Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Zora Neale Hurston’s life has been surrounded by questions and controversy. Although Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s official autobiography, many of these questions, especially about her adult life, are not answered in this work. While parts of Hurston’s personality and life will always remain elusive, she has selected certain experiences and images that appear repeatedly in her novels and nonfictional works, most notably in her anthropological work Mules and Men (1935) and in her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). These experiences and perceptions, many of them written in African American dialect, reappear in Dust Tracks on a Road, her last fully completed work, and disclose much of her personality. Hurston thus reveals much more of herself than she probably intended. While her narration is written in an informal, conversational style, her point of view is definitely feminist—or, according to fellow African American writer Alice Walker, “womanist.” The womanist stance in Hurston’s works became an inspiration and a model for a new generation of African American women writers in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with the courtship and marriage of Hurston’s parents and ends with Hurston’s move to California in 1940. Her mother, Lucy Potts, was reared in Georgia but left for Florida when she married a penniless “over-the-creek” black man who was not acceptable to her family. Hurston’s father...

(The entire section is 625 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Despite physical and financial hardships, Hurston wrote and researched for thirty years. In that time, she published four novels; two books of folklore; numerous stories, articles, and plays; and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Her works went out of print and remained almost forgotten until Alice Walker discovered her autobiographical narratives, placed a marker on her forgotten grave, and excavated her buried life. Since then, Hurston’s work has been read and reinterpreted by a new generation of readers and literary critics. Dust Tracks on a Road is one of the important literary narratives that constitute Hurston’s autobiography. Hurston’s autobiography has had a tremendous impact on African American feminist theory.

In all Hurston’s literary works, her nonfiction as well as her fiction, she presents the same personality in the same language. She also presents the same issues. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston calls attention to the male practice of objectifying women. Her depiction of porch tales or “lyin’” sessions carries a double message. While Hurston applauds the creative aspect of the “John de Conquer” and mule stories, she also criticizes the community that allowed males to set the boundaries of discourse. She informs her reader that women only “visited” the store’s porch to “have it proven” that their husbands were good providers. Hurston, on the other hand, disrupted the boundaries of male-generated discourse and spoke out against the objectification of women. Hurston’s free spirit and audacity have inspired a generation of African American women writers, including Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Terry McMillan.

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Dust Tracks on a Road commences with a description of Eatonville, Florida: its history, traditions, and inhabitants. Eatonville provides the setting for Hurston’s childhood. As a central feature of the community, Joe Clarke’s back porch provides a source for the collection of folktales. While Zora’s mother encourages her to “jump at de sun,” her father warns her that she will be shot for her sassiness. Her unabated childhood curiosity suggests that her mother was the stronger influence: She climbs trees to catch a glimpse of the end of the world, plays with “Mr. Corn-Shuck” and “Mr. Sweet Smell,” and tells tales about alligator men. Her recitation of classical myths so impresses visitors to her school that she is invited to their home, asked to read, and given a roll of pennies, books, and clothes.

The security of this childhood world is destroyed when Zora’s mother dies. Although she is only nine when this tragedy occurs, it has lasting effects: It reinforces her commitment to “jump at de sun” and gives her some ideas of how to do so. On her deathbed, her mother asks Zora to intervene against custom—to prevent the turning of the bed and the removal of the pillow at the moment of death. Zora says her mother depended on her for “a voice,” but the elders ignore her pleas, and Zora feels she has betrayed her mother: “I was old before my time with grief of loss, of failure, and of remorse.” Although she is unable to fulfill her mother’s request, her determination to stay in school and to become a writer reflects her unshakable promise to be a voice, to speak for her mother and her community. After her mother’s death, Zora is sent to Jacksonville to attend school. Shortly thereafter, her father...

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Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography, Zora Neale Hurston writes about her struggle as a writer, a woman, and an African American, rising from rural poverty to become a prominent American literary figure of the twentieth century. The book was written at the height of her popularity, and it shows Hurston’s own personal interpretation of the events that shaped her career as a writer and anthropologist. The first nine chapters are recounted in chronological order, beginning with the stories of Hurston’s birthplace and early years through her graduation from Barnard College in 1928. The rest of the book, chapters 10 through 16, is really a series of essays in which Hurston discusses the importance of different themes in her life, from the roles of love and friendship in her artistic life to her controversial views on race and society.

Hurston began her life in the all-black, incorporated town of Eatonville, Florida. She describes the impact of her early years with warmth and emotion, telling of her devotion to her mother, who brought her up to speak her mind, and of her uneasy relationship with her father, an alderman and three-time mayor of Eatonville. Her mother’s death, which occurred when Hurston was nine years old, was a major turning point in her life, ultimately leading to her break with her father and marking the beginning of her wanderings.

The next few years consisted of school interrupted by work as a baby-sitter,...

(The entire section is 543 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Excellent collection of essays on of Hurston’s life and work. Contains early commentary by Franz Boas and Langston Hughes.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Landmark study that contains a chapter devoted to Hurston.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. Detailed biography of Hurston, covering her personal and professional lives and relating them to the major historical events through which she lived.

Duck, Leigh Ann. The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. Uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “chronotrope” to analyze Hurston’s representations of the South.

Feracho, Lesley. Linking the Americas: Race, Hybrid Discourses, and the Reformulation of Feminine Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. International study of four women writers in the Americas. Compares Dust Tracks on a Road to novels by Clarice Lispector, Julieta Campos, and Carolina Maria de Jesus. Argues that each novel is itself a hybrid of various discourses, as well as contributing to a larger hybrid structure of American female writing.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. A close study of Hurston’s life and writings that includes a discussion of their historical context and Hurston’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Autoethnography: The An-Archic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. Discusses Hurston’s voice, tone, and literary objectives. Suggests that Dust Tracks on a Road is an oral as well as a literary text and examines the parallels of author and storyteller.

Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. An essay that chronicles Walker’s discovery of and interest in Hurston. Walker discusses key events in Hurston’s life, the history of critical responses to Hurston’s work, and her own contributions to the preservation and celebration of Hurston’s work.