Zora and Langston A story of friendship and betrayal

Yuval Taylor

Book - 2019

"They were best friends. They were collaborators, literary gadflies, and champions of the common people. They were the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Langston Hughes, the author of 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' and 'Let America Be America Again,' first met in 1925, at a great gathering of black and white literati, and they fascinated each other. They traveled together in Hurston's dilapidated car through the rural South collecting folklore, worked on the play Mule Bone, and wrote scores of loving letters. They even had the same patron: Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white woman who insisted on being called 'Godmother.' Pa...ying them lavishly while trying to control their work, Mason may have been the spark for their bitter and passionate falling-out. Was the split inevitable when Hughes decided to be financially independent of his patron? Was Hurston jealous of the young woman employed as their typist? Or was the rupture over the authorship of Mule Bone? Yuval Taylor answers these questions while illuminating Hurston's and Hughes's lives, work, competitiveness, and ambition, uncovering little-known details. [This book] is the dramatic and moving story of one of the most influential friendships in literature."--Dust jacket.

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New York : W.W. Norton & Company [2019]
Main Author
Yuval Taylor (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xii, 302 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Introduction: Lovingly Yours
  • 1. Spring 1925: Opportunity
  • 2. 1891-1924: I Laugh and Grow Strong
  • 3. Summer 1926: The Niggerati
  • 4. Spring 1927: Enter Godmother
  • 5. Summer 1927: The Company of Good Things
  • 6. Fall 1927: A Deep Well of the Spirit
  • 7. Winter 1928-Winter 1930: This is Going to Be Big
  • 8. Spring 1930: The Bone of Contention
  • 9. Winter 1931: A Miasma of Untruth
  • 10. 1932-1960: The Aftermath
  • Conclusion: The Legacy
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Readings
  • Credits
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

