The Story of a Literary Friendship and How It Ends Badly A book about the friendship between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and their unsuccessful partnership.

Zora and Langston: A Story of Betrayal

By Yuval Taylor (2019, W.W. Norton & Company) 302 pages including notes, primary source readings and index

Yuval Taylor’s Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal ends where their story most often begins—with their infamous public falling-out. Hughes’s critique of Hurston’s 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as a frivolous, folksy tale akin to minstrelsy is a touchstone moment in African-American literary history. Indeed, Hughes’s bitter appraisal was indicative of the evaluation of many New Negro urbanites. While the Harlem Renaissance literati debated what exactly constituted the New Negro, Hurston’s down-home style was, apparently, emblematic of the passé and pandering Old Negro. In a not uncommon phenomenon of identity politics, what the New Negro was not served to unify otherwise disparate opinions about whom “he” was. Established and emergent literary figures including Alain LeRoy Locke, Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison and, most scathingly, Richard Wright issued damning reviews that suggested Hurston’s “facile sensuality” ¹ affirmed White myths about the primitive innocence of Black life and ignored forces of racism. They, and numerous others, collectively were a venerable fraternity of Black male critics that obscured Hurston’s novel for decades. Although Hughes was far from alone in his critique of the novel, his relationship to Hurston was distinct. The two shared a short-lived, deep, and somewhat curious bond. In Taylor’s stirring dual biography this well-known flashpoint is not the narrative climax but the “aftermath” of a story of profound and, of course, fated friendship.

It is difficult to imagine Hurston and Hughes as anything but towering icons of American letters. Certainly, their status as literary giants is what makes their clash so monumental. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has gone as far as naming it, “the most notorious literary quarrel in African-American cultural history.” (190) Be it Hughes and Hurston, Baldwin and Wright, or Tupac and Biggie, burdened friendships are a recurrent and disturbingly alluring theme in the study of Black writers. Yet, if it is the dramatic bite of high-profile betrayal that tends to ignite a hot-selling story, in the case of Zora and Langston it is the dynamics of friendship that provide a happy counterexample. Among the most absorbing features of Taylor’s biography is that it takes place during the nascent stages of Hurston’s and Hughes’s careers, and largely before they achieve their greatest fame. Focused on the brief but eventful years of 1925-1931, from the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance to the doomed play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life that triggered the rift, Taylor shows Hughes’s and Hurston’s artistic and intellectual ascensions as symbiotic, and puts forth a “hope to illuminate how deeply they shaped American literature and culture—and each other.” (6)

Although Hughes was far from alone in his critique of the novel [Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God], his relationship to Hurston was distinct. The two shared a short-lived, deep, and somewhat curious bond. In Taylor’s stirring dual biography this well-known flashpoint is not the narrative climax but the “aftermath” of a story of profound and, of course, fated friendship.

With their impact on American literature well established it is the illumination of how they deeply shape each other that shines most. In 1989 Alice Walker, the primary figure to resurrect Hurston’s place in African-American letters, sadly noted that little attention had been given “… to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other’s company.” ² Due to their sour split it is not surprising that neither the autobiographic efforts of Hughes’s The Big Sea nor Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road dedicate much attention to the joys of their friendship. Moreover, in the foundational scholarship of Carla Kaplan and Arnold Rampersad, to name but two sterling examples, the friendship receives attention only relative to far more comprehensive biographical efforts. Taylor, whose research is greatly indebted to the rich terrain of existing scholarship, heeds Alice Walker’s call and offers a fresh narrative that highlights the charming intimacy of the two authors. From their collaborative composition of the monumental single edition of the journal Fire!! in 1926 to the anecdotes of their whimsical southern road trip in the summer of 1927 it is the good times that read most effortlessly and from which fresh insight can be gleaned about their relationship. Rich descriptions of the two sharing fried fish and watermelon in Mobile or rushing, with Zora behind the wheel of a little two-seater coupe, to see Bessie Smith perform in Macon make visceral the energy and affection they drew from one another. Of course, the result of their time together was a mutual inspiration that aided in producing some of America’s most cherished texts. However, when recounted in real time they resonate more familiarly as the escapades of two buddies, uncertain of their artistic future, but quite sure about the value of each other.

… as Taylor often points out, while Hurston radiated folk life, Hughes, particularly while in the Deep South, seemed to be soaking in a new experience. Taylor illustrates their dissimilar manners not as a comment on contending claims to racial authenticity but rather as an intriguing dimension of their mutual magnetism.

