Zora Neale Hurston 1901?–1960
Black American novelist, folklorist, essayist, short story writer, dramatist, anthropologist, and autobiographer. See also Zora Neale Hurston Short Story Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, and Zora Neale Hurston Literary Criticism (Volume 7).
Hurston is recognized as an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented excellence in black American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. She is now considered among the foremost authors of that period—having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays—and she is also acknowledged as the first black American to collect and publish Afro-American folklore. Hurston has only recently gained substantial critical attention. Her fiction, which deals with the common black folk of her native southern Florida, was considered obsolete with the advent of the "protest novel" as presented by such writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin during the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years, however, Hurston's work, particularly her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has undergone substantial critical revaluation.
Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her novels. At fourteen, she left Eatonville to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. In 1923 Hurston entered Howard University. Her first short story was published in Stylus, the university literary magazine. She won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City in 1925, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928 Hurston continued her graduate studies with Boas at Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important black authors. Along with Langston Hughes and other black writers, Hurston founded Fire!, a literary magazine devoted to black culture, in 1927. However, the magazine folded after its first issue due to financial difficulties and a destructive fire.
With the assistance of fellowships and a private grant from a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to her hometown to collect folklore. Mules and Men (1935) is the result of Hurston's anthropological field work and academic studies. The book includes many folktales, which the tellers call "lies." These "lies," which contain hidden social and philosophical messages, were an important part of the culture of that region. Hurston also provides descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs. Critics of the time praised Mules and Men for its information on folklore practices. However, some black critics, especially Sterling Brown, charged that Hurston ignored racial oppression and exploitation in the South. These accusations recurred throughout Hurston's literary career.
In her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Hurston combined her knowledge of folklore with biblical themes. Loosely based on the lives of her parents, Jonah's Gourd Vine centers on John Pearson, a respected minister and town leader, and the life and death of his first wife, Lucy Potts. Written in the southern black dialect that Hurston used throughout her fic-tion, Jonah's Gourd Vine received critical attention for her "notable talents as a story teller." In Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) Hurston successfully utilized data obtained from her studies in folklore and voodoo. Basing her story on the premise that most black Americans view their heritage as similar to that of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, Hurston wrote Moses as an allegorical novel of American slavery. Moses is portrayed not as a prophet but as a powerful magician and voodoo practitioner. Critics praised Hurston's imaginative depiction of Moses, and some considered her use of black dialect important to the development of the narrative.
Most critics maintain that Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston's best work. The novel, now considered by some a classic in feminist literature, tells the story of a woman's quest for fulfillment and liberation in a society where women are objects to be used for physical burden and pleasure. Upon publication, critical opinion of the novel varied. Otis Ferguson contended that the book "is absolutely free of Uncle Toms," while Richard Wright accused Hurston of manipulating white stereotypes of black people to attract white readers. Other black critics at the time attacked Hurston for her lack of racial awareness. Contemporary critics, among them Alice Walker and June Jordan, have refuted these charges, asserting that Hurston was acutely aware of the racial climate of the time and describing the novel as an affirmation of black culture.
Critics generally agree that Hurston's last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), is her most ambitious but least successful work of fiction. The novel is thematically similar to Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Seraph on the Suwanee is the story of a neurotic woman's search for self-esteem and her attempt to return the love of her husband. In this book, Hurston's major characters are poor whites instead of the black inhabitants of Eatonville of her previous novels. This radical change prompted some black critics to label Hurston an assimilationist. The absence of the colorful prose that was associated with Hurston's earlier work has also been noted.
In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston revealed her stance on race relations in America. She maintained that black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American life instead of indulging in what she termed "the sobbing school of Negrohood." Some critics attribute Hurston's early years in Eatonville as the major source for that position, for Eatonville was the first organized effort by blacks at self-government. However, Hurston did acknowledge racial prejudice, and she published essays on the problem in several journals and magazines. Hurston's early play Color Struck! (1925) addresses bigotry within the black community, which favors light-skinned over dark-skinned blacks. Recent critical discussion indicates that the original manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road included severe criticism of American racial and foreign policy, but these sections were omitted because Hurston's editors felt that some readers might interpret her views as an attack on America's role in World War II.
Many critical studies of Hurston have focused on her private life. Early in her career she depended on white patronage for support and financial assistance. Langston Hughes wrote that Hurston was "simply paid just to sit around and represent the Negro race." Other writers who knew Hurston during the 1920s and 1930s contend that she intentionally portrayed the role of a childlike primitive in order to advance her career. Hurston was caught between the emphasis on the "exotic" aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the angry voice of black literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Although some people have questioned Hurston's integrity, her work is valued for its knowledgeable depiction of black culture and for its insight into the human condition.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)