Editing an Icon
The following transcription is based on a lecture delivered by
Carla Kaplan at the October 2003 Virginia C. Gildersleeve Conference,
"Jumpin' at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Works of Zora Neale
Hurston." Herein, quotations from the work of Zora Neale Hurston are
taken directly from Professor Kaplan's remarks and not from the writings
of Zora Neale Hurston. Much of this talk is based on Carla Kaplan's
recent Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. (Available for purchase
As a Hurston scholar, it's particularly great to be here, thinking of
her and her work and her life at Barnard. As a former New Yorker, it's
wonderful to be back in town in October.
Hurston's life has always been fascinating to people. Her writing career, though, has
often stymied her critics and her fans. It is at once gripping and also
bewildering. It is common for literary reputations to rise and fall.
But I don't think there is any other American writer whose career has
undergone the kind of sea change that Zora Neale Hurston's has. She's
gone from being reviled in her day by many of her contemporaries who did
not understand what she was doing—to having
her privacy violated at every turn.
All of her published works are back in print. Almost all of her
unpublished works are in process. I helped in that process
by being one of the people to verify and uncover Every
Tongue Got to Confess as the original manuscript of Mules and Men—the
book she wanted—not the book they wanted.
So we are in that process too. We are publishing her drafts and her
unpublished works. There are, to my knowledge, at least three new films
coming out. The mention has already been made of Their Eyes Were
I believe there are two PBS specials—one being done by a group
out of Florida, and one being done I hope very soon, by Kirstie
It's an extraordinary outpouring of interest. Now, Hurston's letters
cannot, of course, explain this kind of phenomenal shift in public
perception. But they can help us to put that shift in context.
And what I'm hoping to do today is just give you a little sense of
what some of that context might look like.