They seem most bonded when they are away from, or pushing upon, boundaries of the exceptional social milieus of which they are ostensibly most a part. For instance, Taylor notes of their road trip, “Zora and Langston’s meetings with intellectuals and educators may have been supportive and convivial, but their encounters with blues singers, conjure men, turpentine workers and chain-gang escapees were the ones that fed their imagination.” (124) This echoes the unease they felt for the classist restrictions that peppered the otherwise opportunity-lush artistic renaissance. Hurston and Hughes were wary of the elitism they sensed within New Negro circles. As classic essays like Hughes’s “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain” and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” disclose, they shared an umbrage for intraracially ascribed artistic limitations. Particularly, limitations that premised White literary models as the standard for which Black writers should strive. As executive members of what Hurston sardonically labeled the “Niggerati” they spotlighted, and celebrated, daily expression, be it traditional dialect or urban vernacular, as the foundation of Black cultural expression. Yet, as Taylor often points out, while Hurston radiated folk life, Hughes, particularly while in the Deep South, seemed to be soaking in a new experience. Taylor illustrates their dissimilar manners not as a comment on contending claims to racial authenticity but rather as an intriguing dimension of their mutual magnetism.

Their synergy is made all the more compelling by their distinct characters. Hurston was a demonstrative southerner with a raspy glamour and Hughes a midwesterner whose charming ease bordered on aloofness. If Hurston could not help but be at the center of any room she entered Hughes seemed to attract those to whatever corner he chose to occupy. While it may be a stretch to call them complete opposites in character, the famous equation seems to hold a clue to their attraction. Indeed, the nature of their relationship unfolds as the major question mark in this book. What exactly were they to one another? Moreover, might their complicated relationship serve to aid us in reconsidering the sturdy lines we often construct between friendship and love?

In many ways Zora and Langston is a love story. It is a love story made unique not only by its participants but by the brand of love they shared. Taylor notes, “It’s difficult these days, when love and sex are so intertwined, to imagine a world like the one in which the protagonist of this book lived.” (177) This may be a slightly overwrought characterization of this former world. Nonetheless, the incongruence of contemporary notions of intimacy with those of the Harlem Renaissance age suggest the need for a critical reevaluation of some seemingly intuitive themes—love, friendship, and intimacy. Such reevaluations are partially stifled by Taylor’s rather restrained discussions of sexual orientation, a topic, particularly in the case of Hughes, of long-standing intrigue and contestation. Certainly, Taylor is not looking for Langston as Isaac Julian did. While Hughes’s sexuality is not painted as repressed it is rather, in the vein of his general character, shown to be guarded. Yet, Hughes opens up to Hurston hurriedly. Trust and tenderness come easily. Taylor recurrently highlights how quickly their bond took shape. That Hughes wrote “Poem, or To F.S.”—which begins “I loved my friend”—the month he met Hurston is suggested to be no accident. And when Hurston signs her letters to Hughes, and there were many, “lovingly yours,” the impression is that each word is written in earnest. Still, it is not suggested that their relationship is romantic; and yet again, nor does it seem simply platonic. Or, at least, the word platonic feels insufficient while romantic is too suggestive. Sex is the variable that should confirm the boundaries of their relationship. Yet, Taylor makes it evident that it does not. However, the interest spurred by the specificity of their love, and lessons it may offer, is left unfulfilled.

In many ways Zora and Langston is a love story. It is a love story made unique not only by its participants but by the brand of love they shared.

Taylor is hesitant to speculate about their love. While the literary theorist may find this unfortunate the cultural historian will quite understand. Certainly, Taylor is a fine narrative historian; he weaves detailed facts upon the premise of a specific, and enthralling, theme. In short, he shows the bond through vivid narrative detail. Yet, he does, from time to time, provide compelling analytical gestures about the type of love he is chronicling. In some of his most thoughtful prose Taylor notes that, “what I mean by ‘in love’ is more than just a strong friendship. It requires intimacy and passion: the kind of intense feeling that unbalances one’s emotions and that, when brought to an end, can produce anxiety and depression.” (177) Hurston and Hughes were involved with the risks of being “in love” and, as such, experienced both its rapture and its torment. Alas, Taylor breaks just as he begins to build a theoretical foothold from which to extend his deft historicism. The gesturing insight of this quote leaves one desiring more. As such, opportunity remains ripe for a more literary theory-driven consideration of Hughes and Hurston’s personal correspondence as well as an exploration of the latent affective dimensions of their relationship.

While Hughes and Hurston were tightly bound both personally and professionally they also lived, and loved, independently. Between 1925 and 1931, each had numerous relationships, including Hurston’s marriage to jazz musician Herbert Sheen in 1927. Hughes does not seem the least put off by their union. However, there is a suggestion that it was Hurston’s resentment for Louise Thompson, who worked closely with both writers that caused the friendship to fracture. Taylor speculates that Hurston may have loved Thompson—a provocative suggestion that briefly gestures to debates regarding Hurston’s sexuality. Yet, at least here, Hurston’s resentment of Thompson does not read as a romantic jealousy as much as it does doleful and irritated recognition of Thompsons’s encroachment upon her person. In fact, if Thompson was the source of the rift it had to do with her involvement in Mule Bone and, in particular, Hughes’s insistence that she receive credit and percentage. Yet, Thompson is but only one critical player in the drama.

