Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston (c. 1940).
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book review / culture

Zora Neale Hurston: “A Genius of the South”

John W. W. Zeiser reviews Peter Bagge's graphic biography "Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story."
For people born since at least the mid-1960s, the first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston was likely reading her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts by scholars in then-new Black and African American Studies departments at colleges and universities across the United States, as well as to the tireless work of Alice Walker, whose seminal essay in Ms. Magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” recounted the author’s search for Hurston’s unmarked gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. Thanks to Walker and a cadre of scholars, Hurston was rescued from the dustbin of American literature, and her 1937 novel was elevated to canonical status.

Graphic novelist Peter Bagge concludes his new graphic biography of Hurston, Fire!!, with Walker’s search. It is a fitting place to leave the reader, just on the cusp of what would become a phenomenal resurgence of interest in Hurston, a fiercely independent folklorist, novelist, and anthropologist. Fire!! takes its name from the short-lived literary journal Hurston co-founded and edited with other Harlem Renaissance luminaries, including her roommate Richard Bruce Nugent, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, and several others.

Fire!!, which was meant as a shot across the bow of the respectable, middle-class black literary production favored by the likes of Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “talented tenth,” reflects Hurston’s idiosyncratic ideas and deep commitment to African-American cultural production. The journal set out to give voice to the “low” art of Harlem and address many of the taboo issues within the community, including homosexuality, interracial love, and racism. However, Hurston et al. only managed to produce one issue before their headquarters burned to the ground. As Bagge has Hurston say to Bruce Nugent upon hearing the news, “Pretty prophetic, huh?”
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