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The Mark of Zora

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At the end of her haunting autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road," author Zora Neale Hurston attempted to explain her philosophy on life. This noted free spirit and rebel professed not to be concerned by life's vagaries and whims: "I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world."

This was typical of Hurston's defiance and belief in self, and it became even more poignant in the last decade of her life. She was constantly sick, and she wrote little, supporting herself by working as a maid and a library clerk.

Hurston died in January 1960 at the age of 69, in poverty and obscurity -- her days as a leading black American author in the 1930s and '40s just a memory. When she was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida, Zora Neale Hurston seemed destined for literary obscurity.

But, if anything, Hurston is an example of just how transitory literary standing is. In the 1970s, black female writers such as Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison championed her works. Her books were reissued, and she was the subject of an excellent biography by Robert Hemenway. Soon, colleges across the country were teaching her works, especially her semi-autobiographical novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Today, Hurston's literary resurrection is complete. There is a Zora Neale Hurston Society devoted to the study of her works, and a Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Fla., where she lived much of her life. A documentary on her is in the works. Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones hold the film rights to "Their Eyes Were Watching God." And now, her writings have been given the official blessing of the literary establishment: They have been reissued by the Library of America, making her the first black female author and only the fourth black writer to be so honored.

Now, alongside volumes of the works of Twain, Poe and Faulkner rest those of this restless visionary, who once summed up her life experiences with this memorable line: "I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots."

'So many stole from her'

No one is happier at the revival of Ms. Hurston's reputation than Ruthe T. Sheffey, a professor of English at Morgan State University. It was Dr. Sheffey who founded the Zora Neale Hurston Society in 1984, thus encouraging the scholarly discussion and debate about one of America's most intriguing writers.

"My heart rejoices to see her coming out of the shadows and assuming her rightful place," Dr. Sheffey says. "So many people stole from her -- James Weldon Johnson for one -- and she did so much and got so little credit. All of her work was a labor of love, and I'm delighted she's getting the recognition she is now."

Many writers have gone out of fashion before being accepted into the literary canon. In the case of Faulkner, he was considered by many to have exhausted his talent before Malcolm Cowley edited "The Portable Faulkner." That book's publication in 1946 is widely thought to have resuscitated a fading career.

But few have moved more quickly up the pantheon than has Hurston. In a development that has surprised even the people at the Library of America, the two-volume Hurston set is selling faster than any other anthology since it began publishing in 1982. The first printing of 23,000 is just about gone, and a second printing is in the works, according to Max Rudin, the Library's publisher.

"This compilation really seems to have touched a nerve," he said. "We thought there was an audience for Hurston in an authoritative compilation, but we weren't prepared for this kind of response."

After an initial screening by a nationwide group of scholars, the Library's publications committee makes the final decision -- choosing about five authors a year, Mr. Rudin said. Hurston had been a candidate for years, he said, but this year seemed to be her time.

"We saw a real opportunity to make a contribution with a collection of her volumes," Mr. Rudin said. "Her works are available in different volumes, but several items were unavailable -- short stories, essays and the text she herself wanted published of her autobiography.

"We wanted to show the interrelationship between her fiction and her nonfiction -- the similar impulse to preserve the African-American tradition for art. For she was also a pioneering ethnologist as well as a pioneering short-story writer and novelist."

Dr. Sheffey said she first became seriously interested in Hurston when she was asked to write an article for a university newsletter about the writer, who had attended the school in 1917-1918 when it was called Morgan Academy. Shortly afterward, Dr. Sheffey began teaching Hurston's works.

"I think anybody who reads her falls in love with her," Dr. Sheffey maintains. "She's got a flair for language. And the exciting thing is that she gave up convenience and comfort and wealth for this vision she had of preserving the Afro-American tradition and culture."

On her own terms

This passion for recording the black American folk tradition is evident in two Library of America volumes devoted to Hurston's works. Her four novels and short stories were unabashed evocations of the life of ordinary black people in the South. But Hurston was also a diligent, professionally trained anthropologist who traveled throughout the South, and to the Bahamas, Jamaica and Haiti as well, in search of folk tales, songs and oral history.

It took guts for an unattached woman to travel through the rough-and-tumble railroad camps and cane fields, and Hurston had that -- she would carry a gun on some trips.

Hurston lived life on her own terms. She alienated many of her contemporaries because she refused to see blacks as victims -- "I am not tragically colored," she once wrote. And she was condemned by other blacks for criticizing the Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 -- "I can see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited to a white school social affair," she wrote in the Orlando Sentinel.

She also quarreled with other leading black writers. Once a collaborator with and friend of Langston Hughes, he remarked after their falling-out in the late 1930s, "To many of her white friends, she was a perfect 'darkie,' in the nice meaning they gave the term."

Now, though, Hurston is a pioneer and role model to her fans.

"Toni Morrison and Alice Walker both see her as a foremother," Dr. Sheffey says. "They see her as a woman finding her voice, questing for self and identity. And this was early -- in the 1930s, before Morrison and [Gloria] Naylor and Walker were doing this in the 1980s and 1990s."

HURSTON AT MORGAN

Author Zora Neale Hurston entered Baltimore's Morgan Academy -- later Morgan State University -- in September 1917, at the age of 26. The following is a selection from her 1942 autobiography, "Dust Tracks on a Road."

"It would be dramatic in a Cinderella way if I were to say that the well-dressed students at [Morgan] snubbed me and shoved me around, but that I studied hard and triumphed over them. I did study hard because I realized that I was three years behind schedule, and then again study has never been hard to me. Then too, I had hundreds of books under my skin already. Not selected reading, all of it. Some of it could be called trashy. I had been through Nick Carter, Horatio Alger, Bertha M. Clay and the whole slew of dime novelists in addition to some really constructive reading. I do not regret the trash. It has harmed me in no way. It was a help, because acquiring the reading habit early is the important thing. Taste and natural development will take care of the rest later on.

". . . My two years at Morgan went off very happily indeed. The atmosphere made me feel right. I was at last doing the things I wanted to do. Every new thing I learned in school made me happy."

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