FOLKLORE, MEMOIRS, AND OTHER WRITINGS Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road, Selected Articles By Zora Neale Hurston Library of America. 1001 pp. $35 NOVELS AND STORIES Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee, Selected Stories By Zora Neale Hurston Library of America. 1041 pp. $35 THE WONDER of Zora Neale Hurston's life is not that she accomplished so much, but that she did it under circumstances that would have defeated others. Born in 1891, she was forced to leave school and go to work as a maid after her mother died when Hurston was just 13. She did not finish high school until she was almost 30. No matter; between 1934 and 1948, Hurston published four novels, two pioneering collections of folklore based on her anthropological research in the South and the Caribbean, and an autobiography.
Her life was a paradigm of the artist's. Her idiosyncratic intelligence and compulsion to explore meant she cared more about her work than about fashion -- or love, for that matter. "My career balked the completeness of his ideal," she wrote of one lover. "I wanted to conform, but it was impossible." Throughout, despite awards and fellowships, book advances and (for about three years) a monthly stipend from a wealthy patron, Hurston scrambled for the funds that would allow her to continue to write and to conduct her anthropological fieldwork. Nonetheless, she followed her own vision in writing her books and numerous articles and stories. In the end, however, Hurston paid the price for failing to conform. By 1950 she was again reduced to working as a maid, and when she died in 1960 her books were out of print. She was buried in an unmarked grave.
Still, as Hurston might have said, you can't keep a good woman down.
By the late 1960s her work had begun to attract attention again, and in 1975 Alice Walker published her influential magazine article, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." Robert Hemenway's biography appeared two years later, and, a year after that, the University of Illinois reissued Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1979 the Feminist Press published a Hurston reader edited and with an introduction by Walker. "It speaks to me," Walker wrote of Their Eyes Were Watching God, "as no novel, past or present, has ever done." With those words she canonized Hurston as the patron saint of black women writers.
Now, completing the apotheosis begun 20 years ago by Walker's article, the Library of America has published a collection of Hurston's work, making her the first black woman writer so honored. This two-volume collection includes the novels Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), selected stories, the two works of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) and selected articles.
The autobiography printed here restores material -- bawdy song lyrics, an account of a white employer who tried to get Hurston to run away with him, practical jokes played by members of a theater troupe with which Hurston traveled as a maid -- thought too controversial in the 1940s. Scholars may find gold in the excised material. Most readers will, however, wonder what the fuss was about as the censored passages turn out to be fairly tame by today's anything-goes standards. The real value of the uncensored Dust Tracks on a Road, and of these two volumes, is the chance they give us, once again, to appreciate this extraordinary, complicated woman and her work.
And complicated she was, protean enough to contain multitudes. Walker refers to her "contrariness, her chaos.' " Richard Bruce Nugent, that lesser light of the Harlem Renaissance, though himself no less capable of studiedly outrageous behavior, put it this way: "Zora would have been Zora, even if she had been an Eskimo." He was thinking, perhaps, of the self-confident free spirit, the woman who submitted two stories and a play, "Color Struck," to a literary contest shortly after coming to New York in 1925. She won two second-place prizes and, according to legend, acknowledged the awards by striding into a roomful of her fellow writers, a scarf flung flamboyantly around her neck, shouting, "Color-r-r-r Stru-u-u-ck!"
Perhaps Hurston learned how to make an audience sit up and take notice while working as a maid for the lead female singer in the traveling Gilbert and Sullivan show. Perhaps her forthrightness can be attributed to her having been raised in Eatonville, Fla., where her father was mayor for three terms and where, because it was an all-black town, she escaped the worst indignities of segregation. But it's just as likely that all her life Hurston was merely following her mother's advice: "Jump at de sun -- and you might at least catch hold to de moon."
Certainly she seemed to understand that she would need help, and so early on Hurston showed a remarkable knack for winning friends and cultivating influential patrons. As a student at Howard University, she befriended Alain Locke, the professor of philosophy who was one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance. Once in New York, in short order Hurston met most of the important figures of the Renaissance, secured a job as novelist Fannie Hurst's personal secretary (which surely ought to prompt some enterprising academic to reassess Imitation of Life); and obtained a scholarship to attend Barnard College. There, she studied under Franz Boas. With Boas's help, she later obtained a fellowship that allowed her to return to Florida to collect folklore.
Hurston's absence from the South allowed her to see the beauty and artistic value in the folksongs, tall tales and folk customs she had known about since birth but had always taken for granted. Those folk materials are prominent throughout her work, in the collections Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, of course, but also in the novels and stories.
The use there of dialogue rendered in dialect, and of the folksongs, folktales and folkways of a rural culture that most no longer considered themselves part of must have seemed problematic to the New Negroes of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston's story of a woman's search for love and fulfillment through two unhappy marriages before she finally takes up with a man nearly 20 years younger. And Richard Wright accused Hurston of employing in it a "minstrel technique that makes white folks' laugh." Worse, Wright claimed, "Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."
Now, of course, Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a classic of black women's writing. Readers relate to Hurston's portrait of Janie Killicks and, it must be said, the fact that her struggles, unlike those of Wright's characters, say, are as much internal as they are external. There, as in the rest of her work, she demonstrated her unflinching commitment to "what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of color." Nonetheless, it is a measure of the complexity of Hurston's oeuvre that one does not have to go far to find things that make one pause. Late in her life, Hurston criticized the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools as "insulting rather than honoring my race." It assumed, she wrote somewhat testily, "that there is no greater delight to Negroes than physical association with whites." And then, in the essay "How it Feels to Be Colored Me," Hurston writes deadpan that "slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me." One can almost hear Alice Walker gritting her teeth as she allows that the sentiment "makes one's flesh crawl."
Hurston was, however, simply being realistic in a hardheaded, common-sense way that seems particularly hers, and I think Walker ignores the stinging rebuke in the second part of the statement. Make no mistake about it: Zora Neale Hurston was a race woman, but she asked for no one's sympathy, and was never loath to point out the failings of anyone, black or white. "I am colored," she wrote, "but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother's side was not an Indian chief."
How can you not like someone who would make a statement like that, a woman who coined the term "Niggerati" to describe her Harlem Renaissance cohort, as well as the term "Negrotarian" to describe Negrophiles like Carl Van Vechten. Like Ishmael Reed, her truest literary descendant, Hurston was in love with the American language and American customs, with tall tales and exaggerations. And, like Reed, she was unsurpassed at the deft skewer that deflated pretensions.
Zora Neale Hurston died honored only by the relative few in her community who remembered her. That we remember her today is due, of course, to the untiring work of women like Alice Walker and the literary critic Mary Helen Washington. Black women reclaimed her. Now, with her inclusion in the Library of America, Zora Neale Hurston belongs to all of us.
You can almost hear her crowing: "L-i-i-brary of A-america-a-a!! L-i-i-brary of A-america-a-a!!" David Nicholson is an assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World. CAPTION: Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten.