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Hurston, Zora Neale 1891–1960

Zora Neale Hurston 18911960

Writer, anthropologist, folklorist

At a Glance

Began Writing Career

Underwent a Spiritual Revolution

Writing Career Took off

Discovered Voodoo

Underwent Trying Times

Considered A Genius of the South

Selected writings

Sources

Zora Neale Hurston managed to avoid many of the restraints placed upon women, blacks, and specifically black artists by American society during the first half of the twentieth century. And she did so with a vengeance by becoming the most published black female author in her time and arguably the most important collector of African-American folklore ever. Hurston was a complex artist whose persona ranged from charming and outrageous to fragile and inconsistent, but she always remained a driven and brilliant talent.

One of eight children, Hurston was born in the idyllic setting of a town in central Florida named Eatonville. Eatonville was incorporated in 1886 as the first self-governed, all-black city in America. In her folklore classic Mules and Men, Hurston describes Eatonville as a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jail house, as well as the home of Joe Clarkes store porch. The porch became a stage as neighbors sat around on milk crates skillfully transforming simple gossip into folktales. Eatonville was a nurturing environment that provided a black child with rich traditions and a pride and joy in being black.

The Hurstons built a comfortable home on five acres of lush land dotted with tropical fruit trees. The place was overrun with boisterous, barefoot children, and the young Zora was probably the loudest of them all. Lucy Ann Hurston, a former country school teacher, was delighted with her daughters spiritedness. As Zora wrote in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road : Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to jump at the sun. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground. Her father did not see it that way. It did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit, he counseled, as related in Zoras autobiography. The white folks were not going to stand for it.

A carpenter, three-term mayor, and moderator of the South Florida Baptist Association, Zoras father, Reverend John Hurston, was a well-respected man andaccording to wisdom gathered on Joe Clarkes porchthe strongest and bravest man in the community. Reverend Hurstons words to his daughter were cautionary: the rest of the world was not like Eatonville. But it was the rest of the world that the child hungered for. As she recounted in her autobiography, one of her favorite pastimes was to sit atop a gatepost

At a Glance

Born January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, FL; died of heart disease, January 28, 1960, in Fort Pierce, FL; daughter of John (a carpenter, reverend, and mayor) and Lucy Ann (a teacher and seamstress; maiden name, Potts) Hurston; married Herbert Sheen (a doctor), May 19, 1927 (divorced, 1931); married Albert Price III, June 27, 1939 (divorced, 1943). Education : Attended Howard University Prep School, 1918-19; Howard University, A.A., 1924; Barnard College, B.A., 1928; graduate study at Columbia University.

Published first story, 1921; assistant to writer Fannie Hurst, 1925-26; collected folklore in the South, 1927-31; taught drama at Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona, FL, 1933-34; collected conjure lore in Jamaica, Haiti, and Bermuda, 1936-38; collected folklore in Florida for the Works Progress Administration, 1938-39; drama instructor at North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham (now North Carolina Central University), 1939; story consultant for Paramount Studios, Hollywood, CA, 1941-42; conducted folklore fieldwork in Honduras, 1947-48; employed as a maid in Rivo Island, FL, 1950; free-lance writer, 1950-56; librarian at Patrick Air Force Base, FL, 1956-57; substitute teacher at Lincoln Park Academy, Fort Pierce, FL, 1958-59.

Member: American Folklore Society, American Anthropological Society, American Ethnological Society, Zeta Phi Beta.

Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship, 1936 and 1938; Litt.D. from Morgan State College, 1939; Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations, 1943; Howard Universitys Distinguished Alumni Award, 1943; Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations.

hailing down passing cars and impishly asking, Dont you want me to go a piece of the way with you?

Hurston was only nine when her mother died. It was a traumatic experience, one that strained the relationship between her and her father. Two weeks after her mothers death she was sent off to school in Jacksonville, Florida; her father quickly remarried. Hurston despised her stepmother and became even more estranged from her father, who reacted by requestingunsuccessfullythat the school adopt his daughter.

By the age of 14, Hurston was on her own. She held a number of jobs as a domestic before being hired as the personal maid to a cast member of a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. The actors welcomed her into their family, and the 18 months she spent with them would be among her fondest memories.

With a new sense of worldliness, Hurston left the troupe in Baltimore, Maryland, and enrolled into the high school division of Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University). She graduated early and set her sights on the prestigious Howard University. Working as a waitress and as a manicurist in a black-owned, whites-only barbershop, Hurston managed to scrape together the tuition to enter Howard in 1918.

Hurston embraced college life. She excelled in classes she found interesting and failed in those she did not; she worshipped her teachers; and she fell in love. The target of her affection was Herbert Sheen, a fellow student who would go on to medical school. They eventually married in 1927, only to divorce two years later when their careers came between them.

Began Writing Career

In 1921 Hurston published her first story. John Redding Goes to Sea was accepted by Howards distinguished literary-club magazine. Though the story is considered a naively written and overly dramatic saga, it was the necessary first step for the blossoming young writer. In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert E. Hemenway wrote, Hurston was struggling to make literature out of the Eatonville experience. It was her unique subject, and she was encouraged to make it the source of her art.

By 1925 her struggle was beginning to pay off. At an awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a National Urban League magazine, Hurston came away with second-place prizes for an Eatonville story and play, and she caught the interest of leading figures in what would be known as the Harlem Renaissance. The connections she made at that dinner opened doors. That year she moved to New York City, began a job as a personal assistant to famed novelist Fannie Hurst, and entered Barnard College on scholarship as its first and only black student.

Underwent a Spiritual Revolution

The time was the Roaring Twenties. Sandwiched between the beginning of World War II and the Great Depression of 1930, the 1920s was Americas carefree era. It was the Jazz Age, Charleston was the dance, and Prohibition was for many only an inconvenience whose remedy was speakeasy social clubs. For black Americans, the 1920s was also an era of extremes. While the Ku Klux Klan was reviving a campaign of terror in the North, South, and Midwest, New York City was in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement marking the emergence of numerous notable black writers. Hemenway wrote that for some, Harlem became an aphrodisiac, a place where whites could discover their primitive selves. But the Harlem Renaissance was not merely a white fad. It is regarded as a spiritual revolution born in the cultural capital of black America, exploring and celebrating the African-American heritage.

Joining the likes of Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, Countie Cullen, and her friend Langston Hughes, Hurston became one of the New Negroes. They were the young black intellectuals who demanded equal billing for African-American culture in American history. But many thought Hurston to hold a special status. As a product of a community with a thriving black folk life and as a talented young writer who would celebrate that culture through her art, she is said to have personified the movement and was dubbed the Queen of the Renaissance.

Writing Career Took off

Hurstons celebrity status grew easily. In a room full of people, she reportedly could draw an audience to her like a magnet. She used storytelling techniques that the masters on Joe Clarkes porch would have been proud of and brought to life the tragicomic Eatonville stories that became known as Zora stories. But her popularity drew some criticism too. A writer for the Washington Post noted, Among her faults, her peers felt, [was] a dependence on whites for approval. The Washington Post writer went on to quote Langston Hughes: To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was the perfect darkie in the nice meaning they give the termthat is, naive, childlike, sweet, humorous and highly colored Negro. But, Miss Hurston was clever too.

In 1928 Hurston answered her critics in an essay entitled How It Feels to be Colored Me. In it she wrote: I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul. I do not belong to that sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal. No, I do not weep at the worldI am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

After receiving a B.A. from Barnard, Hurston began graduate work at Columbia University under the tutelage of Franz Boas, the foremost anthropologist in America. She continued writing and seeing her short stories published in literary magazines, but her interest was shifting to anthropology. Boas was encouraging: he saw Hurston as a natural candidate to help fill the void in the study of African-American culture.

Discovered Voodoo

Hurstons first folklore collecting trip to Americas South was unfruitful, but it was only a false start to a decade of field work that would prove rewarding. The trip also directed the budding anthropologist to a largely unexplored and exciting subject: voodoo. Funded by Guggenheim fellowships and by her long-term relationship with a wealthy New York City patron, Hurston spent the next decade researching black folklore in the South and tracking conjure lorea quest that took her from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Jamaica, and finally Haiti, where she photographed an apparent zombie.

The secret of Hurstons success as a collector was her genuine respect and growing belief in the voodoo religion.

As an initiate in the field, Hurston was included in sophisticated rites that would have been off limits to most anthropologists. In 1938 she painstakingly documented her experiences in Jamaica and Haiti in Tell My Horse. In the books foreword, novelist and poet Ishmael Reed noted, Her greatest accomplishment is in revealing the profound beauty and appeal of a faith older than Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, a faith that has survived in spite of its horrendously bad reputation and the persecution of its followers.

