Authors: Zora Neale Hurston

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist, short-story writer, civil rights activist, anthropologist, and folklorist.

January 7, 1891

Notasulga, Alabama

January 28, 1960

Fort Pierce, Florida

Biography

Zora Neale Hurston, the most important female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was noted for her collections of folktales and for her original novels, plays, and poems. Although for decades her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, misled readers about certain facts of her life, it is now certain that she was born the seventh of eight children in 1891, in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in the United States. Her parents were Lucy Ann Potts, a former schoolteacher, and John Hurston, a carpenter and self-ordained Baptist minister. After her mother died in 1904, her father remarried, and Hurston was sent to school in Jacksonville until her father refused to pay any more of the bills; she then returned home to a life of poverty and neglect.

At the age of fourteen, Hurston worked as a maid for white families and did other odd jobs. Never able to adopt the humble posture expected of her, she was frequently unemployed until she obtained a job as wardrobe girl for an actress with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. This job provided eighteen glorious months of new sights and experiences. After the tour, she went to Baltimore and worked as a waitress to support her studies at the Morgan Academy. After graduating from Morgan, she worked as a waitress and manicurist while attending Howard University part-time. She was admitted to the university literary society and published her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," in the club magazine.

Zora Neale Hurston

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(Library of Congress)

This publication opened many doors for Hurston and eventually earned for her an invitation to go to New York, where she arrived ill and penniless in January, 1925. Five months later, at an awards dinner at which her story "Spunk" took second prize, Hurston met two women who became very important to her: the novelist Fannie Hurst, who hired Hurston as a secretary, chauffeur, and companion, and Annie Nathan Mayer, the novelist and a founder of Barnard College, who arranged a scholarship for Hurston to enter Barnard that fall.

At Barnard, Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas, who encouraged her to pursue African American folklore. During the next thirteen years, Hurston published several articles and two books resulting from her field studies. The funding she received from Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron, and from white-sponsored foundations, drew harsh criticism from other writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Mules and Men, however, was the first study of African American folklore conducted by a woman, and it is still read for its vivid accounts of tales, songs, and rituals. Tell My Horse, researched in the West Indies, was the first substantial study of the folklore of the Caribbean. Both works would later be criticized for sensationalizing vodoun (voodoo) practices and for alleged plagiarism. Between trips to collect stories, Hurston pursued her studies at Barnard; she received her degree in 1928 and continued to write fiction. In 1934, her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, was published. Like her anthropological studies, it drew praise for the vividness of its folklore and criticism for its lack of political statement.

Hurston’s politics made her a controversial figure. Having grown up in a stable, all-black community, she had never experienced racial conflict and was unable to comprehend the feelings of those who had. For her, the South was not a place from which to flee but a haven. She lamented many times that as an African American writer she was expected to write only about race. Despite this, Hurston was an active member of the black literary and social community in the 1930s and 1940s. She developed friendships that lasted for many years, but her love attachments, about which she was always secretive, came apart when she refused to be domesticated. She was married at least twice, and when another relationship ended unhappily, Hurston in her grief wrote her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, during seven weeks in Haiti. The novel deals with a woman’s struggle through her life and through three marriages to find her own happiness and purpose.

In 1942, Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published. It sold rather well and earned for her the Ainsfield Award in Racial Relations. Although misleading and secretive in parts, the book reveals a personality that is at once egocentric and immensely likable. Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948, a novel about white people, received mixed reviews. It was to be her last major publication.

That same year, Hurston was arrested on a morals charge. Although it was proved that she had been out of the country when the offense was supposed to have occurred, she felt so betrayed by the sensational treatment her arrest was given in the black press that she left New York permanently. For the next twelve years, she occasionally wrote short pieces and lectured, but she lived in poverty much of the time and worked at least for a time as a maid. Her attempts at major works during this period went unpublished or unfinished. Plagued by ill health, she entered the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Florida in 1959 and died there penniless in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

In the early 1970s, interest in Hurston’s life and works was renewed. When Robert Hemenway began research for his biography in 1970, only one of her books was in print, and little accurate information about her life was available. By the early 1980s, all her books but Seraph on the Suwanee had become available and critical articles and chapters were being published each year. In 1973, novelist Alice Walker located the cemetery in which Hurston was buried and placed a headstone as near as possible to her presumed grave. Hurston continued to be viewed as an important literary figure into the twenty-first century; in 2001, a collection of folktales she compiled was finally published as Every Tongue Got to Confess after being archived and forgotten for years.

