Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston, Zora Neale 1891–1960
Zora Neale Hurston 1891–1960
Writer, anthropologist, folklorist
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 Clarke’s 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 daughter’s 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 Zora’s autobiography. “The white folks were not going to stand for it.”
A carpenter, three-term mayor, and moderator of the South Florida Baptist Association, Zora’s father, Reverend John Hurston, was a well-respected man and—according to wisdom gathered on Joe Clarke’s porch—the strongest and bravest man in the community. Reverend Hurston’s 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
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 University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, 1943; Bethune-Cookman College Award for Education and Human Relations.
hailing down passing cars and impishly asking, “Don’t 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 mother’s 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 requesting—unsuccessfully—that 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.
In 1921 Hurston published her first story. “John Redding Goes to Sea” was accepted by Howard’s 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.
The time was the Roaring Twenties. Sandwiched between the beginning of World War II and the Great Depression of 1930, the 1920s was America’s 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.”
Hurston’s 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 Clarke’s 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 term—that 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 world—I 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.
Hurston’s first folklore collecting trip to America’s 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 lore—a quest that took her from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Jamaica, and finally Haiti, where she photographed an apparent zombie.
The secret of Hurston’s 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 book’s 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 Hurston’s 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 America’s black culture: stories, or “big old lies,” songs, superstitions, and even “formulae of Hoodoo Doctors.”
But Hurston’s 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 everybody’s 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.”
While the 1930s and 1940s brought Hurston her greatest professional successes, they didn’t come without a price. In 1931 a bitter breakdown of Hurston’s 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 1991—and immediately caused controversy. The play was another Eatonville story; the setting was Joe Clarke’s store porch; and the dialect was authentic.
To many blacks who worried about their perception in today’s society, the play’s 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 play—indeed, as the basis of a new theory of black drama—Hurston 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. Hurston’s 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. Impoverished—a now familiar circumstance—overweight, 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.
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 Hurston’s unmarked grave. The stone was inscribed: “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South.”
Jonah’s 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.
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.
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.
Hurston, Zora Neale
Hurston, Zora Neale 1891-1960
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 Clark’s storefront porch influenced Hurston’s 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).
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 (1805–1879), Jean Toomer (1894–1967), Sterling Brown (1901–1989), Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–1987), and William Waring Cuney (1906–1976), 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 (1886–1966). Into their midst came influential writers and scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Alain Locke (1886–1954), and James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), 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 didn’t 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 time—for both black and white women” (2003, p. 5).
From the start of her research, Hurston worked to gather perspectives from the African Diaspora—the scattering of African people throughout the Americas—collecting 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 performance—what 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 (1895–1963): “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 Hurston’s 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.
Funded by a grant from Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1927, and later a contract with white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason (1854–1946), 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 (1902–1967) 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 Hurston’s 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.
Numerous tragedies struck Hurston in the 1940s. The FWP project ended, as did her second marriage (1939–1943) 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 Hurston’s “FWP field notes and placed … in the mouths of her novel’s 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 jobs—journalist, librarian, maid, and substitute teacher—and published some memorable essays along the way, including the controversial “What White Publishers Won’t 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 Walker’s “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine. In 2005 Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God became a television movie starring Academy Award–winning 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). Hurston’s 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.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. Sweat. Fire! 1 (1): 40–45.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1926. The Eatonville Anthology. Messenger 8 (September–November): 261–262, 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 (October–December): 317–418.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1934. Jonah’s 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): 25–26.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1948. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: Scribner’s.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950a. The Conscience of the Court. Saturday Evening Post (March 18): 22–23, 112–122.
Hurston, Zora Neale. 1950b. What White Publishers Won’t Print. Negro Digest 8 (April): 85–89.
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.
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: Scribner’s.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. 1990a. Afterword, Selected Bibliography, and Chronology. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston, 207–229. 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, 301–311. 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): 16–19.
McClaurin, Irma. 2003. The Politics of “Being”—Zora 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): 74–79, 85–89.
Hurston, Zora Neale
Born January 7, 1891
Died January 28, 1960
Fort Pierce, Florida
American short story writer, autobiographer, novelist, and folklorist
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Amajor figure in twentieth-century African American literature, Zora Neale Hurston had a sharp wit and a vibrant personality that made her seem a natural part of the Harlem Renaissance. Stephen Watson, author of The Harlem Renaissance, describes her as "outrageous, unpredictable, and headstrong." Though probably best known as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston was also a dedicated collector of African American folklore and one of the first writers to incorporate this rich resource into her own work. During the Harlem Renaissance she published several memorable short stories and honed the skills that would come to fruition in later years, when her novels and nonfiction works appeared. Her independent spirit and significant accomplishments made her both a model and a source of inspiration to later generations of black writers.
"Jump at de sun"
Hurston was born in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, located about five miles from the larger city of Orlando.
She was the fifth of eight children born to Lucy Ann Hurston, who had been a country schoolteacher, and John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher who served as mayor of Eatonville for three terms. Hurston noted in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), that her mother treated her as a special child and encouraged her to "jump at de sun" and try to realize her dreams. Sometimes scolded by her father for her sassiness, Hurston was imaginative and curious and liked to spend time at the local country store, listening to the blues music and colorful stories played out and told by the townsfolk who gathered there.
But this comfortable life ended when Hurston was nine years old; her mother died and Hurston was sent off to attend school in a different town. Her father remarried, and Hurston didn't get along with his new wife. At fourteen she began a life of wandering, working first as a maid and then as a wardrobe assistant for a traveling theatrical company. She attended school only intermittently until she finally enrolled at Morgan Academy in Baltimore, from which she graduated in June 1918. That fall, Hurston entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., then the country's leading black college. Over the next six years, she took courses while supporting herself as a manicurist in a barber shop. It was during this period that she met Alain Locke (1886–1954), a professor of philosophy at Howard and soon to be one of the most influential older leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.
A promising short story writer
Hurston also began writing short stories. One of these, "John Redding Goes to Sea," about a protagonist who longs to travel to faraway places, was published in the 1921 issue of Stylus, Howard's literary magazine. Thanks to Locke, the story came to the attention of sociologist Charles S. Johnson (1893–1956), the editor of the important black publication Opportunity. Johnson recognized Hurston's talent and encouraged her to move to New York City and join the other young black writers and artists who were gathering there. In January 1925 Hurston arrived in Harlem with, as she recalled in her autobiography, "$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope."
Soon Hurston's writing—as well as her lively personal-ity—would make her a full-fledged and popular member of the Harlem Renaissance scene. She entered several of her works in Opportunity's first literary contest and made a splashy appearance at the awards dinner in May when she accepted a second-place prize for a short story, "Spunk," (which would later appear in Opportunity and in Locke's New Negro anthology) and a play, "Color Struck," as well as honorable mentions for two other works. And it was at this dinner that Hurston met two important new friends: Fannie Hurst, a well-known white author, and Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College. Hurst soon offered Hurston a job as her secretary and chauffeur, and Meyer arranged for a scholarship so that Hurston could study anthropology at Barnard.
