Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston
Before 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.
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 members praised John.
Zora read widely, preferring adventure stories such as Gulliver’s Travels, Norse mythology, and the Greek myth of Hercules to stories that urged little girls to become dutiful and domesticated. Eatonville gave her a strong sense of herself, but she was also impatient with small town restrictions. “My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. . . . Raking back yards and carrying out chamber-pots, were not the tasks of Thor. I wanted to be away from drabness and to stretch my limbs in some mighty struggle.”
Hurston’s world fell apart when her mother died. When John Hurston remarried, Zora’s stepmother had no use for her and her siblings, and Zora had to leave home. She was passed from relative to relative, was unable to attend school, and badly missed the close family environment in which she had grown up. She was also poor and had to work as a nanny and housekeeper, although she really wanted to read and dream. Tired of poverty and dependence, she was hired as a wardrobe girl by a young actress in a traveling troupe who performed Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. She was well-liked and, in turn, she enjoyed the camaraderie and adventure of traveling.
Zora Neale Hurston’s writing career began not long after she left home. After graduating from night school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1918, she attended Howard University. While there, she wrote a story that caught the attention of the founder of Opportunity magazine, Charles S. Johnson, who sponsored literary contests and was instrumental in the development of the black arts movement of the 1920’s known as the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson published her next two stories, “Drenched in Light” (1924) and “Spunk” (1925), and she suddenly found herself among the Harlem Renaissance’s prominent writers.
Both these stories and her play Color Struck (1926) were based on the folk life she had observed in Eatonville. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston describes the importance of Joe Clarke’s general store, a repository of the rich African American oral tradition. There she heard the “lying sessions”—that is, exaggerated folk tales featuring talking animals such as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Buzzard—that she eventually used in her finest writings. In an age in which many blacks believed that fitting into America meant showing that they could conform to middle-class values just as well as whites, Hurston concentrated on the black masses and their values. Far from being ashamed of the lower classes, she knew that their expressions—black folklore, blues, and spirituals—were those of a people who were healthy minded and who had survived slavery through their own creative ingenuity.
Hurston’s talent as a writer attracted the interest and friendship of several benefactors, including Fannie Hurst, a best-selling white author who befriended Hurston and hired her as a secretary, and Annie Nathan Meyer, who secured a scholarship to Barnard College for Hurston.
Two other benefactors helped to show Hurston that the folk culture of Eatonville had anthropological, as well as literary, interest. A paper she wrote at Barnard caught the eye of Franz Boas, the noted Columbia University anthropologist, and she was invited to study with him. He urged her to regard the Eatonville folklore as a continuation of African oral storytelling and suggested that she return to the South and collect it. Another person who encouraged her to do so was Charlotte Osgood Mason, who was nicknamed “Godmother” for her maternal characteristics and perhaps also because of her godlike behavior (she liked to sit on a thronelike chair when her “godchildren” visited her). She was a wealthy white patron...
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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 about her age, various sources reveal that Hurston joined a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling show when she was about fourteen as a wardrobe maid to one of the show’s stars. Hurston worked for this show for several years, traveling throughout the South, sometimes without pay. It was with this show, however, that Hurston’s talents as raconteur were first noticed, as she often entertained the company with stories, anecdotes, and tales from the black South, told with their own humor, mimicry, and dialect.
Hurston left her job with the Gilbert and Sullivan show in Baltimore, and, out of an intense desire to complete her education, she enrolled in the high school department of the Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University) in that city, completing the high school program in 1919. From Morgan, Hurston entered Howard University, at that time known as “the Negro Harvard,” in Washington, D.C. At Howard, Hurston soon came to the attention of Alain Locke, adviser to the Howard Literary Society and later a principal critic of the New Negro movement. Locke invited Hurston to join the literary society, and she soon began publishing in Stylus, the Howard University literary magazine. Her first published short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” appeared in Stylus in 1921.
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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