Hurston, Zora Neale (Vol. 7)

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Last Updated on November 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2220

Hurston, Zora Neale 1901–1960

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Miss Hurston was a Black American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Her knowledge of folklore added immensely to her fictive exploration of Black tradition and experience.

[Few] of the literary participants in the [Harlem] Renaissance knew intimately the rural South; Hughes arrived from Cleveland and Washington, Bontemps from California, Thurman from Utah and Los Angeles; Cullen was from New York City, Toomer from Washington; the list can go on, but the point is obvious. Zora Neale Hurston represented a known, but unexperienced segment of black life in America. Although it is impossible to gauge such matters, there seems little question that she helped to remind the Renaissance—especially its more bourgeois members—of the richness in the racial heritage; she also added new dimensions to the interest in exotic primitivism that was one of the most ambiguous products of the age. (pp. 194-95)

First in New York [at Barnard College, studying anthropology under Franz Boas], and then in the South as a [folklore] collector, Zora Hurston sought a scientific explanation for why her own experience in the black rural South, despite all her education, remained the most vital part of her life, and further, why the black folk-experience generally was such a source of vitality in literature. Moving between art and science, fiction and anthropology, she searched for an expressive instrument, an intellectual formula, that could accommodate the poetry of Eatonville, the theories of Morningside Heights, and the esthetic ferment she had known in Harlem.

This was a unique intellectual tension complicated by the personal factors of sex, race, and nationality, that whole complex of ambiguous identifications American culture imposes on its members. Hurston struggled with it during the Renaissance, and to some extent throughout her life. (pp. 198-99)

My own opinion is that she never became a professional, academic anthropologist, because such a vocation was alien to her exuberant sense of self, her admittedly artistic and sometimes erratic temperament. A good argument can be made for Hurston's never completely realizing this herself, but if there is a single theme which emerges from her creative effort during the thirties—her five books, her fiction, her essays—it is that eventually immediate experience takes precedence over analysis, emotion over reason, the self over society, the personal over the theoretical. She learned that scientific objectivity is not enough for a black writer in America, and she went on to expose the excessive rationality behind the materialism of American life, the inadequacy of a sterile reason to deal with the phenomena of living. She forcefully affirmed the humanistic values of black life, contrasting them to the rationalized inhumanity of white society, and she asserted early arguments for black cultural nationalism. Beginning with Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), her writing exhibits a studied antiscientific approach, and in her nonfiction even the most technical data is personalized. Her rejection of the scholarly bias and the scientific form was a process instead of a revelation, forming a chapter in her personal history too complex to detail here. Its cultural context is relevant, however, for Hurston's intellectual experience is in some ways a paradigm for the much debated "Crisis" of the black creative intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance.

I think Hurston was predisposed in favor of an anthropological conception of Eatonville simply because she was a creative writer. Although that sounds paradoxical, it is actually a logical product of the environment of ideas surrounding her. The black writer is especially vulnerable to the prescriptions which an idolatry of western European "high culture"...

(The entire section contains 2220 words.)

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