In the fall of 1925 Hurston entered Barnard College. She was the school's only black student. Among her teachers was the famous German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), who was impressed by this dynamic young woman and saw her as the perfect person to collect the still-ungathered folklore of African American culture. Hurston's studies, and especially her contact with Boas, led her to view her past and her heritage differently than she had before—to see it as something very special that might interest other people. In Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote: "It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else.... I had to have the spyglass of anthropology to look through."
Gaining friends and a patron
Meanwhile, Hurston had become a popular member of the younger crowd of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, many of whom congregated at the boarding house that Hurston (known for her witty remarks) jokingly called "Niggerati Manor." She was particularly famous for her ability to tell vivid stories, complete with authentic dialect and accents. White patrons who were drawn to Harlem found Hurston very entertaining (especially those at the parties given by critic and Harlem Renaissance enthusiast Carl Van Vechten [see Chapter 2], which Hurston often attended). In fact, some of Hurston's friends felt she consciously aimed to please white listeners and friends. Langston Hughes (1902–1967; see biographical entry) remembered in his autobiography, The Big Sea, that she knew how to "represent the Negro Race" and be "a perfect 'darkie' [a derogatory term for black people] ... naive, childlike, sweet." In his novel Infants of the Spring, a fictional portrayal of the real lives and adventures of the younger Harlem Renaissance crowd, Wallace Thurman (1902–1934; see biographical entry) cast Hurston as a character named Sweetie May Carr, who was known more "for her ribald wit and personal effervescence than for any actual literary work. She was a great favorite among those whites who went in for Negro prodigies."
As Hurston's studies at Barnard came to an end, Boas helped her get a fourteen-hundred-dollar scholarship from the Carter G. Woodson Foundation, which she used to fund a folklore-gathering trip into the southern United States. This trip was not too successful, though, because Hurston had not yet learned how to blend in with and talk to the people she interviewed; she spoke with an educated, East Coast accent that made southern blacks feel uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Hurston married Herbert Sheen in May 1927, but the marriage did not last long due to Hurston's devotion to her career above all else.
In September 1927 Hurston met Charlotte Mason (1854–1946), the wealthy white woman with a deep interest in African American culture who had already become a patron of several Harlem Renaissance writers and artists (including poet Langston Hughes and artists Miguel Covarubbias [1904–1957] and Richmond Barthé [1901–1989]). Impressed by Hurston, Mason offered to support her while she conducted her anthropological work, and in December the two women signed a contract. Hurston would receive two hundred dollars a month as well as a movie camera and a Ford automobile; she was to travel in the South and collect folklore, then report back to Mason with all the materials she had gathered.
Collecting folklore and establishing a literary career
Hurston spent the next three years traveling—mostly in Alabama and Florida—and collected a huge amount of folklore, including songs, stories, and a careful record of the slang and figures of speech used by southern blacks. But these were also frustrating years, as Hurston failed to get any of the material published and began to doubt her ability as a writer. She also went through a painful breakup with her good friend Langston Hughes after the two had worked together on a play called Mule Bone, which was based on one of the folktales Hurston had collected. Hughes was deeply angered and upset when Hurston tried to get the play published as her own creation. The two friends parted company and spoke to each other only rarely for the rest of their lives.
Hurston's contract with Mason ended in 1931, but Mason continued to give her money for another year. In early 1932 Hurston went to work at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where she was to create an African American arts program. Plagued by illness and a lack of money, she returned briefly to New York but finally went back to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. This period of confusion and frustration came to an end in 1933 with the appearance of Hurston's short story, "The Gilded Six Bits," in Story magazine, an event that gave her literary career a much-needed boost. Considered one of Hurston's finest stories, "The Gilded Six Bits" concerns a young rural black couple whose happiness is temporarily disrupted by a slick city-dweller who appears in their small community. The story's well-developed characters and skillfully rendered dialect attracted the attention of the Lippincott publishing company, whose editors asked Hurston if she had written a novel. She had not, but she went right to work on one, and the result was Jonah's Gourd Vine, which was published by Lippincott in 1934.
Based on the lives of Hurston's parents, Jonah's Gourd Vine tells the story of Alabama-born John "Buddy" Pearson, the son of a former slave and, most probably, her white owner. Pearson ends up marrying three wives in succession but is unable to remain faithful to any of them. He experiences a number of ups and downs as he pursues careers as a carpenter and a preacher. Finally he seems to have achieved a happy marriage and successful life, but while returning from a business trip he has an affair with a young woman he meets on the train, and he dies before reaching home. Praised for its rich language and emotional power, Jonah's Gourd Vine sold well, though many critics and readers of the time failed to note the racial themes that were at its core.
Excerpt from "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston
It was eleven o'clock of a Spring night in Florida. It was Sunday. Any other night, Delia Jones would have been in bed for two hours by this time. But she was a washwoman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. So she collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost half a day's start. A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.
She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and buckboard.
Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove.
She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright. She screamed at him.
"Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me—looks just like a snake, an' you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes."
"'Course Ah knowed it! That's how come Ah done it." He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. "If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don't keer how bad Ah skeer you."
"You ain't got no business doing it. Gawd knows it's a sin. Some day Ah'm gointuh drop dead from some of yo' foolishness. 'Nother thing, were you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony. He ain't fuh you to be drivin' wid no bull whip."
"You sho is one aggravatin' nigger woman!" he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once. "Ah done tole you time and time again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house."
He picked up the whip and glared down at her. Delia went on with her work. She went out into the yard and returned with a galvanized tub and sit it on the washbench. She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way trucculently, his whole manner hoping, praying, for an argument. But she walked calmly around him and commenced to re-sort the things.
"Next time, Ah'm gointer kick 'em outdoors," he threatened as he struck a match along the leg of his corduroy breeches.
Delia never looked up from her work, and her thin, stooped shoulders sagged further.
"Ah ain't for no fuss t'night Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house."
He snorted scornfully. "Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain't nothing but a hyprocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians—sing, whoop, and shout, then come home and wash white folks' clothes on the Sabbath."
He stepped roughly on the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room. His wife gave a little scream of dismay and quickly gathered them together again.
"Sykes, you quit grindin' dirt into these clothes! How can ah git through by Sat'day if Ah don't start on Sunday?"
"Ah don't keer if you never git through. Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah ain't gointer have it in mah house. Don't gimme no lip neither, else Ah'll throw 'em out and put mah fist up side yo' head to boot."
Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.
"Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"
Mules and Men and other works
Hurston's new reputation as an accomplished writer led to the publication of the collected folktales and other materials that she had always called her "story book." Mules and Men was published in 1935 and featured an introduction by Franz Boas, who praised the book as helping readers understand "historically the character of American Negro life." Although everyone agreed that Mules and Men was important as a work of anthropology, some African American and other critics faulted Hurston for giving it too light and carefree a tone and avoiding the issue of racial conflict.
