Zora Neale Hurston Biography
Like so many writers, Zora Neale Hurston 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.
Facts and Trivia
- Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston grew up, was an all-black incorporated town, which her father was elected mayor of in 1897.
- John Hurston and Lucy Ann Potts, Hurston's parents, were both former slaves.
- After her mother's death, Hurston's father and stepmother sent her to boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida, but eventually stopped paying the tuition, and Hurston was expelled.
- 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.
- Though her work is celebrated today, Hurston, due to medical and financial problems, died in a county welfare home.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2169
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 of the arts who wished to preserve “primitive” minority cultures—in other words, cultures free of the civilized pretensions of modern life. She provided Hurston with money, a movie camera, and an automobile with which to collect folklore in the South. Mules and Men (1935), a masterly collection of southern black folktales, was the eventual result of Hurston’s efforts in that area.
Although Hurston was pressured to adapt her novels to a prescribed theme about struggles against racism, she believed that such a theme would be a limitation. She preferred to concentrate on those indigenous elements of black community life that survived racism intact.
Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), is the story of a Baptist minister who delivers powerful sermons but who upsets his congregation by following his own natural impulses and entering into adulterous relationships that his parishioners cannot reconcile with his role as minister. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s masterpiece, explores a black woman’s three marriages, her frustrations, and her aspiration to become a fully autonomous human being. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) is an ambitious allegory about the “hoodoo man” Moses, who tries to inspire in an enslaved people a group identity. To dispel the idea that black writers were limited to black subjects, Hurston devoted her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), to the subject of poor southern whites.
Richard Wright criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God because it did not protest racial oppression, but Hurston disagreed with the attitudes of protesters, whom she called “the sobbing school of Negrohood.” In Dust Tracks on a Road, she insisted that all individuals had it in their power to determine their fates and that an appeal to racial uniqueness was the refuge of the weak. Believing that “skins were no measure of what was inside people,” Hurston ridiculed anyone “who claimed special blessings on the basis of race.” In spite of the fact that it was criticized—most notably by Arna Bontemps—her autobiography won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for its contribution to better race relations.
Hurston’s devotion to writing and collecting left her little time for sustained relationships. She states in her autobiography that Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in Haiti in an attempt to come to terms with a love affair she had had in New York with a young college student of West Indian descent. She left him for the same reason that she had divorced her first husband, Herbert Sheen, in 1931. She wished to be free to pursue her career, and her relationships with men did not allow her that freedom. As she writes about her young lover: “My work was one thing, and he was all the rest”; to him, however, it was “all, or nothing.” A second attempt at marriage, with Albert Price III in 1939, ended in divorce a year later.
In 1948, Hurston was arrested and charged with molesting the ten-year-old son of a woman from whom she had rented an apartment in New York. Although she proved that she could not have committed the act because she was out of the country at the time, the story was sensationalized in the African American press. She felt betrayed and wrote, “My race has seen fit to destroy me without reason.”
After the 1948 publication of Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston never published another book. In her last decade, she worked as teacher, librarian, reporter, and maid. She also became active as a political conservative. She supported the 1946 campaign of Republican Grant Reynolds against Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., in Harlem, and in the primary elections of 1950, she opposed the liberal Claude Pepper. In “I Saw Negro Votes Peddled” (1950), she attributed to a lack of self-esteem black complicity in vote-buying schemes perpetrated by the Pepper campaign. In 1954, she opposed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ordered school desegregation. She viewed it as a matter of self-respect. She could get little satisfaction from a law that forced associations between persons who did not want to associate and that assumed that blacks could not develop properly unless they associated with whites.
After suffering a stroke in 1959, she died on January 28, 1960, in a nursing home in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her grave remained unmarked until the 1970’s, when Alice Walker located it and erected a stone that reads, in part:
Zora Neale Hurston
“A Genius of the South”
Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist
To Alice Walker, who documented her discovery of Zora Neale Hurston in the collection of feminist essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Hurston represented an artistic foremother whose achievements and defiance of conventional roles for women were inspiring. Hurston’s efforts to preserve, nurture, and transmit African American folk culture were based on her belief that folklore was the common person’s art form and that black folklore provided America with its greatest cultural wealth. Her ability to capture the sounds of folk speech and to retell the imaginative stories of African Americans was the foundation of her talent as a writer of fiction. Living most of her life in obscurity and buried in an unmarked grave, Hurston lived and wrote with a confidence and self-acceptance that made her a favorite model for later generations of writers.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This book of essays about Hurston includes contemporary accounts by those who knew her, as well as modern critical appraisals.
Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002.
Glassman, Steve, and Kathryn Lee Seidel, eds. Zora in Florida. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991. This book of critical essays examines Hurston’s lesser-known works and is particularly concerned with the influence of her native Florida on her work.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. The strength of this scholarly biography is its placing of Hurston’s literary achievements in the context of American and African American literary history.
Hemenway, Robert E., ed. “Introduction.” In Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography, by Zora Neale Hurston. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Despite its unfortunate attempt to discredit the conservative views expressed in Hurston’s autobiography, this essay does provide useful information about the political context in which the book was written and confirms that Hurston’s birth year was more likely 1891 than the oft-cited 1901.
Holloway, Karla F. C. The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. An analysis of Hurston’s use of language in her writings.
Howard, Lillie P. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A useful overview of Hurston’s life and works in an accessible format including a bibliography.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Hurston’s autobiography is a chronicle of an independent woman. She discusses her earliest childhood impressions, her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, and her thoughts on the racial problem in the United States.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. Hurston’s compelling novel about a woman’s search for love and self-actualization is a masterpiece of African American literature. Hurston states that it had an autobiographical basis.
Hurston, Zora Neale>. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than 500 letters, annotated and arranged in chronological order.
Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston—A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” Foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert E. Hemenway. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. This partisan defense of Hurston’s work is written by the person most responsible for engineering a revival of interest in Hurston. The essay emphasizes Hurston’s value to feminists and views her poverty as a cautionary story from which other women writers can learn.