TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Yuval Taylor's new book is a biography of a great friendship and its demise. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says the title pretty much tells you what you need to know. Here's her review of "Zora And Langston."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One of the most joyous, true-life, on-the-road adventures in literary history took place in the summer of 1927. It began in Mobile, Ala., when a young Langston Hughes, who was traveling in the South, stepped off the train from New Orleans and ran smack into Zora Neale Hurston. The two writers had first met in 1925 in Harlem. On the spur of the moment, Zora invited Langston to accompany her on a folklore-gathering expedition. Langston hopped into Zora's little, two-seater Nash Coupe, which she'd nicknamed Sassy Susie, and off they went, driving through big cities like Montgomery and Savannah and on dirt roads into the countryside.
They stopped at Tuskegee, where Langston visited the renowned scientist George Washington Carver, and raced to Macon in time to see Bessie Smith perform. Throughout those weeks on the road, they became best friends, sharing food, money and conversations about art and race. Oh, to have been a passenger, squeezed into the rumble seat of that little car.
Reading Yuval Taylor's new book "Zora And Langston" may be the next best experience. Writing in a vivid, anecdotal style, Taylor's book carries readers along on the giddy and, ultimately, very bumpy ride that was Zora and Langston's friendship. It was a friendship that crashed in 1931, when it ran up against the daunting obstacles of jealousy and self-preservation.
Taylor, whose other books include three volumes of African-American slave narratives, has dug up previously unpublished papers and interviews and keeps his focus here tight to help readers grasp the unusual character of this famous literary friendship.
Zora and Langston weren't childhood friends, like Harper Lee and Truman Capote, nor did theirs start out as a mentor-mentee relationship, like that of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who also met in 1925. And their bond doesn't seem to have been sexual - at least not for Langston. Instead, for a time, they were simply each other's person. As Zora confessed in a 1931 letter to Langston, you are the nearest person on earth to me. Langston's response has been lost, as have most of his letters to Zora.
But the evidence of their daily lives together in 1920s New York, where they were comrades in art, struggle and merriment, speaks volumes, as do Langston's poems. Taylor quotes a line from one of those poems, "Harlem Night Song," written the year after he met Zora. It describes two people who roamed the night together, singing, I love you. The world of Roaring '20s New York, and, particularly, the man-made wonder that was the Harlem Renaissance, has been chronicled many a time before. But reading about that era never gets old, at least not to me.
Taylor dives in with gusto, describing the delights of 1920s Harlem - the mansions on Strivers' Row and the octaroon choruses at the Lafayette Theatre. His book opens with Langston's and Zora's first meeting in May 1925 at the ornate Fifth Avenue restaurant, where a glittering and interracial crowd, including Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson and Eugene O'Neill, gathered over a dinner of boiled chicken and concealed gin flasks for an awards ceremony sponsored by the National Urban League's magazine Opportunity.
Zora and Langston were the young Turks, artists who, as Taylor describes, celebrated the everyday words and rhythms of African-Americans, a then-controversial strategy that would shape the future direction of African-American literature. Another thing they shared was poverty. Langston famously worked as a busboy. Zora developed a lifelong, voracious appetite, explaining to the novelist Fannie Hurst that, I was hungry for so many years of my life. I get going nowadays and can't stop.
The fear of falling into destitution led both of them into the arms of Charlotte Osgood Mason, the eccentric and controlling Park Avenue white philanthropist, who insisted that both of them call her godmother. Mason ardently supported what was then called the New Negro Renaissance, believing that black folk were less tainted by civilization. She told Langston, for instance, that he was a golden star in the firmament of primitive peoples.
It was Mason's eventual rift with Langston, along with Zora and Langston's argument over the rights to their collaborative play "Mule Bone," that Taylor says contributed to the devastating breakup of their relationship. For the last 30 years of their lives, the two were painfully estranged. But let's not go there. Let's focus, as Taylor so evocatively does, on the blossoming of the great friendship between an aspiring Zora and Langston, on the wide road opening up before them and on the gifts they shared with each other and with us.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Heidi Schreck. She wrote and performs the show "What The Constitution Means To Me." It's about when she was a teenager debating the Constitution in competitions sponsored by the American Legion and her later realization that the Constitution failed to protect four generations of women in her family. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.