Special Commissioned Essay on Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Earley Whitt


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Essay on Zora Neale Hurston Margaret Earley Whitt

This special entry, written by Margaret Earley Whitt of the University of Denver, presents an overview and analysis of Hurston's life and career. For more information on Hurston's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 30 and 61; and for discussion of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), see TCLC, Volume 121.

The following chronology offers an overview of Hurston's life and career. The topics presented here are discussed in greater detail in the critical essay that follows.

7 January 1891: Born to John and Lucy Potts Hurston in Notasulga, Macon County, Alabama. She is the fifth child and second daughter. (Eventually three more brothers will be born.)

1894: Family moves to Eatonville, Florida, the all-black town Hurston will claim as her birthplace. Her father becomes a prominent Baptist preacher at Zion Hope Baptist Church in neighboring Sanford.

1900-01: Attends Hungerford School in Eatonville. She impresses white visitors with her reading ability and they give her an assortment of books.

18 September 1904: Her mother dies, and Zora's life is radically altered. She is sent to Jacksonville to the Boylan School, where her older sister Sarah is also a student.

1905: Her father remarries.

1906-15: Her siblings marry and move away. Zora lives with her siblings and mother's relatives, in places that range from Sanford to Memphis, Tennessee.

1915-16: Travels from Florida to Baltimore, Maryland, with the Gilbert and Sullivan cast as maid to the lead female singer.

10 August 1917: John Hurston dies in an automobile accident, an event Zora will use in the death of her fictional John Pearson in her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine.

1917-18: Stays in Baltimore because she is sick with an appendicitis attack. After surgery, she attends high school at night and works as a waitress and a domestic. She graduates from Morgan Academy in June 1918 and moves to Washington, D.C.

1919-20: Enrolls at Howard University, where she begins her coursework in English. She meets Herbert Sheen, who will become her first husband.

1921: Publishes first short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in Stylus, the literary club magazine of Howard. She meets Alain Locke, and attends a literary salon where she makes her first acquaintance with writers who will come to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance: Jean Toomer, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Fauset, and Angelina Grimke, to name a few.

1922: Publishes poems in Marcus Garvey's Negro World, the official newspaper of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

1924: Publishes short story “Drenched in Light” in Opportunity, the literary journal of the Urban League.

1925: Moves to New York City. She continues to make connections with people who will help her: Carl Van Vechten; Annie Nathan Meyer, who secures for her a scholarship to Barnard College, where she will be the only African-American student; and Fannie Hurst, who employs her as personal secretary, but keeps her on as a friend. She also meets Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Continues to enter Opportunity's literary contests and win prizes.

1926: Begins field work in Harlem for Franz Boas, leading anthropologist and her teacher at Barnard. Meets with Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and others to plan and design Fire!, a quarterly that would feature the work of younger artists, but flounders after the first and only issue. Hurston contributes “Sweat” and a play, Color Struck.

1927: Makes first trip to the South to collect folklore. She also meets her white patron, Charlotte Mason, with whom she will form a “psychic bond” and who will become the “godmother” figure in her life for the next five years. She marries Herbert Sheen.

1928: Graduates from Barnard in May. She continues to travel through the South, in Florida, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana, where she learns hoodoo rituals, becoming friends with practitioners of that community, and doing the research that will be published in Mules and Men. Marriage to Sheen ends, but divorce not final until 1931.

1929: Makes first trip out of the country to Nassau, Bahamas, for collecting purposes. She lives in Jacksonville, Eau Gallie, and Miami, Florida, and travels again to New Orleans.

1930-31: Returns to the Bahamas, then moves to New Jersey to work on a play with Hughes. Their work, Mule Bone, will not be produced until 1991 because of an argument between the two collaborators; the argument is never resolved and the friendship ends. Hurston, when not in New Jersey, returns to Florida. She begins a collaborative effort with musicians for various reviews for the stage. Using the material that will be part of Mules and Men, she puts together The Great Day, centered on life in a railroad camp. Her divorce with Sheen is final on 7 July 1931.

1932: The Great Day is performed on Broadway on 10 January at great personal financial cost to Hurston. No backers emerge to extend the run, and Hurston returns to Florida. She is invited to whites-only Rollins College in Winter Park by its president, Hamilton Holt, and literature professor Edwin Grover, both of whom will become life-long friends.

Rollins welcomes a production of her review, re-named From Sun to Sun. The cast is composed of local talent and relatives. Mrs. Mason permanently ends her financial support of Hurston's work.

