Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: The most accomplished African American woman writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston was a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance and an important influence on later generations of women writers.
Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown was Eatonville, Florida, a self-governing all-black town that allowed her to develop a sense of individuality. One of eight children, she was urged to “jump at de sun” by her mother, who tried to preserve her high spirits so that she would not become, in Zora’s words, “ a mealy-mouthed rag doll.” Her father, however, feared that her audacious spirit would not be tolerated by white America and often punished her for impudence. A minister and three-term mayor of Eatonville, John Hurston was something of a hero among the townsfolk, and Zora would devote a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934) largely to his life story. Yet she was also fascinated by her mother, who molded John Hurston into the successful public man that he became. Lucy Ann Potts Hurston was perhaps the only person in town who did not regard her husband with awe. As Zora described their relationship in her autobiography, “the one who makes the idols never worships them, however tenderly he might have molded the clay.” Zora observed with keen interest how Lucy Ann, with a few simple words, could confound the very arguments for which townsfolk or church...
(The entire section is 2172 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Zora Neale Hurston's colorful life was a strange mixture of acclaim and censure, success and poverty, pride and shame. But her varied life, insatiable curiosity, and profound wit made her one of the most fascinating writers America has known. Even her date of birth remains a mystery. She claimed in her autobiography to have been born on January 7, 1903. but family members swore she was born anywhere from 1891 to 1902. Nevertheless, it is known that she was born in Eatonville, Florida, which was to become the setting for most of her fiction and was the first all-black incorporated town in the nation. Growing up there, where her father was mayor, Hurston was largely sheltered from the racial prejudice African-Americans experienced elsewhere in America.
At the age of fourteen, Hurston struck out on her own, working as a maid for white families, and was sent to Morgan Academy in Baltimore by one of her employers. Her educational opportunities continued to grow. She studied at Barnard College, where she worked under the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas. She also attended Howard University, and Columbia University, where she began work towards a Ph.D. in anthropology.
Hurston published her first story in 1921 and quickly gained recognition among the writers of the newly formed Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of artistic innovation in the African-American community of Harlem. She moved there in 1925 with little money but much ambition, and became...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The gravestone that Alice Walker placed on Hurston’s grave identifies her as a “Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist,” and “A Genius of the South.” This is an excellent summary of Hurston’s career. The three occupations combined to form the basis for her genius. She did not need her training as an anthropologist to convince her that the life of southern blacks was worth recording, but she did use this training to help her record it. The spirit she captured in her writing belonged as much to Eatonville as it did to Hurston herself, and it is a vibrant and lasting spirit.
(The entire section is 101 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, near Orlando. She was the youngest daughter and the seventh of eight children born to John and Lucy Hurston. Her father was a minister and local government official who wrote many of Eatonville’s laws upon its incorporation and served several terms as mayor. Her mother was a homemaker who cared not only for her children but also for an extended family that included, at various times, her own mother and her brother Jim. By all accounts, Hurston’s childhood was happy, almost idyllic, free from the poverty and racism that characterized much of the black experience in the South. Indeed, this wholesome upbringing informed much of Hurston’s later work and earned for her the designation as an early black cultural nationalist.
Whatever idyllic aspects Hurston’s childhood possessed were shattered when Hurston was about nine. The death of Hurston’s beloved mother, who encouraged the young Zora to “jump at the sun,” precipitated a change. This was followed by her father’s remarriage to a woman who had no interest in the children and the subsequent dismantling of the relative happiness of the Hurston household. The next several years of Hurston’s life found her much displaced, living variously with older siblings and receiving only sporadic schooling.
Although exact dates are difficult to place in Hurston’s early chronology because she frequently lied...
(The entire section is 1136 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Alabama. Later, her family lived in the all-black Florida town of Eatonville in an eight-room house with a five-acre garden. Her father, the Reverend John Hurston, mayor of Eatonville for three terms and moderator of the South Florida Baptist Association, wanted to temper his daughter’s high spirits, but her intelligent and forceful mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, encouraged her to “jump at de sun.” When Hurston was about nine years old, her mother died. That event and her father’s rapid remarriage to a woman his daughter did not like prematurely ended Hurston’s childhood. In the next few years, she lived only intermittently at home, spending some time at a school in Jacksonville and some time with relatives. Her father withdrew all financial support during this period, forcing her to commence what was to be a lifelong struggle to make her own living.
