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Europeana // Public Domain

Queen Christina, Who Ruled as a King

Europeana // Public Domain
Europeana // Public Domain

When is a queen not a queen? When she's technically a king.

Christina of Sweden was one of Europe's most unusual monarchs, an intellectual ruler and patron of the arts known for flouting convention at every turn. The decisions she made about her rule, her religion, and her relationships shocked 17th century Europe—and have yet to be forgotten today.

"SHE HAS MADE FOOLS OF US ALL!"

Princess Christina of Sweden caused a stir from day one. Not only was she born during a planetary conjunction in 1626, causing the court’s astrologers to predict that the baby would grow up to be one of Sweden’s greatest princes, she was also, as she later wrote, born “entirely covered with hair” and cried with a “deep, loud voice,” causing her to be mistaken for a boy. Although her mother was disappointed to realize that the newborn was in fact a girl, and Christina herself wrote that the confusion “filled the palace with false joy,” her father, King Gustav II, was delighted. “She’ll be clever! She has made fools of us all!” he proclaimed.

Things got more unorthodox from there. Gustav made Christina his heir before he left for Germany to fight in the Thirty Years’ War, although the official title she was set to inherit was King, not Queen, of Sweden (Swedish law only recognized kings; there was no official status for queens). Accordingly, her father decreed that she should receive the education of a prince. Christina threw herself into her studies, rising at dawn for her lessons in classical Greek and Latin, theology, politics, and philosophy. She also learned fencing, hunting, horse riding, and other sports and games traditionally reserved for boys, as well as German, Dutch, Danish, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic. As an adult, she became one of the best-educated women in Europe.

King Gustav II died on the battlefield in 1632, when Christina was five, making her the Queen (technically King) of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals. Because her mother was seen as mentally unstable, her father had decreed that in the event of his death Christina should be cared by her paternal aunt, Catherine of Sweden. Indeed, the Dowager Queen’s condition was so dire that she refused to bury Gustav’s body for 18 months, regularly visiting and petting the putrefying corpse. Sweden’s chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, finally stepped in, ordering the body buried in Riddarholm Church (the resting place of Swedish kings), exiling the widow to another castle, and sending Christina to live with her aunt until she reached the age of majority.

THE GIRL KING

Oxenstierna ruled in Christina’s stead until she was 18, although she began attending council meetings at 14. Despite receiving lessons in politics from him personally, Christina clashed often with Oxenstierna, particularly regarding the Thirty Years’ War. When Oxenstierna sent his son to the Peace Congress in Westphalia to seek a hard line on negotiations, for example, Christina sent her own delegate to oppose him, seeking peace at any cost.

It’s episodes like this that cause some to describe Christina as a brilliant ruler and others as a complete disaster. Sources do agree that she invested so much money into her vast art collection that it seriously impacted the country’s economy, and in general she displayed little financial skill—she was notorious for giving away land belonging to the crown and showering her favorites in lavish finery. But she’s also credited with preventing civil war in the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War and its leftover rivalries, and her reign saw many progressive firsts, such as the establishment of the first newspaper in Sweden, in 1645.

But if Christina’s rule was controversial, her appearance and demeanor got even more attention. She wore a signature mop of unruly curls, which she rarely brushed, and regularly offended people with her blunt, unfiltered way of speaking. She was known across Europe for her blazing wit and keen intelligence—but just as well for her barroom manners and love of a dirty joke. Queen Christina, it has been said, “walked like a man, sat like a man, and could eat and swear like the roughest soldier.”

Also eyebrow-raising was Christina’s relationship with her lady-in-waiting Countess Ebba Sparre, with whom she spent most of her free time. The young queen waxed endlessly on Sparre’s brilliance and beauty, addressing her as “la belle comtesse” and referring to Sparre as her “bed-fellow.” Upon introducing the countess to an English ambassador, Christina candidly informed him that Sparre’s "insides were as beautiful as her outsides.”

Ebba Sparre as painted by Sébastien Bourdon
Ebba Sparre as painted by the artist Sébastien Bourdon
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Most scandalous of all, though, was the issue of Christina’s flat-out refusal to marry. In her autobiography, she wrote of “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all the things that females talked about and did.” As she became a teen, she began expressing great curiosity about Elizabeth I of England—the so-called Virgin Queen—as well as Catholic vows of celibacy. She informed her council: "I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”

Christina knew that she was expected to provide an heir, though, and she did play along for a while. When she was 16, she became secretly engaged to her first cousin, Charles Gustav, who was in love with her, before he went off to war for several years. But by the time he returned, the deal was off, and Christina resisted all future attempts by her advisors to have her married. In 1649, at age 22, she named Charles Gustav as her heir.

Two years later, Christina began making noise about abdicating and leaving her cousin in charge. She claimed that Sweden needed a man to rule and especially to lead the army, and also cited her heavy workload, bad eyesight, neck pain, and other physical ailments as reasons to forfeit the throne. Oxenstierna objected to this plan, as did her council. But another of her reasons eventually emerged: The queen had decided to convert to Catholicism. That was a serious no-no in Lutheran Sweden, partly because the Holy Roman Empire had been the main belligerent party in the recent Thirty Years’ War.

"GOD CREATING THE FIRST MAN"

After waffling back and forth for a few years, the Riksdag, Sweden's representative assembly, ultimately gave in and allowed Christina to resign in June of 1654, after 10 years’ rule, and accepted Charles Gustav as her successor. She was 28 years old. Christina later wrote that succeeding in her plan to make Charles king made her feel “like God creating the first man.”

At Christina's abdication ceremony, her royal regalia was methodically removed by the great officers of the realm in turn. Although they obliged in taking her sword, key, orb, and sceptre, an officer named Per Brahe, who was tasked with removing the crown, refused—in the end, she had to remove it herself.

When the ritual was over, Christina wore only an unadorned white taffeta dress. She made an impassioned speech, thanking God and her subjects, and asked Charles to take a seat in the silver throne she’d just vacated. Charles made a show of declining, then escorted her to her apartments. Christina left Sweden within a couple days. Her ultimate destination: the Vatican.

A painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
A 1650 painting of Queen Christina by David Beck
National Museum of Sweden // Public Domain

After chopping off her hair and riding south through Denmark disguised as a man for safety, Christina was eventually taken in by the Habsburg archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria at his palace in Brussels, where she converted to Catholicism in a secret ceremony. She then continued to Innsbruck, where she was received by another Catholic Habsburg archduke, Ferdinand Charles. There, on November 3, 1655, she announced her conversion to Catholicism in the city’s Hofkirche (the court church). Ferdinand Charles, who was as notorious as Christina for his extravagant tastes and terrible money management skills, threw a multi-day party for her. By the time she left for Italy five days later, her visit had nearly financially ruined him.

Now that word of Christina’s newfound Catholicism was afoot, the Vatican transformed this last leg of her journey into an all-out PR tour, with festivities held for her in five cities along her route. Six months after she left Uppsala, she landed in Rome, where Pope Alexander VII welcomed his prize convert with an opulent reception featuring 6000 onlookers and a procession of camels and elephants.

Once in Rome, 29-year-old Christina wasted no time in inspiring local gossip. Almost immediately, she began socializing with men her age, striking up a particularly close relationship with the young Cardinal Decio Azzolino, a code-breaker and one of the leaders of the liberal Squadrone Volante (Flying Squad) movement, which aspired to combat nepotism in the papal conclaves.

Rumors quickly emerged that Christina and Cardinal Azzolino were having a lusty affair. Almost as quickly, Alexander VII noticed the talk and asked them to limit the time they spent together. When that didn’t squelch the chatter, Azzolino was shipped off to Romania as punishment. Christina wrote him dozens of ardent letters, some in French, others in a code that the two had devised. Distance couldn’t keep them apart, though, and they remained lifelong friends, to meet again many years later.

THE WOULD-BE QUEEN OF NAPLES

In the summer of 1656, Christina traveled to France to meet King Louis XIV with the goal of becoming Queen of Naples. French-Italian politician Jules Mazarin was aiming to free Naples from Spanish control and transform it into a semi-independent, pro-French monarchy, and Christina, who sought financial independence from the pope, was an attractive candidate as a leader. Christina was not welcomed as warmly in Paris as she had hoped, though—Parisians were shocked by her open, unscrupulous demeanor and androgynous style, and she was criticized for the way she sat with her legs crossed, put her feet on theatre seats, and laughed at inappropriate times. It was whispered that she made advances toward more than one French noblewoman, too.

An engraving of Jules Mazarin around 1650
Jules Mazarin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christina still managed to charm the Sun King enough that she felt she had his approval to rule the Neapolitans (the extent of his true approval is somewhat debated). But on her way to Naples, her entourage received news that the city had been ravaged by the bubonic plague, and so she was forced to abandon the plan and head back to France. She was granted apartments by the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, just outside of Paris.

