The copyright dispute, which arose between Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes, broke 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. 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. Furthermore, we need to take into consideration the fact that almost any argument, put forward either by Zora Hurston or Langston Hughes cannot proven and this circumstance immensely complicates the case, itself. In order 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). Judging from these words, it is rather difficult to define Zora Hurston’s role. 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 play afterwards. However, since that time the authors 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 rather unwilling to listen to any 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 a 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 legal viewpoint, both of them have equal rights for this play. Judging from their statements, Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes made equal contribution 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 testimonials of their friends and relatives, 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 rather 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 the major 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 their relationships (and probably no one does), although some scholars believe their partnership was not exactly business-like and they felt deep affection for one another (Hemenway, p 50-60). It goes without saying that this interpretation of their dispute is based mostly on conjectures rather than facts.
On the whole, this is one of those situations when one side of the argument 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 inexorable 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 really 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. Finally, Mule Bone, the play that could have become one of the greatest comedies in the history of American literature, was never completed and this is the main reason why their dispute attracted so much attention.
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