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Failed Collaboration: Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, and the Possibilities of Cocreation

One of the best-known feuds in American literature is the attempted collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. In 1930, they decided to cowrite a play based on Hurston’s field work in African American southern folk culture and her unpublished story “The Bone of Contention.” However, The Mule-Bone never met page or stage in their lifetimes and it ended their friendship. Or, to use Hughes’s now famous hand-written manuscript notation, “the authors fell out.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. deems it “the most notorious literary quarrel in African-American cultural history” and the ensuing feud included a who’s who of the Harlem Renaissance.[1] The barbs were witty and occasionally mean, the tactics often underhanded, the stakes sometimes petty, and the central players became two of the most beloved writers of the twentieth century.

This is a meditation on collaboration and its failures.

The Mule-Bone is a limit case for the promise of collaboration and the emancipatory, communitarian ideals often attributed to it. We might define collaboration quite simply: when two or more individuals work together to create something new. Some scholars opt for coauthorship, especially to focus more on the product, and some use cocreation to focus more on the shared process and distributed power. In any case, scholars have long looked to collaboration for alternatives to an individualist age of ownership, credit, propriety, and what Jack Stillinger has called “the myth of the solitary genius.”[2] In his early study of male coauthorship, for instance, Wayne Koestenbaum playfully lauded the cosigned text as a queer form of procreation.[3] Vera John-Steiner identified collaboration as a creative process that bends toward equality, harmony, and mutual respect.[4] So too, in this Print Plus cluster, some of the most recent thinking on collaboration seeks to extend its generative reach and ability to forge creative connections between unlikely subjects, between an established writer and women readers of the press bureau, between artists across eras and genres, between humans and the natural world, to a shared sensory existence in the act of listening. At the same time, scholars of collaboration have long questioned the limits of its emancipatory potential in the context of social power imbalances, gendered conceptions of authorship, and who ultimately profits from creative labor. For instance, in her groundbreaking study of women coauthors, Holly Laird finds a new paradigm of partnership and equity, both political and erotic, while underscoring the problematic aspects of specific collaborations and the general limits of revising monolithic norms of single authorship.[5] So too, Lorraine York questioned a too-quick celebration of collaboration as a feminist ideal even if it may yield an ability to better negotiate questions of power and property.[6] Now, current scholarship is as likely to see appropriation and exploitation in collaborative endeavors forged amid power imbalances. Whether lauding collaboration or probing its limits, scholars of collaboration have largely focused on those endeavors that succeed in creating something meaningful, something sent out into the world.

What if failed attempts are equally revealing? In this brief piece, I consider The Mule-Bone not as an incomplete project, but as a monument to the attempt itself—what Holly Laird calls “collaborative desire”—even if it did not ultimately succeed in a cosigned product. A generative vision of democratic cocreation, however tempered, is far removed from this case of individual races to the copyright office and a series of increasingly nasty—if also clever—letters among the cultural doyennes of the Harlem Renaissance. To value collaborative attempts that end in failure, I turn to political theory of hospitality and radical vulnerability, more than democratic ideals of harmony or capitalist ideals of production. From this angle, the collaborative ideal may not be partnership or co-creation, but rather consensual discord, a situational relationship always a half-beat from dissolution.

Dueling Visions, Dueling Versions

The Mule-Bone looms large in the African American literary imagination despite the fact that it doesn’t exist. At least, not in any conventional sense. Instead, we have multiple versions, two copyright filings, and a stack of correspondence arguing over who can and cannot claim the project. The Mule-Bone is best thought of as a collaborative encounter, not a product, and its competing scripts are artifacts of that process. It is no surprise that critics have tended more to the controversy than the actual play. As Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell quip, it “makes good copy.”[7] The initial critical consensus tended to be sympathetic to Hughes given that Hurston is the one who secretly filed for sole copyright and she is the one who ultimately canceled a stage debut in Cleveland. Some later critics have come to Hurston’s defense, suggesting she got a raw deal and noting that much of the paper trail is from Hughes’s version of events.[8] Either way, early scholarship had it right: we can never fully know what went so awry to end their collaboration and, for the most part, their friendship. The full intimacy of the collaborative encounter is not accessible to those outside it.