Hurston spent the next few years touring with several musical revues that were based on the folktales she had gathered, including Sun to Sun (produced in Florida), The Great Day, and Singing Steel (both of which appeared in Chicago). She was offered a fellowship to pursue a doctoral degree in anthropology at New York's Columbia University, but the work and study schedule proved too restrictive so she turned it down. In the fall of 1935 Hurston joined the Federal Writers Project of the newly created Works Progress Administration (WPA; a U.S. government agency founded in 1935, called the Works Progress Administration until 1939, designed to give out-of-work Americans a new start), and the next year she received a Guggenheim fellowship to collect folklore in the West Indies. Hurston published the results of her work in Tell My Horse (1938). After her return to the United States, she began writing a novel that would become her best-known and most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937.
An African American classic
The story of a woman who finds happiness by following her own heart rather than her society's expectations, Their Eyes Were Watching God has come to be seen as a masterpiece of African American literature. The central character is feisty Janie Woods, who tells the story of her life to a friend, recounting her marriages to three husbands: the first a middle-aged farmer; the second a handsome and ambitious man who takes her to live in Eatonville, Florida; and finally Tea Cake Woods, a migrant farm-worker who makes her happy until he contracts rabies and she is forced to kill him in self-defense. Although she is married to Tea Cake for only eighteen months, Janie lives a complete, emotionally satisfying life during that period and feels fulfilled. The novel was praised for its warm and richly descriptive portrayal of southern black people and life, and particularly for the character of Janie, a strong, passionate, and independent woman. More than thirty years later, Their Eyes Were Watching God was championed by contemporary African American author Alice Walker, who credited Hurston with inspiring her own work.
In the fall of 1939 Hurston became a drama instructor at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. She also married Albert Price III, a man at least fifteen years younger than she was (they would divorce four years later), and finished her next book, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). This novel is a retelling of the biblical story of Moses, who led the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Promised Land of Canaan. Hurston shaped her novel as an allegory (a symbolic representation) of African American oppression by whites. Though not considered as solid a literary achievement as her previous novel, Moses highlights Hurston's command of African American speech and folklore as well as her interest in conveying the history of African Americans in an unusual way.
Remembered as "A Genius of the South"
Hurston spent a short period from late 1940 to early 1941 living in California with a wealthy friend, Katharine Mershon, and working on her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, which was published in 1942. The book sold well and even won an award for contributing to better race relations. It provides an entertaining, flattering view of Hurston and is not considered entirely accurate in its facts.
At this point Hurston began to be courted by magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest for contributions. Some of the pieces she wrote for them proved controversial, though, because she seemed to suggest that blacks and whites could not live together harmoniously and should be segregated.
During the last two decades of her life Hurston continued to write but did not publish much, especially after the appearance of her final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1948. This novel centers on white characters (Hurston wanted to show that black writers could convey white life and people in their works), including Arvay Henson, a poor woman who gradually develops a sense of self-worth. Hurston continued to live mostly in Florida, and especially enjoyed traveling up and down the Halifax and Indian rivers on her houseboat Wanago. But as time went by she found it increasingly difficult to support herself, and by 1950 she was forced to take a job as a maid. Over the next ten years she survived by borrowing money from friends and working for short periods as a librarian, a reporter, and a substitute teacher.
Hurston had experienced poor health for many years, and in October of 1958 she had a stroke and was forced to enter the Saint Lucie Country Welfare Home, which provided long-term care for low-income people. She died on January 28, 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave in an all-black cemetery called the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida. Some of Hurston's old friends took up a collection to pay for her funeral, at which the minister declared that Hurston had been wealthy despite her poverty: "The Miami paper said she died poor. But she died rich. She did something." Nearly twenty years earlier, Hurston had written in her autobiography that she had indeed "touched the four corners of the horizon."
Hurston's works were largely overlooked until the 1970s, when African American and other writers and readers began to rediscover them. A key figure in this rediscovery was novelist and poet Alice Walker, who admired Hurston's writing and independent spirit and who cited Hurston as an influence on her own work. In 1973 Walker made a pilgrimage to Florida to try to find Hurston's grave. After a long search she located what she believed to be the unmarked grave, and there she placed a marker engraved with Hurston's name and a line from a poem by Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer: "A Genius of the South."
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1986.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1942.
Karanja, Ayana I. Zora Neale Hurston: The Breath of Her Voice. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1999.
Lester, Neal A., ed. Understanding Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. Scribner Book Company, 1990.
Porter, A.P. Jump at de Sun: The Story of Zora Neale Hurston. Minneapolis, MN: First Avenue Editions, 1992.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Yanuzzi, Della. Southern Storyteller. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.
Yates, Janelle. Zora Neale Hurston: A Storyteller's Life. Staten Island, NY: Ward Hill Press, 1992.
Hurston, Zora Neale
Born January 7, 1891 (Eatonville, Florida)
Died January 28, 1960 (Fort Pierce, Florida)
Author and folklorist
"I have touched the four corners of the horizon, for from hard searching it seems to me that tears and laughter, love and hate make up the sum of life."
Zora Neale Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most important cultural movements of the Roaring Twenties. This explosion of African American achievement in the written, visual, and performing arts was centered in the black community of Harlem in New York City. Hurston was part of a group of younger writers, whose members included Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Claude McKay (1890–1948), and Jean Toomer (1894–1967). This group's works helped to celebrate and explore African American life. Although Hurston is best known for works written in later decades (especially her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God), her vibrant personality and sense of humor made her a popular and vital participant in the Harlem Renaissance. The short stories that she published during this period revealed her knowledge and appreciation of the black folk tradition that she had enjoyed since childhood. She was among the first to make use of this rich resource, through both her fiction and her work as a folklorist.
A lively and curious young woman
Zora Neale Hurston was born in the central Florida town of Eatonville, which was one of the first in the United States to be incorporated as an all-black town. She was the fifth of eight children born to John Hurston, a carpenter, Baptist preacher, and three-time mayor of Eatonville. Hurston's mother, Lucy Ann Hurston, was a former schoolteacher who seems to have appreciated her daughter's lively nature and encouraged her to
Alain Locke: A Harlem Renaissance Guiding Light
Writer, editor, and educator Alain Locke was dedicated to preserving and celebrating African American culture. He believed in nurturing the talents of young black writers and artists. During the Harlem Renaissance, Locke was one of several people who served as mentors to a new generation of cultural stars, including Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes.
Descended from an African American family that had been freed from slavery before the Civil War, Locke was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1886. The son of a law professor and a teacher, he excelled in his studies and entered Harvard University in 1904, developing an interest in philosophy.
After graduating in 1907, Locke became the first African American to be chosen as Rhodes Scholar. This honor allowed him to attend England's famed Oxford University. Three years at Oxford were followed by a year each at universities in Germany and France.
Locke returned to the United States in 1912, and became a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He would remain employed at Howard, one of the nation's leading black universities, for most of the next forty years. In 1916 Locke returned to Harvard University to earn his PhD in philosophy, becoming the first African American to receive a doctoral degree from Harvard.