1933: From Sun to Sun is produced at Rollins and in other Florida cities, always to segregated audiences. Through her connections at Rollins, her short story “The Gilded Six-Bits” is published in Story. Bertram Lippincott of the publishing house that bears his name writes to her expressing interest in her work. With this encouragement, she begins work on her first novel. She mails the manuscript on 3 October; on 16 October she receives an acceptance and a $200 advance.

1934: Publishes various essays and assumes a teaching position, but does not complete the academic year, at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. She has creative/political differences with its president, Mary McLeod Bethune, who will become founder of the National Council of Negro Women, friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and advisor to President Roosevelt. Lippincott publishes Jonah's Gourd Vine in May. Hurston continues to produce variations on her dramatic reviews—one at Fisk University in Nashville and one in Chicago, Illinois. She accepts a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia University in anthropology.

1935: Rarely attends classes at Columbia, and eventually withdraws from the program. She collects recordings for the music division of the Library of Congress in the South and later takes a position with the Works Progress Administration Federal Theatre Project in Harlem. Lippincott publishes Mules and Men in October.

1936: Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Jamaica and Haiti to study Obeah practices. She writes Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, completing the manuscript in Haiti on 19 December.

1937: Stays in Haiti for much of the year with her Guggenheim renewed. She suffers from illnesses she believes connected to her voodoo studies. Lippincott publishes Their Eyes Were Watching God in September.

1938: Hurt and angered by Wright's and Locke's reviews of her second novel. She joins the Federal Writer's Project in Jacksonville, Florida, and serves as an editor for the Florida volume. Lippincott publishes Tell My Horse in October.

1939: Marries Albert Price III, twenty-five years her junior, from whom she will part company within the year. Leaving him in Florida, she accepts a teaching position at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham, North Carolina. Hurston has creative/political differences with the school's president, but remains for the academic year. Tell My Horse is published in England as Voodoo Gods and sells briskly. Lippincott publishes Moses, Man of the Mountain in November.

1940: Travels to South Carolina to research religious trances. She contracts malaria. Lippincott suggests she write her autobiography.

1941: Moves to Los Angeles, California to work on her autobiography. She takes a job with Paramount Pictures as a story consultant.

1942: Returns to Florida. She teaches at Florida Normal, a black college in St. Augustine, and begins research on the Seminole Indians. She establishes a friendship with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings that will last until Rawlings dies. Lippincott publishes Dust Tracks on a Road in November.

1943: Moves to Daytona Beach, and buys and takes up residence in a houseboat, the Wanago. She wins the Anisfeld-Wolf Book Award for the best book on race relations, for her autobiography. She continues to write controversial essays espousing her views against the Negro as victim. She participates in a Recreation in War program, started by the wife of then-governor Spessard Holland, with whom she will remain friends the rest of her life. Her divorce from Price is granted on 9 November.

1944: Participates in a collaborative play-writing effort called “Polk County.” She experiences creative differences with her collaborator, Dorothy Waring. She applies for a Guggenheim to do research in Honduras, but is turned down.

1945: Buys new houseboat, Sun Tan, and writes unsuccessful novels that are turned down by Lippincott.

1946: Goes to New York to work on unsuccessful political campaign of Grant Reynolds, a Republican candidate for Congress. She remains active in community programs in Harlem, but does not seek out old acquaintances. She continues to publish book reviews and short pieces.

1947: Signs contract with Scribner's, through an introduction by Rawlings. She travels to Honduras, where she writes, but cannot do her desired research because she is short of funds.

1948: Falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy. She was in Honduras on the date of the alleged attack, yet the black press betrays her with sensationalized headlines. Scribner's publishes the Seraph on the Suwanee in October.

1949: Exonerated of the charges, she returns to Florida and lives on a houseboat in Miami, with a friend who promises, falsely as it turns out, to take her to Honduras.

1950: Publishes “Conscience of the Court” in Saturday Evening Post, while working as a domestic in a wealthy white section of Miami. She claimed to have a plan to develop a magazine for working maids and was doing research. She works in the Senate political campaign of conservative George Smathers, who beats liberal Claude Pepper. She moves to Belle Glade, Florida with friends, in order to continue her research on the Everglades.

1951: Moves to Eau Gallie, Florida, to the same small house she rented when she wrote Mules and Men. She works on an unsuccessful novel on Madame C. J. Walker, the first Negro woman millionaire, founder of products for straightening black women's hair.

1952: Her fiction meets with little success. She writes and re-writes pieces about her dog Spot, none of which are published. Her literary agent, Jean Parker Waterbury, becomes a close friend. A Northern newspaper invites her to write about the trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman who allegedly killed her erstwhile lover, a white doctor. Her work on McCollum is included in William Bradford Huie's book on the case.

