Yuval Taylor: On the road with ‘Zora and Langston’

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For Langston Hughes, his falling out with Zora Neale Hurston marked the “end of the Harlem Renaissance.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. deemed it “the most notorious literary quarrel in African American cultural history.” Alice Walker, who deemed the pair “literary parents,” wrote, “When I consider the ending of their friendship, I am filled with sadness for them.”

In his new book, “Zora and Langston,” Yuval Taylor traces the exhilarating intellectual and emotional connection between the two beloved authors, unspooling the story of a six-year friendship that ended in a searing conflict sparked by the play “Mule Bone.”

The book opens with a literal thunderclap as lightning strikes the New York Botanical Gardens, shattering the building’s glass dome. The date is May 1, 1925, and later that evening, Hurston and Hughes would meet at an awards dinner in Manhattan hosted by the National Urban League.

Taylor offers a vivid account of an impromptu 1927 road trip in Hurston’s Nash coupe through the rural South. Hurston and Hughes met by chance on a main street in Mobile, Ala., where Hurston was interviewing Cudjo Lewis, the former slave who would become the subject of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” (finally published last year).

And, of course, Taylor sifts through the wreckage of their bitter falling out, attempting to make sense of the feud that evolved out of their attempt to collaborate on a play.

Throughout, Taylor incisively sketches in key supporting players and offers critical context for evolving ideas about race. He explores Hurston and Hughes’ fraught relationship with Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white woman who served as their patron. Mason insisted people call her “Godmother,” inspired many to believe she had supernatural powers, and demanded almost cult-like devotion.

Ultimately, in fewer than 250 pages, Taylor offers a snapshot of a cultural moment, illuminating two essential voices in American literature.

Taylor, who lives in Hyde Park and has announced his departure from his senior editor post at Chicago Review Press, discussed his book recently with the Tribune. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What does this relationship say about Hurston and Hughes? What did you learn from their friendship that you wouldn’t have, had you considered them independently?

A: After some reflection, I think I never would have suspected how generous they could be had I not examined their relationship. Zora read Langston’s book “Fine Clothes to the Jew” aloud to black workers around the South; they loved it, calling it the “party book,” and she passed the praise back to Langston in her long letters to him. Langston spent untold hours reading Zora’s folklore work, helping her shape it into a book, and helping her smooth her relations with their common patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason.

But there’s something else, too, something quite different. Both Zora and Langston presented themselves to the world as supremely self-confident and generally happy people. They rarely showed how deep their sorrow could run. The moments of genuine sorrow in my book — when Zora feels heartbroken in the winter of 1926-1927 and Langston helps her through her “dark hour”; when Langston is completely devastated by his break-up with Mason and writes Mason some of the saddest letters I’ve ever read; when Zora confesses, in 1937, that she wakes up crying about the break-up with Langston, and that it was “the cross of her life” — these moments made them so much more real to me than the picture of insouciance and assurance that they tried to project.

Q: What did you learn from following the road trip Hurston and Hughes took in the summer of 1927?

A: I learned so much on that trip, mostly the day-to-day details of where they stayed and what they saw; I also learned a great deal of Southern history. In Mobile, for example, I saw that they stayed at a black doctor’s house right in the heart of the city, in a fashionable district, miles away from the tumbledown shacks that make up Africatown, where former slaves like Cudjo Lewis and their descendants lived. In Tuskegee, I was able to get a sense of what the Movable School that Langston went with to northern Alabama was like. In Macon, I was able to visit the downtown theater where the two of them saw Bessie Smith and to learn about the black-owned hotel that once stood next door, where they all stayed and talked about the blues. In Savannah, I became friendly with a storyteller who adapts Zora’s folktales for use in weddings and other celebrations, and she taught me a thing or two about signifying and conjuring; we’re still in touch.

Q: You’ve devoted your career to studying African American culture and history. How has being white helped, hindered or influenced your work?

A: Being white has certainly hindered me in one important respect. I love the African American idiom, but I can never write in it. When I read Zora, I’m filled with envy. I know I’ll never have access to her richness of expression because my heritage is so different from hers. I would love to use turns of phrase characteristic of African American folk culture. But I know better than to even try.

 

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