When Hurston was fourteen years old, she took a job as a wardrobe girl to a repertory company touring the South. Hurston left the troupe in Baltimore eighteen months later and finished high school there at Morgan Academy. She went on to study part-time at Howard University in 1918, taking jobs as a manicurist, a waitress, and a maid in order to support herself. At Howard, her literary talents began to emerge. She was admitted to a campus literary club, formed by Alain Locke, a Howard professor and one of the forces behind the Harlem Renaissance. Locke...
(The entire section is 833 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston was born in the first incorporated all-black town in America; her father was one of its influential citizens. Her identity was formed in Eatonville; her works clearly show her attachments to that community. When Hurston was nine, her mother died. Hurston was moved among relatives, deprived of a stable home.
She worked to support herself from an early age; at only fourteen she worked as a maid with a touring Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. She later went to night school in Baltimore to catch up on her schooling, to Howard University, and to Barnard College as a scholarship student. She loved learning. Settled in New York in the early 1920’s, Hurston filled her life with people who encouraged her work and gave her advice. Some of the most important of these were white: novelist Fanny Hurst and anthropologist Franz Boas, for example. Yet her identity comes from her own people: African American folklore was the focus of her research, and black women’s experience informs her best work.
Hurston was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and is considered one of its stars, but she was not readily accepted in the movement at the time. Protest writers such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison found her writing “quaint” and “romantic.” She speaks in a clear feminine voice that, if not full of protest,...
(The entire section is 393 words.)
Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 20th Century)
Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown was Eatonville, Florida, a self-governing all-black town that allowed her to develop a sense of individuality. One of eight children, she was urged to “jump at de sun” by her mother, who tried to preserve her high spirits so that she would not become, in Zora’s words, “ a mealy-mouthed rag doll.” Her father, however, feared that her audacious spirit would not be tolerated by white America and often punished her for impudence. A minister and three-term mayor of Eatonville, John Hurston was something of a hero among the townsfolk, and Zora would devote a novel (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934) largely to his life story. Yet she was also fascinated by her mother, who molded John Hurston into the successful public man that he became. Lucy Ann Potts Hurston was perhaps the only person in town who did not regard her husband with awe. As Zora described their relationship in her autobiography, “the one who makes the idols never worships them, however tenderly he might have molded the clay.” Zora observed with keen interest how Lucy Ann, with a few simple words, could confound the very arguments for which townsfolk or church members praised John.
Zora read widely, preferring adventure stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Norse...
(The entire section is 2716 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 938 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston’s short but dazzling career took her from poverty in rural Florida to the life of the literary elite in New York City and back again. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first officially incorporated all-black township in the United States, and a town much like the one in which ‘‘Spunk’’ takes place. She was born on January 7, in a year that has never been verified but was probably 1901. Her father, John, was a Baptist minister and carpenter; her mother, Lucy Ann, was a former schoolteacher with a small sewing business. Lucy Ann died in 1904, and in 1915 Zora left home to work as a maid for a traveling theatre company.
She found her way to Maryland, where she worked as a waitress and completed high school, and then studied literature and philosophy at Howard University. She published her first short story, ‘‘John Redding Goes to Sea,’’ in the university literary magazine. In 1925, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, she moved to New York City with ‘‘$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.’’
Hurston sought out and charmed the Harlem elite with her flamboyant personality, and soon achieved success as a writer. Her short story ‘‘Spunk’’ won second prize in Opportunity Magazine’s first literary contest, and was published in the June 1925 issue. The attention led to a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology with the famous Franz Boas. She learned to...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1903 in Eatonville, Florida, according to some sources. Others place her birth as early as January 7, 1891, but her headstone reads 1901-1960. She was the seventh of eight children born to John Hurston, a Baptist preacher, carpenter, and town mayor, and his wife, Lucy, a former schoolteacher. To the young Hurston, rural Eatonville was ''a city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty of guavas, two schools and no jailhouse." It also was an area rich in the black folk traditions and history that permeates Hurston's literature.
Hurston left her job as a wardrobe girl in Florida for a job as an actress in a traveling light-opera troupe. Eventually she found herself in Baltimore, Maryland. Determined to complete her education, she attended Morgan Academy in 1917 and 1918, and then went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where her first story was published in the campus literary magazine in 1921.
