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ORT PIERCE, Fla. A police officer who was cruising through a poor section of Fort Pierce on a recent afternoon said he had never heard of Zora Neale Hurston, and he was puzzled when a visitor asked directions to her grave.
"There's only one cemetery here, but I better show you the way or you won't find it," he said. "When you get there, just do your business and don't dally. This is not a good neighborhood."
Hurston, one of the most important African-American literary figures of the 20th century, is often associated with New York, where during the 1930's she was known as the "queen of the Harlem Renaissance." New attention is now being focused on her roots in Florida, where she lived a self-confident youth and then returned to die in poverty.
A one-woman show about Hurston's life that was recently staged in Miami depicted her here in Fort Pierce, looking back wistfully over her eventful life. Through May 12, the Arena Stage theater in Washington is presenting "Polk County," a musical about workers at a Florida sawmill that she wrote 60 years ago but that has never before been produced. And an unpublished collection of African-American folk tales that she gathered in the late 1920's has been rediscovered and published, making it the first "new" Hurston book in more than half a century.
Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891 but grew up in the central Florida town of Eatonville. It was an extraordinary place, incorporated and populated entirely by blacks, and her father served for a time as its mayor. The Hurston family lived on five acres dotted with orange, tangerine, grapefruit and guava trees. She later described the town as having "five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse."
Eatonville was remarkably prosperous and free of racism. Living there as a child gave Hurston an experience that was close to unique among African-American writers, and it led her to focus on black achievement rather than oppression.
"She didn't experience prejudice, and in fact she grew up in an environment where black people did every kind of job," said Lucy Hurston, a niece of the author. "She didn't realize she was a member of a despised race. This shows through very clearly in her work. It made her very different from writers like Richard Wright, who saw racism as the great overwhelming reality facing every black person everywhere. Her experience in Florida made her believe that African-Americans could accomplish anything at all."
Although Hurston's Florida background is attracting renewed interest in literary circles, that interest is barely evident here in Fort Pierce, a coastal town about 50 miles north of Palm Beach, where she spent her last unhappy years and was buried in a pauper's grave. A branch library has been named in her honor, and on request the librarian can produce a loose-leaf binder with newspaper articles about her. A small photograph of her hangs in the local historical museum, lost among displays devoted to former county commissioners and prize-winning school bands.
The small concrete home where Hurston lived her last years is vacant and decaying. A plaque has been hung on the front, but even some close neighbors cannot direct a visitor to it.
There is a bit more interest in Eatonville, which is a few miles north of Orlando. A two-room museum displays Hurston-related memorabilia, and each January a festival draws groups of "Zoraphiles."
"You can hardly understand Hurston as she would want to be understood without understanding her Florida origins," said Kathryn Lee Seidel, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, who edited, with Steve Glassman, a collection of essays called "Zora in Florida" (University of Central Florida, 1991).
"When the publishing world first rediscovered Hurston in the 1970's, it was as a universal writer, a writer of global interests who talked about all the sufferings and joys of being human," Ms. Seidel said. "What we're now seeing is the second wave, which is the realization of how much of her universalism came from her regional roots."
At the height of her fame, in the prewar years, Hurston was a close friend of the poet Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote the play "Mule Bone," and a heroine in Harlem and beyond. But because her writing did not focus on the obstacles facing blacks in a white society, she was sometimes accused of being insensitive to racism. Wright said her characters "swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live, between laughter and tears."
Hurston scorned such criticism, saying she did not belong to "that sobbing school of Negrohood" whose members "hold that nature has somehow given them a lowdown dirty deal."
Several of Hurston's works are set at least partly in Florida, among them her best-known novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (1937). She knew the state not only from her childhood, but also from field work she did while studying anthropology at Barnard College.
In a letter to Franz Boas, one of her professors and a titan of early-20th-century anthropology, she said it was urgent to collect black folklore before essential aspects of African-American consciousness were "rubbed off by close contact with white culture."
At first, she later recalled, she had no luck as she approached her subjects "asking, in carefully accented Barnardese, 'Pardon me, do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?' "
"The men and women who had whole treasures of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads," she recalled.
Soon she changed her style, and success came quickly.
"Evidently, she cut an unusual figure a single black woman, driving her own car, toting a gun, sometimes passing for a bootlegger, offering prize money for the best stories and 'lies,' " Carla Kaplan, a Hurston scholar who teaches English at the University of Southern California, writes in a preface to a new collection of these findings, which she edited. "She worked under harsh conditions, traveling in blistering heat, sleeping in her car when 'colored' hotel rooms couldn't be had, defending herself against jealous women, putting up with bedbugs, lack of sanitation and poor food in some of the turpentine camps, sawmills and phosphate mines she visited."
Hurston recorded hundreds of stories, some several pages long and others just one-liners, like ones about days "so dry the fish came swimming up the road in dust" or "so hot you had to feed the hens cracked ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs."
"I am getting inside of Negro art and love," she wrote in a letter in 1928. "This is going to be big."
That prediction proved inaccurate. Interest in black folk culture was not as great as Hurston had imagined, and she had trouble finding a publisher for her work. She sent copies to several friends, but the manuscript was apparently forgotten as she moved on to other projects. A copy was found several years ago in a collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and in December it was published by HarperCollins under the title "Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk Tales From the Gulf States."
"Had there been less accident and outside interference in Hurston's life, this volume might have appeared 70 years earlier," Ms. Kaplan writes. "How this would have changed Hurston's career can only be a matter of conjecture."
Ms. Kaplan is also the editor of a collection of Hurston's letters that is to be published in October. Several other Hurston-related books are also due this year, among them a biography by Valerie Boyd to be published by Scribner called "Wrapped in Rainbows."
Hurston found her star fading in the 1950's. During her last years in Florida she tried unsuccessfully to restart her literary career, and had to work as a substitute teacher and then as a maid. After a stroke in 1959 she was taken into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died on Jan. 28, 1960.
Several modern writers have paid tribute to Hurston and her influence.
One, the poet Nikki Giovanni, called her "our own walking talking swaggering history lesson." The novelist Alice Walker has argued that she should be understood as a "cultural revolutionary" and "an artist, period" rather than as "the artist/ politician most black writers have been required to be."
It was Ms. Walker who located Hurston's grave in 1973 and paid to have a marker placed above it. The epitaph reads:
Zora Neale Hurston,
A Genius of the South.
Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist.