Revealing selection of letters by the renowned folklorist, novelist, and essayist, capably edited by Kaplan (English/USC).
Hurston (1891–1960) was one of the most prominent African-American writers of the 1920s and ’30s, a confidante and peer of Langston Hughes, Ruth Benedict, Carl Van Vechten, Franz Boas, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and other important intellectuals of the time. Her star fell in the ’50s, and she died in obscurity in a Florida welfare home. Rediscovered in the 1980s, her work, especially the memoir Dust Tracks on the Road (1942) and the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1936), is now a fixture in college courses on African-American literature, women’s studies, and folklore. Her letters add depth to Hurston’s self-portraits elsewhere, revealing her to be a complex, sometimes unpleasant figure. Of particular interest to literary scholars are: Hurston’s relationship with wealthy patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, who apparently expected a kind of fawning devotion in return for her largesse (the writer addresses her throughout as “darling godmother”); her sometimes prickly interactions with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance; and the rightward drift of her political beliefs, which, Kaplan allows, “have often baffled her admirers.” General readers may find Hurston’s broad entrepreneurial streak more compelling: at points, for instance, she importunes Langston Hughes to invest in property near her Florida home (“I can, if I choose sell to any of my friends so long as they belong to my social caste. They want no niggers in that neighborhood . . . [but] were agreeably surprised in me”) and seeks funds from Mason to develop a catering business (“I’d like you for my first client, and if I please you then I’ll write personal letters to some of the finer hostesses and try to establish myself as New York’s Chicken Specialist”).
A valuable resource for students of Hurston’s work, and a mine for future research.