Hurston is widely considered one of the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great achievement in African American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. Her fiction, which depicts relationships among black residents in her native southern Florida, was largely unconcerned with racial injustices. While not well known during her lifetime, Hurston's works have undergone a substantial critical reevaluation, particularly since the advent of the black protest novel and the elevation in literary status of authors Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin during the post-World War II era. Hurston's present reputation and popularity are evidenced by the reprinting of several of her works in the late 1980s, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). This book has been read as a feminist manifesto for its unconventional female protagonist, Janie Crawford, who is considered by many as a representation of the author herself. Hurston's novel has become a staple in women's studies programs and has inspired many female authors to create nonstereotypical black female characters.
Hurston was born January 15, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John, a Baptist preacher, and Lula (called Lucy), a seamstress. When she was still a young child her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her fiction. In 1904 her mother died, which devastated Hurston. Her father married a much younger woman with whom Hurston did not get along, and Hurston was sent to school in Jacksonville and then to live with relatives. At the age of fourteen, Hurston left home to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe.
For a short time in 1917 Hurston studied at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and in 1918 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, Hurston published short stories in Stylus, the university literary magazine, and attracted the attention of noted sociologist Charles S. Johnson. With Johnson's encouragement, Hurston moved to New York City in 1925 and subsequently secured a scholarship to Barnard College with the assistance of Annie Nathan Meyer, a white philanthropist and well-known supporter of Harlem Renaissance artists. While at Barnard, Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928, she continued her work with Boas as a graduate student at Columbia University.
With the aid of fellowships and a private grant from Charlotte Osgood Mason, a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to the South to collect folklore. She traveled to Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida, living among sharecroppers and workers lodged in labor camps whose primary form of entertainment consisted of telling tall tales, or "lies." In 1935 Hurston compiled Mules and Men (1935), a collection of African American folktales that expanded upon her academic studies and anthropological field work. Through the next decade Hurston continued to travel for her anthropological research and continued to write fiction.
In 1945 Hurston was accused of sexual corruption of a minor. The charges were dismissed, but the controversy damaged Hurston's reputation. She continued to write but did not find much interest from publishers. After trying to support herself with odd jobs, Hurston became ill and moved into the county welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she died in 1960.
In addition to tales and descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs, Mules and Men includes work songs, legends, rhymes, and lies, all of which contained hidden social and philosophical messages considered essential to survival in a racist society. African American folklore forms a basis for all of Hurston's writing, including what critics refer to as her greatest novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Thought to be essentially autobiographical, Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on a woman's search for self-definition in the sexist society of the early 1900s. Janie Crawford is a beautiful, light-skinned African American woman unable to discover her true self until she begins to take charge of her life. The oral narrative employed to relate Janie's quest implies that her strength and identity grow as she becomes more attuned to her black heritage; the telling of tales is as integral a part of black culture as the tales themselves. Similarly, Janie's account is a story within a story, told in a flashback to her good friend Pheoby Watson.
Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) reveals more about Hurston's writing style and her opinions on many of the issues of the day than about her early life. Hurston discusses very little about her birth, her early family life, relationships, and her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. In Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) Hurston used white protagonists for the first time in her work. Arvay Henson comes from a poor, white "cracker" family and believes she has found her salvation in Jim Meserve, a man who raped her and whom she subsequently married. However, Arvay finds herself stifled by her sexist husband and consistently feels inadequate in meeting his expectations.
Critics have generally praised Hurston's narrative recreation of southern black rural dialect; however, several critics have reacted negatively to Hurston's use of the same dialect with her white characters in Seraph on the Suwanee. From the initial publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, critics have debated Hurston's ostensible disregard of the issue of racism. Many of Hurston's black contemporaries considered her an opportunist who catered to white benefactors, and early reviewers believed her book to be an attempt at escapism. However, other commentators have noted that Janie's dilemmas are not centered on issues of racism, but sexism, a concern for all women during the 1920s. Most contemporary critics have argued that Hurston concentrates on strength and affirmation within the black community, and not the denial and anger racism often evokes.
There has also been disagreement among critics regarding Hurston's relationship to feminism. Some commentators have asserted that Hurston's life and work make her a model feminist: as a woman who refused to conform to other's expectations and who did not rely on a man for support, she practiced several feminist traits. Some reviewers have viewed Janie Crawford as a feminist icon, but others have been troubled by the way she relies upon a man to help her and by how long it takes for her to find her voice. Another issue of intense feminist debate amongst scholars concerning Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the death of Tea Cake—Janie's companion after her husband's death. Most commentators have agreed it is essential to Janie's quest that she return to Eatonville alone, but many question whether it is necessary for Tea Cake to be sacrificed for Janie to obtain her sense of identity. The novel's ironic ending is generally considered representative of Hurston's beliefs regarding her writing and her life—in both she challenged conventional norms.