Zora Neale Hurston 1891-1960
American novelist, folklorist, short story and nonfiction writer, autobiographer, essayist, playwright, memoirist, and librettist.
The following entry presents criticism of Hurston's short fiction from 1989 through 2001. See also Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Criticism (Volume 7), and Zora Neale Hurston Criticism (Volume 30).
Hurston is considered among the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York, that redefined African American expression during the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays, Hurston is acknowledged as the first modern African American to collect and publish folklore. Her renowned 1935 collection, Mules and Men, is comprised of African American folktales derived from her academic studies and anthropological fieldwork. The book is regarded as an important contribution to American literature.
Hurston was born on January 7, 1891. She was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first incorporated all-Black town in America and became the setting for most of Hurston's fiction. At the age of thirteen Hurston was taken out of school to care for her brother's children. She worked briefly as a maid, and at sixteen was hired as a wardrobe girl for a touring theatrical troupe and traveled the South for eighteen months. Then, while employed as a live-in maid, she enrolled at a high school in Baltimore. She attended Howard University in Washington D.C. from 1923 to 1924 and in 1925 moved to New York City. During this period, Hurston began publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important Black writers. She studied anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University with the anthropologist Franz Boas, an experience that profoundly influenced her work. In 1927, together with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, Hurston founded Fire!!, a literary magazine devoted to African American culture. The publication collapsed after its first issue, as a result of financial difficulties. After graduating in 1928, Hurston received a fellowship to do anthropological field research on African American folklore in the South. The data she collected over the next four years, and during subsequent field excursions in Jamaica, Haiti, and Bermuda (1937-38), Florida (1938-39), and Honduras (1946-48), would be used both in her collections of folklore and in her fictional works. In 1948 Hurston, then living in New York, was arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. The charges were later dropped—Hurston was able to prove that she had been out of the country when the alleged incident took place—but Hurston was devastated by the ensuing publicity. By 1950 Hurston had returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning woman in Rivo Alto. Later in the year she moved to Belle Glade, Florida, and attempted to revive her writing career. During the remaining years of her life she worked variously as a newspaper reporter, librarian, and substitute teacher. She suffered a stroke in 1959 and was forced to enter the Saint Lucie County, Florida, Welfare Home, where she died on January 28, 1960.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Hurston's best-known work of short fiction is Mules and Men, a collection of African American folklore and stories gathered from her years traveling the American South living among sharecroppers and itinerant workers. In addition to tales and descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs, Mules and Men includes work songs, legends, rhymes, and “lies,” all of which contain social and philosophical messages considered essential to survival in a racist society. Hurston categorized her findings in Mules and Men under such themes and motifs as biblical events, moral lessons, variations of plantation stories as delineated in the works of Joel Chandler Harris, and explanations of natural phenomena. The story “Why the Waves Have Whitecaps,” an example of a tale about natural occurrences, relates the tragic consequences of a rivalry between the anthropomorphic figures Mrs. Wind and Mrs. Water. In the tale, Mrs. Water, jealous of her adversary's children, drowns them in the sea, so that whenever Mrs. Wind grieves for her offspring, her sorrowful voice forms white caps on the ocean's waves.
Hurston also wrote several well-received short stories that explore the lives of African Americans. She was especially praised for her recreation of Eatonville's landscape, social customs, and colorful dialect. Hurston published nearly all of her stories in Opportunity, a Black American magazine produced by the National Urban League. “Drenched in Light,” Hurston's earliest story, is an initiation piece centering on a high-spirited girl whose sense of adventure and independence is constantly undermined by her puritanical grandmother. “Sweat” is a tale of hatred and revenge involving a long-suffering washerwoman and her brutal, adulterous husband. Hurston's last story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” was published in Story magazine in 1933, and is considered her best work of short fiction. The story concerns Joe and Missie May, a newlywed couple whose idyllic marriage is nearly destroyed by Slemmons, a smooth-talking Northerner who operates an ice cream parlor in Eatonville. Impressed with Slemmons's affluence and sophisticated demeanor, Missie May takes him as a lover but quickly discovers that his lifestyle is as fallacious as the “gold” coins and jewelry he used to seduce her. These and other tales were collected in Spunk (1985) and The Complete Stories (1995).
For many years, Hurston's work garnered little critical attention. In the late 1970s, however, critics began to rediscover her short stories and novels, and as a result a diverse body of critical studies has been published on Hurston's life and work. She is now recognized for her significant contribution to American literature. Most of the critical attention to Hurston's short fiction focuses on Mules and Men, which has often been discussed as a work of ethnography and as heavily influenced by the anthropological theories of Boas. Although many critics praise the book's entertaining qualities, some cite an absence of scholarly analysis and comparative notations and an abundance of authorial intrusions. Others have accused Hurston of ignoring racial oppression and exploitation in the South—accusations that recurred throughout her literary career. Commentators have asserted that these and other stories reflect Hurston's attitude toward racism: she refused to focus on the limitations of the Black experience, instead emphasizing the creativity and imagination of African Americans and celebrating her Black cultural heritage. Other critics have explored her depiction of the African American struggle with economic oppression and the relationship between Black men and women in her stories. Recent critics have examined the portrayal of strong African American women in her short fiction, contending that in Hurston's stories, female independence often emasculates African American men and results in domestic violence. In other feminist interpretations of her short fiction, commentators have perceived the key thematic concern of many of her stories to be the successful quest for female empowerment. Her use of female storytellers is regarded as subversive by some critics, in that it challenged conventional roles assigned to Black women, countered stereotypes, and provided a new perspective on the Black experience.