As an educator, Locke had extensive contact with young people, and he encouraged them to excel. In 1916 he established a literary magazine at Howard called Stylus, to showcase the work of promising writers. Locke was one of the first to sense in the early 1920s that an explosion of African American arts was beginning, centered in the black community of Harlem in New York City.
Locke had a prominent role in the Harlem Renaissance, particularly with his editorship of the The New Negro: An Interpretation. This anthology began as a special issue of the Survey Graphic, a white publication whose editor had asked Locke to compile a work that highlighted the talents of African American writers and artists. The result was a collection of poems, stories, essays, and visual art by thirty-four contributors that was published in March 1925 to wide acclaim. Later that year, The New Negro appeared as a book, with an introduction and four essays by Locke.
In his introduction, Locke proclaimed the arrival of a new phase in African American history. Blacks were now ready to step up and take their rightful place as equal members of U.S. society, he announced. They were taking renewed pride in their racial heritage, and sharing this with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Locke's vision would take many more decades to be fully achieved. By the end of the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance was essentially over.
Locke later remembered the Harlem Renaissance as a time of independence and self-respect for its participants. He spent his final decades busy with teaching, writing, and speaking engagements. Locke died in New York City in 1954.
pursue her dreams. An imaginative, curious child, Hurston especially enjoyed sitting on the front porch of a country store and listening to the stories told there.
Hurston's happy childhood came to an end with mother's death when she was nine. Hurston's father sent her and several of her siblings away to attend a school in Jacksonville. He soon remarried, and Hurston found herself in frequent conflict with both her father and his new wife. By the age of fourteen, Hurston was living on her own. She survived for several years by working as a maid, until she was hired as a wardrobe assistant for a traveling theatrical company. With help from her sympathetic white employer, Hurston enrolled at Morgan Academy (the high school division of what is now Morgan State University) in Baltimore, Maryland.
After graduating in 1918, Hurston entered Howard University, one of the nation's most respected black universities, in Washington, D.C. Over the next six years, she attended classes while working as a manicurist and waitress to support herself. It was during these years that she began to write short stories, publishing one called "John Redding Goes to Sea" in Howard's Stylus magazine in 1921. By this time Hurston had met Alain Locke (1886–1954), a professor of philosophy at Howard who would soon become one of the influential older leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.
Locke brought Hurston's story, which incorporated many details from her small-town childhood, to the attention of Charles Johnson (1893–1956), the editor of a leading black publication called Opportunity. Johnson encouraged Hurston to move to New York City, where an exciting period of achievement for African American writers, artists, and performers was beginning. Hurston arrived in the black community of Harlem in early 1925. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), she recalled that she was equipped only with "$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope."
Part of a cultural explosion
A few months later, Hurston literally burst onto the scene with an exuberant appearance at an awards dinner for Opportunity's first literary contest. She was thrilled to have won second place for a short story called "Spunk" and a play called Color Struck. The judges had been impressed with Hurston's firsthand knowledge of, and ability to recreate, the daily lives and speech of central Florida's black people. This was an important evening for Hurston because she met two very influential people. The famous white novelist Fannie Hurst (1889–1968) offered her a job as her personal secretary (Hurston's role would shift to that of a chauffeur when her lack of secretarial skills became known), and Annie Nathan Meyer (1867–1951), one of the founders of New York's Barnard College, arranged for Hurston to attend Barnard on a scholarship.
Enrolling in the fall of 1925, Hurston became Barnard's first and only black student. Meanwhile, she was quickly accepted as an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Her wit and storytelling ability were enjoyed by all but especially, some said, by the white people whose fascination with African American culture drew them to Harlem. In fact, some of Hurston's own friends, such as Hughes and Wallace Thurman (1902–1934), suspected that Hurston deliberately played on white stereotypes about blacks in order to win their approval.
Hurston won praise for the stories she wrote during these years, including "Drenched in Light," about a lively eleven-year-old girl with big dreams, and "Sweat," about the destructive relationship between a man and a woman living in rural poverty. The latter story was published in the single issue of a magazine called Fire that Hughes, Hurston, and Thurman produced.
An interest in anthropology
At Barnard, Hurston took an anthropology course (the study of human societies and cultures) with renowned anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942), an experience that changed her life. For the first time, she recognized the African American folk songs, stories, and customs that she had grown up with as something of special interest to many people. Boas too realized that Hurston's background, interests, and talents made her the ideal person to research African American culture, about which little was yet known. He helped her get a grant from the Carter G. Woodson Foundation to fund a research trip in the southern United States. This first journey proved a failure, though, probably because Hurston made the mistake of speaking to the rural people she met in an educated, East Coast voice that made them uncomfortable.
In May 1927 Hurston married a fellow student named Herbert Sheen, but the two lived together for only eight months and were divorced in 1931. Hurston's devotion to her career proved stronger than her commitment to the marriage. In September 1927 Hurston met Charlotte Mason (1854–1946), a wealthy white woman known as "Godmother" because she provided financial support to a number of Harlem Renaissance writers and artists (including Hughes and sculptor Richmond Barthe [1901–1989]). Mason offered to fund Hurston's anthropological research, and Hurston signed a contract that gave Mason the right to review all the material she collected. Equipped with a movie camera, an automobile, and a two-hundred-dollar-per-month salary from Mason, Hurston set out on another journey into the South.
She spent the next three years traveling around (mostly in Alabama and Florida), gathering a huge amount of material that included songs, dances, tales, superstitions, and notes on the speech patterns and slang used by the African Americans she encountered. Hurston found it difficult to get her material published, though, and she finally broke off her relationship with Mason after finding the older woman too controlling. It was at this time that Hurston's friendship with Hughes came to an end after a dispute about Mule Bone, a play the two had been working on together.
Success as a novelist
Hurston worked for part of 1932 at Rollins College, a black school located in Winter Park, Florida, that hired her to organize a concert program of African American arts. When that project was finished, she returned briefly to New York City and then moved back to her hometown. She was living in Eatonville when she wrote "The Gilded Six Bits," which is considered one of her best pieces of writing and which helped to boost her career. Published in Story magazine in 1933, it centers on a young couple whose happiness is briefly but not permanently shattered by the arrival of a slick city-dweller in their rural town. The story attracted the attention of the Lippincott publishing company, whose representatives asked Hurston if she had written a novel. She had not, but she said that she had, then quickly wrote one.
The central character in Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), John "Buddy" Pearson, was modeled after Hurston's father. He is a carpenter and preacher who often finds himself at the mercy of his very human weaknesses, especially a tendency to be unfaithful to each of three successive wives. The book sold well, as readers were drawn to its rich language and emotional power, but some commentators accused Hurston of overlooking the racial strife that, they felt, formed an inescapable part of black life. For her part, Hurston always claimed that she did not believe that constantly focusing on the negative aspects of the African American experience told the whole story.
