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Review: Two new books explore lesser known moments of Zora Neale Hurston's life

It isn't easy to sum up Zora Neale Hurston in a phrase.

Born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville, the Florida town that was the first all-black incorporated community in the United States, Hurston became an accomplished, globetrotting anthropologist and folklorist as well as a literary star with her fiction, poetry, essays, plays and memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road — all at a time when it was enormously difficult for any woman, let alone a black woman, to achieve such success.

She was, if one must pick a phrase, a breaker of barriers, a woman who throughout her life lived as she chose to live despite the obstacles. That determination brought her fame during her lifetime, but even before her death in 1960 she sank into obscurity, only to be rescued in the 1970s by the efforts of writer Alice Walker and others. Her second round of acclaim led to the 2005 movie version of perhaps her finest novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry and produced by Oprah Winfrey, and to a broad new audience of readers.

Two new books by Florida writers focus on lesser known periods of Hurston's life. Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, by Anna Lillios, recounts her relationship with another of the state's best-known writers, while Zora Neale Hurston's Final Decade, by Virginia Lynn Moylan, fills in the blanks of her life, spent mostly in Florida, after the decline of her career.

Lillios, an associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida, is director of the Zora Neale Hurston Electronic Archive and executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. She draws on her extensive knowledge of the careers and lives of both writers to create a fascinating portrait of their relationship in Crossing the Creek.

Rawlings, author of The Yearling, Cross Creek and many other books, probably first met Hurston in the late 1930s, either through their shared association with Rollins College in Winter Park or their mutual friendship with Mary Holland, wife of Florida Gov. Spessard Holland (1941-45). It is certain they knew each other by 1942, and that Hurston visited Rawlings at her homes in St. Augustine and at Cross Creek, the farm near Gainesville that Rawlings immortalized in her books, even though socializing between white and black people was a rarity at the time.

Rawlings was another breaker of barriers, a well-off and well-educated woman who chose to upend her life to incorporate herself into a rural community. She and Hurston had many other things in common: Both had several marriages but lived for most of their lives independently; both were raconteurs with a taste for drink. Both wrote often about people and communities they knew well — and sometimes dealt with negative responses from them. Both saw their careers damaged by legal accusations. And both have undergone a renaissance of their literary reputations in recent years.

In Crossing the Creek, Lillios writes a well-crafted literary biography of their relationship, examining how small Florida towns became rich settings for their books, how they grappled with sexual, cultural and racial stereotypes in their writing, and how they may have influenced one another, illuminating the works and lives of both women.

Moylan, a scholar and founding member of the annual ZoraFest in Fort Pierce, concentrates on the last years of the author's life in Zora Neale Hurston's Final Decade. In many ways, it is a heartbreaking story. Once a shining light of the cultural movement called the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was driven from that community in 1948 when she was falsely accused of child molestation. (She was exonerated when her passport proved she had been in Honduras when the alleged crimes occurred.) She died 12 years later at age 69 in a welfare hospital in St. Lucie County, having suffered several strokes.

But the years in between were marked by her characteristic resilience and dedication to work, whether it was assisting at a friend's flower shop or spending countless hours on her revisionist biography of King Herod, a work that she was obsessed with and that remains unpublished.

Moylan explores Hurston's relationships with a wide range of white friends, from mother-and-daughter businesswomen Mary and Sara Lee Creech, who developed an "anthropologically correct" black baby doll Hurston enthusiastically promoted, to Florida politician George Smathers, whose views on segregation were convoluted enough to give one whiplash.

Hurston herself remained iconoclastic and even contrarian in her views on race relations, vehemently opposing Brown vs. Board of Education, for example, because she thought that, especially in the South, black children were better served by separate schools.

But she found friends wherever she went in Florida's black communities. Still an exuberant, compelling figure in brightly colored clothing, she lectured to adult audiences and told tall tales to little kids. In her last few years, Moylan writes, she was supported largely by a black minister in Fort Pierce as her health failed, although she continued working almost to the end.

Her funeral in Fort Pierce, a little more than 100 miles from her beloved Eatonville, was attended by a large crowd of her friends and admirers, both black and white. Afterward, she was buried in an unmarked grave in the city's segregated cemetery.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Crossing the Creek: The Literary Friendship of Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

By Anna Lillios

University Press of Florida, 198 pages, $29.95

Zora Neale Hurston's Final Decade

By Virginia Lynn Moylan

University Press of Florida, 193 pages, $24.95

Meet the authors

Anna Lillios and Virginia Lynn Moylan will be featured authors at the 19th annual St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 22 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. They will appear on a panel with filmmaker Kristy Andersen, who will screen her documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, which was broadcast as part of the PBS American Masters series. www.festivalofreading.com.

Review: Two new books explore lesser known moments of Zora Neale Hurston's life 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 5:30am]

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