Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Hurst and Hurston

Seventy years after their road trip, the best-selling sentimental novelist has run out of gas, while Zora is still in the driver’s seat.

Kate Bolick
March 04, 2005

In June 1931, the writer Fannie Hurst took a road trip to Canada to visit her lover, the eminent Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Forty-six years old but passing as 10 years younger, she was not only married but outrageously successful. Back Street, her seventh novel and one of her best, had come out that January. On Valentine’s Day, Universal Studios had bought the rights for a princely $35,000—double the hardback’s advance, which itself doubled anything she’d yet received. As was fitting for a woman of her stature, for her trip north she hired a driver—an ex-employee and sometime friend named Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurst’s huge and energetic life had colorful episodes to spare, but this one in particular has proven irresistible to biographers and filmmakers. The tableau the pair created is undeniably vivid: at the wheel, a poor black writer and folklorist, a young-looking 41-years old, utterly unknown, though not for long; in back, a rich and famous Jewish author with the world on a string. The scene even speaks to Hurst’s passion for black culture—a passion that may have had as much to do with her discomfort over being Jewish as it did with her political convictions. Finally, like a riddle, the episode seems to possess the secret to a perplexing question: 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? Hurst’s 18 novels and more than 300 short stories earned her a front-page obituary in The New York Times, but chances are you’ve never heard of her. Today, of course, it’s Hurston we read in high school. (And watch on TV. An adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God, starring Halle Berry, airs on March 6.)

Hurst’s is an exceptional example of the vagaries of literary reputation. Her success in her lifetime was so extraordinary, and her posthumous obscurity so absolute, it almost seems she was banished. How else to explain her near erasure? But banishment would require that someone wished her gone, and nobody really cared that much one way or the other. Save, that is, for a small band of scholars and enthusiasts who have finally put Hurst back in print, with two new reissues: Imitation of Life and The Stories of Fannie Hurst.

Hurst was a phenomenon from the start—the larger-than-life type one can’t picture dead, never mind forgotten. Born in St. Louis in 1885, the only child of German Jews, she cultivated a dramatic, artsy persona through theater and writing at Washington University, moved to New York in 1910, and simply neglected to schedule in the requisite struggling-artist phase. In 1912 the hugely popular Saturday Evening Post invited her to become a regular contributor; two years later she was confiding to a friend in a letter, “I am so busy!—so busy and so happy in just a whole raft of the most unbelievable new successes!”; in 1915 William Dean Howells branded the 30-year-old one of the foremost writers of “the Hebraic school”—a school, as it happens, she wasn’t terribly interested in being a member of.

Hurst’s ambivalence over her Jewishness comes as a surprise given her early subject matter: from the start of her writing career and through the early 1920s she fictionalized the lives of German Jewish and Eastern European immigrant families on the Lower East Side. Her stories were lively, well-told, generously described works of often sentimental social realism that repeatedly featured young, working-class heroines.

Not content to rely on her imagination—or her own Midwestern middle-class experience—Hurst honed her ear for dialogue and her knack for just the right detail with frequent visits to tenements and sweatshops. Her first professionally published story, “The Joy of Living,” which appeared in the small but influential Reedy’s Mirror two weeks before she graduated from college, is rich with the smells of “grease-saturated potatoes” and the desultory heat of a sleeping child. “Summer Sources,” one of her early stories for the Saturday Evening Post, and the first of her “Hebrew stories,” describes the working girl not in the city, but at an ocean-side resort hotel, where Jewish mothers did their competitive best to arrange suitable marriages for their daughters.

Yet for all her verisimilitude, Hurst avoided using Yiddish. Susan Koppelman points out in her insightful introduction to the reissued stories that Hurst would use spellings like “goil” and “theayter,” but rarely used words like schlemiel, and that her characters would often eat noodle pudding, but never kugel. Was this a calculated choice, made with an eye on her larger, non-Jewish, possibly anti-Semitic audience? Or an unconscious omission born of a deep-seated unease with her own identity?

Odds are, it was a bit of both. As Hurst describes in her 1958 memoir, Anatomy of Me, she was raised by parents who felt strongly that she not marry a “kike”—their term for a Jewish man—and she inherited their anxieties. “I would have given anything,” she wrote, for her mother not to tell people they were Jewish. Hurst outgrew the worst of this shame, and even went on to marry a darkly handsome Jewish pianist named Jacques Danielson, but as her reputation flowered, and her social activism increased, she steered clear of community causes. Zionism only “segregates us, raises barriers or creates race prejudice,” she told the Jewish Tribune in 1925. A few years later, another interviewer was so struck by what she considered to be Hurst’s intellectual indifference to Palestine as to note: “She speaks decisively and forcefully enough to discourage debate. She pleasantly drops the hint with all answers that you can take it or leave it.”

