Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist, short-story writer, civil rights activist, anthropologist, and folklorist.
January 7, 1891
January 28, 1960
Fort Pierce, Florida
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
Zora Neale Hurston
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.