Carla Kaplan

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
  • Anchor Books
  • December 2003
  • ISBN: 0385490368
  • 912 pages
  • Buy online

"I mean to live and die by my own mind."

Hurston spoke those words to writer and friend Countée Cullen. Arriving in Harlem with little more than a dollar to her name, Hurston rose to become one of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance and succeeding decades, only to die in obscurity. Although she has now entered the literary pantheon as one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, the true nature of her personality has proven elusive. Here in her letters, however, a brilliant, complicated, and utterly captivating woman emerges.

Through letters to Harlem Renaissance friends such as Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Dorothy West, and Carl Van Vechten, and to bestselling writers Fannie Hurst, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others, readers experience the exuberance and trials of Hurston's life. This definitive collection contains hundreds of Hurston's previously unpublished letters, culled from dozens of archives across the nation. With an introduction to the cultural history and Hurston's experience of each decade, and an annotated glossary, this volume provides "not merely a collection of letters but a comprehensive introduction to an important American writer," according to Booklist. "Kaplan had made the letters remarkably accessible," wrote The New York Times.

Reviews and praise for Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters

"A wonderful addition to what we need to understand about a spirited, extraordinary life."

Alice Walker

"Now, with Carla Kaplan's carefully edited collection of Hurston's letters, we can at long last encounter the full range and depth of Hurston's mind, of the inner worlds that stood behind her several public masks. Hurston's reception—and her place in the canon of truly great writers—only deepens as we encounter the complex and compelling intelligence of this astonishingly brilliant artist. In these letters, we encounter Zora Neale Hurston as if for the first time."

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters is as welcome as a sunburst, which is what Zora Hurston in life was like. One of her favorite expressions was 'bodacious.' Carla Kaplan's edited collection is just that, and we should all be enormously grateful to her for gathering up the words of the incomparable ing?nue of the Harlem Renaissance."

David Levering Lewis, author of W.E.B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century

Carla Kaplan's Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters is a wonderful book, easily the most valuable new volume by or about Hurston in many a year. Here is Hurston in her bodacious glory—jaunty and in pain, colorful, elusive, superbly intelligent, deceptive, an original personality and an original mind. Kaplan's work as an editor is impeccable, her vision of Zora luminous. All lovers of Zora Neale Hurston must read this book."

Arnold Rampersad, author of The Life of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison

"Reading this book feels a little like standing on a railroad embankment in a sleepy southern town and watching the express train come roaring down the track."

Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine

"Kaplan has made the letters feel remarkably accessible."

The New York Times

"Not merely a collection of letters but a comprehensive introduction to an important American writer."


Zora Neale Hurston's letters offer us nothing less than a spontaneous autobiography by one of the great writers of the twentieth century. . . . Carla Kaplan has annotated them thoroughly, and her notes, decade by decade, trace Hurston's life with the care of a good scholar and the narrative skill of a good biographer."

Bruce Kellner, editor of The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary of the Era

"Hurston's letters reveal an energetic writer. . . . Beautifully executed."

Publishers Weekly

"Sublime and intimate. . . . An intriguing installment in the study of Hurston's life and work."


"The Hurston we revered before this book was only an illusion. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters gives us a flesh and blood Hurston with sharp edges and dark corners and endless, enchanting layers. . . . Carla Kaplan brings the inimitable Zora Neale Hurston to life in this exhilarating collection."

Emily Bernard, author of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten

"[Hurston's] letters have a freshness, humor and immediacy that make you forget how long ago they were written."

Quarterly Black Review

"The letters in Ms. Kaplan's collection tell a life story of exceptional interest."

The Wall Street Journal

"[An] epic collection. . . . The arrival of these letters is like a beacon cast on Hurston's life."

The Orlando Sentinel

"From her letters emerges an . . . articulate but qualitatively different voice, or better yet, chorus of voices, compounding the contradictions of an undeniably courageous life. We can finally see her . . . served up raw."

"Captures the myriad facets of Hurston's genius, not least as it radiated in the legendary life she crafted from humble beginnings."

The Washington Post

"Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters is a milestone. . . . These letters, and the nuanced and perceptive accompanying text, provide a valuable lens through we we can read, understand, and appreciate the genius of Zora Neale Hurston."

Marita Golden, President, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation

"Brilliantly assembled and introduced by Carla Kaplan, the letters reveal the struggles of a black woman from the South searching for personal happiness while trying to establish a literary reputation in New York City. In the process, they weave a rich and multifaceted portrait of American and African American literature, drama, and anthropological writing of the period. . . . you will listen spellbound."

Carla Peterson, author of Black Gotham

"I treasure this collection of four decades' worth of Zora Neale Hurston: for Hurston's own lively words, for Carla Kaplan's sympathetic, scholarly editing. These hundreds of previously scattered letters to correspondents of all sorts reveal Hurston's complexity. A black woman struggling against her times, she emerges from her letters as a unique individual surviving through a life-time of dramatic self-fashioning."

Nell Painter, author of The History of White People

"There is no greater story of rediscovery in modern American literature than that of Zora Neale Hurston. Like Herman Melville in a previous era, she went from nearly complete obscurity to a position of unquestioned canonical importance in just a few years. This superb collection of her letters now provides us a remarkable window into Hurston's life."

Eric Sundquist