Fontainebleau was the scene of another great scandal, one that seemed only slightly less shocking to Europe than her abdication. For months, Christina had suspected her master of the horse, the marchese Gian Rinaldo Monaldeschi, of sharing her plan to become Queen of Naples with the Holy See. As such, she’d been seizing his letters, in which she claimed to have found concrete proof of his betrayal. She ordered him to appear before her at the palace to answer for himself. Monaldeschi denied the charges, but Christina remained unmoved and sentenced Monaldeschi to death.

One of the palace’s priests, Father le Bel, was appointed to receive Monaldeschi’s pre-execution confession. Afterwards, the horrified priest begged Christina on his knees not to have the death sentence carried out. But his pleas were fruitless, and members of Christina’s entourage began chasing Monaldeschi around Christina's apartments at the palace. Eventually, Monaldeschi was stabbed in the stomach by one Ludovico Santinelli, but his pursuers quickly discovered he was wearing chain-mail. They then stabbed Monaldeschi in the face, before killing him with blows to the neck.

Christina paid a monastery to say masses for Monaldeschi at his burial and washed her hands of the matter, expressing no regret. She later said she was only “sorry that she had been forced to undertake this execution,” and added that “justice had been carried out for his crime and betrayal.” Rather than asking for forgiveness herself, she asked God to forgive Monaldeschi.

This was not a good look for Christina. The marchese hailed from a powerful family that was close with the papacy, and her unapologetic attitude added insult to injury. The Romans were infuriated, viewing the incident as nothing but a straight-up murder, and French public opinion was little better.

Mazarin advised her to just blame the whole thing on Santinelli, the man who'd done the stabbing, but Christina refused, asserting full responsibility for Monaldeschi’s death. She argued that it was a perfectly legal thing to do, as she had judicial rights over all members of her court as the queen regnant of Sweden, which she continued to call herself despite her abdication.

There were consequences, however. By then Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother, was eager for France to be rid of the ex-queen and her freshly stained reputation, so Christina had to leave town. Although she’d planned to visit England next, her trip was discouraged by Oliver Cromwell, thanks to the Monaldeschi murder scandal and general anti-Catholic sentiment. In May of 1658, she reluctantly went back to Rome, where she knew an unhappy audience awaited.

The pope wanted nothing to do with her. Once her greatest champion and benefactor, Alexander VII hung back at his summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, and made it clear that visits from Christina were not welcome. He later described her as “a woman born of a barbarian, barbarously brought up and living with barbarous thoughts [...] with a ferocious and almost intolerable pride.” Her popularity among the Romans had vanished as well. She’d gone from one of the Holy See’s most touted treasures to a tarnished embarrassment in just three and a half years.

Since the pope had cut her off, the politician Mazarin let Christina stay at his place in Rome for a while. The following summer, Cardinal Azzolino saved the day, arranging for her to move into Palazzo Riario, safely across town from the Vatican, where she once again held salons with Europe’s most esteemed artists and intellectuals. Azzolino also set her up with new servants, including a replacement for Santinelli, Monaldeschi’s disgraced executioner.

PROTECTRESS OF THE JEWS

After the scandal, Christina drifted around Europe for a few years, moving between Rome, Antwerp, and Hamburg, until Pope Alexander VII died in 1667. The new pope, Clement IX, had been installed by Azzolino’s nepotism-fighting Squadrone Volante. He was an ally of Christina’s, having been a guest at her home many times. Christina was in Hamburg when she heard the news, and was so thrilled that she tactlessly hung banners of celebration in the town. She also held a giant party at her rented mansion, replete with wine-flowing fountains—to the outrage of the Protestant population of Hamburg, who did not tolerate Catholics well. Furious locals stormed the house in an attempt to capture her, and the party ended with a riot, eight deaths, and Christina escaping out the back door in disguise.

Back in Rome, Christina occasionally locked horns with Pope Clement IX, demanding that he outlaw the chasing of Jews in the streets as part of Rome’s Carnival customs—a festival fixture since the 1400s. In August of 1686, she wrote to Pope Innocent XI to appoint herself the Protectress of the Jews of Rome, signing her declaration as la Regina (the Queen). She also established her own theatre, Tor di Nona. However, after Clement IX died, the next two popes, Clement X and his successor Innocent XI, were not friends of the theatre, with the latter forbidding women from acting, singing, or wearing low-cut gowns. Christina cheerfully ignored his laws, continuing to hire actresses in her playhouse.

