Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst book cover


The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst

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In the first half of the twentieth century, Fannie Hurst was known as much for the startling particulars of her extraordinary life as for writing stories that penetrated the human heart. Hers is the story of a Jewish girl from the Middle West turned dynamic celebrity author, the kid down the street who spoke her dreams out loud and then managed to fulfill every one of them.

With stories and novels such as HumoresqueBack Street, and Imitation of Life, Fannie Hurst reigned as the leading “sob sister” of American fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. Her name on the cover of a magazine was enough to sell out an issue. She wrote of immigrants and shopgirls, love, drama, and trauma, and in no time the title “World’s Highest-Paid Short-Story Writer” attached itself to her name. Hollywood fattened her bank account, making her works into films thirty-one times in forty years.


From Chapter One and from Fannie on Race:

The first known published work of Fannie Hurst appeared in her high school newspaper at Christmastime 1904, the month before she graduated. “An Episode,” a nine-paragraph story, sketches a few moments in the life of a wealthy, powerful, but godless man alone with his conscience in a cathedral. Overcome by the haunting majesty of his surroundings, he watched his misdeeds pass before him. Pain and remorse engulfed him. He sat crouched alone on a pew until the last echoes of “Ave Maria” died away.

Then he rose, and went out, and as he went he said, “I have knowledge, I have power–what I lack is rhythm.”

Then he threw back his head and laughed, long and loud and bitterly, and went off into the dusk.

Fannie Hurst, the daughter of now quite comfortable, assimilated German Jews with deadening middle-class aspirations, wanted to be a writer. She liked to claim that the Saturday Evening Post mailed back her manuscripts as if by boomerang from the time she was fourteen. This did not deter her. Nor did her mother’s dire prediction that she would end up “an old-maid schoolteacher like Tillie Strauss,” the sad and lonely spinster daughter of one of her mother’s friends. Fannie defied this well-meant but suffocating opposition and compromised only enough to go to college in St. Louis, her hometown. She entered Washington University in the fall of 1905, a month before she turned twenty.

Fannie and her classmates watched much ground break. The handsome new Gothic-style “Quad” had been a site for the most defining seven months of the century for St. Louis, the “Universal Exposition,” more commonly known as the 1904 World’s Fair. The trees that lined the campus drives were only saplings in those days, reminding Fannie of “the knees of newborn calves.” By her sophomore year the first girls’ dormitory opened, and every city girl who could afford to do so took a room in McMillan Hall to get a better feel for college life. This did not stop the trips back to Mama, however. The sight of coeds toting overnight bags out the door of the new red-brick building was so common that some of the professors took to calling the campus Suitcase U. Although McMillan had space for 125 girls, only 16 moved in that first year, and together they became a tight little band. Every evening they joined in a kind of family party. Fannie usually provided the entertainment, amusing the group with parodies, anecdotes, and character sketches. She could concoct a spooky mystery yarn with no more inspiration than the sight of the same car parked at the edge of campus day after day. Fannie laid claim to the most exotic suite of rooms, in a little tower at the dormitory’s very top. She dubbed it “the test tube,” a name that stuck. So did Fannie’s penchant for snaring the best and most unusual living spaces.

Her vitality was legendary on campus; she never seemed to sleep. From the Quad, friends often saw the lights in the test-tube windows burn till daylight, the sole indication that she was making time to study. For Fannie, classwork always came a distant second to acting, writing, editing, sports, and, as McMillan’s first president, even dorm life.

Nevertheless she took pains to project the air of a serious scholar and desperately wanted the approval of the university’s intellectual elite. With pretentious displays of verbiage, she dazzled friends and classmates, but her academic average was no better than a straight B-minus. Her A’s in subjects that mattered to her, like composition and literature, did not quite balance out the C’s. “More conspicuous than distinguished” was the way she later described her academic performance. Thinking back on those days years later, a dormmate remembered Fannie not as brilliant but as robust and vigorous, someone who “enjoyed living in every fiber of her being.” Fannie showed no inclination for social activism in those years; that came later. Nor did she engage in any experimentation with the opposite sex.

Nothing seems to have sated Fannie’s need for attention–not her stage performances, not her student compositions, not the admiration of her friends or even a coveted nod from a professor who might occasionally acknowledge a flash of talent. She found herself “slashing around in all directions at once”–silently tormented, violently ambitious, jealous of the achievements of others.

