- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Valerie Boyd
Scribner, $30, 528 pages

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was a meteoric talent who blazed across the literary firmament in the United States. For nearly a generation that light was almost extinguished, but then the University of Illinois Press reprinted her principal work in the late 1970s and published Robert Hemenway's pioneering biography. The same press has continued to publish important books about Hurston.
The Hurston revival began in the early 1970s when Alice Walker erected a gravestone in the general locale of Hurston's unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Fla. Now, 40 years later, the literary stature of this gifted woman of letters is secured. "Wrapped in Rainbows," the new biography by Valerie Boyd, who is an arts editor and a critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, makes it plain that Hurston's high reputation, although long delayed by unfortunate circumstances, is well earned.
Her road to fame, not fortune, which is carefully charted in Valerie Boyd's engaging life, which proceeds apace and is enlivened with many representative details that are sharply etched, was more than bumpy. That cliche, like any other formula, does not begin to convey the vicissitudes of the roller-coaster ride that embodied Hurston's experience as a complicated human being and talented artist who proved herself in the making of many modes, especially fiction.
Among American writers only Herman Melville's life and career have the up-and-down quality of Zora Hurston's. Melville, famous as a young writer as the author of "Typee," "Redburn," and other exotic tales, found his fortunes falling precipitously after the publication of "Moby Dick" in 1851, and he died in obscurity 40 years later. The recovery of Hurston's life and her work, including her inspired recording of folklore (which she deems "the boiled-down juice of human living") is now essentially accomplished; but as in Melville's case, we should expect the critical appreciation to continue.
Hurston as an author was most successful during middle age, especially with her collection of folklore "Mules and Men" (1935) and her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God." The novel is now assigned reading in hundreds of courses throughout this country.
By the late 1930s her work began to flag; but in the next decade she wrote her autobiography "Dust Tracks on a Rod." (1942), in which she is maddeningly reticent about essential aspects of her life, such as her two unsuccessful marriages, and her last novel, "Seraph on the Suwanee" (1948).
After that time her voice, although by no means stilled, was confined chiefly to articles. In the last decade of her life she seems to have been worn out by the effects of the many frustrations and difficulties she had been forced to cope with during her first six decades. She seldom had what Virginia Woolf called a room of one's own a settled and comfortable life and a place to find solitude, the solitude in which to reflect and to write. Through little fault of her own Zora Hurston was bounced from one place and job to another with astonishing regularity from the time she was a small child who lost her mother and was neglected by her father until she died, impoverished and exhausted just short of 70.
In a powerful essay entitled "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" Alice Walker has memorably described the situation in which Zora Hurston was caught and in turn the way she captured it in "Their Eyes Were Watching God": the plight of "black women whose spiritually was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. They stumbled blindly through their lives … .These crazy Saints stared out at the world, wildly, like lunatics or quietly like suicides; and the 'God' that was in their gaze was a mute as a great stone."
In them Ms. Walker finds, from Phyllis Wheatley in the 1700s to Zora Hurston in the 1900s, "contrary instincts" showing loyalties and minds "completely divided."
Valerie Boyd goes a long way toward revealing Zora Neale Hurston's divided loyalties toward her family and friends; toward other authors especially those involved, as she was, with the Harlem Renaissance; toward her many employers (she worked at many different jobs, most of them menial, but some of them worthy of her intellectual capacity and her great talent); and toward the places in which she lived, especially the South.
This biographer not only reveals much of the carefully concealed facts of Hurston's life but comes to original conclusions through not only persistent research but acute critical insight.
For instance, of Zora Hurston's autobiography she writes: "Every so-called lie in Hurston's book is an avenue to the truth." She fills 'Dust Tracks' with factual clues, as if playfully daring her readers … to see between the lines." Valerie Boyd has done that and more, and in consequence we are in her debt.

George Core, the editor of the Sewanee Review, has often written reviews for this newspaper, especially on books by and about Southern writers.

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