Christina's tumultuous life came to an end on April 19, 1689, when she was 62. Scholars think she may have died from a combination of diabetes mellitus, a streptococcus bacterial infection, and pneumonia. Cardinal Azzolino was at her bedside at the end, and she named him her heir. Although she’d requested a simple burial in Rome’s Pantheon, the pope embalmed and displayed her—wearing a silver mask and covered in jewels and furs—in the Palazzo Riario for four days. She was buried in the Vatican’s Grotto, one of only three women who have held the honor.

Since her death, Christina has been portrayed on the stage and the screen in dozens of productions, most notably by Swedish actress Greta Garbo in the not-very-accurate Queen Christina (1933). The Girl King, released in 2015, comes slightly closer to the truth, but still hypes her alleged relationships with women over her work as a regent and activist of religious tolerance. Accuracy aside, it’s a testament to Christina’s bold individuality that people today are still discussing and debating the life of this crossdressing, troublemaking, opinionated Renaissance queen. That is, king.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Leon Ray Livingston, America's Most Famous Hobo
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Trains, iStock. Portrait, Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

With no more troops or supplies to move after the end of the Civil War, the country's railroads became home to another army—that of the hobos. The ever-increasing web of rails nationwide would go from 45,000 miles before 1871 to nearly 200,000 by 1900, making it easier for the poorest of working-class folk, many of whom were veterans, to hitch a ride on a train and travel from state to state looking for employment. These hobos were soon a familiar sight coast to coast.

The journeys of these destitute travelers quickly caught on in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, creating a romanticized view of this unique lifestyle. It was a time when writers like W. H. Davies and Jack London parlayed their hoboing experiences into literary notoriety, while Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" would become one of the most recognizable movie characters of the 20th century. Among these wandering folk figures was a man with a sense of showmanship and a keen eye for branding: Leon Ray Livingston—a writer, lecturer, and transient who would go on to dub himself "King of the Hobos."

What we know about Livingston's early life comes solely from the books he wrote, which often read like tall tales designed to help build his mystique. According to Livingston, he was born in August 1872 into a family from San Francisco that he described as "well-to-do," but at age 11, misbehavior at school led him down a different path in life. On the day after his 11th birthday, his teacher sent him home with a note detailing his bad behavior, which was to be signed by Livingston's father. The boy didn't show his father the note that night, and when he spotted his teacher heading toward his house the next morning, Livingston snuck out of the house and kept moving. He wouldn't fully stop for decades.

Livingston says he left his house that day armed with a .22-caliber rifle and a pocket full of money—some stolen from his mother, some a birthday gift from his uncle. From there, his life became an odyssey of riding the rails, hopping on steamers, and taking on odd jobs as he traversed a country in the midst of an industrial revolution. Years later, Livingston would famously brag that he traveled 500,000 miles while only spending $7.61 on fares.

In his decades on the road, he took to writing about his experiences, eventually self-publishing around a dozen books about his adventures; the most comprehensive was Life and Adventures of A-No. 1: America's Most Celebrated Tramp. Published in 1910—nearly 30 years after he left home—this book includes tales of his early life as a hobo, including one globe-trotting adventure in his first year that found him working aboard a British trade ship that set off from New Orleans for Belize, where he jumped ship and began working for a mahogany camp.

Book cover for The Trail of the Tramp
The book cover to Livingston's The Trail of the Tramp
Project Gutenberg // Public Domain

Livingston's Central American exploits include anecdotes about the working conditions in the British mahogany camps, his repeated (but failed) attempts to desert his employers and head home on their dime, feasting on "roasted baboon," and his near-fatal run-in with something he called Black Swamp Fever (which could be a reference to malaria). The writing is colorful and no doubt romanticized, making it hard to separate facts from the legend Livingston aimed to enhance.

It was after his return trip to America that Livingston was christened with the nickname that would help him become something bigger than a lowly transient: A-No. 1. In his book, Livingston said the moniker was given to him by an older companion named Frenchy, who said:

"Every tramp gives his kid a nickname, a name that will distinguish him from all other members of the craft. You have been a good lad while you have been with me, in fact been always 'A-No. 1' in everything you had to do, and, Kid, take my advice, if you have to be anything in life, even if a tramp, try to be 'A-No. 1' all the time and in everything you undertake."

He also told Livingston to carve this new nickname into each mile post he passed on his journey, letting the world know who'd traveled here before them. This piece of advice gave the legend of Livingston more longevity than he could ever imagine: In the 21st century, people are still finding "A-No. 1" scribbled under bridges.

