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...