Archive for November, 2016

A Toest

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

It’s December, which means it’s dark and drafty up here in the Ivory Tower. This month we’ll be writing about things cold and wintry.

Today’s topic comes from the frozen Canadian part of the world: Dawson City, Yukon.

Living in icy climes is physically hazardous. Frostbite can claim both digits and lives. And living up in the snowy north (or south) can make people do some pretty crazy things.

The hazardous and crazy meet at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, where they serve a unique libation known as the Sourtoe Cocktail.

In the 1970s, someone found a jar of alcohol with a severed toe — apparently a victim of frostbite 50 years earlier — brought it down to the hotel bar, and started plopping it into the drinks of anyone willing to down a shot with a toe in it.

The original toe was swallowed in a drinking accident in 1980, but more toes have been donated over the years. The bar is always looking for new toes, most publicly after an American intentionally swallowed one back in 2013 (this is why American tourists get a bad name). So if you have a toe you’re not using, contact the Sourdough Saloon at the Downtown Hotel.


photo courtesy of Joan Grossman

The Many Hats of Zora Neale Hurston

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, essayist, anthropologist, playwright, and critic. But that’s not what we mean by many hats.

Zora Neale Hurston was, simply, a woman who could really wear a hat.

In nearly every photograph of the Harlem Renaissance luminary, she is sporting a fabulous hat. Here are some of them.


This is an author’s portrait c. 1931 from the book Negro: An Anthology. Hurston is really owning that beret. Note the rakish angle.


At the New York Times Book Fair in 1937, with a hat/veil combo! We love the title of that book she’s reading.


She clearly was into hats at a young age. Even if she wasn’t wearing one, she was carrying one.


Here she is down in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. The feather is a nice touch.


A rather dramatic photo by writer/photographer/Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten. Another rakish angle from ZNH.


Hurston in the late 1930s/early 1940s, still keeping it rakish.


Another Carl Van Vechten photo from 1940. More of a kerchief than a hat, but she’s totally wearing it like a hat.


This photo, courtesy of the Library of Congress, was misidentified as a picture of Zora Neale Hurston for many years. Why? Because she’s fabulously wearing a fabulous hat! In fact, the woman here is unidentified. But we suspect Hurston would approve of the hat.


How Did We Lose Zora Neale Hurston?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

Today, Zora Neale Hurston has a grave marker. But it wasn’t always so.

Hurston is best known as one of the pantheon of the Harlem Renaissance. But though she was born in Alabama, schooled in Jacksonville and Baltimore, attended Howard and Barnard and Columbia, lived – really lived – in New York City, she was at heart a Florida girl.

Hurston grew up in Florida and she died there, and in between, she worked for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

During the Great Depression, Hurston was a WPA anthropologist and field researcher. She documented turpentine camps. She collected Florida’s African-American cultures, traditions, and folklore in the publication The Florida Negro. Hurston was a contributor to Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, one of the WPA’s acclaimed American Guide series, writing about Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the US, and the place where she was raised.

Zora Neale Hurston was an accomplished and inveterate traveler, increasingly by necessity. When it became difficult to publish her work, when her patrons died and her health began to fail, she wound up back in Florida, eventually without means, and lived her last days in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. When she died, her papers were saved (fortunately) from being destroyed by fire, and she ended up in an unmarked grave at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her work suffered similar obscurity.

We have Alice Walker to thank for Hurston’s restoration to our recognition, as well as for Hurston’s grave marker and its inscription “A Genius of the South” (from Jean Toomer’s poem, Georgia Dusk). Walker sought out Zora Neale Hurston and, when she discovered that her literary hero had no gravestone, she made it right.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda reminds us in Hamilton – a work that is quite well-known at the moment – our cultural mothers and fathers are powerless to determine
Who lives
Who dies
Who tells your story?

We are not.


Zora and Langston and the Mule-Bone

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

Politics can ruin everything. By the time a shining ideal make it way through the process to make them reality, it’s impossible to recognize the practitioner or the brainchild or both.

Zora Neale Hurston decided to join Langston Hughes on an artistically audacious project. They set out to write a play in African American vernacular, featuring characters instead of caricatures, and a plot derived from black folk tradition without stereotypes. Hurston and Hughes summed up their play: “the first real Negro folk comedy.”

Then came the sleights and jealousy, letters and telegrams, accusations and those last avid visitors to the spoiled banquet – lawyers.

But what caused the breach?

It wasn’t the idea of writing entirely in black vernacular – that concept sparked controversy only when the show was produced decades after the authors were dead.

It wasn’t the egotistic inability of the artists to collaborate. Both writers had other partnerships. Langston wrote operas with Jan Meyerowitz and the formidable Kurt Weill. Zora wrote a play (another comedy, this one with music) with Dorothy Waring.

No one is entirely sure what did happen. Hughes was in the process of severing ties with a rather calculating patron of the arts he shared with Hurston, whereas she was content to retain the patronage. The play originated in a folk tale Hurston documented during her anthropological work (“The Bone of Contention”) and there was the matter of who contributed more, who deserved credit for shaping the work.

Politics… well, it’s like I said.

Hurston, citing herself as sole author, submitted the play for copyright and sent it to a black theater company in Cleveland. Though later they both were credited in the Library of Congress, it was too late. On his copy, Hughes scrawled a brief of explanation: “This play was never done because the authors fell out.”

Kindnesses and unkindnesses followed – from both Huston and Hughes.

As for The Mule-Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts by Zora Hurston [sic] and Langston Hughes, his copy is with his papers at Yale and their copy is at the Library of Congress and you can read it here or, courtesy of the mighty Project Gutenberg, you can also read it here.

Here’s wishing us all many more kindnesses than unkindnesses in this most political season.

Smile! (for a long, long time)

Tuesday, November 1st, 2016

November 1, 1850 was the publication date of the premiere issue of The Daguerreian Journal: Devoted to the Daguerreian and Photogenic Art. Not to limit the scope of its interests, its cover further promised: Also, embracing the Sciences, Arts and Literature.

Though the “semi-monthly” DJ was the first photography magazine, it had no photos and its sole illustration was the engraved image of Louis Daguerre on the cover.


While today we fill our interstitial moments with aimless flicking through the images on our phones – or even with adding more photos to the hundreds we may never look at again – our forebears were encouraged in the pages of The Daguerreian Journal to rejoice at the prospect of each incremental invention and discovery.

Just as we debate the relative merits of storing the family photos in fading albums or transferring images to the cloud, people in 1851 were eager to preserve their lives and experiences for the future. So when a minister from upstate New York named Levi Hill struck on a photographic process to produce “natural colors”, DJ’s editor and publisher wrote breathlessly of these “Hillotypes”:

Men profound in their scientific skill and learning, have long and in vain sought for the discovery or invention of some means of securing to the future, the colors of the present. – The Daguerreian Journal v. 1, no. 8, c. 2, “Hillotype” p. 241

Alas, later investigators discovered that the lifelike colors of these “Hillotypes” were only partially attributable to Hill’s complicated process and toxic chemicals. It turns out that, like many of us, the good minister goosed his photographs on the sly with applications of pigments.

To be fair, even today when we say we want “lifelike,” what we really want is “life, but with certain improvements.” [Choose Normal or Clarendon or Gigham or Moon or Lark or Reyes… now send.]