And they were drawn to each other, despite—or perhaps because of—their differences.” – Chapter 1
Yuval Taylor’s Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship And Betrayal tells the story of one of the most famous and important literary friendships of the 20th century—that of novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. From the very start, Taylor manages to do this exceedingly well by explaining both Hurston and Hughes separately as figures important to the literary scene of the early 1900s. He unravels the details of their relationship, and their eventual betrayal, from there.
Beginning at the literary awards event where Hurston and Hughes first met each other, the novel draws attention to the literary circles of the time through the prize presentation event for the magazine Opportunity. Taylor then moves his audience back to where both of the authors’ lives truly began, separate from each other. This is particularly interesting since it helps to focus on the fact that this friendship, though it may be the subject of the novel, is only a short duration of their overarching lives and success.
Despite the pair having one of the most famous literary friendships of all time, Hurston’s and Hughes’s lives and work existed before one another—and continues to exist in the literary canon long after the rifts in their friendship.
Focusing on a road trip in 1927 in a Model T Ford they called Sassy Susie, Zora and Langston mainly chronicles Hurston and Hughes’ collaboration on an opera, Negro quarterly and a play, in addition to their relationship to their wealthy patron Charlotte Mason (who they called godmother at her insistence). The novel uses a vast amount of historical sources, including letters and the writing of both authors, to showcase as well as leave room for the interpretation of the reader. This contextualizes details of their relationship (and is one of the best devices the novel uses) and the other factors in society that shaped it, first as an intimate friendship and collaboration and then into a turbulent time. Taylor includes their collaboration on the play “The Mule-Bone,” as well as the domineering Mason’s involvement in their relationship.
The placement of Hurston and Hughes at the center of the literary scene of the Harlen Renaissance makes this a compelling read, as does the importance historical context takes in this novel. Both help draw attention to the personal lives of two of the greatest writers of the 20th century and adds an interesting layer of depth to understanding the works of both on their own merits.
Zora and Langston delves into the complicated nuances of Hurston’s and Hughes’s character and its impact on their work. Their eventual and final falling out toward the end of the book is riveting, their friendship coming to a spectacular end amid a flurry of lawsuits, scandalous allegations, copyright disagreements and scathing letters.
Zora and Langston is a must-read for anyone interested in the nuances of the relationship between these two celebrated writers and the greater setting of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.