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The copyright dispute, which arose between Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes, broke the intimate friendship of these two writers and possibly their long and productive partnership. It occurred when they were working on a play called Mule Bone, which was a comedy about the life of African-Americans. Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes had a lot in common. Both of the writers took their part in the so-called “Harlem Renaissance” – a social, intellectual, and artistic explosion that happened in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s. It should be pointed out that this issue can be interpreted from legal and moral points of view, and this case may be of great interest to literary scholars and lawyers.
The Conflict of Zora and Langston
We need to take into consideration the fact that almost any argument, put forward either by Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston, cannot be proved, and this circumstance immensely complicates the case To explain this conflict, we should first explain the nature of their co-authorship as it may throw at least some light on various aspects of their tensions.
First, Hughes claims that he developed the plot of this play, did some characterizations and dialogues, whereas Hurston was supposed to recreate the atmosphere of Southern life as the action of Mule Bone took place in Florida (Hughes as cited in Hemenway, p 137). It is rather challenging to define Zora Hurston’s role when we look at this claim.
We can suppose that she was working on the speech of the main characters, their humor, accent, and so forth. For quite a long time, the process of writing was quite productive, but at the very end, they came to a sharp disagreement. Initially, Hurston decided that they should take a short recess and finish the book afterward. However, since that time, the Zora and Langston never saw each other ever again.
Despite numerous Hughes’ numerous attempts to re-establish their cooperation, Hurston refused even to speak with him. Furthermore, she gave the manuscript to the publishing house and stated that she had been the only author (Leach, p 50).
In one of her letters to Hughes, Zora Hurston wrote to Hughes, “Now about the play. It was my story from beginning to end. It is my dialogue, my situations. But I am not concerned about that” (Hurston, as cited in Hemenway p. 142). Thus, we may say that she was somewhat unwilling to listen to any of his counter-arguments.
Some critics believe that this conflict was caused by a quarrel between them (Hemenway, p 137-140), but we do not know it for sure. Apart from that, it is supposed that they could not agree on several details of the play: some scenes and personality of a few characters. At any rate, in later years, none of them decided to take legal action and go to the court. This is what we know at this point.
It is rather difficult to return a verdict about this collision. From a legal viewpoint, both of them have equal rights for this play. Judging from their statements, Zora and Langston made similar contributions to the process of creation.
Hughes wove a plot, singled out the main themes, created characters, whereas Hurston worked out almost each of the scenes and dialogues. However, only a close analysis of their drafts can give a more accurate answer. Besides, we cannot rely on the testimonials of the friends and relatives of Langston and Zora, as these people will always be biased against one of them.
This conflict may also be discussed from a moral perspective because the behavior of the co-authors was somewhat controversial. On the one hand, Hurston sent the text of the play to a published and a theatre without Hughes’ permission, claiming that she made a significant contribution, and this can be regarded as a very dishonest act.
Almost any person would have been offended by such a statement and especially a writer. On the other hand, Hughes also made attempts to contact several stage directors and publishers, but he never asserted that he had been the sole author of Mule Bone (Leach, p 55).
Apart from that, it was he who tried to restore their relations and continue work on Mule Bone. So, to a certain degree, we can argue in his favor. But we do not know everything about the relationship between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (and probably no one does). Still, some scholars believe their partnership was not exactly business-like and they felt deep affection for one another (Hemenway, p 50-60). This interpretation of the dispute between Hurston and Hughes is based mostly on conjectures rather than facts.
This essay aims to analyze the copyright dispute between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, that arose while they were working on a play called Mule Bone. On the whole, this is one of those situations when one side of the conflict has to take a step toward reconciliation. Unfortunately, no one did it. Of course, one can argue that Zora Hurston should not have been so inflexible in her unwillingness to see Hughes. Still, we have no right to accuse her of stubbornness because there is no accurate information as to what happened between these people.
Such accusations may be erroneous in their core, as the true nature of their literary and personal conflict remains unknown to us. We just know that, despite all the similarities between Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, their relationship was ruined forever. Finally, the Mule Bone, the play that could have become one of the most important in the history of American literature, was never completed, and this is the main reason why their dispute attracted so much attention.
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Hemenway Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: a literary biography. Springfield: University of Illinois Press. 1980.
Leach Laurie. Langston Hughes: a biography. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004