Yuval Taylor's "Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal" is an overdue study of the famous yet underdiscussed friendship and literary collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. "It is so easy to see how and why they would love each other," the epigraph, taken from a 1989 essay by Alice Walker, reads. "Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny. A lot of attention has been given to their breakup ... but very little to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other's company." That final line encapsulates Taylor's ambitious project. The dramatic fallout between Hurston and Hughes, triggered by their collaboration on the ill-fated and controversial play "Mule Bone," has been fetishized in literary circles for its dramatic nature. Stories of their heated fights, rumors of a love triangle involving their typist, Louise Thompson, and the involvement of lawyers have all made the rounds. Consequently, the qualities that initially drew these artists together - their shared sense of mission and pride in ordinary black people - have long been overlooked. "Zora and Langston" refocuses our attention on the positive aspects of their relationship, while doing its best to explain - through historical records and firsthand research - what really brought their friendship to an end. In July 1927, Hurston and Hughes embarked on a tour of the Deep South - part business, part pleasure - which began with a chance meeting in downtown Mobile, Ala., where the two ran into each other outside the train station. Hurston was there to interview Cudjo Lewis, the last living former slave born in Africa; Hughes was giving readings and performing his own research. Hughes, a Northerner, was out of his element, while the Alabama-born and Florida-bred Hurston was firmly in hers, traveling with a gun in her shoulder holster. On this trip, Hughes and Hurston grew conscious of their shared interest in black folklore and everyday people, and their pronounced taste for adventure. This chance encounter kicks off the book's most exciting chapter, imbued with the "pleasure" Hurston and Hughes inspired in each other. Soon after their meeting, the book describes the pair enjoying a meal of fried fish and watermelon. While most black people would have recoiled at such a meal because of its evocation of racial stereotypes, Hurston and Hughes reveled in defying such expectations. They visited Booker T Washington's Ttiskegee University, where the only surviving photographs of Hughes and Hurston together were taken, the pair smiling on campus and looking impossibly young and carefree - a highlight of the book's somewhat anemic visual offerings. Charlotte Osgood Mason, a white Manhattan socialite and philanthropist who took on both Hughes and Hurston as a patron at nascent points in their careers, was a central figure in both their friendship and their subsequent estrangement. Mason was introduced to both artists by the academic Alain Locke, whose 1925 anthology "The New Negro" defined the Harlem Renaissance and cemented his position as its "dean." Locke was gay but in the closet, and he and Hughes entered into a correspondence that culminated in Locke showing up at Hughes's flat in Paris. Nothing happened - Locke's infatuation was probably only semi-requited - but he nonetheless ensured Mason's patronage of Hughes, and Hughes, in turn, recommended Hurston to Mason. Mason was a major collector of African art who espoused primitivist views - in vogue at the time- to an uncomfortable degree. She believed African-Americans and Native Americans were "younger races unspoiled by white civilization."Her philanthropy was fueled by the idea that American culture could be re-energized by exposing it to these "primitive" ones. True to her views, Mason demanded complete devotion from her Negro clients, who she insisted call her "godmother." Mason provided Hughes and Hurston with generous monthly stipends, but consequently considered Hurston's work her property. Hurston wasn't even allowed to show anyone her work without Mason's permission. Surprisingly, Hughes was the first to break ties with Mason, while Hurston remained on friendly terms with Mason for most of the rest of the elder woman's life. Mason's stewardship is one of the most glaring and fascinating contradictions in "Zora and Langston," simultaneously echoing those at the heart of both writers' legacies. Although demeaning, Mason's patronage allowed Hurston and Hughes to produce some of their most enduring works. It also sustained them through low points in their careers, as well as through the Great Depression, when many of their confreres drifted into obscurity. Chief among the book's strengths is that it does not shy away from pointing out similar contradictions in the relationship at its heart. While that eventually reached an explosive end, Hurston and Hughes shared many years of peaceful and rewarding friendship. The book presents several possible explanations for their falling-out: Hurston's jealousy (whether romantic or platonic remains unclear) of the relationship between Hughes and Thompson, the beautiful, young aspiring writer hired by Mason to be their secretary; disagreements over the authorship of "Mule Bone" (Taylor, a book editor and the author of "Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip Hop" and "Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music," sides with Hurston, who claimed to be the play's principal author); and miscommunication caused by delays in correspondence. The book also reproduces the admiring letters Hurston and Hughes sent to their "godmother," whose fawning obsequiousness is enough to make one's skin crawl. At key moments throughout the book, Taylor takes care to remind his readers that although both writers were pioneers who brought blackness into the literary canon, they simultaneously contributed to the adoption of negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Unfortunately, this idea appears reinforced by their long, mostly subservient relationship with Mason. During their tour of the Deep South, Hurston and Hughes visited the family plantation of the Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer. There they met one of Toomer's distant relatives, who reminded Hughes (as he later recalled in his autobiography) of Uncle Remus, the folk character once used to justify the practice of slavery. Hughes became enamored of the man's hat and, in the end, Hurston paid $3 to keep it. The Remus story is one of several revelatory details Taylor highlights in his layered portrait of these two artists. As Taylor correctly concludes, Hurston and Hughes were the first American writers to create great bodies of work that were unmistakably - and proudly - black. The corpus of African-American literature that has grown in their wake owes them a great deal. However, their delight in the concept of blackness could occasionally veer into the exploitative, sometimes propagating negative stereotypes of black people. Their legacies should account for both tendencies, and the greatest feat of "Zora and Langston" perhaps lies in Taylor's loving yet evenhanded portraits of both figures. There are times when Taylor tries to be too balanced. After all, Hurston famously expressed troubling political views, including her insouciant Red-baiting and her critique of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Taylor largely excuses these, attributing the backlash Hurston received to her unpopularity with the more politically engaged writers of the era. He meanwhile draws a false equivalency with Hughes's and Hurston's attitudes toward whites. All of this is belied by much of the evidence presented in the book itself. And, not to mention, Taylor's analysis would also surely have benefited from a more probing critique of the sexism inherent in Hurston's reception during her lifetime. None of these minor flaws detract from the book's overall achievement. It is a highly readable account of one of the most compelling and consequential relationships in black literary history, and the time is ripe for this story to reach a new generation of readers. ZINZI Clemmons is the author of "What We Lose."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 11, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Fascinating in their own rights as major literary figures, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are also fascinating for their complicated relationship, which ended in a spectacular clash. They met in New York and became key members of the Harlem Renaissance. She was from rural Florida, adept at capturing the folk culture of common people. He was from a more complex background of privilege and struggle, well-regarded for his penetrating poetry. Both wrestled with the complexities of African American culture and the meaning of authenticity at a time of racist stereotypes. In the midst of it all was Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white woman who supported and sought to control Hughes, Hurston, and other artists and writers. Deeply dependent on Mason, Hughes and Hurston struggled to be true to themselves as individuals and artists. They defied her by attempting to write a play together, a project that would ultimately tear apart their friendship. Taylor (Darkest America, 2012) has created an intimate portrait of two luminaries of American literature against a backdrop of the cultural, political, and economic forces that influenced them.--Vanessa Bush Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Taylor (Faking It, coauthor), a senior editor at Chicago Review Press, offers a highly readable and informative take on the friendship and subsequent falling-out between two stars of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The two met in New York City during Harlem's cultural heyday and struck up a close friendship as they traveled the South together, where Hurston gathered African-American folklore for a book. They shared a desire to, as Taylor puts it, "get inside the folkways of the African American community and to encompass them in all their variety." They also shared a bond in being supported financially by the same woman, the wealthy, and white, Charlotte Mason. One of the most bizarre and fascinating aspects of their lives was the intrusion of this highly controlling figure, fixated on the idea that the culture of black Americans was more primitive and pure than that of whites. The book offers an overlong and needlessly detailed look at the complicated fight over the pair's coauthored play Mule-Bone, which ended their friendship. Nevertheless, Taylor paints a sympathetic but realistic portrait of these two complicated artists and convincingly shows that, together, they changed the course of African-American literature, as the "first great American writers who implicitly claimed that their work was purely black." (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Langston Hughes (1902-67) were not only literary luminaries but also best friends. They shared a vision of black art and identity, and traveled and worked together. Their brief companionship lasted from 1925 until a dramatic falling out in 1931. Taylor (senior editor, Chicago Review Press; coauthor Faking It; Darkest America) is the first to explore their relationship at length and in-depth. The catalyst for its end was a play Hughes and Hurston collaborated on against the wishes of their mutual benefactor, Charlotte Mason. Added to the threat of losing financial support was Hurston's jealousy of Hughes's deepening relationship with Mason's secretary, Louise Thompson. Mix in misunderstandings, crossed letters, and meddling friends and the result is a bitter conclusion to a once dynamic closeness. VERDICT Taylor provides so much background for Hughes and Hurston as individuals that the details of their friendship sometimes get lost. However, one does not need to know much about the pair in order to enjoy this account, which is likely to appeal to their fans who have not read comprehensive biographies of either author.-Stefanie Hollmichel, Univ. of St. Thomas Law Lib., Minneapolis © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