One way to begin is at the end. Today, we mostly know The Mule-Bone via the version published by Gates and George Houston Bass in 1991, for which they used the latest cowritten draft in advance of its adaptation for a posthumous Broadway debut at the Ethel Barrymore theater. Tellingly, alongside the script, Gates and Bass published documents of the controversy: Hurston’s unpublished story “The Bone of Contention,” excerpts from biographical accounts, and correspondence between various players. Gates describes it as “a casebook of a crucial—and ugly—chapter in the history of the Harlem Renaissance” (“A Tragedy of Negro Life,” 6). Conversely, in the first expansive collection of Hurston’s plays in 2008, Cole and Mitchell omit The Mule-Bone because it is incomplete, including instead Hurston’s “De Turkey and de Law,” the script bearing Hurston’s sole copyright. This, they contend, “must stand as Hurston’s definitive version of the play” (introduction to Collected Plays, xvi).

The dispute in many ways centers on who would get control of and credit for a play the two cooked up based on Hurston’s folklore and unpublished story. When Hughes found out Hurston filed for sole copyright in October 1930 for “De Turkey and de Law,” he filed for joint copyright in January 1931 with a script bearing the title “The Mule-Bone.”[9] Other extant versions include the draft of acts 1 and 2 resulting from the in-person collaboration from April through May 1930 in Westfield, New Jersey, dictated to Louise Thompson, another agent in the collaborative encounter, albeit with less social or artistic capital. There is also the script Hurston provided Carl Van Vechten, who provided it to Garret Clark, eventually making its way to the Theater Guild and then the Gilpin Players in Cleveland, when Hughes learned about the planned production. And there are hand-written revisions Hurston provided Hughes’s lawyer, Arthur Spingarn, to support her claim to sole authorship. She writes in a letter from March 25, 1931, “This is to deny your assertion that you have seen the original script. You have seen what your client says is the original script” (Mule Bone, 270). And of course there is the widely available version Gates and Bass published with their own edits.

A copyright dispute is a surefire way to step into questions of authorship endemic to cocreation. As Daniel Schneiderman asks, “What of the Author in the collaborative turn?”[10] Much of the scholarship on The Mule-Bone has been driven by the question of who wrote what, often attempting to disentangle the collaborative artifacts into individual portions or degrees of credit.[11] In fact, York finds such parsing common in marketplace responses to collaborative texts (Rethinking, 7). Hurston herself attempted to wrest sole authorship from the encounter as it went south. In a letter to Hughes on January 18, 1931, she writes, “In the beginning, Langston, I was very eager to do the play with you. ANYthing you said would go over big with me” (Mule Bone, 211). She then pivots, "Now about the play itself. It was my story from the beginning to end. It is my dialogue; my situations" (212). She concludes with a post-script concession, "You made some suggestions, but they are not incorporated in the play" (214). Ultimately Hurston claims that any version of the play is hers and hers alone given the creative origins of the idea itself.

Hurston’s working definition of author as originator or orchestrator has a long history, especially in the collaborative milieus of theater, folklore, and performance. In his study of the Elizabethan stage, for instance, Jeffrey Knapp arrives at the same question, “What is a Co-author?”[12] Certainly, the age of social media, crowdsourcing, and sampling simply present new versions of old questions. One way the question is answered in a modern era of intellectual property is less about originality and vision and more about a particular form of credit: profit. In fact, in his foreword to Carla Kaplan’s collection of Hurston’s letters, Robert Hemenway notes Hurston’s consistent financial concerns because her “career was a conscious struggle to obtain the economic means to release her artistic vision.”[13] So too, modernist studies has turned to copyright to get at the interrelation of inherited tradition and individual innovation, from poetic experimentation to improvisation in jazz.[14] Intellectual property is both a creative status and an economic tool of empowerment pushing against the ideals of a collaborative encounter. As the dispute heated up, on February 3, 1931, Hughes wrote to his lawyer Arthur Spingarn: “I did not see how one could make a mathematical division of construction and characterization as opposed to dialect and wisecracks” (Mule Bone, 261). So too, in a January 21, 1931 letter to Spingarn, Hughes details the collaborative relationship “safeguarding my interest in a play of which I am half author” (229). He writes, “It’s all a very strange mess” with dismay and surprise at Hurston’s attempts to take sole credit (234). Whether genuine or not, he frames his interest as more about culture and artistry than profit: “I do not want to see what may be a splendid play, and the first Negro folk-comedy to be written by Negroes, be torn apart before it has even gotten started” (237).