Two other books resulted from Hurstons days on the road. Her work of folklore, Mules and Men, focuses on her excursions to the South and is regarded as the best and most important book of its kind. Its pages are filled with what many consider the integral ingredients of Americas black culture: stories, or big old lies, songs, superstitions, and even formulae of Hoodoo Doctors.

But Hurstons masterpiece and the book she is most identified with is her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the jewel that Hurston cut from her Eatonville experience. It is the story of a young black woman, Janie, following her through three very different relationships and her transformation into a self-sufficient, whole human being. In the novel Janie learns that there are two things everybodys got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find about livin fuh theyselves. It is a novel of affirmation. Writer Alice Walker is quoted on its cover: There is no book more important to me than this one.

Underwent Trying Times

While the 1930s and 1940s brought Hurston her greatest professional successes, they didnt come without a price. In 1931 a bitter breakdown of Hurstons friendship with Langston Hughes occurred. Their relationship was the victim of a series of misunderstandings over the authorship of a play. The two had been collaborating on what they believed to be the first true Negro comedy. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life was finally dusted off and produced on Broadway in 1991and immediately caused controversy. The play was another Eatonville story; the setting was Joe Clarkes store porch; and the dialect was authentic.

To many blacks who worried about their perception in todays society, the plays use of Southern black dialect was embarrassing and even offensive. In its defense, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote in the New York Times,By using the vernacular tradition as the basis of their playindeed, as the basis of a new theory of black dramaHurston and Hughes sought to create a work that would undo a century of racist representations of black people. Though Mule Bone was not a typical Broadway hit, it is said to have earned its place in American history.

In 1948, living in New York City and in her late fifties, Hurston was arrested on charges of molesting a young boy. The case was thrown out of court but not before the black press ran it as a front-page scandal. Hurstons spirit was scarred by the false accusation, but she persevered, continuing to work with her characteristic zeal. In 1950 she moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, and took on a series of jobs, among them a librarian, maid, and substitute teacher. She also wrote political essays for the Saturday Evening Post and American Legion Magazine. Impoverisheda now familiar circumstanceoverweight, and weak, she nevertheless was pursuing her publisher about a book in progress. In 1959 she suffered a stroke and was forced to move into a welfare home.

Considered A Genius of the South

The author of seven books and more than fifty articles and short stories, a playwright and traveler, and an anthropologist and folklorist, the Queen of the Renaissance died quietly in the welfare home on January 28,1960. In 1973 Alice Walker made a pilgrimage to Fort Pierce and placed a tombstone on the site she guessed to be Hurstons unmarked grave. The stone was inscribed: Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South.

Selected writings

Jonahs Gourd Vine (novel), Lippincott, 1934, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.

Mules and Men (folklore), Lippincott, 1935, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel), Lippincott, 1937, reprinted, University of Illinois Press, 1978, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.

Tell My Horse (voodoo research), Lippincott, 1938, reprinted, Turtle Island Foundation, 1981, reprinted, Harper & Row, 1990.

Moses, Man of the Mountain (novel), Lippincott, 1939, reprinted, University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography), Lippincott, 1942, reprinted, HarperCollins, 1991.

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (play), HarperCollins, 1991.

Sources

Books

Hemenway, Robert E., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography), Lippincott, 1942.

Periodicals

Ms., March 1978.

Miami Herald, August 22, 1976.

New York Times, June 2, 1978; February 10, 1991.

Washington Post, April 16, 1978; May 21, 1978.

