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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: That was her story

This will go along well with "The Help," elsewhere in SUNDAY with CM, August 28, 2011. There are a couple of minor changes from the original Another Angle, the Occasional Musings of a Kentucky Pastor, Column. -Robert H. Stone, editor This Another Angle, "That was her story, and she stuck by it," was first published 16 October 2005.
To see other articles by this author, enter "Rev. Joey N. Welsh," or "Another Angle," in the searchbox. The next earlier essay posted on is From the Mouth of Satchel Paige

By The Rev. Joey N. Welsh

That was her story, and she stuck by it

Fannie Hurst was one of a group of extraordinary American women authors who found success in the first half of the 20th century. Willa Cather (born in 1873), Edna Ferber (1885), Hurst (1885), and Pearl Buck (1892) could all tell a vivid story. They were quite popular in the decades stretching from World War I through the Franklin Roosevelt years. Cather and Ferber both received the Pulitzer Prize, and Buck received the Nobel Prize.

Fannie Hurst never produced any novels that won awards or were considered great literature, though her short stories did gain some critical acclaim. She was born on October 18, 1889, in Hamilton, OH. Her parents were Bavarian Jews who had come to America at the beginning of the Civil War, and they had worked hard to establish a stable life in their new homeland. Fannie never forgot about the people for whom life was a daily struggle.

Hurst's writings a popular sucess

Her family had moved to St. Louis, and she went to college there at Washington University. She enjoyed writing, and she began selling short stories by 1912. She became a popular success, and The Saturday Evening Post paid her for exclusive publication rights to her stories; short stories ever remained her favorite form of writing. Her literary agent convinced her that novels were the best way for authors to find wider popularity and financial success, and she began a notable career as a best-selling novelist.

Critics savaged her plots and her writing style, but she knew the kinds of stories she wanted to tell, and she was not deterred from her sense of mission. She set out to write about hard-working, downtrodden, and exploited people, and the reading public cast its vote by making her fabulously wealthy. In order to gain insight for her characters, she worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop, a waitress, and an entry-level department store salesclerk. She went to night court and sat in the courtroom for hours, listening to people's stories. Even after she was financially secure, she crossed the Atlantic as a steerage passenger in order to experience the voyage without luxury, like her fellow travelers who were hoping for a new life in a new land.

Hurst hires personal assistant, Zora Neale Hurston

In the 1920's she hired a personal assistant and secretary, soon realizing that the woman was brilliantly talented and insightful. She encouraged the young woman to pursue her education, helping her to gain entrance into Barnard College and become the first African-American student in that school's history. The young woman, Zora Neale Hurston, studied anthropology and became a noted folklorist and author, one of the leading literary lights of the Harlem Renaissance.

In 1937 Hurston wrote a magazine profile of Fannie Hurst, something that helped them both, since each was preparing to promote a newly-published book. On some occasions the two women plotted to meet together at Manhattan restaurants that customarily did not serve African-Americans. Zora Neale would show up in exotic dress, Fannie would introduce her as royalty from Africa, and the two would be seated together in a prominent location, having integrated the place.

Racism and skin color subject of novel

One of Hurst's most popular novels early in the 1930's, Imitation of Life, dealt forthrightly with themes of racism and skin color, with one character who could "pass for white." Hurst's crusading attitude on racial justice gained her hostility in the South, where she was viewed as a dangerous radical. At the same time, some African-Americans thought that she was too tame, and Langston Hughes wrote a parody of her novel, titling it Limitations of Life. Fannie just kept on writing; she knew her story, and she stuck to it.

Hurst became a friend of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and a vocal supporter of the New Deal. She lobbied for equal pay for equal work on behalf of women and ethnic minorities. She served on federal commissions for fair housing and workers' compensation, the national advisory council of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and the board of the New York Urban League. She was an advocate for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.

Women to be judged equally with men

In 1962, when Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg said that it was time for women to be judged equally with men in accordance with their talents and abilities, Fannie Hurst confronted him, telling Justice Goldberg that his conclusions were 50 years late.

At her death in 1968 her substantial estate was used to endow two professorships in writing, one at Washington University, the other at Brandeis University. Fannie Hurst may not have produced great literary novels, but she certainly knew how to tell a story. More than that, though, she surely did know how to live a great life story and work for what was right as she saw it. She deserves to be remembered thankfully. This world would be a much better place if it contained a few more folks with the determination, sense of justice, and focus on work shown to us by Fannie Hurst.


This story was posted on 2011-08-28 11:51:13
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