Zora Neale Hurston's 1942 memoir is a book she did not want to write, and many of her admirers have wished she had not written it. Its factual information is often unreliable, its politics are contradictory, and it barely discusses Hurston's literary career, which is ostensibly the reason she wrote it. From the beginning it defies readers’ expectations of autobiography. Only in the third chapter does Hurston begin the story of her own life, and she introduces it with a warning: “This is all hear-say. Maybe some of the details of my birth as told me might be a little inaccurate, but it is pretty well established that I really did get born.” Hurston, who regularly took ten years off her age, had reason to practice this deception, but Dust Tracks is less than forthcoming about many facts of her life.
The book won the 1942 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, sponsored by Saturday Review magazine, for its contribution to race relations. The prize says more about the state of race relations than about the clarity of Hurston's views. Some of the contradictions are deliberate, as in the chapter “My People, My People”, a riff on the paradoxes of race in America. But other contradictions in the book derived from the publisher's last-minute insistence on extensive revisions, notably the deletion of the chapter “Seeing the World As It Is”, which included an extended critique of U.S. imperialism in Asia. After the United States entered World War II, editors deemed Hurston's foreign policy views unpatriotic. Without these opinions, the book's politics seemed reactionary to many readers. Editors insisted on other changes as well. Some of the folklore Hurston recorded was too sexually explicit, and some of her personal opinions libelous. Dust Tracks was by far Hurston's most heavily edited book, and few of the changes were for the better.
And yet, passages in Dust Tracks are as engaging as any Hurston wrote. Recollections of her childhood are vividly evoked: Hurston chronicles adventures with her imaginary playmate; the “lying sessions” on Joe Clarke's Eatonville store porch, where “God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat…and all the wood folk walked and talked like natural men”; and the death of her mother. Equally vibrant are the descriptions of her field work, particularly her friendship with Big Sweet, a woman she met in a sawmill camp in Polk County, Florida, who became her protector and guide, and her interviews with Cudjo Lewis, reputed to be the sole survivor of the last known slave ship to dock on U.S. shores. In other chapters she describes the drama of revival meetings, recounts her friendships with novelist Fannie Hurst and singer-actress Ethel Waters, and offers guarded reflections on romantic love.
Recent editions restore the deleted sections of Dust Tracks, although it is impossible to reconstruct from surviving manuscripts the exact text Hurston intended. Dust Tracks may be best appreciated as a “lying session,” which invites readers to listen to Hurston improvise on various topics.
Nellie McKay, “Race, Gender, and Cultural Context in Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road,” in Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, eds. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, 1988, pp. 175–188.Claudine Raynaud, “‘Rubbing a Paragraph with a Soft Cloth?’ Muted Voices and Editorial Constraints in Dust Tracks on a Road”, in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, eds. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, 1992, pp. 34–64.