Hurston continued to write and publish while she studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York City from 1925 to 1927. She did her field anthropology work with the renowned Dr. Frank Boas at Columbia University in 1926 and returned to Florida in 1927 to collect folklore.' "The Eatonville Anthology," published in 1926, recorded much of the folklore and tradition that existed in her hometown of Eatonville. The story reflected her interest in anthropology and in preserving...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
Born in 1901, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town with an entirely African American population that was a lasting inspiration for her writings. Hurston’s mother was perhaps the most important part of this cultural heritage, since she encouraged her daughter’s ‘‘large spirit’’ and protected her from the bad influence of her father. Unfortunately, Hurston’s mother died when Hurston was a teenager. Soon after her mother’s death, Hurston was sent away to school in Jacksonville. She went on to work as a maid for a white family, eventually joined a theatrical troupe, and then attended preparatory school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore.
Hurston continued to work her way through Howard University, the most famous institution for black scholars in the country, from which she graduated in 1924. By this time, Hurston had begun to write short fiction, and the eminent black writers Alain Locke and Charles Johnson had noticed her. Johnson encouraged Hurston to move to New York, where the black artistic and cultural movement later known as the Harlem Renaissance was thriving. Hurston did so and successfully continued to build contacts with key figures of the movement, working as a secretary to the writer Fannie Hurst, until the novelist Annie Meyer offered her a scholarship at Columbia University to study anthropology.
The only black woman at Columbia, Hurston became a leading figure of the New Negro movement, publishing plays and...
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Although census reports indicate that Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, she claimed to be born in 1901 or 1903. The actual date remains a mystery, as does her exact burial site. In 1973, prominent African American feminist and novelist Alice Walker was determined to find Hurston’s unmarked grave and provide a suitable marker. After much effort, she found the spot she believed to be Hurston’s grave and mounted a headstone that reads, ‘‘A Genius of the South’’ (a phrase from one of Jean Toomer’s poems).
Hurston was the fifth of John and Lucy Ann (Potts) Hurston’s eight children. Lucy was a former teacher and seamstress who wanted her children to reach higher, to ‘‘jump at de sun.’’ John was a handsome and popular Baptist minister, who also served as Eatonville’s mayor for three terms. Eatonville was founded by and for African Americans, and this unique all-black community provided the context for most of Hurston’s early years. She recalled her childhood as happy until her mother’s death in 1904, after which her father married a woman Hurston found impossible to embrace. Entering young adulthood without a mother, Hurston became independent, outspoken, and bold.
Hurston graduated from Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918. She enrolled immediately in Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied for five years while working as a waitress and a manicurist. She also tried her hand at writing and...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston was born January 7, 1903, in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. She was the daughter of John and Lucy Hurston. Her father worked as a preacher and a carpenter and also served as Eatonville's mayor. Her mother, a seamstress, was a powerful and positive influence in Hurston's life, encouraging her daughter to ‘‘jump at de sun.’’ She died when Hurston was nine, her father quickly remarried, and Hurston was sent to boarding school. While still a child, Hurston worked at many odd jobs. A white employer eventually arranged for her to attend high school at Morgan Preparatory School in Baltimore, Maryland, where she graduated in 1918. Biographer Robert E. Hemenway writes that ‘‘the sources of the Hurston self-confidence were her home town, her family, and the self-sufficiency demanded of her after she left home for the world.’’
Hurston went on to Howard University, publishing her first stories while a student there. After receiving an Associate's Degree, she struck out for Harlem, which had become a thriving center for black culture. The witty and outgoing Hurston took the town by storm, charming the black intelligentsia and white patrons of the blossoming artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. She soon won a scholarship to attend the prestigious Barnard College, becoming its first black student. Here began her lifelong interest in anthropology. She received a B.A. from Barnard in 1928.
While studying, Hurston continued to publish short stories. In 1933, she published ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits,’’ and her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, came out the following year. In 1935, she published Mules and Men, a collection of folklore gathered from her native Eatonville. Dividing her time between fiction and anthropology, Hurston began graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University in 1935 and wrote what is widely considered her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), while doing field work in the West Indies.
Ambitious and frank to a fault, Hurston made enemies as well as friends in Harlem. But despite the fact that she had become a celebrated writer, she never lost her sense of humor or forgot her roots. The flamboyant and exuberant Hurston could talk to anyone, from rich benefactors to illiterate farmers. Her memories of the self-segregated Eatonville community stayed close to her heart, leading her to oppose school desegregation in the 1950s, against the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement.