The novel's popularity led to the publication, at long last, of Hurston's collected folklore in Mules and Men (1935), with an introduction written by Boas. Although almost everyone recognized the book as an important work of anthropology, some faulted Hurston for writing in a tone that seemed too light and carefree and for again ignoring racial issues. Hurston spent the next several years touring with musical shows based on her stories, including From Sun to Sun and The Great Day, which were performed in Florida and in Chicago, Illinois. She was offered a fellowship to pursue a doctoral degree in anthropology at Columbia University in New York City, but she turned it down when she found the terms too restrictive.
In 1936 Hurston received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship that allowed her to conduct more folklore research, this time in the West Indies. She traveled to Haiti and Jamaica, publishing the results in Tell My Horse (1938), a book that was especially noted for providing new insights into the voodoo religion practiced in those places.
After returning to the United States, Hurston began work on the novel that would be her most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Published in 1937, the novel tells the story of strong, passionate Janie Woods, who recounts her three marriages: the first to a much older man chosen for her by her grandmother, the second to a handsome and ambitious man, and the third to Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods. The eighteen months of happiness that Janie finds with Tea Cake comes to a sad end with his death from rabies, but she continues to feel optimistic and satisfied. At the time of its publication, some critics faulted the novel for catering to white people's expectations about black characters, but later commentators have seen it very differently. This story of a black woman's quest for fulfillment has inspired readers of African American and other ethnicities, and such famous authors as Alice Walker (1944–), Toni Morrison (1931–), and Jamaica Kincaid (1949–) have cited its influence.
A gradual sinking into poverty
In the fall of 1939 Hurston became a drama instructor at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. She also married Albert Price III, a man fifteen years younger than herself whom she would divorce in 1943. Hurston's next book, Moses, Man of the Mountain, was published in 1939, casting the biblical figure of Moses, who led the enslaved Hebrews to freedom, as an African American in a story that featured an uneasy balance between humor and seriousness.
Hurston spent late 1940 and early 1941 in southern California, living with a wealthy friend while writing her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. The story of how she had "touched the four corners of the horizon" in her life was well received by readers, even though some considered it an overly flattering and not entirely accurate portrayal. Magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Reader's Digest invited Hurston to submit articles, in some of which she seemed to be saying that black and white people needed to live separate lives. This apparent advocacy of segregation angered some critics.
During the last two decades of her life, Hurston wrote little. She did produce one more novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which centers on a poor white woman named Arvay Henson; Hurston claimed that she wanted to prove that an African American author could successfully portray white characters. Having purchased a houseboat, Hurston enjoyed traveling up and down Florida's Halifax and Indian Rivers. She found it difficult to support herself, however, and survived for a time by borrowing money from friends while occasionally selling articles and stories.
In 1950 Hurston took a job as a maid for a white family. She later worked as a librarian, a newspaper reporter, and a substitute teacher. After many years of poor health, she suffered a stroke in 1958 and was forced to enter the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home, a place where low-income people could receive longterm care, in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she died in early 1960. Hurston's friends and family had to take up a collection to cover her funeral expenses, and she was buried in an unmarked grave.
In 1973 novelist and poet Alice Walker placed a memorial on what she believed was Hurston's final resting place. On the headstone was carved a line written by another Harlem Renaissance figure, Jean Toomer: "A Genius of the South."
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1986.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1942.
Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner Book Company, 1990.
Porter, A.P. Jump at de Sun: The Story of Zora Neale Hurston. Minneapolis, MN: First Avenue Editions, 1992.
Yanuzzi, Della. Zora Neale Hurston: Southern Storyteller. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.
Yates, Janelle. Zora Neale Hurston: A Storyteller's Life. Staten Island, NY: Ward Hill Press, 1992.
"Zora Neale Hurston." Women in History. Available online at http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/hurs-zor.htm. Accessed on June 24, 2005.
"The Zora Neale Hurston Plays." Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Available online at http://www.memory.loc.gov/ammem/znhhtml/znhhome.html. Accessed on June 24, 2005.
Hurston, Zora Neale
Hurston, Zora Neale
January 7, 1891
January 28, 1960
The folklorist Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first black incorporated town in America. For reasons that remain unknown, she claimed 1901 as the date of her birth, increasing the mystery and complexity of the woman who in the 1930s produced the single most significant novel on the nature of black female identity in the group's journey from slavery to freedom. Her father, a carpenter and Baptist preacher and a signer of Eatonville's charter, was elected mayor for three terms in succession. Her mother, formerly a country schoolteacher, taught Sunday school but spent most of her time raising her eight children. In Eatonville,
unlike in most of the South at the turn of the century, African Americans were not demoralized by the constant bombardment of poverty and racial hatred, and Hurston grew up surrounded by a vibrant and creative secular and religious black culture. There she first learned the dialect, songs, folktales, and superstitions that are at the center of her works. Her stories focus on the lives and relationships among black people within their communities.
The death of Hurston's mother in 1904 disrupted her economically and emotionally stable home life, and a year later, at fourteen, she left home to take a job as a maid and wardrobe assistant in a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. She separated from the company in Baltimore, found other work, and attended high school there. In 1918 she graduated from Morgan Academy, the high school division of Morgan State University, and entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she took courses intermittently until 1924. The poet Georgia Douglas Johnson and the philosopher Alain Locke were two of her teachers. Her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea" (1921), appeared in Stylus, Howard's literary magazine.
Hurston arrived in New York in 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She soon became an active part of the group of painters, musicians, sculptors, entertainers, and writers who came from across the country to participate in Harlem's unprecedented flowering of black arts. She also studied at Barnard College under anthropologist Franz Boas and graduated with a B.A. in 1928. Between 1929 and 1931, with support from a wealthy white patron, Mrs. Osgood Mason, Hurston returned to the South and began collecting folklore in Florida and Alabama. In 1934 she received a Rosenwald Fellowship and in 1936 and 1937 received Guggenheim Fellowships that enabled her to study folk religions in Haiti and Jamaica. She was a member of the American Folklore Society, the Anthropological Society, the Ethnological Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Based on her extensive research, Hurston published Mules and Men (1935), the first collection (seventy folktales) of black folklore published by an African American. A second volume, Tell My Horse (1938), came out of a two-month stay in Haiti and contains a poetic account of Haitian history, political analyses of contemporary events in the region, and a vivid and exciting section on Vodou as a sophisticated religion of creation and life. Her most academic study, The Florida Negro (1938), written for the Florida Federal Workers Project, was never published.
Franz Boas and Mrs. Mason stimulated Hurston's anthropological interests—interests that gave her an analytical perspective on black culture that was unique among black writers of her time—but she was also fully vested in the creative life of the cultural movement around her. Her close friends included Carl Van Vechten, Locke, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, with whom she coedited and published the only issue of the journal Fire!! Appearing in November 1926, its supporters saw it as a forum for young writers who wanted to break with traditional black ideas. Coincidentally, Fire!! was destroyed by a fire in Thurman's apartment.
Body of Work
Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), the story of a Baptist preacher with a personal weakness that leads to his unfortunate end, reveals the lyrical quality of her writing and her mastery of dialect. Her protagonist, modeled on her father, is a gifted poet/philosopher with an enviable imagination and speech filled with the imagery of black folk culture. He is also a vulnerable person who lacks the self-awareness to comprehend his dilemma.