The tale of a famous literary friendship that ended in bitterness.Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and Langston Hughes (1901-1967) were major figures of the Harlem Renaissance and, for several years, collaborators and loving friends. Taylor (co-author: Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, 2012, etc.), senior editor at the Chicago Review Press, places their friendship at the center of a revealing examination of the alliances, betrayals, rivalries, and aspirations that characterized the African-American literary and arts world in the 1920s and beyond. In 1926, Hurston bestowed the nickname "Niggerati" on the many young writers and artists, "opposed to the literary conventions of the older generation of the black elite," who gathered in Manhattan for social and literary activities. They were supportedsometimes with publicity, sometimes financiallyby admiring white New Yorkers Hurston called "Negrotarians," including Carl Van Vechten, Hart Crane, Muriel Draper, Max Eastman, Eugene O'Neill, George Gershwin, and H.L. Mencken. Foremost among them was Charlotte Mason, an heiress who inherited her husband's vast wealth after his death in 1905. Among her passions were parapsychology, psychic healing, and African-Americans and Indians, who she believed were unsullied by "the ills of civilization" and possessed of "primitive creativity and spirituality [that] would energize and renew America." A major collector of African art, she disdained white culture, declaring herself "eternally black." In 1927, she decided to become a personal patron to many figures of the Niggerati. She must be called Godmother, she insisted, and demanded nothing less than complete filial devotion in exchange for monthly stipends of $150 (for Hughes) and $200 (for Hurston) to allow them to pursue their work. Mason, Taylor writes, was "a jealous god, controlling and wrathful," dictating what kind of projects her "children" pursued and, in Hurston's case, prohibiting her from showing her writing to anyone without Mason's consent. Drawing on published and archival sources, Taylor creates a perceptive portrait of the bizarre patron and of the Hurston-Hughes friendship.A fresh look at two important writers of the 1920s. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.