In addition to signing their nickname, the wandering tramps would also draw up symbols to alert others of possible danger or hospitality ahead. In his 1911 book Hobo-Camp-Fire-Tales, Livingston provides drawings of 32 of these symbols and what they all mean—including signs for "This town has saloons," "The police in this place are 'Strictly Hostile,'" and "Hostile police judge in this town. Look out!" It's not completely clear if Livingston played a role in creating this hobo code, but he is credited with preserving these symbols and bringing them to the attention of a curious American public.

As Livingston became more of a cultural figure, he seemingly took an interest in leading people away from the tramp life. His books would often begin with a warning, telling readers, "Wandering, once it becomes a habit, is almost incurable, so NEVER RUN AWAY, but STAY AT HOME, as a roving lad usually ends in becoming a confirmed tramp." He then finished, saying this "pitiful existence" would likely end with any would-be tramp in a "pauper's grave." These warnings could be a well-meaning public service announcement, although scholars say they can also be read as Livingston's attempt to enhance the danger of the lifestyle to create even more intrigue about his exploits (and sell more books).

Always a showman, Livingston understood publicity as well as any celebrity at the time; in his travels he would often seek out local reporters, becoming the subject of numerous newspaper articles and magazine interviews around the country. Taking pride in his exploits, he carried a scrapbook of his journeys around with him, which included personalized letters and autographs from notable figures such as Thomas Edison, George Dewey, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft.

His influence among the community was far-reaching, even capturing the imagination of a young Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, during his formative years. London had reached out to Livingston about his lifestyle in the late 19th century, and the two adventured together, as chronicled in Livingston's book From Coast to Coast with Jack London, which was published in 1917, a year after London's death.

Despite the freight-hopping and steamer trips and odd jobs, Livingston wasn't hurting for money; for him, hoboing was a spiritual necessity, not a financial one. When he would seek some stability during his travels, he could often be found staying at Mrs. Cunningham's Boarding House in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, where he would write many of his books. In The Ways of the Hobo, he claimed the house became "a veritable Mecca to chronic hoboes," including old friends like "Hobo Mike" and "Denver Johnny," who sought out his counsel and companionship.

In 1914, Livingston married a woman named Mary Trohoske (sometimes spelled Trohoski), and he settled down—as best a tramp could—in a house in Erie, Pennsylvania. His later years were spent working various jobs—including at electric and steel companies around Erie, though one source places him in real estate. While he stayed relatively put in his later years, Livingston did travel the lecture circuit to speak out against the lifestyle that defined him. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the warnings Livingston wrote about the hobo lifestyle in each of his books had transformed into full-on speeches against tramping. (Sadly, his lectures don't seem to have survived.)

Rumors persist about Livingston's final days. Some claim that he continued his traveling ways toward the end, dying in a train wreck in Houston, Texas, in 1944, but this is likely confusion with a 1912 wreck that killed one of his impersonators. According to most accounts, Livingston passed away due to heart failure in his home on April 5, 1944 around age 71, with his wife by his side. But for a man who lived to mythologize his own story, a little ambiguity about his end is only fitting.

Livingston's fame has waned significantly since the first quarter of the 20th century. He's only re-emerged in the mainstream a few times, most notably when Lee Marvin played A-No. 1 in the 1973 movie Emperor of the North, based on Livingston's travels with Jack London and on London's own book The Road. Though little-remembered now, Livingston was part of a fleeting moment in American history—a time when the country was getting the first real glimpse of itself as an interconnected nation, and when someone who lived by wandering could be the stuff of folklore.

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Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Zora Neale Hurston, Genius of the Harlem Renaissance
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain
Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Twentieth century African-American author Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. But her perseverance and love of her culture made for a much richer life than many people know.

Near the turn of the century, Hurston was born the spirited daughter of former slaves. Her parents had gone on to become a schoolteacher and a Baptist preacher. Her father's sermons were likely what sparked the girl's fascination with storytelling, which she'd later use not only in her works, but also in the construction of her public persona.

Over the course of her life, Hurston offered contradictory dates of birth. And in her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, she inaccurately claimed Eatonville, Florida, as her birthplace, when in truth she was born in Notasulga, Alabama, probably on January 7, 1891. But Eatonville was her home from about age 3 to 13, and a major influence on her work. One of the first places in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town, it was also home to a vibrant and proud African-American community that protected the young Hurston from the cruel racial prejudices found elsewhere in the United States. Years later, Hurston would cherish this place and the self-confidence it instilled in her works. She once described it as "A city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse."

