Zora Neal Hurston’s 1942 memoir is a memoir in a more classic sense, in that it covers childhood to publication. This means the book covers close to fifty years of her life. This means that she’s already grown up, gone to college, published several anthropological texts, several novels and short stories. It also means that in a way, she’s made her stamp on the public world. There’s still a lot of living for Zora Neale Hurston and of course one of the things we’ve learned since her renaissance in the 1970s is that her later life involved a sense of obscurity that her early writing life did not.
This presents a contrast to the tone and spirit of the book, at least as she begins to sum things up toward the end. Another thing we also discuss when reading Hurston is the ways in which the Black public writing establishment clashed with some of her approaches and choices. This is something there is still some tension about in a lot of writing circles: who exactly is the audience for types of literature, and what responsibilities a writer has to a larger community. I always learned that Richard Wright specifically pushed back at her writing. I had always assumed that this was about her novel Their Eyes were Watching God, and that might be true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this memoir was part of that pushback as well. She says in no uncertain terms in this book that she’s trying to live her life in celebration of being Black, but also that being Black does not necessarily chart her path for her. She certainly was able to find a lot of success in her life — going to Barnard, working with Franz Boas, writng several novels. But at the same time, it does feel like she doesn’t agree that her life was all that exceptional. So there’s a debate at the center of this book, and it’s an old debate. Wright tended to be overly political in his writing, and I would argue that in some cases his art suffered. It’s possible Hurston is not political enough, or specifically political in a certain way. I dunno.
The writing here is wonderful, and throughout the storytelling is hilarious and joyful, but then every so often she hits you with something brilliant that you forgot how much brain is behind this heart.