James Robert Hurst was born in 1922 on a farm by the sea near Jacksonville, North Carolina, the youngest of three children of Andrew and Kate Hurst. He attended North Carolina State College and served in the United States Army for three years during World War II. Though he had studied to become a chemical engineer, he realized that he preferred music and became a student at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Aiming for a career as an opera singer, he traveled to Rome, Italy, for further study, living there for four years. On his return to the United States, he soon decided that he lacked operatic talent and abandoned his musical ambitions. In 1951 he began a career in the international department of Chase Manhattan Bank, New York, where he continued to work until he retired in 1984.
During his first ten years at the bank, Hurst wrote in his spare time. He published short stories and a play, mostly in small literary magazines. "The Scarlet Ibis" was his first story to appear in a national magazine. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1960 and won the magazine's Atlantic First Award for fiction that year. The story, as Hurst said in a telephone interview with this reviewer, "took on a life of its own." It was quickly granted the status of a classic and has been published in many high-school and college literature textbooks since the late 1960s. None of Hurst's other stories achieved similar recognition.