Despite a seemingly ideal hometown, Hurston knew hardship. At 13, she lost her mother, and was booted out of boarding school when her father and new step-mom failed to foot the tuition bill. Down but not out, Hurston found work as a maid, serving an actress in a traveling theatrical company that gave her a taste of the world beyond Florida. In Baltimore, she lopped a decade off her age (a subtraction she maintained the rest of her days) to qualify for free public schooling that would allow her to complete her long-delayed high school education. From there, she worked her way through college, studied anthropology and folklore, and had her earliest works published in her school's paper. By 1920, the 29-year-old earned an associate degree from Howard University in Washington D.C. Five years later, she made the fateful move to New York City, where she eventually graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from Barnard College after studying with the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas. There, she also became a seminal and controversial icon of the Harlem Renaissance.

It's said that Hurston—with her brazen wit, affable humor, and charm—waltzed into the Harlem scene, easily befriending actress Ethel Waters, and poets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Professor and fellow folklorist Sterling Brown once remarked of her appeal, "When Zora was there, she was the party."

Electrified by the thriving literary movement that strove to define the contemporary African-American experience, Hurston penned the personal essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me," where she boldly declared

"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

She and Hughes teamed up in 1930 to create a play for African-American actors that wouldn't use racial stereotypes. Regrettably, creative differences led to a falling out between the two that sunk The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life In Three Acts before the Eatonville-set fable managed to be produced. But Hurston rebounded with her musical The Great Day, which premiered on Broadway January 10, 1932. Next, came her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934. The following year saw the release of a meticulously curated collection of African American oral folklore. Mules and Men became the greatest success she'd see in her lifetime, and yet it earned Hurston only $943.75.  

Her next book, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written during her anthropological expedition to Haiti to study voodoo. Reflecting its divorced author's life, it followed a forty-something African American woman's journey through three marriages and self-acceptance. While the mainstream press praised Hurston's anthropological eye and her writing "with her head as with her heart," she faced a backlash from some of her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Zora Neale Hurston drumming, 1937. Wikimedia/Library of Congress // Public Domain

As the movement evolved, Harlem Renaissance writers had been debating how African-Americans should present their people and culture in their art. Should they devotedly fight against the negative stereotypes long established by Caucasian writers? Should their work be penned as progressive propaganda intended to expose the racism of modern America as a means to provoke change? Or should African-Americans create without the constraints of a political or creative ideology? Hurston sided with the last group, and saw her novel criticized for its embrace of the vernacular of the black South, its exploration of female sexuality, and its absence of an overt political agenda. Literary critic Ralph Ellison called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "blight of calculated burlesque," while essayist Richard Wright jeered, "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction." But fiction wasn't all she wrote. 

In 1938, Hurston published the anthropological study Tell My Horse; her aforementioned autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, came six years later. But following the release of her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston's career fell into decline. Through the 1950s, she occasionally managed to secure some work as a journalist, scraping by with stints as a substitute teacher and sometimes maid. Despite a prolific output that included four novels, two folklore collections, an autobiography, and a wealth of short stories, essays, articles and plays, Hurston died penniless and alone in a welfare home on January 28, 1960; her body—dressed in a pink dressing gown and fuzzy slippers—was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce.

It was an especially cruel fate because she'd once appealed to activist W.E.B. Du Bois to create "a cemetery for the illustrious Negro dead" to assure that they'd never be discarded. Her rejected proposal read in part: "Let no Negro celebrity, no matter what financial condition they might be in at death, lie in inconspicuous forgetfulness. We must assume the responsibility of their graves being known and honored." 

This confident and rebellious creator's contribution to the Harlem Renaissance seemed certain to have doomed her to the realm of the forgotten. But in 1975, Alice Walker, who would go on to write the heralded novel The Color Purple, penned a legacy-shifting essay for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." The essay encouraged a new generation of readers to rediscover Hurston’s work. Their Eyes Were Watching God found a new life, and began popping up on school reading curriculums and earning reprintings in other languages, as did her other books. Mule Bone was finally published and staged in 1991. Historians scoured archives and uncovered a never-published manuscript of folklore Hurston had collected. Titled Every Tongue Got To Confess, it was published posthumously in 2001.

Not only were Hurston's works at long last given their due—so was she. In honor of the author who'd inspired her and countless others, Walker traveled to Florida to put a proper tombstone on Hurston's grave. It reads: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South. Novelist, folklorist, anthropologist."

This story originally ran in 2016.

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