In her middle age, Hurston fell on hard times. She supported herself as a screenwriter and college drama instructor but was later reduced to working as a maid, a job she had never been good at in her youth. Hurston was married twice briefly and had no children. She suffered a stroke in 1959, and died in a public home the following year. She was buried in an unmarked grave at a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida.
IntroductionBefore Oprah, before Rosa Parks, and before Wilma Rudolph, there was Zora Neale Hurston. Like so many writers, she was ahead of her time and not fully appreciated by her contemporaries, but she is now considered one of the most important African-American women of the twentieth century. Her most famous work is the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of its key (but controversial) features was the use of dialogue in an African-American dialect. Though some critics at the time, including many from the African-American community, viewed the novel’s dialogue as caricatured, it would become a celebrated trademark of Hurston’s writing. Her uncompromising novels later influenced seminal African-American writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker.
- Although highly regarded as a literary figure, Hurston originally studied anthropology, receiving a bachelor’s degree in that field from Barnard College.
- Hurston was one of many artists who contributed to a period known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural flourishing of literature, art, and music by and about African Americans.
- Despite the leftist leanings of fellow Renaissance members like Langston Hughes, Hurston was ardently conservative.
- Hurston did not believe that integration was a positive step for black culture, fearing that it would be diluted (if not eliminated) by its absorption into white society.
- Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave. Although Alice Walker later placed a gravestone over where some believe Hurston was buried, the exact location of her final resting place remains unknown.
All Resources by Category
Critical Survey of Long Fiction
Critical Survey of Short Fiction
Dust Tracks on a Road Criticism
Short Story Criticism
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Identities and Issues
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Literary Places
Their Eyes Were Watching God Criticism
Zora Neale Hurston - Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 30)
Zora Neale Hurston - Contemporary Literary Criticism (Vol. 7)
Zora Neale Hurston Criticism
Zora Neale Hurston Criticism
Conscience of the Court Study Guide
Moses, Man of the Mountain - Masterplots II: American Fiction Series
Mule Bone Study Guide
Mules and Men Study Guide
Spunk - Masterplots II: Short Story Series
Spunk Study Guide
Sweat - Masterplots II: Short Story Series
Sweat Study Guide
The Eatonville Anthology Study Guide
The Gilded Six-Bits - Masterplots II: Short Story Series
The Gilded Six-Bits Study Guide
Their Eyes Were Watching God Study Guide (eNotes)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, though she was later to list her birth date as 1901, taking a full decade out of her life. She was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first black incorporated town in the United States. Her father, John Hurston, a local minister, also served three terms as mayor of the town and wrote its laws. Her mother, Lucy Ann Potts Hurston, did the most to encourage young Zora’s spirit and learning.
It was when Hurston entered high school in 1917, after having spent some time traveling with a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe, that she came up with her revised birthday, to make herself appear still a teenager. In 1918, she entered the Howard Prep School at Howard University to catch up on missed education, and in 1920 she received an associate degree from Howard.
In 1925, Hurston won second prize in a fiction contest for her short story “Spunk,” which also landed her a job as a secretary with one of the contest judges, the popular novelist Fanny Hurst. The same year, Hurston entered Barnard College, the women’s division of Columbia University, at the urging of Annie Nathan Meyer, also a novelist and one of the founders of Barnard. There, Hurston was the only black student. At Barnard, she studied anthropology with Franz Boas, one of the most influential anthropologists of his time, and Hurston...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston's colorful life was a strange mixture of acclaim and censure, success and poverty, pride and shame. However, her varied life, insatiable curiosity, and profound wit made her one of the most fascinating writers America has known. Even her date of birth remains a mystery. She claimed in her autobiography to have been born on 7 January 1903, but family members swore she was born anywhere from 1891 to 1902. What is known for certain is that she was born in Eatonville, Florida, which was to become the setting for most of her fiction and was the first all black incorporated town in the nation. Growing up there, where her father was mayor, Hurston was largely sheltered from the racial prejudice African Americans experienced elsewhere in America.
At the age of fourteen, Hurston struck out on her own, working as a maid for white families, and was sent to Morgan Academy in Baltimore by one of her employers. Her educational opportunities continued to grow, and she studied at Barnard College, where she worked under the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas, at Howard University, and at Columbia University, where she began work towards a Ph.D. in anthropology.
Hurston published her first story in 1921 and quickly gained recognition among the writers of the newly forming Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of artistic innovation in the African-American community of Harlem. She moved there in 1925 with little money but much ambition, and she...
(The entire section is 601 words.)