By Zora Neale Hurston
All Posts Contain Spoilers
It is one of life’s great mercies that we are not forced to live by the opinions we held as teenagers.
Like many American teenagers, I was forced to read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ in high school. I hated it. I don’t really remember why now, but I know that I developed for that book a particular antipathy that was personal and intense, and colored my view of the author. I didn’t just hate ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, I decided; I also hated Zora Neale Hurston.
Then, a few years ago, I read the ‘The Best American Essays of the Century‘ anthology, and it included an essay by Hurston, written in 1928, called ‘How It Feels To Be Colored Me’. It’s a short, funny little essay, and I loved it. I loved her voice, and her point of view, and I began to wonder whether I might have been wrong to assign her a role as a literary nemesis.
About a year later, I read ‘The Serpent and the Rainbow‘, by Wade Davis, about Haitian zombies (which are real, as in real zombies, yes, zombies are real, read the book, it’ll all be explained), and he mentioned, almost out of hand, that much of the earliest work documenting the existence of zombies, and gaining access to the secret societies which produce them, had been done by an anthropologist named, you guessed it, Zora Neale Hurston.
So, a few weeks ago, when I saw a beautiful, bright yellow copy of her memoir, ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ (honestly, it’s a jewel of an edition – you want to eat it, not read it), I decided to give Zora Neale Hurston the chance she should have gotten when I was in high school.
Hurston published ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ in 1942, when she was 51 (she would die in 1960, at the age of 69). It is her telling of her own life, sometimes chronologically, sometimes thematically. It was an interesting life, and would make for interesting telling regardless, but Hurston doesn’t spend as much time on the plotty parts (her two marriages, her time in Haiti and Bermuda and driving around the Deep South) as she does on the things which she felt gave her life meaning and texture. She spends a lot of time in childhood; she grew in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first Negro town to be incorporated in the United States. And she spends a lot of time describing the things that gave her life joy: music, friends, school. She does not milk her life for its extraordinariness – rather, she describes the world as she saw it.
This may sound like a disappointing emphasis, since she did have such a remarkable life. But ‘Dust Tracks on a Road‘ is a real pleasure, and not because you get to read much about her adventures. Rather, Hurston’s memoir is such a joyful read because you get to spend it in her company, and she is outstanding.
First of all, Zora Neale Hurston is an amazing writer. I’m talking an off-the-charts, batshit-nanners beast of prose composition. She has a distinct writerly voice, a sort of folksy twang which is meant to disarm and which will make you think that she is less sophisticated than you. You will be wrong. She is so, so good at writing – I really don’t know how to say it better than that. If the task of a writer is to communicate an idea, or a scene, or a sight, clearly, beautifully, and originally, then Zora Neale Hurston is one of the best American writers I’ve ever read. Full stop.
Let me give you an example. Here is a passage that Hurston wrote about her stepmother, the woman her father married when her mother died and whom she hated:
“Not every skunk in the world rates a first-class killing. Hanging is too good for some folks. They just need their behinds kicked. And that is all that woman rated.” (p. 96)
There are words in that passage, ‘skunk’, ‘folks’, behinds’, which are meant to sound conversational, demotic and casual. That is not a passage which would, at first glance, impress you with the learning and precision of its author. But consider that the same author will, only a few pages later, write this:
“There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.” (p. 107)
And you will see that you’re in the hands of a master, someone who deploys colloquialism not because she is herself unsophisticated, but because she has decided that wisdom is best expressed in simple language.
But her incredible facility with language is only part of what makes Hurston so much fun to read. She was also possessed of a genuinely original outlook. I can’t think of another writer with a voice at all like hers; there is no part of this book which could have been mistaken for the work of another person.
This distinction doesn’t just reveal itself in the language that she uses; it also comes through in the things she chooses to say. She’s funny, and wise, and brave, and even though she wears these qualities lightly, they shine through all the time. In her very framing of the problems of her life, you see a point of view which is novel and charming and courageous, really winning and really admirable.
I know I sound totally gaga about this, but let me give you a few examples, passages that I think are both beautiful and wise, and which I think only she could have written:
“People seldom see themselves changing. It is like going out in the morning, or in the springtime to pick flowers. You pick and you wander till suddenly you find that the light is gone and the flowers are withered in your hand. Then, you say that you must turn back home. But you have wandered into a place and the gates are closed. There is no more sharp sunlight. Gray meadows are all about you where blooms only the asphodel. You look back through the immutable gates to where the sun still shines on the flowered fields with nostalgic longing, but God pointed men’s toes in one direction. One is surprised by the passage of time and the distance travelled, but one may not go back.” (p. 65)
“I found out too that you are bound to be jostled in the “crowded street of life.” That in itself need not be dangerous unless you have the open razors of personal vanity in your pants pockets. The passers-by don’t hurt you, but if you go around like that, they make you hurt yourself.” (p. 148)
Or this, which was my favorite passage in the whole book, and which I would like to have printed on little leaflets that I can just give to people when I break up with them:
“No two moments are any more alike than two snowflakes. Like snowflakes, they get that same look from being so plentiful and falling so close together. But examine them closely and see the multiple differences between them. Each moment has its own task and capacity, and doesn’t melt down like snow and form again. It keeps its character forever. So the great difficulty lies in trying to transpose last night’s moment to a day which has no knowledge of it. That look, that tender touch, was issued by the mint of the richest of all kingdoms. That same expression of today is utter counterfeit, or at best the wildest of inflation. What could be more zestless than passing out cancelled checks? It is wrong to be called faithless under circumstances like that. What to do?
I have a strong suspicion, but I can’t be sure that much that passes for constant love is a golded-up moment walking in its sleep. Some people know that it is the walk of the dead, but in desperation and desolation, they have staked everything on life after death and the resurrection, so they haunt the graveyard. They build an altar on the tomb and wait there like faithful Mary for the stone to roll away. So the moment has authority over all of their lives. They pray constantly for the miracle of the moment to burst its bonds and spread out over time.” (p. 265)
Sometimes, in reading as in life, you just fall in love with someone. An author can compel your heart the way a lover can: they’re just right for you, they draw you to them and everything they do amazes you.
And you sound like a dummy about them for a while, the same way that you do when you’re in love. You talk about them too much, people around you get bored listening to you. That’s how I feel about Zora Neale Hurston, having read this book. I’m blown away by how good she is – I want to tell everyone I meet about her. I want to read everything she’s ever written. I want to get her words tattooed on my back.
I won’t do that last thing, but I will go back and reread ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘. I can’t wait.