to take life’s largest risk: to put her immense talent into the project of integrating love and work?
Even in those days, there were happy marriages between creative people. If she declined to take that risk, could it be that the lifelines previously thrown her way as if by chance now recoiled instead and rolled back to the Source from whence they came? Of course, I could be wrong. The explanation for the unmarked grave could be more probable and ordinary.
But that’s what I wonder.