Writer Finds Zora Neale Hurston's Florida

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The writer Zora Neale Hurston famously penned novels and other short works. But a lesser known fact is that during the Depression, Hurston wrote about some of her favorite destinations in Florida for the Works Progress Administration. Host Michel Martin talks with writer Rebecca Bengal who used Zora Neale Hurston's guide as a way to rediscover some of those places.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, we'll talk about heart disease. You might be surprised to learn just how common it is. Two heart attack survivors will join us. Neither saw it coming. It's all chronicled in a new book by one of those survivors. That conversation is in just a few minutes.

But first, we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, which we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, a story about tracing the footsteps of one of America's greatest writers: Zora Neale Hurston. She's widely known for her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which she wrote during the Harlem Renaissance. It's one of four novels she penned, along with dozens of short stories and her memoir.

But she also put her mark on something less well known: a Depression Era guide to Florida. It was part of a series of travel guides produced under the Works Progress Administration, also known as the WPA, which is part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Writer Rebecca Bengal wanted to know how much of the Florida Zora Neale Hurston wrote about still exists. So she packed a copy of Hurston's guide and headed to the Sunshine State and she wrote about what she found in the magazine and she's with us now. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Ms. REBECCA BENGAL (Contributing Writer, Washington Post): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, how did you get interested in this?

Ms. BENGAL: Just with the economic crisis happening, I was interested in the parallels between now and the depression. And in this project, which employed about 6,000 writers and photographers from the unemployment roles at the time. So I was interested in that sort of creative spirit that happened then. And in going back, to see what still remained from what these writers wrote about.

MARTIN: You write in the piece that the WPA can be said to have launched the careers of some of the most American of American writers: Richard Wright, Studs Turkel, John Cheever. How did they find out about Zora Neale Hurston? How did she come to be part of the project?

Ms. BENGAL: You know, I'm not sure how she was exactly linked. But at the time, she was the most experienced of many of the writers in the Florida project. She had already published her first novel and she had also published a book of folklore, and she had just returned to Florida from New York.

So when she came back, she was something of a bit of controversy. And the project director kind of prepared everyone for her arrival saying, you know, watch out for Zora, she's been accustomed to the New York way of doing things. She smoked cigarettes, and we have to give her certain allowances for that.

MARTIN: She wore pants.

Ms. BENGAL: She wore pants, yeah.

MARTIN: That is a funny section where you write about how she was just a little much for some of the folks down there. They weren't used to that sort of thing.

Ms. BENGAL: She was pretty yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENGAL: She's a pretty rare personality.

MARTIN: You know, one of the interesting things that I learned from your piece is that some writers, Cheever and Hurston among them, were actually a little bit ashamed of the fact that they were working for the WPA, that they saw it as akin to accepting, you know, welfare, to use a term, but that she would actually that Hurston would actually fib about where she was going. She would tell the niece who shared her Eatonville home that she was going to New York for a few days, rather than admit that she was attending meetings at WPA headquarters in Jacksonville. That was a sort of it's interesting to think about now.

Ms. BENGAL: And I'm not sure why she did that, other than she is, I gather, someone who had a lot of pride in being able to do things for herself. And she also was paid a lot less than some of her counterparts, given her experience, which must've been a little bit hard to accept too.

MARTIN: Well, talk about some of the places that you visited. Let's talk about Eatonville, her hometown.

Ms. BENGAL: It's a very small town. It's one of the first incorporated African-American communities in the country. It was governed by African-Americans and it is has remained a wholly separate town, even though it's bordered on one side by Interstate 4 and Orlando.

MARTIN: So, does the Florida that Zora Neale knew still visible in Eatonville?

Ms. BENGAL: Yeah, certainly. It's a small town. There's a few places to eat. There's a lovely lake. There's bungalows. I mean, it's very quiet seeming. You definitely feel like you've stepped, if not completely back in time, into a little bit of another world.

MARTIN: And you also visited American Beach, that's another African-American community that Hurston knew well. Tell us a little bit more about American Beach.

Ms. BENGAL: It's located on Amelia Island outside of Jacksonville. And in the midst of all of this sort of pink stucco, there's a tiny, plain little sign to American Beach. And if you follow that road, you'll encounter a once thriving beach for African-Americans. And it was created as such because at the time, African-Americans were given very limited beach access. This was 1935 when it was founded by Florida's first black millionaire.

MARTIN: Well, so it worth visiting?

Ms. BENGAL: It is. The only thing is that there are no businesses that are currently operating on American Beach. But for me it reminded me of so many beach communities that I had grown up going to as a child growing up in the South. There's a lovely beach. There's a giant sand dune that has been preserved through the efforts of A.L. Lewis' granddaughter, who was she passed away in 2005. But she was pretty famous around those parts and known as the beach lady. And it's in large part due to her that American Beach is preserved as it is now.

MARTIN: Well, you write, though, that the spirit of Zora Neale can be felt in many of these places. But I'd like to ask you as a writer yourself, is there something about this trip that made a particular impression on you?

Ms. BENGAL: Yeah. I mean, it was just a pleasure to be able to follow this road that she had been on, even for just a small part of it. And she's someone that I really admire for her sort of spirit of adventure, for her as a writer, I admired the way she takes risks in language. And the way, when you read her work, you really get a sense of the voice of the people, the voice of the place.

And I think what I've discovered was that in these very, very tiny pockets along the back roads of Florida, there are some things that are largely unchanged, that are pretty much as they were 70 years ago.

MARTIN: Rebecca Bengal is a contributing writer to the Washington Post magazine. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. BENGAL: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Rebecca Bengal's story "Following the Dust Tracks" appears in this week's edition of the magazine. But we'll have a link on our site if you want to read it for yourself. Go to npr.org program page and click on TELL ME MORE.

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