Today we inaugurate “Lost Books,” a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
In the summer of 1931, a then-unknown author named Zora Neale Hurston was hired to drive the married, Jewish novelist Fannie Hurst up to Canada for a liason with her lover, an Arctic explorer. That ride, taken eighty years ago this month, purportedly inspired Hurst’s eighth novel, Imitation of Life, her first literary examination of racial themes.
In 2005, on the occasion of the reissues of Imitation of Life and The Stories of Fannie Hurst, Kate Bolick wondered, “How could one of the early 20th-century’s most celebrated writers, whose every move made headlines, who was as socially engaged as she was prolific, be so completely forgotten?” One reason, Bolick suspects, was that her widespread admirers didn’t outlast negative reviews. “Hurst was adored by fans,” Bolick writes, “and abhorred by the critics.”
Hurst had a complicated relationship to Jewishness (“her characters would often eat noodle pudding, but never kugel”), and is thought to have been more at ease using black characters, like Imitation of Life’s Peola, to examine her Jewish identity. Her relationships with up-and-coming black writers like Hurston and Langston Hughes were tested by the novel’s 1933 publication, and Hughes soon wrote Limitation of Life, a stage parody with reversed racial roles.
Bolick contends that while Hurst was not a Great American Writer, she ought to be remembered as a great American storyteller:
Her ability to touch such a wide, and not very literate, audience, and so profoundly, was a significant variety of social activism. … But for all her success the fact was she spoke from—and to—the margins. By doing so, she not only taught her readership—whether Jewish, black, or working class—how to consider, shape, and ultimately legitimize their own experiences, but also gave them lowly, practical information, such as how to avoid getting tuberculosis.
Read Hurst and Hurston, by Kate Bolick
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