Who Was Zora Neale Hurston?

Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the US library of the Congress
Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the US Library of the Congress

I have a confession to make; I enjoy reading writing magazines.  A recent issue of “The Writer”, brought to light the life and literary accomplishments of a noted Southern writer, who moved to NYC in the “Roaring Twenties” to pursue her writing career.

Once a part of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston had moderate success as a writer during her own lifetime. Her literary notoriety began in 1934 with the publication of her first novel “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”. A year later “Mules and Men” was put out by her publisher, Lippincott. This accounting of black dialect began as a play done in conjunction with Langston Hughes, but turned into her on publication after a major rift developed between her and the noted poet. These writings were followed by her most acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God”, which was released in 1937. Another novel, “Moses Man of the Mountain”, came out in 1939, followed by an autobiography entitled, “Dust Tracks On a Road”. Her last release was called  “Seraphs on the Suwanee” (1948) and it featured as the central characters, a rural white couple living in rural Florida.

After the publication of Seraphs on the Suwanee, times changed and Hurston’s work fell out of favor with the general public. She died in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Port Pierce, Florida, after having spent the last ten years living alone in a welfare home. However, Zora and her literary accomplishments did not remain forgotten for long.

In the 1970’s, the contemporary novelist, Alice Walker, helped resurrect Hurston’s literary status with an article  entitled, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, which was published in Ms. Magazine. Walker also tracked down Hurston’s grave and added a headstone to mark her final resting place. Though the writer’s resurgence was already on the rebound, the article by Alice Walker did a lot to put her writings on the reading list of many readers throughout the world.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston is complex. She contrasted sharply with many of the celebrated male writers of the Harlem Renaissance, even the legendary Hughes. The woman from Eatonville, Florida did not fare much better with the publishing world with her written journey into the folkways of the rural South. This was made most apparent by her 1950 article entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, which was published in the “Negro Digest” in 1950. Fortunately, today her books are readily available in most bookstores.

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A Quick Look at NYC

The Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center in Midtown New York
The Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center in Midtown New York

I had the pleasure of riding the Greyhound bus from Montreal to New York City and then continuing my journey to  South Carolina, where I will spend the holidays. Fortunately, I was able to squeeze a twelve-hour stopover in the “Big Apple”, where I got to partake in a busy December Saturday, when everybody was out and about. Many were Christmas shopping others were just enjoying the sunny weekend day.

First stop for me was the grand ole library at  Bryant Park. This landmark city building was jam-packed with visitors and users. An exhibition concerning the origin of three major religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) from one small region of the world (the eastern edge of the Mediterranean) was the big attraction, but the spectacularly high and ornate ceilings of the Rose Room attracted many sightseers as well as regular users.

Outside the massive limestone walls stood Bryant Park. The ice rink was filled with skaters, who struggled to navigate their way through the mass of humanity that was out on the ice. The rest of the tree-lined park was home to a myriad of artisans, who had their works out on display for all to see.

From the Public Library I boarded the subway and headed downtown to the Soho area. Next, came a visit to Katz’s on Houston Street for lunch, but a line ran halfway down the block from the front entrance, discouraged a visit to this well-known eatery.

The trees at Bryant Park
The trees at Bryant Park

Instead, a couple of slices of pizza and a Mexican beer at nearby Ray’s was my lunchtime repose. More wanderings took me further south where soon I was strolling at the base of the Wall Street tall towers. This is the lower section of tall towers, where the once majestic WTC once stood. This conglomeration of tall towers is located a good distance away from midtown Manhattan, where such giants as the Empire State Building, Pan Am building, Rockefeller Center and Chrysler Building form the rocketing skyline.

The Brooklyn Bridge was a popular walkway, filled with pedestrians despite the cold winds that carried across East Bay and the East River. As dusk approached the partially-clouded sky created dramatic lighting that filled the western sky. Even with the great view, I was still happy to arrive back on solid land, where I could seek shelter from the wind at one of the many small coffee shops that frequented the Wall Street area.