As the collaborative encounter dissolved, the squabble returned frequently to matters of royalties, copyright, and credit, three sides of the prism of modern authorship. In a letter to Hurston on January 22, 1931, Hughes offers to apportion credit so that the Cleveland production could go forward: “If you feel that the major part of Mule-Bone is yours, I am quite willing that you have two-thirds of all incomes, myself accepting one-third, and so have informed Mr. Spingarn” (241). His letter to Spingarn explained his attempt “to keep the collaboration from going to pieces and to save an interesting play” (239). Hurston wasn’t buying it. In a March 25, 1931, letter to Spingarn, she responds with acid wit: “I think it would be lovely for your client to be a playwright but I’m afraid that I am too tight to make him one at my expense” (270). This is perhaps the juiciest insult in the whole Mule-Bone affair. Competing ideas about artistry, talent, and profit roll around in Hurston’s mouth, aimed with the precision of an expert pea shooter. In the end, Rachel Rosenberg argues, “When Hughes turned Hurston’s folklore against her, creating a portrait of Eatonville that diminished women’s artistic authority, Hurston was unable to regain sole authority over the text and was driven to sacrifice the play along with the collaborative relationship (Rosenberg, “Looking for Zora’s Mule Bone,” 99).”

The ultimate failure of collaboration is not the absence of a cosigned product. Failed collaboration is an attempted disentanglement, an impossible desire to restore a pre-encounter self in the form of extracted words and portions to call one’s own.

Radical Vulnerability and the Possibility of Failure

If in the end The Mule-Bone is a failure, what possibilities might that nonetheless open? In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam draws on the work of Lauren Berlant, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Michel Foucault to reject the cruel optimism of a compulsory focus on success and “toxic positivity” that denigrates individual failings, obscures underlying structures of inequality, and enforces disciplined ways of knowing. Instead, Halberstam sees emancipatory potential: “Under certain circumstances failure, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”[15] For Halberstam—and José Esteban Muñoz and Lee Edelman from whom Halberstam draws—failure may be seen as queer in the way it is unproductive within normative economies of capitalism and heteropatriarchy. In this light, the lack of a finished product and the “falling out” of its cocreators may in itself provide a side door into unexpected dimensions.

If we know Mule-Bone primarily from its recovery decades after the deaths of its creators, how do we account for such posthumous developments? When Hughes and Hurston abandoned their joint venture, we became able to (endlessly) ask about lost possibilities—a steady refrain in critical and artistic accounts. For instance, Bass writes in his short 1991 introduction, “We can only wonder at the directions Black theater might have taken had Mule Bone been produced and published. However, it was not.”[16] So too, Carme Manuel frames the failed collaboration as a “dream deferred” of a new era of Black drama that takes seriously portrayals of everyday Black life and vernacular culture.[17] Rather than lament with belated feelings of injustice, how might we embrace that wonder?

Future artists can become belated participants in the unfinished collaborative encounter. In this way, failure becomes generative, a gift to an unknown recipient of the future. The best example may be the 1991 Broadway adaptation. It was generally met with mixed reviews, with some even declaring it a flop. As Lisa Boyd recounts, “Mule Bone was received as little more than an interesting Black American literary artifact.”[18] It was no longer fashionable to traffic in folk stereotypes for comedy, even though, as John Lowe contends, “Hurston felt she was doing just the opposite in her day and time.”[19] However, there were some bright spots in the form of posthumous collaboration with new artists imagining how to bring the material to a contemporary stage. In particular, the score by American blues musician Taj Mahal rightfully won him praise and a Grammy. The score adapts lyrics by Hughes and performs them in a Hurstonian bear hug of African American blues rhythms. The voice is confident as it swaggers across the stage and the sonic landscape animates the characters in what Hurston famously calls “crayon enlargements of life.”[20] Mahal is “worrying the line,” to borrow Cheryl Wall’s use of the phrase to describe how later artists adopt and adapt the familiar sounds and rhythms of the blues tradition they inherit to make them their own. In this way, any act of entering a creative tradition is something of a posthumous collaboration, delivering new possibilities in the space of what came before.