For its beauty and richness of language, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is Hurston's art at its best. Her most popular work, it traces the development of its heroine from innocence to the realization that she has the power to control her own life. An acknowledged classic since its recovery in the 1970s, it has been applauded by both black and white women scholars as the first black feminist novel. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Hurston's third and most ambitious novel, makes of the biblical Israelite deliverance from Egypt an exploration of the black transition from slavery to freedom. Taking advantage of the pervasiveness of Moses mythology in African and diaspora folklore, Hurston removes Moses from scripture, demystifies him, and relocates him in African-American culture, where he is a conjure man possessed with magical powers and folk wisdom. The novel tells the story of a people struggling to liberate themselves from the heritage of bondage. In Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), Hurston's last and least successful work, she turns away from black folk culture to explore the lives of poor white southerners. The story revolves around a husband and wife trapped in conventional sexual roles in a marriage that dooms the wife's search for herself.
Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston's autobiography, is the most controversial of her books; even some of her staunchest admirers consider it a failure. Critics who complain about this work identify its shortcomings as its lack of self-revelation, the misleading personal information Hurston gives about herself, and the significant roles that whites play in the text. Other critics praise it as Hurston's attempt to invent a narrative self as an alternative to the black identity inherited from the slave narrative tradition. Poised between the black and white worlds, not as victim of either but as participant-observer in both, her narrative self in Dust Tracks presents positive and negative qualities from each. From this perspective, Dust Tracks is a revisionary text, a revolutionary alternative women's narrative inscribed into the discourse of black autobiography.
Reviews of Hurston's books in her time were mixed. White reviewers, often ignorant of black culture, praised the richness of her language but misunderstood the works and characterized them as simple and unpretentious. Black critics in the 1930s and 1940s, in journals like the Crisis, objected most to her focus on positive aspects of black folk life. Their most frequent criticism was the absence of racial terror, exploitation, and misery from her works. Richard Wright expressed anger at the "minstrel image" he claimed Hurston promoted in Their Eyes Were Watching God. None of her books sold well while she was alive, and throughout her lifetime she experienced extreme financial stress.
"What all my work shall be, I don't know either, every hour being a stranger to get as you live it. I want a busy life, a just mind and a timely death."
dust tracks on a road: an autobiography. philadelphia: j.b. lippincott, 1942, p. 294.
Hurston and her writings disappeared from public view from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. Interest in her revived after writer Alice Walker went to Florida "in search of Zora" in 1973 and reassembled the puzzle of Hurston's later life. Walker discovered that Hurston's final return to the South occurred in the 1950s when, still trying to write, she supported herself with menial jobs. Without resources and suffering from the effects of a stroke, in 1959 she entered a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she died in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. On Walker's pilgrimage, she marked a site where Hurston might be buried with a headstone that pays tribute to "a genius of the South." Following her rediscovery, the once-neglected Hurston rose into literary prominence and enjoys wide acclaim as the essential forerunner of black women writers who came after her.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Kaplan, Carla, ed. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002.
Lowe, John. Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Wall, Cheryl A. "Zora Neale Hurston: Changing Her Own Words." In American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleischmann. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
Wall, Cheryl A., ed. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
nellie y. mckay (1996)
Hurston, Zora Neale
HURSTON, Zora Neale
Nationality: American. Born: Eatonville, Florida, 7 January 1901(?). Education: Robert Hungerford School, Eatonville, and a school in Jacksonville, Florida; Morgan Academy, Baltimore, 1917-18; Howard Preparatory School, 1918-19; Howard University, Washington, D.C., part-time 1920-24; Barnard College, New York, 1925-28, B.A. 1928. Family: Married 1) Herbert Sheen in 1927 (divorced 1931); 2) Albert Price III in 1939 (divorced 1943). Career: Maid with traveling repertory company, 1915-16; waitress while at Howard Preparatory School and University, 1918-24; folklore researcher in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, 1927-32; folklore researcher in Haiti and the British West Indies, 1936-38; drama instructor, Bethune Cookman College, Daytona, Florida, 1933-34; editor, Federal Writers Project, Florida, 1938-39; member of the drama department, North Carolina College for Negroes, Durham, 1939-40; story consultant, Paramount, Hollywood, 1941-42; part-time teacher, Florida Normal College, St. Augustine, 1942; maid in Florida, 1949-50; reporter, Pittsburgh Courier, 1952; librarian, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, 1956-57; reporter, Fort Pierce Chronicle, Florida, 1957-59; substitute teacher, Lincoln Park Academy, Fort Pierce, 1958-59. Awards: Rosenwald fellowship, 1934; Guggenheim fellowship, 1936, 1937; Anisfield Wolf award, 1942; Howard University award, 1943. Litt.D.: Morgan State College, Baltimore, 1939. Died: 28 January 1960.
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker. 1979.
Spunk: The Selected Stories. 1985.
The Complete Stories. 1995.
Jonah's Gourd Vine. 1934.
Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937.
Moses, Man of the Mountain. 1939.
Seraph on the Suwanee. 1948.
Color Struck, in Fire!!, November 1926.
The First One, in Ebony and Topaz, edited by Charles S. Johnson. 1927.
The Great Day (produced 1932).
Singing Steel (produced 1934).
Mules and Men. 1935.
Tell My Horse. 1938; as Voodoo Gods: An Inquiry into Native Myths and Magic in Jamaica and Haiti, 1939.
Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. 1942.
Editor, Caribbean Melodies. 1947.*
Hurston: A Reference Guide by Adele S. Newson, 1987; Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide by Rose Parkman Davis, 1997.
In A Minor Chord (on Hurston, Cullen, and Toomer) by Darwin T. Turner, 1971; Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert E. Hemenway, 1977; Hurston by Lillie P. Howard, 1980; Hurston edited by Harold Bloom, 1986; New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God edited by Michael Awkward, 1990; Zora! Hurston: The Woman and Her Community by N. Y. Nathiri, 1991; Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy by John Lowe, 1994; The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan by Trudier Harris, 1996; The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston's Fiction, Folklore, and Drama by Pearlie Mae Fisher Peters, 1997.* * *
Zora Neale Hurston's short fiction first appeared in some of this century's earliest African-American magazines and journals, such as Stylus ("John Redding Goes to Sea"), Opportunity ("Drenched in Light," "Spunk," and "Muttsy"), Messenger ("The Eatonville Anthology"), and Fire!! ("Sweat"). Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman founded Fire!! as an avant-garde journal designed to house the art of African-Americans as opposed to the politics of the race. Although the magazine was short-lived, Hurston's reputation as an African American somewhat scornful of or indifferent to her race's political concerns remains prevalent among some modern critics. The examination of Zora Neale Hurston's short fiction as art form rather than political arena reveals four distinctive attributes that characterize the work: an autobiographical impulse aimed at questioning the boundaries of texts, a culminating twist designed to undo the sentimental, an individual compelled by community and relationship dynamics, and the African-American dialects displayed with fictional, rather than anthropological, accuracy.