This anguish, which she deftly concealed, seemed to center on her inability to get any of her writing published professionally. As yearnings go this one was not so far-fetched. Fannie was among a number of students in this St. Louis litter to show precocious promise. Among the young women in her age-group, a few already had distinguished themselves in the greater St. Louis community. Zoé Akins, poet and future playwright, spent a term on the Washington University campus in Fannie’s sophomore year. By that time Akins’s work was appearing regularly in the Mirror, a local magazine of national literary repute owned and edited by the legendary William Marion Reedy. Sara Teasdale, another poet about Fannie’s age, had her first book of verse published in 1907, when Fannie was a junior. Reedy had been publishing Teasdale’s poems in the Mirror for a year. Especially irksome to Fannie was the publication in book form of Completion of Coleridge’sChristabel by her classmate Edna Wahlert. Years later Fannie oddly remembered this work as her own unpublished effort as a child of sixteen in one telling, and eleven in another. Yet of all this local achievement, Cornelia Catlin Coulter stirred the most envy. Brilliant, austere, and scholarly, Coulter had little time for Fannie in their days at Washington U. After graduation she went straight to Bryn Mawr and earned a doctorate on the strength of a dissertation titled “Retraction in the Ambrosian and Palatine Recensions of Plautus; a Study of the Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Stichus, and Trinummus.” Next to Coulter, Fannie always felt diminished, “transparent . . . a cheap and garish thing.”


Fannie on Race, 1925-46

Without fail, starting from the mid-1920s, Fannie took the progressive position on matters involving discrimination, prejudice, segregation, and equal opportunity for America’s black population. Even when the subject was her own Jewish background, she would say, “Creed, race mean nothing to me. We are human beings. This is my creed.” She was consistent enough and public enough in support for progress on this front to warrant repeated expressions of appreciation from prominent members of the black community.

Charles S. Johnson of Opportunity magazine wrote her on sending her a literary collection in 1928: “You have been such an unfailing friend of the young writers . . .”

Ivy Bailey of The American Public Opinon, about to launch a weekly newspaper in Harlem in 1940: “You have inspired and helped thousands of our Negro women, and I know many who look forward to your writings. . .

James Hubert of the National Urban League, imploring her to remain on his board of directors, even if just in name only, after she asks to resign for lack of time in 1942: “You, Miss Hurst, are one of those friends and one whom we as Negroes in America have confidence in.”

Fannie shared Carl Van Vechten’s interest in the subject but not his relish or passion for it. As early as 1926, she got so tired of his Johnny-one-note involvement with Harlem that she asked him if they could have a “taboo-tea. Taboo — just for once! The Negro. I want to know some of the things you think about striped peppermint candy, aziolas, Al Jolson and mugwumps.” And yet, at the same time, she was always willing to blurb good books by the most talented black writers and often sent them encouraging letters of support. She faciliated access to powerful white agents, editors and publishers for Zora Neale Hurston and for Dorothy West. She judged competitions, and made radio appeals, speeches and public statements whenever called upon by just about anyone until the 1940s. At that time, when several organizations to which she had blithely lent her name were singled out in the press as Communist fronts, she became more discriminating in her causist choices. Probably because of her trips to Russia, the FBI had been keeping tabs on her for years, but her file contains nothing particularly damning.

Her earliest recorded thoughts on race appear in a newspaper article published around 1928. She told the reporter that her contacts with the Negro race up to that point had been “varied and “something I don’t particularly think about one way or the other.” She thought both whites and blacks treated the race question too self-consciously. “Negroes nowadays resent being studied by whites and the whites are a bit too patronizing in their manner,” she said. By way of example, she told of a ball in Harlem she recently had attended at which blacks and whites mingled freely. “It should have been just a gala occasion, but it wasn’t she said. “One could detect a feeling of aloofness on the part of the whites, a kind of feeling that one race was among another watching it at play.” She said she had no particular likes or dislikes about black people as a group, but did offer that she knew some “lovable characters who were black and numbered them among her friends.”

The blind spots that appear in Fannie’s fiction are mirrored in the wince-worthy attitudes that show up even more distinctly both in her non-fiction and some of her well-meant private efforts. However confusing and offensive they seem now, they cannot be judged accurately from the perspective of one looking backward with knowing hindsight through sixty-five years of turbulent social history into a world that no longer exists. They cannot be explained away, either. But they also cannot be ignored.

They appear most vividly in the appeal letters she wrote in the late 1920s on behalf of the National Health Circle for Colored People. She wrote or sometimes ghost-wrote these letters, guided both in format and specifics by the organization’s director, Belle Davis. In 1927, the missive went out under the photograph of an adorable, impoverished crippled black child. Fannie reports that the child is outside the reach of the nation’s social machinery because not only is he poor and crippled, but he is black, poor and crippled and therefore “NEEDS YOU SO!” In fairness to Fannie, it was what she was asked to do and this part of the letter is very much of a piece with the heart-tugging individualized prose that relief organizations still favor for their fundraising campaigns. But Fannie also throws in an utterly gratuitous reference to “the nice little chap with a happy friendly nature which is the heritage of a happy friendly race.” And this was for the letter especially geared to black recipients.

The letter aimed at a white audience, with its references to blacks as a “languid-minded” people, was every bit as ill-considered. In this case, it is not just the reading with enlightened hindsight that gives this impression. As it was sent out at Eastertime in 1927, it caught the ire of one recipient, a man named Devere Allen, who took offense at many of Fannie’s references, especially her mention of the emergence of previously “unsuspected qualities” in the American Negro, which she intended as a compliment. He also objected to her imputation that poor southern blacks endured unsanitary hygienic conditions, improper housing and general violations of the laws of health as a result of ignorance and lack of desire. “Unfortunately,” Allen rebutted, “it is not only the ignorant but also the comparatively well-educated Negro in this country who is obliged to use his ingenuity in the search for decent living conditions.”

