Archive for Saturday, February 15, 1997

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February 15, 1997

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KU's chancellor welcomes scholars who add to understanding of author Zora Neale Hurston -- even if it means correcting his mistakes.

A New Yorker magazine writer has taken a shot at the biography of Zora Neale Hurston by Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway.

Literary critic Claudia Roth Pierpont analyzed the life and times of Hurston, a black woman novelist who wrote "Their Eyes Were Watching God," in the magazine's Feb. 17 edition.

Hemenway won numerous awards for his 1977 biography of Hurston. She had died in obscurity and poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida.

She left behind contradictory information about her life. The confusion intrigued Hemenway and inspired him to write her biography.

Hemenway found some researchers who thought Hurston was from Florida, while others said New York. People swore she was married once, but others said twice or not at all. Even Hurston's age was disputed.

In the New Yorker, Pierpont took Hemenway to task for botching the year of Hurston's birth.

Pierpont wrote that Hurston was born in 1891 -- 10 years prior to the year attributed to her birth by Hemenway.

On Friday, Hemenway said census information uncovered after publication of his book had established her date of birth in 1891.

"The discovery that she was born 10 years before most everyone thought she was is an illustration of the way scholarship works," he said.

Hemenway said it was the job of scholars to seek revelation. Graduate students and young professors ought to find comfort in that fact, he said.

"They should take heart," he said. "They know many things are waiting to be discovered."

In Hurston's case, Hemenway said the subject of his biography frequently misrepresented her own age.

At one point, the chancellor said, Hurston claimed to have been born in 1901. She also listed her birth date on a marriage license as 1910.

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