In "Drenched in Light" profound similarities tie the short story's main character, eleven-year-old Isis Watts, to the young Zora Neale Hurston as depicted in the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. In the short story Isis daydreams about the horizon: "She rode white horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon, for she still believed that to be the land's end." In the autobiography Hurston's horizon establishes a wider scope than does that of Isis: "The most interesting thing that I saw was the horizon. Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house, then, was in the center of the world." Hurston grew up in the same Eatonville, Florida, about which she writes, and the names of characters who appear in the short stories (Elijah Moseley and Joe Clarke of "The Eatonville Anthology") prove similar to or exactly the same as those of the folks who lived in Eatonville during her youth. This autobiographical impulse affords Hurston a way to idealize her own life as well as a way to experiment with the boundaries of genre.
To experiment with content structures, Hurston often employs a concluding twist to temper any urge to sentimentalize the people of Eatonville. "Spunk" provides a story about Spunk Banks's indiscreet affair with Lena Kanty. Joe Kanty, the husband, succumbs to coercion by his male friends to confront Spunk; Spunk kills him, and the author then proceeds to undo the killer. But Hurston does not sweet-sell a moral tale of peer pressure and guilt, nor does she tell a mere sentimental tale of the ramifications of dating married women. She displays forces worse then guilt, remorse, and gossip. In fine magical realist form she haunts Spunk with a big black bobcat that Spunk believes is in the "h'ant" of Joe. In Hurston's hands, what begins as a tale about marital infidelity becomes a tale twisted by intervention from the beyond.
"Muttsy" seems a straightforward redemption tale in which the wealthy, gambling, drinking, and whoring Muttsy becomes so smitten by the old-fashioned youthful and pure Pinkie that he agrees to amend his ways in order to marry her. But Hurston demonstrates little faith in such redemptive possibilities; the story ends with the newly married Muttsy and a friend secretively rolling dice. Hurston defies sentimentality with these endings, and she opts for a seedier reality.
The individual relationships among people in Eatonville prove extremely complicated. Hurston's large-scale depiction of complex relational dynamics occurs in "The Eatonville Anthology," which the Messenger published in three installments. The anthology includes 13 sketches with a follow-up beast-fable narrative. The entire anthology has the essence of a pilgrimage; it begins as does Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a description of all the independent characters involved in the community, but in contrast to Chaucer's pilgrims, these characters go nowhere. Hurston tells their tales simply to chronicle their existence in this town and thereby to take Eatonville and its inhabitants on a pilgrimage into literature. Some of the pieces are comic, some darkly humorous, and some tragic. The concluding beast fable is the tale of a dog who gets his tongue split up the middle by a rabbit, and thus "The Eatonville Anthology" ends in an ironic dispensation about split tongues. One may easily make the connection between the split tongues of the fable and Hurston's split tale-telling. Her celebration of Eatonville exudes a half-caring and half-critical attitude as she practices the art of anthologizing a beloved town and its people.
Hurston also demonstrates a proclivity for capturing African-American dialects in her writings. The anthropological accuracy of her dialects comes under question in some instances, but most critics seem comfortable with Hurston having opted for literary convention over scientific accuracy in order to procure the longevity of a piece and a wider audience for her work. A well-versed folklorist, Hurston knew the possibilities for representing dialect on the page, but she also thought that most readers did not have her background and that they needed to read the more mythologized version of a dialect. On some occasions she even allowed editorial supplements to explicate a reading, such as in the opening of "Drenched in Light," "If she ain't down by de time Ah gets dere, Ah'll break huh down in de lines [loins]." The addition of the parenthetical supplement draws attention to the text as manufactured narrative and interrupts the flow of the tale, but Hurston nonetheless permits the intervention. If nothing else, it dramatizes the arduous task of employing dialect in fiction.
Hurston reportedly could not remember when she began to imagine the stories that made it to publication: "When I began to make up stories I cannot say. Just from one fancy to another, adding more and more detail until they seemed real." As an initiator of and participant in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston sought a naked, realist accuracy in her short stories.
—Renee R. Curry
See the essay on "Sweat."
Hurston, Zora Neale
HURSTON, Zora Neale
Born 7 January 1891, Eatonville, Florida; died 28 January 1960, Saint Lucie County, Florida
Daughter of John and Lucy Hurston
Born in the first incorporated black town in America, Zora Neale Hurston was the only writer in the 1920s and 1930s from a Southern background who evaluated her Southern exposure, realized the richness of her racial heritage, and built her fiction on it. At a young age, Hurston lost nearly all of her childhood security when her mother died, and she had to live from relative to relative, deprived of formal schooling, drifting through several domestic jobs.
Supporting herself, Hurston completed two years at Morgan College in Baltimore and enrolled at Howard University, where her first short fiction was published in a literary journal there. She moved to New York, became secretary to the popular novelist Fannie Hurst, and earned a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. When she graduated in 1928, Dr. Boas had arranged a fellowship for Hurston to go south to collect folklore. The result of this Southern expedition was Mules and Men (1935). Throughout the 1920s Hurston had continued to write short fiction which had been published in Opportunity. Her best efforts were "Spunk," "Sweat," and "The Gilded Six-Bits."
Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), a narrative loosely based on the lives of her parents, chronicles the life of John Pearson, an itinerant preacher. Incorporating her knowledge of folklore into her fiction, Hurston depicts John's second wife as a character reliant on conjure to speed the first wife to an early death and to snare the protagonist quickly into marriage, a marriage which crumbles once he discovers her tactics.
Hurston is lauded for her utilization of folklore, the ripeness and realism of black dialect, the poetic sermon, and the distinct racial flavor of Jonah's Gourd Vine. However, critics have faulted plot construction, characterization, and dialogue. Additionally, much of the criticism of Hurston's fiction is the result of her choice of setting—Eatonville, Florida, a black town. Hurston's critics accuse her of neglecting to confront the problems of racism which constituted a daily issue in the livelihood of blacks in the 1930s and 1940s. Hurston wrote in her autobiography that what she wanted to write was a story about a man, but from what she had read and heard, "Negroes were supposed to write about the Race problem. My interest lies in what makes a man or woman do such-and-so regardless of his color."
Hurston's second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), also set in Eatonville, is frequently acclaimed her best novel. It is the story of Janie, a young black woman who searches for happiness, self-realization, and love; she is a woman who refuses to settle for less than her own realistic appraisal of what love should be. After the death of her second husband, when Janie is forty years old, she marries a man much younger than she who is unpretentiously one of the "folk," who loves and wants her without imposing restrictions on her. In the Florida Everglades where Janie and Teacake move after their marriage, they experience a few years of happiness working in the fields together, and Janie is serenely content being a part of the folk culture. Somewhat melodramatically, the novel ends, after a hurricane destroys the Everglades community and Teacake is bitten by a mad dog. Janie is forced to shoot and to kill Teacake because, mentally deranged by rabies, he tries to kill her. The characterization of Janie is excellent, and plot structure, depiction of the folk culture, and the use of black dialect are all equally fine.
