February 2020

Zora Neal Hurston revived

By Zora Neale Hurston
Twenty-one stories—many long forgotten—from a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance come together for the first time.
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Twenty-one stories—many long forgotten—from a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance come together for the first time.

Over the past 50 years, Zora Neale Hurston has been restored from nearly forgotten to a canonical writer, in no small part due to the efforts of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. One of the seminal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is most known today for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and for her nonfiction works of black history and folklore. But before she published those books, she honed her craft by writing short stories. 

Between 1921 and 1937, Hurston published 21 stories, some widely anthologized but many virtually lost—until now. Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick collects all 21, including eight “lost” stories, for the first time in one volume.

Editor Genevieve West located the recovered stories in periodicals and as unpublished manuscripts, and the hallmarks of Hurston’s distinctive writing are on full display: her use of rural black dialect, the wickedly sly humor she finds in day-to-day life, the folkloric underpinnings of her many tales. The world Hurston re-creates is a circumscribed African American world, where white characters are relegated to the sidelines and rarely figure into the consequences of plot, if they appear at all. The agency that Hurston affords her community is one of the defining delights of her art, which explores identity, class and gender within the African American experience.

Many of Hurston’s stories take place among the denizens of rural Eatonville, Florida, also the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the actual community where Hurston grew up. Other stories are set among urban landscapes, particularly in Harlem, where the fledgling writer moved in 1924. 

West points to “The Back Room,” one of the recovered stories, as unique among Hurston’s work for its depiction of what she calls “New Negro” life during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Conversion of Sam,” another found story, is an early effort written before Hurston’s own move to New York. It has a less defined urban setting but nonetheless depicts a migrant’s experience and explores familiar Hurston themes of sexual attraction, courtship and the interplay between men and women.

As with any collection of stories, quality varies greatly, but these narratives comprise a rich tapestry of Hurston’s matchless vision and talent. After this period as a short story writer, Hurston mostly turned her attention to novels and to the indelible folklore collections she assembled. These would prove the bedrock of her literary reputation, but these early stories are also a welcome and illuminating component of her legacy.

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