As part of its series revisiting some of the landmarks mentioned in the Federal Writers' Project's American Guide Series, the NYT travels to Eatonville, a small town in Florida made famous by Zora Neale Hurston:
Eatonville has long been defined as a paradox of triumph and struggle. It is both a historic model of black empowerment and a community of nearly 2,400 where the poverty rates are twice the national average. It is a literary hub but also an oak-shaded example of rural Southern black culture — sometimes disdained, sometimes praised — that was born of American slavery. Not surprisingly, residents here are both proud and protective.
And the concern about Eatonville’s image really began with Zora, which is all anyone here calls Hurston. She introduced the world to her hometown through heartfelt, dialect-heavy books like “Mules and Men” (1935) and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937).
Five paragraphs in the Florida guidebook transformed the town, just off Route 17, a road that runs through the oft-forgotten center of Florida into a stage of black history and human drama. Bold as a bass drum in both life and literature, Hurston led readers to the store owned by Eatonville’s first mayor, Joe Clarke, then veered into more private areas. “Off the road on the left,” she wrote, “is the brown-with-white-trim modern public school, with its well-kept yards and playgrounds, which Howard Miller always looks after, though he can scarcely read and write.”
She also mentioned the new husband of Widow Dash and wrote that Lee Glenn “sells drinks of all kinds and whatever goes with transient rooms.”
So in just a few hundred words, Hurston linked Eatonville with self-government but also illiteracy, remarriage and sex. Clearly, Fodor’s this was not.
In fact, it was not a portrait everyone appreciated.