WRAPPED IN RAINBOWS

The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

By Valerie Boyd

Scribner. 508 pp. $30

Groundbreaking novelist, anthropologist and dramatist Zora Neale Hurston possessed enough creative genius for three people. When she published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942, she was perhaps the most renowned African-American woman of letters ever. Yet at the time of her death, 18 years later, she had been surviving on public assistance and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her seven books were out of print and largely unappreciated.

If Hurston's final years were cruel, her cultural afterlife has been charmed. Beginning with the efforts of one of her literary progeny, Alice Walker, in the 1970s, Hurston has been canonized as a major artist and intellectual and as a patron saint of black feminism. And now, in Valerie Boyd, Hurston has been blessed with an astute and admiring biographer. Scrupulously researched, gracefully written, Wrapped in Rainbows will most likely remain the definitive Hurston biography for many years to come.

The daughter of a homemaker and a carpenter turned preacher, Hurston was born in 1891 and grew up in Eatonville, Fla., which she proudly described as "a pure Negro town -- charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all." She and her seven siblings were raised in a comfortable two-story house and "were never hungry." Young Zora loved to hang out on the porch of Eatonville's general store and eavesdrop on the adults: "There, she heard tales about how black folks got their color, learned why there were Methodists and Baptists, and heard poetic theories on why God gave men and women different strengths." This was the foundation of her lifelong passion for African-American folklore.

Hurston's childhood serenity was shattered when her mother died in 1904. John Hurston had always regarded the "spirited and mouthy" Zora with a cold indifference, favoring his older, more docile daughter, Sarah. Zora was sent away to the Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville, but once John remarried, he refused to pay his younger daughter's tuition. At the age of 16, Zora was forced to leave school and somehow fend for herself in the world. For the next 10 years, she worked mainly as a maid, bouncing from one town to another. She ultimately wound up in Baltimore, where blacks between the ages of 6 and 20 were allowed free public education. The petite, fresh-faced 26-year-old pretended to be 16 so that she could return to high school. For the rest of her life, Hurston habitually lopped 10 years off her actual age.

Hurston attended Howard, Washington's prestigious black university, but financial constraints prevented her from completing her coursework. Craving an adventurous, bohemian life, she moved to New York, arriving in 1925, just in time to become one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. By then, she had started writing short stories and plays in earnest and was thrilled to meet other ambitious young black artists such as Langston Hughes. Hurston and her cohorts nicknamed themselves "the Niggerati," which Boyd calls "an inspired moniker that was simultaneously self-mocking and self-glorifying." By all accounts, Hurston was blazingly charismatic. Author and educator Arna Bontemps described her as "about average -- a little above average -- in appearance. But she had an ease and somehow projected herself very well orally." According to the poet Sterling Brown, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

After less than a year in New York, Hurston was recruited by Annie Nathan Meyer, the founder of Barnard, to enroll as the first black student at the elite women's college. During her second term, she became the prote{acute}ge{acute}e of Franz Boas, head of the Columbia anthropology department. And in 1927, Hurston embarked on the first of a series of research voyages. Commandeering the used car she dubbed "Sassy Susie" and packing a chrome-plated pistol for protection, Hurston toured the state of Florida, collecting Negro folklore, recording for posterity the sorts of stories and songs she had absorbed as a child.

Over the next 20 years, the peripatetic Hurston studied voodoo in Haiti and its American cousin hoodoo in New Orleans. She stalked wild boar in the mountains of Jamaica with huntsmen descended from runaway slaves. She played drums with Seventh Day Adventists in the Gullah country of South Carolina, "doing what she loved most: documenting black culture -- and reveling in it." The fruits of her fieldwork were first published in the critically acclaimed Mules and Men, in 1935. Hurston also presented many of the dances and rituals she had observed in well-received concert performances that she staged in New York and Florida.

Though she married three times, Hurston found it impossible to "settle down." Even the man she considered the "real love" of her life -- a hunky Columbia graduate student named Percy Punter -- expected Hurston to give up her career. "I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do," she recalled, "but that one thing I could not do."

Hurston's passion for Punter and her need for self-definition informed her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1936. The novel chronicles the life and loves of Janie Crawford, an Eatonville girl raised by her ex-slave grandmother. "Hurston's novel is ultimately about self-love," Boyd notes, "about Janie's hard-willed choice to love nobody -- not even the love of her life -- more than she does herself."

Like most of Hurston's books, Their Eyes Were Watching God received lavish praise from the white literary establishment. But she had some formidable critics in the black intelligentsia, most notably her fellow genius Richard Wright, who felt that her work turned a blind eye to the horrors of racism. "Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem," Hurston complained. "I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color."

Hurston was still near the peak of her powers, living in Harlem and preparing for the publication of a new novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, in the fall of 1948, when she was arrested for child molesting. The 10-year-old son of a former landlady and two other prepubescent boys had accused Hurston of subjecting them to oral and anal sex. For six months, Hurston was tortured by lurid headlines; at one point, she even considered suicide. Finally, the charges, which Hurston had always vehemently denied, were dismissed. Her chief accuser "confessed that he invented the story because he did not want to admit to his mother that he and his friends had been having sex with one another," Boyd explains. "The other two boys confirmed this statement."

But in scandals such as this, the accusation often has more staying power than even the most sweeping exoneration. Hurston's career was effectively ruined. She wrote three more novels but could not find anyone willing to publish them. Despite all her recognition, she had never earned much money. At the age of 59, hard up for cash, she returned to her first vocation: "Famous Author Working As Maid For White Folks Down In Dixie!" gasped a headline in the Amsterdam News.

Boyd does her best to put a positive spin on the last decade of Hurston's life. Poor health and lack of money never broke her spirit. She died of a stroke three weeks after her 69th birthday. Thanks to contributions from former colleagues, old friends and people in her last neighborhood of Fort Pierce, Fla., enough money was collected to pay for a burial -- but not for a tombstone. If that is not, as Boyd insists, a "tragic" fate, it is undeniably sad. But then, in 1973, Hurston acolyte Walker located the weed-choked gravesite and laid a marker. The rehabilitation of a great American author had begun. Valerie Boyd's splendid biography should help ensure that Zora Neale Hurston will never again be forgotten. *

Jake Lamar is the author of five books, including his forthcoming novel "Rendezvous Eighteenth." He lives in Paris.

Zora Neale Hurston