“Like the dead‑seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.” So begins with an intense, undeniable beauty the memoir of one of America’s great writers, Zora Neale Hurston. I read her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, for the first time years ago, shortly after I got sober, when a black‑haired Irish opera student turned movie ticket-taker and occasional junkie pulled it and a Tom Waits CD out of her torn army‑surplus knapsack and pressed them into my hands for safekeeping.
“I’ll be wanting these back, then,” she said, crushing out a cheap cigarette against the icy pavement as she slipped onto a bus for Syracuse. I never saw her again. Decades later, I still have the book and CD tucked away, in case she ever shows up.
When the teacher is ready, the student appears, runs an old Zen saying. That was the right book for me at the right moment. Despite the incommensurable differences between our lives, I was struck, immediately, by how Hurston was able to form an entire worldview out of her own pain of isolation. I also noted how she described aspects of the self in geological terms, as if she were digging through centuries to get at the bedrock. What had she found? Our memories come from the weight, fire, and pressure that form who we are. Trace our memories far enough and we find out what our lonelinesses are made of.
Hurston’s hometown, Eatonville, located outside Orlando, was one of the first towns in the United States to be incorporated and run by African Americans. She described it as “a pure Negro town— charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” Zora’s handsome father, John Hurston, a rugged, physically commanding Baptist preacher with a gift for lyric turns of language—perhaps the one gift he passed down to his daughter—would even become a three‑ term mayor in the town. Eatonville had been a defining place for her, and although she would be forced to leave it as a teenager, it stayed with her for as long as she lived. The town and its habits, its inhabitants, all pressed knowledge and lore into the topographic folds of her mind. On benches and apple boxes and milk crates sat people at Joe Clarke’s store, the “heart and soul” of the town. When it was really humid, they gathered on the porch, shirts loosened, shooing big Florida flies, and fanning gently their foreheads. Inside and out, people talked and gossiped, telling tales large and small, real and invented.
While a young girl, Hurston listened as people sat around the general store and “passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions.” The hold of those conversations on her was undeniable, and she saw, firsthand, how talk and especially storytelling were the very bonds that could keep a group of people together. Talking and listening; listening and talking. She would return to these interactions, and Eatonville itself, in her work throughout her career. For instance, her first stop in collecting African American folklore for the book that was to be titled Mules and Men was her hometown.
“I hurried back to Eatonville because I knew that the town was full of material and that I could get it without hurt, harm or danger,” she wrote in the introduction to the book, published in 1935. Eatonville had had “a say” in the shape of her imagination and in her pursuit of gathering those narratives that would offer her a sense of herself as well as the culture that formed her imagination. She was so defined by Eatonville as a specific locale that in her autobiography she claimed to have been born in the town, even though her family actually moved there from Alabama when Hurston was two years old. Perhaps that’s not so strange: I was born in Duluth and my family moved to Massachusetts when I was three. Nevertheless, every last part and piece of me feels like it clambered out of the rocky soil of New England. In that sense, hers is a lie that tells the truth.
Natural images are clearly how Hurston tried to understand herself. As a little girl, Hurston, born in 1891 (though she would later alter that date), believed that the moon followed her, and her alone, every night, its bright gaze always over her shoulder, seeing her home. The other children didn’t count, she believed, in regard to her special relationship. The moon was her special friend; the moon loved her. On the other side of the world, years later, Walter Benjamin would write about the value of getting lost in a city the very same way one gets lost in a forest. Getting lost helps you find that, although a place can swallow you up, you can discover an ability to map your way out by reading every twig snap or every street sign as a message directed toward you.
For Hurston, the moon was part of her map for finding herself everywhere at home. Catching wind of Zora’s feeling that she had a special relationship, Carrie Roberts, her hometown “frenemy,” challenged her to a footrace in the moonlight. The rules were straightforward: Zora and Carrie would each run as fast as they could in opposite directions and whoever the moon followed would be the proof of which girl really had a connection to the moon. As you can imagine, the race didn’t determine anything. How could it? Each girl looked up and saw the moon behind her, of course. The argument then prompted other of their friends to point out that it followed them as well. The moon wasn’t Hurston’s moon, after all, and little Zora experienced that disillusionment as a loss, and an aching recognition that she couldn’t look to the night sky for verification that she was altogether unique and special.