Iva Sipal

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Hurston, Zora Neale

Hurston, Zora Neale 1891-1960

A NEW DAY: THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

RESEARCHING THE AFRICAN DIASPORA

HURSTON AS DRAMATIST, ETHNOGRAPHER, AND WRITER

A TRAGIC ENDING

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Zora Neale Hurston was born almost a decade earlier than she declared in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942); accordingly, to biographer Valerie Boyd, she was a woman ahead of her time (Boyd 2003, p. 17). Hurston is noted today for her contributions as a literary author, folklorist, and anthropologist. She stands as a first in many arenas, including as the first African American woman to graduate from Barnard College in 1928 at the nontraditional age of 37. As a Barnard student, Hurston was able to take classes at Columbia University, where she flourished. Under the kind eye of the preeminent Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, Hurston found support for her folklore research, wrote biographer Irma McClaurin (2000, p. 18). It was Boas who encouraged her to use the clarifying monocle of anthropology to salvage and analyze the superstitious stories and down-home lies she remembered hearing as a child in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town founded in 1887 near Orlando (Boyd 2003, p. 115). This thriving community of African Americans who supported and respected each other, according to Boyd, became a vital source of inspiration for Hurston, who lived there from the time she was almost two years old. Her father was elected mayor in 1897 and then again in 1912. Hurston eventually studied the rich folk culture of her hometown, recognizing the priceless contribution it could make to the field of cultural anthropology. Memories of the tales she heard on her neighbor Joe Clarks storefront porch influenced Hurstons fiction and are evident in stories like Sweat and Possum or Pig, both published in 1926. That same year she also published The Eatonville Anthology, an engaging amalgam of folklore, fiction, and Eatonville history (Boyd 2003, p. 139).

A NEW DAY: THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE

There is some debate over when the Harlem Renaissance began. Some list 1919 as the starting date and its demise during the mid-1930s. Also, there is some question as to where it started since Hurston and other Renaissance writers, including Angelina Grimké (18051879), Jean Toomer (18941967), Sterling Brown (19011989), Richard Bruce Nugent (19061987), and William Waring Cuney (19061976), began meeting in Washington, D.C., in the early 1920s as members of the Saturday Nighters at the home of the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson (18861966). Into their midst came influential writers and scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), Alain Locke (18861954), and James Weldon Johnson (18711938), all of whom traveled between Washington, D.C., and New York City and had great influence in shaping the Renaissance. As a result of these interactions with the gifted, the famous, and the wannabe famous, Hurston, who didnt arrive in Harlem until 1925, had no problem settling in and finding her place among the artists and writers who dubbed themselves the Niggerati (Boyd 2003, p. 116). It was not an easy time for a single black woman to establish herself as a writer; during the 1920s African American women were most often employed as domestic help or store clerks. And so, in the 1920s, wrote McClaurin, we must see Zora as a woman who lived against the grain, perfect[ing] a hat-wearing, cigarette smoking, gun-toting persona that was tremendously at odds with the ideals and standards of traditional womanhood of the timefor both black and white women (2003, p. 5).

RESEARCHING THE AFRICAN DIASPORA

From the start of her research, Hurston worked to gather perspectives from the African Diasporathe scattering of African people throughout the Americascollecting black folklore in the U.S. South, the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, and the Honduras. Hurston believed that, despite slavery and its resulting social inequality, African-descended people retained and continued to create a rich canon of stories, myths, and lies, all communicated through evocative language and performancewhat she called the greatest cultural wealth of the continent (Kaplan 2001, p. xxiii). It was also Hurston who recognized the logic of studying the culture of blacks in the South and the Caribbean as part of a continuum. In fact, Hurston had a desire to create a field of study around the American Negro, as she wrote in a letter to the anthropologist Melville Herskovits (18951963): You fully appreciate how much there is to be done when you realize that there is no real curricula for those Anthropologists who wish to study the Am. Negro [sic]. Papa Franz knows the Indian, etc, but there was nothing to help me in my study of the Negro. Suppose we set out to create the same thing for the Negro at Northwestern as Boas has done for the Indian at Columbia (Hurston 2002, p. 372). In 1936, Herskovits was not only unsupportive of Hurstons overtures, but he also tried to steer her away from conducting research in Jamaica and Haiti, where she eventually finished the manuscript for Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937.

HURSTON AS DRAMATIST, ETHNOGRAPHER, AND WRITER

Funded by a grant from Carter G. Woodsons Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1927, and later a contract with white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason (18541946), between 1927 and 1929 Hurston traveled to Florida, Alabama, Georgia, New Orleans, and the Bahamas in search of authentic Negro expressive folk culture (Kaplan 2001, p. xxii). She wrote to the author Langston Hughes (19021967) of her desire to write at least seven books based upon these ethnographic journeys, but she published only one, Mules and Men, in 1935. She also presented her patron, Mason, with a manuscript entitled Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, published posthumously in 2001 as Every Tongue Got to Confess. Much of Hurstons folklore material from her 1920s fieldwork seems to have vanished, although some of the rich data surfaced in her collaboration with Hughes on the play Mule Bone in 1930.