Her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), the only one in which a Southern white woman is the protagonist, has received little critical attention. Nevertheless, Arvay Henson is the second of Hurston's fully delineated protagonists. More than any other woman in her fiction, Arvay offers a psychologically complete view of the complex entanglement of forces which impinge on the Southern rural woman and make her life, both externally and internally, a continuous struggle.
Both before her marriage to Jim Meserve and for some 20 years afterwards, Arvay Henson is plagued with feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and self-worthlessness. At sixteen she had accepted that happiness, love, and normal relationships were not meant for her; she had publicly denied the world, dedicated her life to foreign missionary service, and begun having hysterical spasms. Finally, Array realizes she cannot depend on her husband to define her "self" for her, and Jim—also aware of this—abruptly gives her this opportunity when he leaves her. Arvay returns to her hometown in a symbolic trip, for she realizes that neither her glorified image of her family nor her image of herself as someone no man would want has been realistic. True to the author's incurable penchant for romantic love, Arvay and Jim are reunited.
From the early autobiographical story, "Drenched in Light" (1924), to Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston based her fiction on her own personal experiences and wrote about the kind of life of which she had firsthand knowledge. Although her fiction is filled with an assortment of characters, her female protagonists all possess an inner strength which helps them survive the most adverse situations. All of Hurston's novels focus on character and suggest that maturity is necessary before one can reach an understanding of true values. Noteworthy in Hurston's fiction is that escape to an urban environment is never suggested as a solution to any problem.
The fact that Hurston chooses to place her characters in a Southern, rural, all-black setting suggests, also, that she wished to depict them as black men and women, not merely as reactors to racism. The additional inclusion of folk elements gives a uniquely Southern flavor to character and setting. As a writer who had grown up in the South, Hurston recognized the aesthetics of this particular setting and culture and utilized them as no other black writer of the 1920s or 1930s did.
Tell My Horse (1938). Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road (1942, 1995 and 1996). I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (1995). Sweat (the original story and critical essays, edited by C. A. Wall, 1997). Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings (1999).
Bloom, H., Major Black American Writers Through the Harlem Renaissance (1995). Bone, R., The Negro Novel in America (1958). Carson, W. J. Zora Neale Hurston: The Early Years, 1921-1934 (dissertation, 1998). Carter-Sigglow, J., Making Her Way with Thunder: A Reappraisal of Zora Neale Hurston's Narrative Art (1994). Crawley, L.K., Zora Neale Hurston: Recordings, Manuscripts, and Ephemera in the Archive of Folk Culture and Other Divisions of the Library of Congress (1992). Cronin, G. L., ed., Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (1998). Davis, R. P., Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide (1997). Edwards, J. A. C., "Creative Reverence: Self-Defining Revisionary Discourse in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston" (thesis, 1998). Gates, H. L. and A. Appiah, eds., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993). Harrison, I. E. and F. V., eds., African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (1999). Hemenway, R., Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977). Huggins, N., Harlem Renaissance (1971). Howard, L. P., ed., Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond (1993). Lowe, J., Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (1994). Meisenhelder, S. E., Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston (1999). Nathiri, N. Y., Zora! Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman and Her Community (1991). O'Banner, B. M., "A Study of Black Heroines in Four Selected Novels (1929-1959) by Four Black American Women Novelists: Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Paule Marshall, Ann Lane Petry" (thesis, 1985). Plant, D. G., Every Tub Must Sit On Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (1995). Rascher, S. R., The Neo-Slave Narratives of Hurston, Walker, and Morrison: Rewriting the Black Woman's Slave Narrative (dissertation, 1998). Royster, B. H., The Ironic Vision of Four Black Women Novelists: A Study of the Novels of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston and Ann Petry (1980). Smith, B., The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom (1998). Wall, C. A., Women of the Harlem Renaissance (1995). Witherspoon-Walthall, M. L., The Evolution of the Black Heroine in the Novels of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker (1988). Yates, J., Zora Neale Hurston: A Storyteller's Life (1993). Young, J., Black Writers of the Thirties (1973).
Reference works: CB (May 1942, April 1960). Norton Book of Women's Lives (1993). Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Short Story Criticism (1990). TCA, TCAS.
Black World (Aug. 1972). NYHTB (22 Nov. 1943). NYT (2 Feb. 1960). SBL (Winter 1974).
Hurston, Zora Neale
Born: January 7, 1903
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.
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.
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 (1889–1968), 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 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.
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.
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. □
Hurston, Zora Neale
HURSTON, ZORA NEALE
Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891–January 28, 1960) was a folklorist, fiction writer, playwright, and essayist. She was a central figure in the African-American cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Her gravestone in Fort Pierce, Florida, bears an inscription coined by the writer Alice Walker, "A Genius of the South." The epitaph sums up not only the formidable nature of Hurston's accomplishments, but also the symbolic importance that she and her work claim in the annals of African-American cultural history.
More myths have circulated about Zora Neale Hurston than perhaps any other African-American woman writer. Recently, scholars have revealed her birthplace as Notasulga, Alabama, but for years historians and biographers believed that Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the country's first incorporated all-black town. Hurston spent most of her childhood in Eatonville, whence she drew much of her literary inspiration. Hurston contributed to the illusions that continue to dominate popular stories about her life by fabricating details of her personal history, such as her date of birth, which was misidentified for many years as 1901. In Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2002), author Valerie Boyd speculates that Hurston began revising her birth date in 1917, when she subtracted ten years in order to qualify for free schooling.
Hurston attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., sporadically between 1919 and 1925, and published her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," in Stylus, the university literary magazine. By 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and Hurston moved to New York, where she collected prizes for her fiction and drama, and studied anthropology with Franz Boas at Columbia University. Hurston graduated from Barnard College with a bachelor's degree in 1928.
The Great Depression was particularly disastrous for African-Americans, and the economic devastation caused by the Depression extinguished the better part of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston thrived in the 1930s, however, finding success in the literary arena and beyond. During the 1930s, she did anthropological fieldwork in Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, South Carolina, and the Florida Everglades. Her books on folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), reflect the depth and breadth of her research. Hurston's father inspired her first book, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), a novel. She wrote her second and most influential novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in Haiti in seven weeks. The novel is a lyrical exploration of a black woman's search for romantic love and self-definition. Her third novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), is a retelling of the biblical story of Exodus. Hurston's final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), breaks convention with its focus on white characters. Her final published work was Dust Tracks on the Road (1942), an autobiography whose inconsistencies have led many critics to treat it more like fiction than fact. Hurston's productivity did not result in financial security, however, and she would always scramble for work to support her creative ambitions. She died in 1960 of hypertensive heart disease in Fort Pierce, Florida.
See Also: AFRICAN AMERICANS, IMPACT OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION ON; LITERATURE.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Novelist. 1987.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. 1977.
Hurston, Zora Neale. I Love Myself When I am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker. 1979.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, edited by Carla Kaplan. 2002.