Zora Neale HurstonJun 1st, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1891-1960 Zora Neale Hurston combined a talent for fiction with an understanding of African American customs, to produce several famous literary works. In so doing, she was a key contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, a pioneer in capturing the richness of southern black culture, and an early feminist in her insights into the plight of African American women.
Like a Bad Penny
Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children. Her mother was a former teacher; her father was a carpenter, tenant farmer, and Baptist preacher. The family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in the U.S. Hurston would remember Eatonville, the fictionalized location of many of her stories, as a utopian community free of the strictures of white oppression. She demonstrated a love of poetry and reading at an early age; while her interest was encouraged by her mother, it was opposed by her father as too worldly.
Hurston’s utopia ended abruptly at age 13 with the death of her mother. Her father soon remarried, and relations between Hurston and her stepmother were strained. She was sent to live with a sister, entered into a boarding school where her father failed to pay her tuition, and then moved to live with a brother. In her own words, she was “passed around the family like a bad penny.” She began working as a domestic, and toured the South with a theatrical company as a wardrobe assistant, ultimately arriving in Baltimore by 1917 where her employer enabled her to attend Morgan Academy. She graduated from high school at the age of 27 one year later in 1918. She immediately entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., working as a manicurist. Inspired by a teacher, she decided to focus on a literary career.
Despite four years of work, Hurston only earned an Associates degree from Howard. But her career began to flourish: she published her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in Howard’s literary magazine in 1921, and several others over the next few years. One in particular, “Spunk,” appeared in the African American journal Opportunity, where it was noticed by established black writers of New York’s Harlem Renaissance. Shortly thereafter, Hurston was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College; and moving to New York in 1925, she became the first African American student at Barnard. A first marriage in 1927 ended three years later. But studies with the anthropologist Franz Boaz kindled a life-long interest, and she graduated in 1928 with a Bachelors degree. Supported by a fellowship from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Hurston conducted anthropological field work in the South. She would ultimately extend this to “voodoo” and folklore and to the Caribbean, where she found commonalities between various streams of African American culture.
A Renaissance Writer
Back in New York, Hurston became a friend of the writer Langston Hughes. Hurston, Hughes, and several other Harlem artists started Fire, a magazine dedicated to black creators, but only published one issue. Hughes and Hurston collaborated with a third associate to write a play in 1930. Entitled “Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life,” it became the subject of a dispute between Hurston and Hughes over authorship, and was never produced. This in turn triggered the end of their friendship.
But Hurston’s career was still in ascension. She received a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1934 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935-1936, when she embarked on her crucial field work. This in turn led to her most prolific literary output. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (a fictionalized telling of her father’s story) was published in 1934 to superlative reviews. Hurston’s synthesis of voodoo traditions in Florida and New Orleans appeared in 1935 as Mules and Men with similarly positive critical response. She continued her research from 1936 to 1938 in Haiti and Jamaica, which yielded the 1938 non-fiction Tell My Horse. While in Haiti, Hurston wrote her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book is considered autobiographical in both its Florida setting, and theme of a young girl’s personal maturation. Critical response to the work was very strong, but less so for her next novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain. Published in 1939, this was a retelling of the story of Moses in the person of a black voodoo priest.
Hurston was awarded an honorary doctorate from Morgan College in 1939, when she also married for the second time. She received Howard University’s Alumni Award in 1943. But as the 1940s progressed, her output declined. She published a well-regarded and popular autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942 which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations. She was featured on the cover of Saturday Review in 1943, when she again divorced. Her fourth and final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, appeared in 1948 to mixed reviews. Hurston was also criticized by other black writers and activists, who accused her of ignoring racial realities in favor of childhood memories. Hurston maintained a segregationist fantasy, writing for right-wing publications and opposing Brown vs. Board of Education over integrated schools. Her arrest in 1948 for molesting a boy, even though the charges were dropped, left permanent scars. Hurston’s later years were marked by depression as publishers rejected manuscripts, and poverty as she toiled as a domestic, a librarian, and a substitute teacher. She had a stroke in 1959 and was placed in a welfare home in Florida. She died in 1960 in obscurity, buried in an unmarked grave.
In addition to her novels and autobiography, Hurston wrote four plays and numerous articles, essays, and short stories. She is widely regarded as a seminal force in the literature of the Southern black experience, and in the feminist literary canon. She influenced such successors as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Walker brought Hurston’s work to broad attention in the 1970s, and placed a memorial stone on the writer’s unmarked grave, a fitting tribute to this creative and cultural pioneer.