Zora Neale Hurston Comes to Bennington (1935)
The Zora Neale Hurston U.S. postage stamp from 2003
On May 23rd, 1935 Zora Neale Hurston sent a letter to Catherine Jones, secretary of Bennington President Robert Devore Leigh, introducing herself and fixing a date for her to travel to campus from Harlem to give a talk. She had been invited by Irving Fineman, a novelist (his books included A Fine Young Man (1930) and Rome Adventure (1932)) and a member of the faculty during the school’s earliest years. At first glance, Hurston’s letter is all business: a clipped and efficient transaction on stationery embossed with her initials. After reading it over a couple of times, however, the letter reveals itself to be an astonishing piece of writing: funny, revealing, and way too colloquial to guarantee that her invite from Fineman would actually be honored.
The first and second paragraphs are briskly informative, letting the secretary know when Hurston will be arriving at the train station and what she plans to speak about when she hits campus. But then she slips into a short, fluid biography of herself, full of grammatically incomplete sentences, bursts of humor, and even some comical self-analysis. Hurston mentions attending a doctoral program that had left her feeling that “my spirit was cramped. Sort of like a poor relation on a pension.” She obviously feels no need to impress the letter’s recipient, concluding this epigrammatic encapsulation of her life with a coda: “I know that the above is enough detail to suit any one. So that is all.” Hurston, in this letter, is somehow completely comfortable exposing herself to a stranger, subtly and skillfully communicating the sense that she has the upper-hand. She lies about her age, another ballsy move—she claims to be thirty-two in the letter to Jones when in fact she was ten years older. It was a lie that Hurston used routinely.
Hurston’s letter to Catherine Jones
The letter was signed in her assertive hand and sent the same day, somehow materializing in the possession of the President’s office within twenty-four hours, either by teleportation or, more likely, by railroad. Regardless of the logistics, on May 24th, a day later, Catherine Jones sent a letter back to Hurston, the staleness and formality of which, in juxtaposition to Hurston’s own, is kind of a bummer. But hey: this letter wasn’t addressed to the Literary Bennington Blog.
Jones’s response to Hurston
A day before Hurston arrived at Bennington, the college sent out a press release to the Bennington Banner, Bennington’s local paper, to help publicize the event and draw a decent crowd. The release included a description which, aside from introducing Hurston as a “Negress,” was a nearly verbatim rehash of the biography from Hurston’s letter, only devoid of any humor. Why the specificity about Hurston’s race? Was the college trying to protect those more traditional readers who might find themselves uncomfortable in her presence, victimized by the knowledge of one strong and whimsical black woman? Or were they playing up the novelty? Or was this simply, in fact, the terminology of the day? Anyway, I don’t think these questions would bother Hurston. She wasn’t afraid of dissecting people’s world views and destroying them; she wasn’t afraid of destroying her own in the name of experience, having once spent three days fasting and lying face-down on the skin of a snake said to have guarded the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s altar in New Orleans, awaiting a supernatural encounter for her fieldwork as an anthropologist.
The talk Hurston gave at Bennington in 1935 was titled “The Negro in American Life.” It makes you wonder: what did the students at Bennington, and in the rest of the country, think of the role of the Negro in American life? And how in God’s name did that change when a writer like Zora Neale Hurston hit the scene?