Hurston’s ability to write fiction seems to have dried up after the commercial failure of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which sank without a trace soon after publication. Her next novel, “Moses, Man of the Mountain,” published in 1939, seems a failed reprise of the Bible-based all-Negro Broadway hit “Green Pastures,” with the story of Exodus as its blackface subject. (“Oh, er—Moses, did you ask about them Hebrews while you was knocking around in Egypt?”) Gone is the miraculous ear. Gone, too, are her great humor and heart. “Moses” is a weary book, heavy with accumulated resentments. Hurston’s disillusionment is fully evident in her mordant, angry journalism of the nineteen-forties, in which she witheringly commends the Southern custom of whites favoring their own “pet Negroes” (and their eager pets returning the favor) as a functioning racial system, and rails against the substandard Negro colleges she calls “begging joints.” The title of one article—“Negroes Without Self-Pity”—speaks for itself.
This was her life’s theme, and she sounded it all the louder as two new novels were rejected, her poverty went from bohemian to chronic, and her health gave way. She bought a houseboat and spent much of the mid-forties sailing Florida rivers: individualism, her refuge from racism, had lapsed into nearly total isolation. She returned to New York in 1946, looking for work, and wound up in the campaign office of the Republican congressional candidate running against Adam Clayton Powell. When her side lost, she was stranded for a terrible winter in a room on 124th Street, in a different sort of isolation. She didn’t ask for help, and she didn’t get any. She felt herself slipping, surrounded by racists and haters, the whole city “a basement to Hell.”
It was just after this that she wrote her last published novel, “Seraph on the Suwanee.” The story of a white Southern woman and her family, it contains no prominent black characters. Among Hurston’s supporters, Alice Walker has called it “reactionary, static, shockingly misguided and timid,” and Mary Helen Washington has called it “vacuous as a soap opera.” Everyone agrees that Hurston had fallen into the common trap of believing that a real writer must be “universal”—that is to say, must write about whites—and that she had simply strayed too far from the sources that fed her. In fact the book is poisonously fascinating, and suggests, rather, that she came too close.
The story of beautiful, golden-haired Arvay Henson, who believes herself ugly and unworthy of love, contains many echoes of Hurston’s earlier work, but its most striking counterpart is the long-ago play “Color Struck.” The works set a beginning and an end to years of struggle with their shared essential theme—the destructive power of fear and bitterness in a woman’s tortured psyche. Arvay is born to a poor-white “cracker” family; in a refraction of Hurston’s own history, a preference for her older sister “had done something to Arvay’s soul across the years.” She falls in love with a magnificent fallen aristocrat, who rapes her—for Arvay this is an act of ecstatic, binding possession—and marries her. Tormented by her failure to live up to his perfection, she comes to hate him almost as much as she hates herself.
The book is a choking mixture of cynicism and compulsion. Hurston was desperate for a success, and hoped for a movie sale—hence, no doubt, the formulaic rape and the book’s mawkish ending, in which Arvay learns to sing happily in her marital chains. But to reach this peace Arvay must admit, after years of pretense, that she is not really proud of her own miserably poor and uneducated family, that poverty and ignorance lend them neither moral superiority nor charm, and that she is, in fact, shamed and disgusted by them. Arvay’s last attempt to go home to her own people results in her burning down the house in which she was raised.
The book was sharply criticized because Hurston’s white Southerners speak no differently from the Eatonville blacks of her earlier work. The inflections, the rhythms, the actual expressions that had been declared examples of a distinctive black culture were all now simply transferred to white mouths. The incongruous effects, as in her “Moses” book, point to a failure of technique, an aural exhaustion. But in a letter to her editor Hurston gave an even more dispiriting explanation for what she’d done. “I think that it should be pointed out that what is known as Negro dialect in the South is no such thing,” she wrote, in a repudiation nearly as sweeping as Arvay’s, at once laying waste to her professional past and her extraordinary personal achievement. The qualities of Southern speech—black and white alike, she claimed—were a relic of the Elizabethan past preserved by Southern whites in their own closed and static society. “They did not get it from the Negroes. The Africans coming to America got it from them.”
The novel’s publication, in the fall of 1948, was swallowed up in a court case that tested all Hurston’s capacity for resisting bitterness. That September, in New York, an emotionally disturbed ten-year-old boy accused her of sexual molestation. The Children’s Society filed charges, and Hurston was arrested and indicted. Although the case was eventually thrown out, a court employee spilled the news to one of the city’s black newspapers—the white papers were presumably not interested—and the lurid story made headlines. Hurston contemplated suicide, but slowly came back to herself on a long sailing trip.
She never returned to New York. For the rest of her life, she lived in Florida, on scant money and whatever dignity she was able to salvage. In Miami, she worked as a maid. Later, she moved to a cabin up the coast that rented for five dollars a week, where she grew much of her own food. She labored over several books, none considered publishable. Her radical independence was more than ever reflected in her politics: fervently anti-Communist, officially Republican, resisting anything that smacked of special pleading. When Brown v. Board of Education was decided, in 1954, she was furious—and wrote furiously—over the implication that blacks could learn only when seated next to whites, or that anyone white should be forced to sit beside anyone black. It was plain “insulting.” Although there was some hard wisdom in her conclusion—“the next ten years would be better spent in appointing truant officers and looking after conditions in the homes from which the children come”—her defiant segregationist position was happily taken up by whites of the same persuasion. Her reputation as a traitor to her people overshadowed and outlasted her reasoning, her works, and her life.
Hurston died in January, 1960, in the Saint Lucie County welfare home, in Fort Pierce, Florida, four days before the first sit-in took place, at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. She was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce. All her books were out of print. In 1971, in one of the first important reconsiderations of writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the critic Darwin Turner wrote that Hurston’s relative anonymity was understandable, for, despite her skills, she had never been more than a “wandering minstrel.” He went on to say that it was “eccentric but perhaps appropriate”—one must pause over the choice of words—for her “to return to Florida to take a job as a cook and maid for a white family and to die in poverty.” There was a certain justice in these actions, he declared, in that “she had returned to the level of life which she proposed for her people.”