The 1930s proved a prolific period for Hurston: She published Hoodoo in America in the Journal of American Folklore in 1931, conducted ethnographic research on West Indian Obeah practices in 1936 in Jamaica and Haiti under a Guggenheim fellowship, and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks and published it in 1937. With her Guggenheim fellowship renewed for 1937, she continued to conduct research in Haiti, recording her field experiences of the previous year in Jamaica and Haiti in her only traditional ethnography, Tell My Horse, completed and published in 1938. In 1939 Hurston joined the Federal Writers Project (FWP), where she produced consummate essays and commentary about Florida and folklore, demonstrating that she was a serious anthropologist whose career had just hit its stride (Bordelon 1999, p. x). During this time, according to biographer Carla Kaplan, she also staged folklore productions.

A TRAGIC ENDING

Numerous tragedies struck Hurston in the 1940s. The FWP project ended, as did her second marriage (19391943) to Albert Price III. For a brief time in 1944, Hurston was married to James Howell Pitts, and published My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience. Always intrigued by the Diaspora, Hurston traveled to the British Honduras in 1947 to study black communities. While there she wrote Seraph on the Suwanee. Published in 1948, the novel contains excerpts taken from Hurstons FWP field notes and placed in the mouths of her novels characters (Bordelon 1999, p. x). In 1948, Hurston was accused of molesting a minor. Although the charges were dismissed a year later, the event took its toll.

Between 1950 and 1959, Hurston worked a series of odd jobsjournalist, librarian, maid, and substitute teacherand published some memorable essays along the way, including the controversial What White Publishers Wont Print in the Negro Digest and her last published story, The Conscience of the Court, in the Saturday Evening Post, both appearing in 1950. In the early part of 1959, Hurston suffered a stroke. By October she was forced to move into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home.

On January 28, 1960, the once-famous Hurston, noted anthropologist, folklorist, novelist, playwright, and preserver of black folk culture, died penniless. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, Fort Pierce (Gates 1990, p. 311). Interest in Hurston revived in 1975 with the publication of Alice Walkers In Search of Zora Neale Hurston in Ms. magazine. In 2005 Hurstons novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a television movie starring Academy Awardwinning actress Halle Berry. Hurston held a consummate passion for and commitment to the preservation of African American folk culture. What she contributed to anthropology was a body of scholarship that sometimes challenged the literary, social science, and social conventions of her time but illuminated the figurative capacity of black language in a manner yet to be replicated (Gates 1990b, p. 212). Hurstons life, her strikes against social conventions, and her love for black language and black folk culture in all its expressive manifestations continue to inspire into the twenty-first century.

SEE ALSO Anthropology, U.S.; Boas, Franz; Harlem Renaissance; Herskovits, Melville J.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY WORKS

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. Sweat. Fire! 1 (1): 4045.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. The Eatonville Anthology. Messenger 8 (SeptemberNovember): 261262, 297, 319, 332.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. Possum or Pig. Forum 76 (September): 465.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1931. Hoodoo in America. Journal of American Folklore 44 (OctoberDecember): 317418.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1934. Jonahs Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1935. Mules and Men. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1937. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1938. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1942. Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1944. My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience. Negro Digest 2 (June): 2526.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1948. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: Scribners.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950a. The Conscience of the Court. Saturday Evening Post (March 18): 2223, 112122.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950b. What White Publishers Wont Print. Negro Digest 8 (April): 8589.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 1981. The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Berkeley: Turtle Island.

Hurston, Zora Neale. 2001. Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States. New York: HarperCollins.

Hurston, Zora Neale, with Langston Hughes. 1991. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, edited and with introductions by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).

SECONDARY WORKS

Bordelon, Pamela, ed. 1999. Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers Project. New York: Norton.

Boyd, Valerie. 2003. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribners.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1990a. Afterword, Selected Bibliography, and Chronology. In Jonahs Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston, 207229. New York: Perennial Library.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1990b. Afterword, Selected Bibliography, and Chronology. In Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Zora Neale Hurston, 301311. New York: Perennial Library.

Kaplan, Carla. 2001. Introduction. In Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, Zora Neale Hurston. New York: HarperCollins.

Kaplan, Carla, ed. 2002. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday.

McClaurin, Irma. 2000. Belle Lettres: Dear Langston, Love Zora. FlaVour: Black Florida Life and Style (Autumn): 1619.

McClaurin, Irma. 2003. The Politics of BeingZora Neale Hurston. Unpublished Paper presented (with an interpretation by Tracey Graham) at the conference Jumpin at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston, Barnard College, October 3, 2003.