For a woman as opinionated and outspoken as Hurst, such indifference was at the very least peculiar, especially given her fervent enthusiasm for myriad other socialist, liberal, humanitarian, and feminist causes. “There seems to have been no aspect of early-twentieth-century American culture—dieting figures heavily here—in which she was not involved,” writes Hurst’s biographer, Brooke Kroeger. It is tempting to speculate that lurking beneath Hurst’s genuine political convictions were careerist and even escapist impulses, particularly when considering her championing of black culture.

Hurst maintained a “Negro Matters” file folder on her desk, and it was always full. If she didn’t exactly make research excursions to Harlem the way she had the sweatshops, starting in the mid-1920s she threw herself wholeheartedly—à la Carl Van Vechten—into her role as friend and patron to emerging Harlem Renaissance writers. Langston Hughes, Dorothy West, and especially Hurston all profited from their association with Hurst—and in certain ways, some scholars have speculated, the rewards were mutual. On the one hand, Hurst may have been more comfortable confronting loaded racial questions through another’s blackness than through her own Jewishness. On the other hand, she may have used that very blackness as a foil. According to Hurston’s biographer Robert Hemenway, Hurston believed that Hurst liked the way her black friend’s complexion made her look more white—that is, not Jewish.

If Hurston was thinking as much on her memorable road trip to Canada, it appears Hurst was harboring her own complicated feelings as well; it was on that trip that Imitation of Life, Hurst’s eighth novel, and her first to deal with racial themes, was born. Published in 1933, the book chronicles the improbable ascent of a widowed single mother (of no specified faith), Bea Pullman, who, with the help of her black maid, Delilah, pulls herself out of poverty by creating a maple syrup empire and a national waffle house franchise. The story’s engine is female entrepreneurship, its highs and ultimately its lows. But through Bea and Delilah’s relationship to one another, as well as their relationships to their offspring, race and class comprise the book’s true intellectual backbone: Bea’s daughter Jessie has all the advantages, and personality defects, money can buy; Delilah’s light-skinned Peola is yoked with the ability to pass as white. As Daniel Itzkovitz speculates in his incisive introduction to the reissue, Hurst may have been more comfortable exploring her relationship to her own Jewish identity through black characters such as Peola; her childhood shame over being Jewish closely resembles Peola’s over being black.

In response to Imitation of Life‘s publication, Harlem exploded in a frenzy of divisiveness: some believed Hurst “had created black characters with depth and humanity” while others argued that the Aunt Jemima-like Delilah perpetuated a stereotype. Her black friends, meanwhile, were cagier. Hughes expressed support, but it wasn’t long before he mounted a skewering stage parody, Limitation of Life, in which the racial roles were reversed. And according to Hurston’s most recent biographer, Valerie Boyd, Hurston never mentioned the novel in her correspondence of that period, and may have even taken a veiled swipe or two in print.

The eruption had little lasting effect on Hurst’s reputation, however, which, for all her runaway successes, was always divided—Hurst was adored by her fans and abhorred by the critics. “It happens every two years…the new novel by Fannie Hurst…. Book critics moan. The public buys it like mad,” Newsweek reported in 1944. And as each of Hurst’s two new reissues bears out, far from being the purveyors of fickle literary fashions, these critics had it right in the end.

For all their vivacity, neither reissue supports Koppelman’s conviction that “Fannie Hurst is a Great American Writer.” Her “rare insights into what is now a lost world,” as Koppelman puts it, should certainly be appreciated, as should “the richness, variety, and authenticity of Fannie Hurst’s early portrayals of urban Jewish life.” But these are the distinctions of a cultural anthropologist, not a literary great. To posit her as a Great American Writer is to confuse and even diminish the title.

Instead, Hurst should be remembered as a Great American Storyteller, and one who did extraordinary things with the form. Her ability to touch such a wide, and not very literate, audience, and so profoundly, was a significant variety of social activism. Perhaps Hurst didn’t exactly choose to be anti-establishment; the literary community snubbed her, not the other way around. 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.

For Hurst, fame didn’t cancel out her social conscience, it enlarged it: The more popular she grew the more actively she engaged with her times, and the more active her engagement the deeper and broader her concerns (aside from Jewish matters). Yet she was never polemical, or didactic, in the tradition of many socially concerned writers, and stayed true throughout her life to the forms and conventions of fiction. As Kroeger puts it, “In every way, especially given her ordinary origins, her life epitomized what was exciting, important, and forward-thinking about her times.” And it’s for her sheer grasp of that present, and her generosity with it, that she should be remembered.

Join Us!

Become a member and unlock exclusive access to events, conversations with Tablet personalities, and more.