This week, Jabari Asim reviews a collection of short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. In 1978, Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote for the Book Review about Robert Hemenway’s “Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.”
Robert Hemenway’s biography is a subtle blend of fact and close reading that recreates the internal mood of a black writer between the Jazz Age and the McCarthy era. Scrupulously avoiding sentiment and simplification, Hemenway has told Miss Hurston’s story with as much integrity and attention to language as Miss Hurston evinced as an anthropologist. His biography, so much more readily than the standard sociological rendering, traces with compassion the manner in which economic limits determine our choices even more than does violence or love. Miss Hurston wrote well when she was comfortable, wrote poorly when she was not. Never does Hemenway oversimplify the relation between Miss Hurston’s art and her life; never does he reduce the complexity of her postwar politics.
Her importance rests with the legacy of fiction and lore she preserved so tellingly. As Miss Hurston herself noted, “Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.”