Walker, Alice. 1975. In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. (March): 7479, 8589.

Irma McClaurin

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Hurston, Zora Neale

Zora Neale Hurston

Born: January 7, 1903
Eatonville, Florida
Died: January 28, 1960
Fort Pierce, Florida

African American author and folklorist

Folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston was best known for her collection of African American folklore Mules and Men (1935) and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she charted a young African American woman's personal journey.

Childhood

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1903, in Eatonville, Florida, to Reverend John and Lucy Hurston. Zora's mother died when she was nine years old, and her father soon remarried. After her relationship with her stepmother rapidly declined, her father sent her to school in Jacksonville, Florida. Hurston greatly missed her mother and the warm, loving family atmosphere that she had grown up in. Hurston found herself being passed from relative to relative, while working as a nanny and a housekeeper.

When Zora was in her early teens she became a wardrobe girl in a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company (a theatre company) touring the South. Eighteen months later, with the help of a former employer, she enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1917. She graduated a year later and went to Howard University, where she completed a year and a half of course work between 1919 and 1924. She secured a scholarship which allowed her to transfer to Barnard College, where she earned her degree in 1928. From 1928 to 1932 she studied anthropology (the study of human culture) and folklore at Columbia University under Franz Boas, a well-known anthropologist. In 1936 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for travelling and collecting folklore in Haiti and the British West Indies.

Early career

Hurston had a variety of jobs in addition to the writing recognition that brought her fame. She worked as a secretary for writer Fannie Hurst (18891968), a writer for Paramount and Warner Brothers Studios, a librarian at the Library of Congress, and a drama coach at North Carolina College for Negroes. Hurston began her writing career while at Howard when she wrote her first short story for Stylus, a college literary magazine. She continued to write stories, and in 1925 won first prize in the Opportunity literary contest for "Spunk." In 1939 Morgan College awarded her an honorary doctorate degree. In 1943 she received the Annisfield Award for the autobiographical Dust Tracks on the Road, a book about her life, which she wrote. Also in 1943 she was given an alumni award from Howard University.

Hurston's writings

Hurston's most famous work is her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she created the portrait of an African American female, Janie, growing into adulthood searching for her identity. Through a series of marriages Janie comes to know and define herself in terms of her relationship with whites. For several years after the novel's publication critics saw this work as a sentimental love story. However, if the novel is read with the understanding that love was the traditional way in which a woman was supposed to find self-fulfillment (completing oneself), then love can be seen as the vehicle for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. The novel also portrays the awakening of a woman's sexuality. With the women's movement of the 1970s and the growth of female awareness that followed, many critics cited this novel as the central text in the canon (list of the best) of literature by African American women writers, specifically, and by women writers in general.

Hurston was also a famous folklorist who applied her academic training to collecting African American folklore around her home-town in Florida. This work produced two collections of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1939). All of her work is characterized by her use of African American folk idioms (regional speech), which are important to her character portrayals.

Hurston wrote three other novels: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), an autobiographical novel about her father's rise from an illiterate (unable to read or write) laborer to a respected Baptist minister; Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), which recreated Mosaic biblical myth in an African context; and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which is about a woman's search for selfhood within the confines of marriage to a man who sees all women as inferior.

Although Hurston worked all of her life at many jobs and was an extremely productive writer, money was always a serious problem. In the late 1940s she returned to Florida and worked as a maid in Riva Alto. After several efforts to restart her writing career, she died in poverty in Fort Pierce, Florida, on January 28, 1960.

For More Information

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on the Road. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1942. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Compiled by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow's Kitchen. New York: Scribner's, 1990.

MacKissak, Patricia, and Frederick MacKissak. Zora Neale Hurston, Writer and Storyteller. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1992.

Witcover, Paul. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960), folklorist and novelist, was best known for her collection of African American folklore Mules and Men (1935) and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she charted a young African American woman's journey for personal fulfillment.

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1903, in Eatonville, Florida, to Reverend John and Lucy Hurston. Zora's mother died when she was nine years old, and her father soon remarried. Her relationship with her stepmother rapidly deteriorated, and her father sent her to school in Jacksonville. In her early teens she became a wardrobe girl in a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company touring the South. Eighteen months later she enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1917. She graduated a year later and went to Howard University, where she completed a year and a half of course work between 1919 and 1924. She secured a scholarship which allowed her to transfer to Barnard College, where she earned her B.A. in 1928. From 1928 to 1932 she studied anthropology and folklore at Columbia University under Franz Boas, the renown anthropologist. In 1936 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for travelling and collecting folklore in Haiti and the British West Indies.