By the time I reached the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at the tip of the island, darkness had set in. Even so the huge metal and glass atrium was filled with a mass of humanity, all waiting for the arrival of the large metal transport. The crowd of a thousand plus people packed into the vessel with ease and quickly departed the dock for the short crossing. I stood at the rear deck of the boat watching the Manhattan skyline recede into the distance. With the bow of the ship acting as a windbreaker the ride was much warmer than my walk upon the Brooklyn Bridge.

Upon my return to Manhattan I went underground and rode the subway to Rockefeller Center, which now had a large skating rink and Christmas tree installed at its base. However, the biggest attraction was the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. After cruising by the glowing windows one last walk awaited me. Although by this time the night had become quite cold and windy, the neon marquees still lit up the night with their colorful messages. Finally, I entered the confides of the port Authority Building where it felt good be out of the cold.  All in all it was a busy 12 hour break from my overland journey.

Wall Street Sunset
Wall Street Sunset
Saks Fifth Avenue Window Display
Saks Fifth Avenue Window Display

Night Train

daybreak
daybreak from a train window

This past weekend I was in New York city for the first time in over 20 years. The main function was a family event that took place on Saturday afternoon, so I didn’t get much time to explore the city until about 5 PM, when all my people hopped on a charter bus back to PA, while I got a chance to wander around the city for a few hours until my train pulled out of Penn Station at 3 A.M. As it turned out it was a most fascinating few hours. NYC is like that; a great place no matter what the time of day (or night).

First stop was the Whitney Museum, where the “Abstract Paintings of Georgia O’Keefe” were enjoying their last weekend, before they got taken down. As a result the place was mobbed, and I had less than a hour to enjoy the exhibit, but as far as I was concerned there was not much else to see. That’s because the museum curators had taken down the permanent collection and were preparing to display the Biennial in February. Actually, this was a blessing in disguise for I got to spend the whole time wondering through the multitude of people who had packed the third floor in a sometimes successful effort to find an unobstructed glimpses at one of  the many wonderful abstractions of Ms. O’Keefe.

sunrise from a train
sunrise from a train leaving NYC

Her abstract really is quite unique, for it is nothing short of visual poetry. And this exhibition had a few of her real classics. Included were some of the small intense watercolors she made while teaching art in West Texas (one of the most visually unique places in the country), some botanical abstracts, the tiny black sphere on a large black plane piece, clouds, desert doors and more. To round out the show, there were even a few of Stieglitz’s photographs with Georgia as the au natural model. No wonder the place was jammed; it was a very intelligent show.

From the Whitney I headed downtown wandered around the East Village for a cold half hour in search of the former art scene that once graced this part of town and found little. Instead New Yorker pizza and a warm place to sit pulled me inside. Then back into the cold again and across Houston Street to Soho. Did not get as far as all the Soho galleries, but instead found a nice book store with a coffee bar, definitely a sign of the times, if there ever was one.

night train 2
smoke from a power plant viewed from the Amtrak train

Then it was back on the subway and up to 23th street, where I stopped by my bed and breakfast to pick up my luggage and then on to Penn Station, where I had a reserved seat on the 3:10 to Boston. Since I had a few hours to kill, I swung  by Grand Central just to take a peak at what a real train station looked like. After checking out the classic late 19th century architecture I arrived at the modern and low ceilinged Penn Station and hunkered down for the lengthy wait.

The scene at Penn Station was definitely unique, for the cold weather had forced quite a few homeless into the large labyrinth of walkways, fast food joints and waiting areas. The city police were not in  a mood to force loiterers back out onto the street, so they just dealt with the troublemakers of which there were only a few. Because I was a ticketed Amtrak rider, I got to sit in a special lounge and wait for my train to leave, an event which kept getting postponed.

Finally, at 6:30 the Boston Special pulled out of Penn Station with only several dozen passengers to fill the long line of cars. Free food and drinks were offered to all to compensate for the long delay, so I had a beer and hot dog for breakfast, as I got to watch the horizon turn red above the Long Island Sound. The sunrise actually made the wait worthwhile, as it created a surreal world of solid black shadows, shimmering lights and an indigo and crimson sunrise. My amazing little point-and-shoot digital handled the dark exterior scene as well as can be expected. (you can view the results above) It was a perfect complement to the O’Keefe show.

Buon Anno, Everett Autumn

day view
view from a train window