Beyond Halberstam, modernist studies has turned to failure as artistically, and perhaps politically, generative, from Doug Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz’s celebration of bad modernism’s openness to failure to Gavin Jones’s study of Failure and the American Writer across the nineteenth century and culminating in Henry James’s style as the full emergence of a modernist aesthetic of failure.[21] This has given rise to multidirectional understandings of history and becoming outside assimilation into the mainstream of the present, such as in Heather Love’s Feeling Backward.[22] However, Matthew Sandler has cautioned against hastily embracing failure by tracing Gertrude Stein’s championing of failure as a more individualist enterprise, informed by nineteenth-century success manuals embracing failure for its normative lessons in quests for personal betterment.[23] If for Stein failure is a necessary precondition for genius, the spoils of eventual success belong to that lone individual. In the case of failed collaboration, however, the spoils may belong to no one. Or everyone. Perhaps failure is creativity without profit.

If failure is an ever-present possibility in the collaborative encounter, how might that guide how to enter a cocreative relationship? Alison Guess, Mistinguette Smith, and Eve Tuck have framed collaboration as a process of reciprocal reaching—an offering and an acceptance—which underscores a mutually-dependent encounter across difference, rather than a joint product.[24] Theories of hospitality, more so than democratic theory or queer theories of reproduction, are more equipped to frame the collaborative encounter as a scene of welcoming across lines of difference and an openness to exchange and transformation. Each participant extends a mutual invitation.

How might we become truly open to the possibilities of collaboration, including failure? The concept of “radical vulnerability” offers a fruitful avenue, while keenly acknowledging difference in the encounter (in power, identity, desire) and the potential for disagreement, disappointment, discord, and even failure, harm, or betrayal. For instance, Richa Nagar draws from Gayatri Spivak’s use of the term to think about the conditions for feminist friendship and knowledge sharing. In an interview with an interdisciplinary group of graduate students called the Toronto group, she explains

Radical vulnerability can be defined as a mode of being that allows members of an alliance to collectively imagine a kind of coauthorship that cannot be reduced to the formal production of written texts. Instead, coauthorship becomes a dynamic way of sharing authority in an intellectual and political alliance where there are no sovereign selves or autonomous subjects . . . the relationship between the “original” and the “shadow” cannot be fixed but is continuously in motion.”[25]

Ultimately, full collaboration requires a posture of radical vulnerability: an openness to receiving another and to potentially be changed in the process.

To adopt a posture of radical vulnerability requires a theory of hospitality. For instance, sociologist Ian Wilkinson traces the rise of risk management in the contemporary world seeking to mitigate adverse outcomes.[26] A posture of radical vulnerability, on the other hand, requires openness to risk, to see participation in everyday life—let alone creative encounters—as inherently vulnerable, while assuming risks of encounters with unknown outcomes. It is similar to what Rosa Slegers calls “courageous vulnerability,” a virtue of openness to unknown and unwelcome truths.[27] For philosophers of hospitality, it may be the full realization of what it means to be social beings. Thomas Claviez writes, “I would venture to say that only thinking that conceives of itself as opening up toward the new, the unknown, the incalculable and alterity as such deserves to be called [social].”[28] For Claviez, drawing from Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas, hospitality “is an experience rather than a concept” because it is a realization that we inhabit the world with others (introduction, 4). In this light, a failed collaboration represents an invitation, not from host to visitor, but between travelers seeking to venture together into the unknown, whether or not a destination is achieved.

The attempt by Hughes and Hurston to create a play together, like all failed collaborations, marks a space of possibility. When The Mule-Bone was finally published and debuted on the stage in 1991, long after the death of both, that could be seen as making good on their failed collaboration. That story would have a lackluster end at best, despite the bright spot of Taj Mahal’s posthumous cocreation. Instead, we might think of ourselves as inheritors of a space of possibility in the wake of failure. After all, as Halberstam writes, “All losers are the heirs of those who lost before them. Failure loves company” (Queer Art, 121). It is up to future dwellers to decide whether to accept the invitation.