Hurston worked at a variety of jobs, from manicurist, to Fannie Hurst's secretary, to writer for Paramount and Warner Brothers Studios, to librarian at the Library of Congress, to drama coach at North Carolina College for Negroes. Hurston began her writing career while at Howard when she wrote her first short story for Stylus, a college literary magazine. She continued to write stories, and in 1925 won first prize in the Opportunity literary contest for "Spunk." In 1939 Morgan College awarded her an honorary doctorate. In 1943 she received the Annisfield Award for the autobiographical Dust Tracks on the Road; also in 1943 Howard University bestowed its alumni award upon her.

Although Hurston worked all of her life at many jobs and was a prolific writer, money was always a serious problem. In the late 1940s she returned to Florida and worked as a maid in Riva Alto. After several efforts to re-kindle her writing career, she died in poverty in the town of her birth.

Hurston's most famous work is her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she created the portrait of an African American female, Janie, growing into adulthood searching for her identity and fulfillment. Through a series of marriages Janie comes to know and define herself in terms of her relationship with whites. For several years after the novel's publication critics saw this work as a sentimental love story. However, if the novel is read with the understanding that love was the traditional way in which a woman was supposed to find fulfillment, then love can be seen as the vehicle for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. The novel also portrays the awakening of a woman's sexuality. With the advent of the women's movement of the 1970s and the subsequent growth of female awareness, many critics cited this novel as the central text in the canon of literature by African American women writers, specifically, and by women writers in general.

Hurston was also a famous folklorist who applied her academic training to collecting African American folklore around her hometown in Florida. This work produced two collections of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1939). All of her work is characterized by her use of African American folk idioms, which are intrinsic to her character portrayals.

Hurston wrote three other novels: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), an autobiographical novel about her father's rise from an illiterate laborer to become a respected Baptist minister; Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), which recreated Mosaic biblical myth in an African context; and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which is about a woman's search for selfhood within the confines of marriage to a man who sees all women as inferior.

Hurston also wrote several plays: Fast and Furious (1931), The First One (1927), Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts (1931), and Polk County (1944), as well as many articles and short stories.

Further Reading

Hurston tells her life story in the autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road (1942, 1985). For the best critical biographical source see Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977). Barbara Christian summarized Hurston's career and placed her in the context of her female contemporaries in Black Women Novelists (1980). Also see Daryl C. Dance, "Zora Neale Hurston," in American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays, edited by Maurice Duke, et al.; Quandra P. Stadler, "Visibility and Difference: Black Women in History and Literature: Pieces of a Paper and Some Ruminations," in The Future of Difference (1980), edited by Alice Jardine. See also citations for Hurston in Black American Writers Past and Present, edited by Theressa G. Rush, et al., and Alice Walker's Hurston reader I Love Myself When I'm Laughing … for Hurston's posthumously published essay. Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1985. □

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Hurston, Zora Neale

Zora Neale Hurston, 1891?–60, African-American writer, b. Notasulga, Ala. She grew up in the pleasant all-black town of Eatonville, Fla. and, moving north, graduated from Barnard College, where she studied with Franz Boas. Her placid childhood and privileged academic background are often cited as major reasons for her work's general lack of stress on racism, a characteristic so unlike such contemporaries as Richard Wright. An anthropologist and folklorist, Hurston collected African-American folktales in the rural South and sympathetically interpreted them in the collections Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). A third volume of tales, Every Tongue Got to Confess, was discovered in manuscript and published in 2001. Hurston, a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was also the author of four novels including Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and the influential Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Her plays include the comedy Mule Bone (1931), written in collaboration with her friend Langston Hughes.

See her autobiography (1942); C. Kaplan, ed., Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2002); biographies by R. E. Hemenway (1977) V. Boyd (2002), and V. L. Moylan (2011); studies by H. Bloom, ed. (1986), S. Glassman and K. L. Seidel (1991), J. Carter-Sigglow (1994), J. Lowe (1994), D. G. Plant (1995), L. M. Hill (1996), G. L. Cronin (1998), A. I. Karanja (1999), S. E. Meisenhelder (1999), and D. Miles (2002).

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