Author Works Long Fiction: Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934 Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937 Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939 Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948 Short Fiction: Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, 1985 The Complete Stories, 1995 Drama: Color Struck, pb. 1926 The First One, pb. 1927 Mule Bone, pb. 1931 (with Langston Hughes) Polk County, pb. 1944 Collected Plays, 2008 Nonfiction: Mules and Men, 1935 Tell My Horse, 1938 Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942 The Sanctified Church, 1981 Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, 1995 Go Gator and Muddy the Water: Writings, 1999 (Pamela Bordelon, editor) Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Foktales from the Gulf States, 2001 Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002 (Carla Kaplan, editor) Miscellaneous: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979 Bibliography Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Essays by Robert Hemenway and Nellie McKay on the biographical roots of the novel and by Hazel Carby on Hurston’s use of anthropology. Rachel Blau DuPlessis provides a feminist perspective. Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. From the series Modern Critical Views. An excellent collection of criticism of Hurston’s work and life. Includes early commentary by Franz Boas and Langston Hughes, as well as later studies. Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. A journalistic biography focusing on Hurston's life, with some attention to the literary qualities and impact of her work. Chinn, Nancy, and Elizabeth E. Dunn. "'The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood': Zora Neale Hurston’s Artistry in 'The Gilded Six-Bits.'" The Mississippi Quarterly 49 (Fall, 1996): 775-790. Discusses how Hurston uses setting, ritual, dialect, and the nature of human relationships in the story; argues that the story provides a solution to the problem of reconciling her rural Florida childhood with her liberal arts education and training. Cobb-Moore, Geneva. "Zora Neale Hurston as Local Colorist." The Southern Literary Journal 26 (Spring, 1994): 25-34. Discusses how Hurston’s creation of folk characters enlarges the meaning of local color; shows how Hurston proves that while physical bodies can be restricted, the imagination is always free. Cooper, Jan. "Zora Neale Hurston Was Always a Southerner Too." In The Female Tradition in Southern Literature, edited by Carol S. Manning. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Examines the hitherto neglected role that Hurston played in the Southern Renaissance between 1920 and 1950. Argues that Hurston’s fiction is informed by a modern southern agrarian sense of community. Suggests that the Southern Renaissance was a transracial, cross-cultural product of the South. Cronin, Gloria L., ed. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. A useful collection. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Donlon, Jocelyn Hazelwood. "Porches: Stories: Power: Spatial and Racial Intersections in Faulkner and Hurston." Journal of American Culture 19 (Winter, 1996): 95-110. Comments on the role of the porch in Faulkner and Hurston’s fiction as a transitional space between the public and the private where the individual can negotiate an identity through telling stories. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The chapter on Hurston discusses her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as a conscious attempt to rebut the naturalistic view of blacks as "animalistic" that Gates claims she saw in Richard Wright’s fiction. Glassman, Steve, and Kathryn Lee Siedel, eds. Zora in Florida. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991. This collection of essays by seventeen Hurston scholars explores the overall presence and influence of Florida in and on the works of Hurston. This collection grew out of a Hurston symposium held in Daytona Beach, Florida, in November, 1989, and includes an excellent introduction to the importance of Florida in the study of Hurston. Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Hemenway’s painstakingly researched study of Hurston’s life and literary career was crucial in rescuing Hurston from neglect and establishing her as a major American writer. Although some of the facts of Hurston’s chronology have been corrected by later scholarship, Hemenway’s study is a valuable introduction to Hurston’s work . Includes a bibliography of published and unpublished works by Hurston. Hill, Lynda Marion. Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996. Chapters on Hurston’s treatment of everyday life, science and humanism, folklore, and color, race, and class. Hill also considers dramatic reenactments of Hurston’s writing. Includes notes, bibliography, and an appendix on "characteristics of Negro expression." Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A good general introduction to the life and works of Hurston. Contains valuable plot summaries and commentaries on Hurston’s works. Supplemented by a chronology and a bibliography. Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004. A brief biography written by Hurston’s niece. Most notable for the inclusion of rare photographs, writings and other multimedia personal artifacts. Also contains an audio CD of Hurston reading and singing. Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged in chronological order. Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. A straightforward biography of Hurston, written with the younger reader in mind. Especially useful for those who need a primer on Hurston’s background in all-black Eatonville. Newsom, Adele S. Zora Neale Hurston: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A catalog of Hurston criticism spanning the years 1931–1986, arranged chronologically with annotations. This source is an invaluable aid to serious scholars of Hurston. Also contains an introduction to the criticism on Hurston. An especially useful resource for all inquiries. Plant, Deborah G. Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. A biography of Hurston that portrays her strength and tenacity of spirit. Her literary achievements, including her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, are also discussed here. This work draws on Hurston’s 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, as well as newly discovered sources. Walker, Pierre A. "Zora Neale Hurston and the Post-Modern Self in Dust Tracks on a Road." African American Review 32 (Fall, 1998): 387–399. Uses poststructuralist theory to discuss Hurston’s autobiography, showing how she avoids certain autobiographical conventions; argues that Hurston focuses on the life of her imagination, on the psychological dynamics of her family, on retelling community stories, on portraying the character of certain friends, and on her ambiguous pronouncements about race. West, Margaret Genevieve. Zora Neale Hurston and American Literary Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. A chronicle of Hurston’s literary career and a look at why her writing did not gain popularity until long after her death. Witcover, Paul. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1991. A balanced biography with a chronology, bibliography, and index.

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