2003 Southern Book Award in Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
A woman of enormous talent, remarkable drive, and rare intellectual prowess, Zora Neale Hurston published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, many short stories, and several articles and plays over a career that spanned more than thirty years. Although she enjoyed some popularity during her lifetime, her greatest acclaim has come posthumously. All of her books were out of print when she died in poverty in 1960, but today nearly every black woman writer of significance -- including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker -- acknowledges Hurston as a literary foremother. And her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God,
has become a crucial part of the American literary canon. Yet, despite the recent renewed interest in Hurston's work, she remains, as a friend and contemporary described her, "a woman half in shadow."
Wrapped in Rainbows -- the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston in twenty-five years -- illuminates the complexities of an extraordinary life. Born in Alabama in 1891, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. In this close-knit community -- the first incorporated all-black town in America -- she spent a pleasant childhood, happily imbibing the rich language and folk culture of the rural black South. When Hurston was still a girl, her mother died, and her father's swift remarriage led to the family's dispersal. Hurston spent the next decade wandering in search of parental figures, working menial jobs, and charting her own course into adulthood. Reinventing herself at the age of twenty-six, she entered high school in Baltimore by claiming to be ten years younger -- a fiction she would maintain throughout her life. Hurston went on to attend Howard University and Barnard College, and during this time launched her writing career in the midst of the blossoming Harlem Renaissance. In New York, she developed relationships with luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Fannie Hurst, and Carl Van Vechten. Hurston periodically left New York to travel the country (and the world) collecting black music, poetry, and literature -- becoming one of the most important folklore collectors of her time, as well as one of the most enduring writers of her century.
Wrapped in Rainbows presents a full picture of Hurston as both a writer and a woman, shedding new light on her public and private lives. Drawing on meticulous research and a wealth of crucial information that has emerged over the past twenty years, Valerie Boyd delves into Hurston's thirst for the limelight, her sexuality and short-lived marriages, her mysterious relationship with Vodou, and her occasionally controversial political views. With the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II as historical backdrops, Wrapped in Rainbows not only positions Hurston's work in her time but offers implications for our own.
Featuring more than thirty-five black-and-white photographs -- including some that have never been published -- Wrapped in Rainbows is an eloquent profile of one of the most intriguing cultural figures of the twentieth century.
"[D]efinitive....[Puts] into perspective Hurston's considerable achievements both as a literary figure and as a social scientist. Brings one of the most pivotal figures in 20th-century literature brilliantly to life." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"[An] engrossing cornerstone biography....Hurston emerges in all her splendor not only smarter, tougher, and more dazzlingly alive than most people but also free, gloriously and resoundingly free." Donna Seaman, Booklist (Starred Review)
"It is interesting reading, but the heavy dependence on Dust Tracks on a Road, in particular, undercuts the authority of Boyd's book as a definitive biography because its 'facts' are suspect." Ann duCille, The New York Times Book Review
"[S]umptuous...the consummate examination of the writer's flamboyant life....Boyd delivers what Hurston, one of America's great writers, has long needed and deserved an elegant and exhilarating biography." Rene E. Graham, The Boston Globe
"The research and interpretation of events is breathtaking, the writing precise and beautiful. The book takes such a warm, honest, all-encompassing and wise view of its subject, that I read it from start to finish as though reading an adventure tale, which of course it is....Offering vivid splashes of Zora's colorful humor, daring individualism and refreshing insouciance, Boyd has done justice to a dauntless spirit and a heroic life." Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple
"Much like its formidable subject, the incomparable Zora Neale Hurston, this biography is gorgeous, epic, larger than life, and like Ms. Hurston's own work is a momentous treasure, not to be missed." Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory
"Valerie Boyd has paid to Zora Neale Hurston the tribute and the service that any writer any human being might dream of getting: the enormous and patient care that, alone, produce both a truthful record and final understanding. Sad as much of its story is, Wrapped in Rainbows is finally exultant." Reynolds Price, author of Kate Vaiden
"Valerie Boyd has written a superb biography of a fascinating and complex writer. She brings Zora to life, and portrays her in all of her complexity and bodaciousness." Robert E. Hemenway, chancellor, University of Kansas, and author of Zora Neale Hurston
With the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II as the historical backdrops, this riveting biography not only positions Hurston's work in her time, but offers implications for our own. Wrapped in Rainbows is a compelling profile of one of the most intrepid and inspiring writers of the 20th century.
About the Author
andlt;Bandgt;Valerie Boydandlt;/Bandgt; is arts editor at andlt;iandgt;The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.andlt;/iandgt; Her articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in andlt;iandgt;Book, Ms., The Oxford American, The Washington Post,andlt;/iandgt; and andlt;iandgt;African-American Review.andlt;/iandgt; She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Reading Group Guide
Wrapped in Rainbows:
The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
1. Valerie Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows describes Zora Neale Hurston's early years as an imaginative young girl. What were some of the ways in which the young Zora was able to hone her talents for creativity and art within the confines set by an irascible father? How did Hurston view her father and her mother as she grew toward adulthood?
2. What were the different dreams that Zora had as a youngster, and how did they compare with reality? What was the significance of them in her life, her writing, and her interaction with others?
3. Zora Neale Hurston viewed education as a stepping-stone to greater opportunities. Who were some of the people she encountered who assisted her in her pursuit of higher education? Why, later in her academic and research career, was she drawn to anthropology as well as to literature? How was her work interdisciplinary, combining the scientific and the creative?
4. When Hurston arrived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, she seemed to be in the right place at the right time. What significant events took place that ushered Zora Neale Hurston into the black intelligentsia, allowing her to work with so many talented black artists during the 1920s?
5. Having grown up in the all-black southern town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston reacted differently to racism than black Americans raised elsewhere. How did this manifest itself in her writings? In her interactions with her white publishers and financial supporters? How did her critics and peers, both black and white, view her attitudes toward race?
6. Why did Zora have a continued romantic interest in younger men, and how did others react to this flipping of stereotypical gender roles? Why didn't she remain in any marriage for an extended period of time? Were issues of control and insecurity at play?
7. For a number of years, Hurston enjoyed a very close friendship with fellow writer Langston Hughes. However, a dispute over a collaborative project, Mule Bone, severed this relationship. Give examples of how this could have possibly affected Hurston's future work with other collaborators on potential literary and research projects.
8. The author indicates that Hurston was a fierce advocate of individualism. How does this personal ideology refute or support Hurston's interest in everyday black folks and the black working class?
9. In what ways was Zora Neale Hurston a pioneer in black literature? Was she able to make a living from her writing? Give examples of how she maintained enough freedom and flexibility in her life to be a creative, working writer.
10. Who are some of the current black female writers who consider Hurston to be an inspiration and ancestral mentor in her creativity, struggles, and persistence? Indicate some examples of how these authors utilize the memory of Hurston in their own work.
11. Why and how did Zora Neale Hurston become a staple in the American literary canon? Who do you suppose was her primary audience at the height of her publishing career and why? Discuss who you think are her current audiences and why.