Following the dust tracks: Touring Florida through the eyes of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston helped pen a guide to Depression-era Florida. How much of that place -- and her spirit -- remains?

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By Rebecca Bengal
Sunday, April 18, 2010

In the final anxious moments before takeoff, a little girl in the row in front of me looked around and then back at the adult next to her. She placed her hand on his arm.

"I got some Lay's chips if you want," she said. "They're good for taking your mind off things."

We were all flying to Florida, a state known for taking people's minds off things with its palm trees and grapefruits and white sands and theme parks. I, however, had other plans. There were landmarks I wanted to see, but not the usual sights. The travel book I'd brought as my guide was admittedly old, and there was no telling what remained valid. Hotel prices? Probably not. A better question: Did the hotels even exist? My resource was "The WPA Guide to Florida." First published in 1939.

Seventy years had passed since, but it was again an uneasy time in the history of our country. Foreclosure rates in Florida outpaced those in the rest of the country.Reporter after reporter had trekked to places like Tampa and Fort Myers to document the stories of the repo men charged with the grim job of delivering notices, and to catalogue the random possessions families had left behind.

"There is something about poverty that smells like death," Florida-born Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her 1942 "Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography." "Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season. ..."

The Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal, was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 (its name was later changed to the Work Projects Administration) to supply jobs during the Great Depression. The WPA's Federal Writers Project resulted in the densely written 600-page guidebook that now represented a good chunk of my carry-on luggage. The WPA guides, or as they were known in the 1930s, the American Guides, were designed less to encourage tourism than to serve as histories: The WPA directors recognized that most people weren't willing to schlep around something the size of an unabridged dictionary to every natural spring and beach listed in the exhaustive itineraries. But the guides did encourage a certain patriotism of place, democratically including every hamlet on the map, so that even the smallest towns were given page space alongside the capitals and larger cities.

More than 6,000 people contributed to the guides; the WPA can be said to have indirectly launched the careers of some of the most American of American writers. Richard Wright and Nelson Algren covered Chicago; their co-worker Studs Terkel cut his teeth there on early oral history interviews. Before writing his own suburban chronicles, a young, then-unpublished John Cheever reluctantly took up the anthropological challenge of Washington, D.C., and, later, New York. Two men who would go on to become, respectively, one of the most savage pulp fiction authors of all time (Jim Thompson) and one of the most popular western novelists (Louis L'Amour, then LaMoore) could be found describing Indian mounds in Oklahoma during the WPA years. But of all these, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the few writers who had any real experience; at the time of her hiring, she'd already published a novel ("Jonah's Gourd Vine") and a book of folklore ("Mules and Men").

Hurston was African American, and by 1932, she'd returned to her home town, Eatonville, just outside Orlando. But she'd been living in New York, where she'd grown accustomed to "certain airs," such as wearing pants and smoking cigarettes. "We have to make allowance for Zora," said Carita Doggett Corse, the WPA Florida director, according to David A. Taylor's recent book "Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America." The brazenly independent Hurston stood out in a job where many of her co-workers were housewives. (Ninety percent of the people hired for WPA programs were supposed to be pulled from the unemployment rolls, and some writers -- Cheever and Hurston among them -- saw the WPA relief work as akin to accepting welfare. Hurston would tell the niece who shared her Eatonville home that she was going to New York for a few days rather than admit she was attending meetings at the WPA headquarters in Jacksonville, a few hours' drive north on U.S. 17 in her Chevy coupe.)

Of the 22 "tours" outlined in the back of the Florida guide, detailed itineraries along Podunk blue highways and coastal routes, I chose the one along U.S. 17 -- Tour 2 -- for my route, in part because this trip included Hurston's home town, and some of the guidebook's prose and descriptions, though uncredited, were unmistakably hers. I wasn't in the business of gathering folk tales -- at least not in the way that Hurston had. And I didn't set out to imitate her every step -- like going to the lumber camps and juke joints she'd infiltrated. Many of those places simply didn't exist anymore -- it had been a long while since the days when Hurston would set off in her houseboat of a car and bid a "hasty goodbye to Eatonville's oaks and oleanders." Magic kingdoms and dinosaur sculptures and turnpikes and strip-mall sprawl cover the horizon now, but I wanted to see if something of Hurston's Florida bore any resemblance to the Florida of today.

Eatonville

Eatonville is one of the first incorporated African American communities in the country, although these days, it's hard to conceive of a wholly separate town existing so close to the creeping enormity of Orlando. In fact, in 1987, its citizens formed an organization to fight Orange County's efforts to expand Interstate 4 into their small town. As a result, on Eatonville's western border, I-4 now functions as a sort of dividing line between the town and the rest of the world. Eatonville gets to remain, independently, Eatonville.

Many of Eatonville's streets are named after citrus fruits, and one morning, N.Y. Nathiri, executive director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, told me how she remembered climbing trees to pick navel and temple oranges in the place both she and Zora Neale Hurston claim as home town. When Nathiri, now 60, was growing up, Hurston's folk tales were her bedtime stories, and relatives and neighbors talked of "Zora" so casually that it wasn't until Nathiri was 25 and a sleep-starved mother and wife that she read her 99-cent Penguin Classics copy of Hurston's seminal novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which is partly set in Eatonville. For the first time, she really felt the connection between Hurston and her town.


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