The time of failed collaboration is the past subjunctive: what might have been. This is the ground upon which new futures can be made: what might be.


[1] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “A Tragedy of Negro Life,” in Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and George Bass, (New York: Perennial, 1991), 5–24, 5.

[2] See Jack Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of the Solitary Genius (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[3] Wayne Koestenbaum, Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[4] See Vera John-Steiner, Creative Collaborations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[5] See Holly Laird, Women Coauthors (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000), especially 12­–13.

[6] See Lorraine York, Rethinking Women’s Collaborative Writing: Power, Difference, Property (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), especially 6–7.

[7] Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell, introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: Collected Plays (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), xv–xiii, xvi.

[8] See, for example, Carla Kaplan, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2001), especially 173–76; Rachel Rosenberg, “Looking for Zora’s Mule Bone: The Battle for Artistic Authority in the Hurston-Hughes Collaboration,” Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999), 79–105, especially 79–80.

[9] For that version of the original manuscript, see the Library of Congress digital collections.

[10] Davis Schneiderman, “The Collaborative Turn,” American Book Review 32, no. 6 (2011): 4–15.

[11] See for example Rosenberg, “Looking for Zora’s Mule Bone”; Shawn Anthony Christian, “Mule Bone 2.0,” Pedagogy 15, no. 2 (2015): 362–65.

[12] See Jeffrey Knapp, “What Is a Co-Author?,” Representations 89 (2005): 1–29.

[13] Robert Hemenway, foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2–6, 4.

[14] See Modernism and Copyright, ed. Paul K. Saint-Amour, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), especially Mark Osteen, “Rhythm Changes: Contrafact, Copyright, Jazz Modernism,” 89–113.

[15] Judith [Jack] Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 3.

[16] Gates and Bass, preface to Mule Bone, xi–xiii, xii. See also Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Why the ‘Mule Bone’ Debate Goes On,” New York Times, February 10, 1991, 5.

[17] Carme Manuel, “Mule Bone: Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dream Deferred of an African-American Theater of the Black World,” African American Review 35, no. 1 (2001): 77–92.

[18] Lisa Boyd, “The Folk, the Blues, and the Problem of Mule Bone,” Langston Hughes Review 13, no. 1 (1995): 33–44, 33.

[19] John Lowe, “From Mule Bones to Funny Bones: The Plays of Zora Neale Hurston,” Southern Quarterly 33, no. 2–3 (1995): 65–88, 77.

[20] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 51.

[21] See Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); Gavin Jones, Failure and the American Writer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For individual readings, see for example Jami Bartlett, “The Ambassadors and the Afterlife of Failure,” Arizona Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2016): 79–104; Sean K. Kelly, “A Reading of ‘As I Lay Dying’: Another Proposal for Thinking Faulkner’s Aesthetics/Politics of Failure,” Arizona Quarterly 59, no. 1 (2003): 117–35.

[22] See Heather Love, Feeling Backward (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[23] See Matthew Sandler, “Gertrude Stein, Success Manuals, and Failure Studies,” Twentieth-Century Literature 63, no. 2 (2017): 191–212.

[24] See Allison M. Guess, Mistinguette Smith, and Eve Tuck, “Reaching to Offer, Reaching to Accept: Collaboration and Cotheorizing,” American Quarterly 68, no. 2 (2016): 409–12.

[25] Richa Nagar, et al., “Feminism, Collaborations, Friendship: A Conversation,” Feminist Studies 42, no. 2 (2016): 502–19, 511. See also her Muddying Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), especially 11–15.

[26] See Iain Wilkinson, Vulnerability, Risk, and Everyday Life (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[27] See Rosa Slegers, Courageous Vulnerability: Ethics and Knowledge in Proust, Bergson, Marcel, and James (Boston: Brill, 2010), especially 2, 6.

[28] Thomas Claviez, introduction to The Conditions of Hospitality: Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics on the Threshold of the Possible, ed. Thomas Claviez, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 4.