Fannie thanked Allen for his frankness but suggested he had let “exaggerated race consciousness” influence his point of view and that his attitude amounted to “my race right or wrong.” All the same, she was quick to apologize to Allen — “to both you and your race” — if she had been guilty of “well-meaning patronage toward the Negro, an attitude I abhor as much as you do.”

Allen had to agree with Fannie that black people were often as guilty of exaggerated race consciousness as other minorities tended to be. But he told her that he personally would have to be exculpated from such a charge. The executive and literary editor of The World Tomorrow, a Christian socialist magazine that soon would publish “How it Feels to Be Colored Me” by one Zora Neale Hurston, was white.

Imitation of Life, the novel, drew attention to Fannie’s highheel-prints on the road to improved race relations. She became an important white face to call on and her response almost invariably was to help out whenever she could. In November of 1933, when Langston Hughes asked her for a check and a public statement on behalf of the trial of black teenagers accused of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama, Fannie readily replied: “. . . I feel that not only are nine human destinies involved, but the entire nation is on trial along with these young Americans. Hasty and unfair trials for human beings in general, must not be tolerated in America. Hasty and unfair trials for Negroes in particular can only grind a very black mark into the face of America for tolerating any form of injustice against a minority race.” The phrase “very black mark” was, perhaps, an unfortunate choice of imagery, but certainly the mildest in a series of such blunders Fannie seemed incapable of avoiding.

That same month, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, asked Fannie for a “full and frank” but confidential assessment of Zora Neale Hurston, who had applied for a fellowship to go to Africa to study the origins of juju, African music and primitive medical practice. Zora had provided the list of references, which also included Dr. Franz Boas, Zora’s mentor in anthropology; Dr. Ruth Benedict, another Columbia University anthropologist; Carl Van Vechten, and the writer Max Eastman. Although Fannie enthusiastically described her friend as a “talented and peculiarly capable young woman” with “individuality and a most refreshing unself-consciousness of race” and “a well-trained mind,” she also said she was “an erratic worker” and an “undisciplined thinker.” This Fannie tried to cast backhandedly as an asset, saying it would benefit Zora greatly to have an obligation to a sponsor such as the Guggenheim to fulfill. Fannie clearly also thought she was doing Zora a favor to point out that her friend was “a rather curious example of a sophisticated Negro mind that has retained many characteristics of the old fashion and humble type,” that she had not sacrificed her “natural characteristics” by trying to strain for social and intellectual sophistication as had so many of her peers. “For this reason,” Fannie concluded, “I think she is rather importantly fitted for research of the nature she describes.” Zora told Fannie she loved the letter.

Zora was not awarded a 1934 grant from the Guggenheim foundation, though it was more likely the pointedly disparaging assessments of Boas and Benedict of Zora’s ability to accomplish the goals set out in her very ambitious proposal that spoiled her chances that round.

In the fall of 1933, Zora sold Jonah’s Gourd Vine, her first novel, to the publisher J.B. Lippincott, who asked Fannie to write the book’s introduction, a request she agreed to “with gusto and pleasure.” On her own, Fannie also spoke to Jonathan Cape, her British publisher, to urge the firm to buy the British rights to Zora’s book. Fannie wrote to Lippincott numerous times and met with him, using her formidable clout to urge the publisher to give the book and Zora the attention they both deserved. After Fannie finished the preface, she sent it off to Lippincott with a carbon to Zora in February of 1934. It began:

Here in this work of Zora Hurston there springs, with validity and vitality a fresh note which, to this commentator, is unique.

Here is negro [sic] folk lore interpreted at its authentic best in fiction form of a high order.

A brilliantly facile spade has turned over rich new earth. Worms lift up, the hottish smells of soil rise, negro toes dredge into that soil, smells of racial fecundity are about.

As a matter of fact, not even excepting Langston Hughes, it is doubtful if there is any literary precedent for the particular type of accomplishment that characterizes Jonah’s Gourd Vine . . .

Whatever Zora may have had to say to Fannie about the preface is not known. The message would have been delivered in person since only three days after Fannie sent the preface to Zora, the two women were on the road together again. What is known is that Lippincott published the preface as written, “brilliantly facile spade” and all.

That same year, as a member of the executive committee of the Writers Campaign Against Lynching, Fannie joined the call for specific federal anti-lynching legislation. She was a featured speaker at the NAACP’s twenty-fifth anniversary dinner and became a patron of its exhibit on lynching the next. “It becomes grotesque,” she said in a statement for the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, “to contemplate our country rising in righteous indignation against the atrocities tolerated by a Hitler, when hundreds of our own wayside trees are jibets from which have dangled the broken necks of men who have been strung up there by the bestiality of unpunishable mobs.” Her vocal involvement in these matters continued — and was welcomed — for years to come.


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