NEW YORK — Sixty years after her death, the story of Zora Neale Hurston is still not fully told.
The fiction writer-anthropologist-folklorist died in a segregated Florida hospital in January 1960, so forgotten and impoverished that her work was out of print and her grave left unmarked. Starting in the 1970s, when Alice Walker helped revive interest in Hurston, the writer’s standing has grown through a steady reissue of such classics as the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and the posthumous releases of stories, letters and other writings. The Library of America, the country’s unofficial shaper of the canon, has issued a volume of her work.
New projects continue and interest in her remains strong as ever. In 2018, Amistad published “Barracoon,” a long-lost nonfiction work about a survivor of the Middle Passage that became a bestseller and sold more than 250,000 copies.
Amistad recently released “Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick,” a highly anticipated collection of early stories that includes material rarely seen since they were published nearly a century ago.
“We can all agree that the end of Hurston’s life was difficult,” the novelist Tayari Jones writes in the foreword. “We can all agree that she deserved her laurels while she still walked among us. Yet Zora, being Zora, did not let mere death end her life.”
The 21 stories in “Hitting a Straight Lick” were compiled by Genevieve West, who chairs the English department at Texas Woman’s University. West combines better known pieces such as the tragic “John Redding Goes to Sea,” Hurston’s first published fiction, with more obscure work. Hurston is identified with rural Florida, the setting for “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” But the current collection highlights a less explored side — her stories in the North, drawing upon her years in New York.
Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., in 1891 and moved with her family to Florida at age 3. She later worked as a maid, waitress and other jobs before enrolling at Howard University in 1920. Five years later, Hurston moved to Manhattan in 1925 and lived off and on there until the late 1930s. She would come to be identified with the Harlem Renaissance, but she was ever an iconoclast who stood apart from her peers and the so-called “New Negro” movement of the time.
“The New Negro movement was about putting the best foot forward and that wasn’t Hurston’s agenda,” West says.
The story “The Back Room,” which West found in the archives of the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, stands out as the rare fictional commentary by Hurston on the movement and upper class Harlem society. Its main character, Lilya Barkman, is wealthy enough to have commissioned an oil painting of herself. The Harlem in “The Back Room” is a site for “fine gowns and tuxedos, marcel waves and glitter.”
“And Lilya Barkman shown and glittered with the rest,” Hurston writes.
Other Harlem stories tell of unfaithful husbands, wives abused but unbroken, couples held together or torn apart by money, families torn between old and new ways. The migration from South to North is a puzzle for some characters, like the wife in “The Country in the Woman” who sees her husband succumb to New York morals, or the young woman from Eatonville in “Muttsy” who takes in the Harlem scene and observes that the “ladies” back home “didn’t put powder and paint on the face.” Lilya Barkman herself “fled the boredom” of small-town South Carolina, only to have her heart broken in Harlem.
West says that Hurston was alert to the “dangers” of migration and that for her “the bloom was off the rose” by the time she left in the 1930s.
“New York had sunk into the Great Depression,” West says. “She had no illusions it was the promoted land.”
The latest posthumous Hurston book will not likely be the last. West says that her essays have yet to be compiled and other stories may still be discovered, if only because Hurston’s work often ran in publications that have long ended and have yet to be fully indexed.
Cheryl A. Wall, a professor of English at Rutgers University who edited the Hurston Library of America edition, says that the author’s writings essentially had to be organized from scratch. At the time of her death, her papers were scattered around the country. Some materials were only preserved when a passerby saw they were being burned in the trash and removed them in time.
“The pages of her last manuscript, ‘Herod, the Great’ are singed along the edges,” Wall said.
Hurston’s papers still don’t have a comprehensive archive like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s have at Princeton University or Ernest Hemingway’s at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. When Wall was compiling material for the Library of America, she found it challenging to find authoritative editions of her shorter pieces.
“There is doubtless more material to be found. I am not sure how much and no one can predict where,” Wall said. “Hurston’s story is typical of black women writers of her time. There is no archive for Jessie Fauset or Nella Larsen either. I am delighted that future scholars will not face these challenges when they go in search of the papers of June Jordan, Toni Morrison, or Alice Walker.”