“The unfaithfulness of the moon hurt me deeply,” she confessed. It was as if she had lived out some real‑life fable or folktale. We could write this off as the sweet but fantastical imaginings of a little girl, yet Hurston did remember this moment and wrote about it forty years later. The race had some lingering, crucial resonance in Hurston’s mind, possibly because beneath the childlike charm of the tale there is a real, consequential question: What happens when we feel like even the natural world can withdraw its affections, can change the angle of its attention?
In the wake of that footrace and its disappointment, Hurston nonetheless came to an important realization, one that created a possibility of empathy for others: she learned she wasn’t the only one wanting to have a real friendship that made one feel special because of the connection. She took surprising comfort in the thought that she was one of any number of children who needed to feel they played a role in giving the moon some direction in where it might go. She wasn’t alone in her loneliness; it wasn’t she alone who needed confirmation that she didn’t fit in because she was special. This realization of parallel lonelinesses came about because of her friendship with Carrie, even if it had been a bit of jealousy that spurred it on.
This early moment may be why friendship would become an important consideration in how Zora understood her life. The difference between Zora and her childhood friends was apparent: she could take that longing and fashion a story to tell about it. That way, she would be the one to give other people the means for locating themselves in the world. Zora knew, no matter what the moon did or didn’t do, that she was unique in all the world. There had been a sign, after all, an uncommon sign, a mystical sign, that she would live an uncommon life.
When the visions of the future first came upon her, Zora Neale Hurston was seven years old. One by one, like a series of still photographs flickering across her mind, they appeared to her amidst a hot Florida afternoon when she had fallen into a strange sleep while sitting alone on her neighbors’ porch. Little Zora, after she had mischievously filched an egg from one of her family’s hens, had gone to the neighbors to hide from her parents. While waiting for the coast to clear, she nodded off, but it was no ordinary nap. The visions that came to her, twelve in all, she later described as “pronouncements”: they revealed to her the shape her life would take, and they would return to her at various moments over the years so as to not let her forget what was coming in the future.
Much of what she saw consisted of emotionally resonant images without obvious immediate meaning: a large fish swimming away, a train racing into the distance as she ran after it, a white house in need of painting that she sensed would be one day the source of great pain. At the end of the sequence of images appeared a house with two faceless women standing in front, one tending unfamiliar flowers, and this, she believed—no, she knew—would eventually be where her journey ended.
Stories, Hurston would learn, would be the frame within which she could locate herself in the midst of others.
From these visions, she grasped how much of her life would be spent alone, saw her family split apart, knew she would periodically wander without friends or direction. They also showed her that she would make things out of her isolation and distance, things that would be of use to others one day. Although Hurston was still a child when they first visited her like spirits of what’s to come, these revelations formed her deepest sense of self for the rest of her life.
“I consider that my real childhood ended with the coming of the pronouncements,” she wrote in Dust Tracks on a Road. “True, I played, fought and studied with other children, but always I stood apart within. Often I was in some lonesome wilderness, suffering strange things and agonies while other children in the same yard played without a care. I asked myself why me? Why? Why? A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” The gift of the vision was also a burden. It would be a recurring theme in Hurston’s life: her gifts made her feel forever apart. What we don’t know is whether the experience of these images created the loneliness or if that cosmic, existential loneliness, felt so deeply by a sensitive, gifted young girl, was the precondition that made her visions possible—visions that caused her to feel all the lonelier because they marked her as different. Other kids didn’t have that.
Stories, Hurston would learn, would be the frame within which she could locate herself in the midst of others. From there, she could help others find themselves as part of a larger social and cultural group, one bound together by narratives. “There is nothing to make you like other human beings so much as doing things for them,” she once insisted. This belief was the engine of both her work as an anthropologist and as a novelist. That compassion, that self‑directed empathy, was the counterforce she would use to negotiate her cosmic loneliness. Although the feeling of being unique could have been the cause of her loneliness, it also pushed her outward in order to find an answer to that emotional isolation by reaching toward other people.
Excerpted from This Exquisite Loneliness: What Loners, Outcasts and the Misunderstood Can Teach Us About Creativity by Richard Deming. Used with permission of the publisher, Viking. Copyright © 2023 by Richard Deming.