Making Modernism

Zora Neale Hurston’s letters to Harry Hansen, March 1937

These two letters from Zora Neale Hurston to Harry Hansen were written in late March 1937, a whirlwind season for the writer and anthropologist, and a significant turning point in her career. Hurston had just returned a few days earlier from an extended research trip to Jamaica and Haiti to gather ethnographic materials (later published in 1938 as Tell my Horse: Voodoo and Life in Jamaica and Haiti). While still in Haiti, Hurston took a seven-week break from research to write her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. As she notes in the first letter, “Many things go on in the world that Haiti never hears about,” and Hurston returned home to exciting news: While she was busy gathering folklore and traditional dances (and becoming an initiate in the Vodun religion), her previous book on African American folklore, Mules and Men (1935) was winning accolades from the subscription service “Book of the Month Club.” Mules and Men was the first published history of African American folklore by a Black writer, and a runner up in the juried Book of the Month Club Contest of 1937, a designation that greatly increased the book’s circulation and readership.

One of the 1937 Book of the Month Club Contest judges was Harry Hansen, one of the most respected and prolific literacy critics in the country, and a household name for booklovers. A native Iowan, Hansen moved to Chicago in 1905 and befriended Floyd Dell before attending the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in English in 1909. In 1913 Hansen joined the staff of the Chicago Daily News, where he was a foreign correspondent during World War One before his promotion to literary editor in 1920. Hansen joined New York World in 1927, where his syndicated weekly column was read by millions of people. His popularity was further bolstered by regular appearances on NBC radio programs and monthly articles in Harper’s Magazine. A positive review by Hansen (and his support in any of the major literary organizations of which he was a board member or judge) could make a writer’s career. Both letters point to the personal rapport Hurston fostered with Hansen, and feature the vivacity of Hurston’s personality and legendary charm. A lively correspondent, Hurston’s words are as bold as her large maroon signature and she closes the first letter with the salvo hoping Hansen is “feeling as sassy as a tug-boat.” 

These letters—sadly now unaccompanied by the Haitian snuffbox mentioned in the second letter—invite us to remember the strong influence literary critic and editor Harry Hansen held over commercial opportunities for authors and his role in shaping the literary sensibilities of 1930s American reading public, as well as Hurston’s gratitude for Hansen’s ongoing support of her work. 

- Rebecca Nicholson-Weir, East Central University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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