The enthralling story of our two famed protagonists is made all the more gripping by an ensemble cast of Harlem Renaissance icons. Alain LeRoy Locke, Bruce Nugent, Carl Van Vechten, and others play critical roles as interlocking thinkers, personal intermediaries, and petty gossips. However, Charlotte Osgood Mason assumes the position of the most central, although spectral, secondary figure. As Carla Kaplan’s tremendous Miss Anne in Harlem illustrates, Hughes and Hurston were linked not only by their professional and personal relationship but also by Mason, their shared patron. Mason’s fetishization of primitivism as the refuge of a spiritually waning modern world is difficult to stomach. Nonetheless, Mason, the self-dubbed “godmother” of myriad Harlem Renaissance artists, is cast as nearly divine for Hurston and Hughes. Certainly, her willingness to anonymously provide financial support for their work must have felt heaven-sent. As Taylor puts it, from Mason’s deep pocketbook, “Langston was being paid to create, Zora was being paid to collect.” (133) Hurston and Hughes were anxious to please Mason and the sense here is that their desire was heartfelt. Yet, the paternalistic treatment of her two star beneficiaries walks a thin line between earnest care and emotional exploitation. Mason, via her financial support and evocative persona, offered what amounts to an omnipotent approval, yet the rewards of her approval were fleeting and always shadowed by a threat of isolation and enforced dependency. Indeed, if “the Negro” was to supply a redemptive spirit to the western world they were to do so in accordance with Mason’s close-monitored schedule. It is under the watch of Mason, who had her own acrimonious break with Hughes, that the unseemly dynamics of Hughes’s and Hurston’s social networks became apparent.

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life was meant to be Hurston and Hughes’s collaborative theatric ode to Black southern folk life, vernacular, and humor. The play sought to break from binarized options of serious “race problem” dramas and minstrelesque musicals.

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life was meant to be Hurston and Hughes’s collaborative theatric ode to Black southern folk life, vernacular, and humor. The play sought to break from binarized options of serious “race problem” dramas and minstrelesque musicals. The story is developed upon folklore that Hurston collected, and previously written as the short story “The Bone of Contention”; Taylor deftly recounts the details of the play’s original development. However, the structure, traditions, and ambitions of the play are, while interesting, not Taylor’s central concern. Rather, he directs attention to how Hurston and Hughes lost each other within the tangled web of contentious discourse that surrounded the play. Hurston came to feel that Hughes wanted to give Louise Thompson, who functioned as typist and assistant, undue credit for the play. Moreover, she contended that Hughes had, in fact, done very little to contribute to the play’s composition. This is true; Hurston had provided the foundational material and composed the majority of the play. It is curious that Hughes, who had not contributed greatly to the script, insisted on retaining authorship status and actively shopped the play to small theatre troupes. Nevertheless, Hughes was deeply committed to getting the play staged. Thus, a trail of “he said, she said” atop a map of dates, events and correspondence reveal a nexus of resentment, emotional impasse, and mounting misunderstandings. Letters meant to ostensibly clarify some detail about the play’s composition or potential staging are written with a type of delicate double-talk in which insults are packaged in a refinement that is more wounding than unabashed curses. Bitter feelings only brew further and further with each installment of correspondence. Unfortunately, gossip is delectably toxic and the likes of Locke and Mason only exacerbate the tension; lines are drawn, sides are chosen, and reputations are impacted. However, Taylor does not place blame in either direction. Hughes and Hurston are each cast, at this stage, as petty and inconsistent; the “betrayal” is mutual and the details of debate over Mule Bone mainly provide the footing for a personal conflict.

The inside flap of Zora And Langston, just above the synopsis, in large red letters, reads “THEY WERE BEST FRIENDS.” Not so subtle in its salaciousness, it is clear that the key word of this declaration is “WERE,” and the story of their bond is presented as the requisite labor necessary to appreciate the dramatic pangs of its break. Yet, the book accomplishes far more than a prolonged break-up story. Zora and Langston is an immediately significant contribution to scholarship on both authors. Taylor provides a compelling and enjoyable narrative study of one of the most unique and absorbing relationships in African American cultural history. The vibrant detail of their connection is extenuated by splendidly rendered contexts of Harlem Renaissance ballrooms populated by the era’s most brilliant and dubious figures and warm nights spent laughing on Georgia porches. Indeed, Taylor grants access to something quite intimate. His book is a multilayered look into what Hughes and Hurston, who have meant so much to so many, were to one another not in their status as burgeoning icons, but as fast, and sadly ill-fated, friends.

1 Richard Wright, review in New Masses, October 5, 1935.

2 Alice Walker, “Turning Into Love: Some Thoughts on Surviving and Meeting Langston Hughes,” Callaloo, Autumn 1989, 665. An excerpt of this article is included in Zora and Langston before the table of contents.

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