1953-54: Begins work on a book on Herod the Great, whom she has researched for a number of years. Though the book is rejected, she will continue to work on the project for the rest of her life.

1955: Writes a controversial editorial for the Orlando Sentinel about the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. Hurston appears to support segregation, suggesting she has no interest in going where she is not wanted. Southern segregationists use Hurston's work to claim that Negroes themselves do not want integration.

1956: Evicted from her home in Eau Gallie, which she had hoped to purchase. She begins a friendship through letters with her Dutch translator, Margrit Sabloniere. She takes a job as a library clerk at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Once again, she has differences with people who do not appear to recognize her intelligence.

1957: Fired from the library clerk position, she moves to Fort Pierce, Florida, where she writes for the Fort Pierce Chronicle, a black newspaper.

1958: Employed by Lincoln Park Academy as a substitute teacher. She has an argument with authorities over her efforts to obtain her teaching credentials. She is a gardener of repute in her small cinderblock house on School Court, but is plagued by ongoing intestinal pains.

1959: Suffers a stroke and moves to Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in October. She does not inform her family.

28 January 1960: At sixty-nine years of age, Hurston dies. The funeral takes place on 7 February. She is buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery at the end of Seventeenth Street in Fort Pierce, within blocks of her last home on School Court.

1973: Alice Walker makes a pilgrimage to Fort Pierce and places a marker on Hurston's presumed grave: “Zora Neale Hurston / 1901-1960 / ‘A Genius of the South’ / Novelist Folklorist Anthropologist.”

About The Author

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The inspiration for John Pearson, the protagonist of Jonah's Gourd Vine, is clearly Hurston's own father. She uses his first name and her mother's real name, Lucy Potts, and the novel is a fictionalized version of their own story. By the time Hurston wrote this novel in 1934, she was forty-three years old; her mother and father had been dead since 1904 and 1917, respectively. Yet it appears that Hurston is still trying to work out their relationship in her own mind. This fictional John is an unrelenting, yet occasionally regretful, womanizer, as was her father. Lucy tolerates the situation and demonstrates strength of character and faith that stays with John beyond her death in the novel. Hurston held fiercely...

(The entire section is 1384 words.)

Art Imitating Life

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Three of Hurston's seven books are, in part, autobiographical. Jonah's Gourd Vine is a thinly fictionalized version of her parents' courtship and marriage. Using their real names Lucy Potts and John (Pearson, which is not her father's real last name, but has the same number of letters as Hurston), she recreates the womanizing preacher-father, making clear, though, that the person he loved was always and only Lucy. Lucy dies early in life and in fiction, and John follows thirteen years later in life and sooner in fiction when he drives his car onto the tracks at the same time a train comes along. Hurston uses the actual town of Notasulga, Alabama, the meeting place of her parents and her own birthplace, as the...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)

Hurston's Era And Time In History

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

A native Southerner, Zora Neale Hurston was born a quarter century after the South's surrender at the close of the Civil War. She came into the world five years before Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 landmark Supreme Court case that confirmed separate but equal was constitutionally legal. This decision by the high court would not be struck down until the 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which was to mandate integration of public schools in the South based on the determination that separate was not equal. The South was already a Jim Crow world when Hurston was born, but because her family moved to the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida in its early days, Hurston had the advantage of living...

(The entire section is 3536 words.)

The Author's Works And Brief Summaries

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jonah's Gourd Vine. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1934; New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.

As a child, young John lives in Notasulga, Alabama, with his mother, step-father, and two step-brothers, but tension between him and his step-father results in his running away to the other side of Big Creek, where he is to seek asylum on the plantation of Alf Pearson, whom he will discover is his birth father, the man who had owned his mother before the surrender. John then grows into a young man—going to school, discovering girls, and falling in love with young, smart Lucy Potts. Because Lucy sings in the choir of Macedony Baptist Church, John develops an interest in religion in order to spend time...

(The entire section is 5904 words.)

Awards And Recognition

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

From her earliest days, Hurston was a proficient reader. She impressed several Northern white women with her reading performance at the Hungerford School in Eatonville. According to her own account in Dust Tracks on a Road, the women gave her stuffed dates and preserved ginger, a roll of new pennies, an Episcopal hymn-book, Swiss Family Robinson, and a book of fairytales. A month after they returned home to Minneapolis, they sent her a box of clothes and more books: Gulliver's Travels, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Greek and Roman myths, and Norse tales.1 Hurston claims the roll of pennies as a moment of joy: “The nearest thing to that moment was the telegram accepting my first...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Hurston At Work: Getting Established

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Zora Neale Hurston had an uncanny knack of meeting just the right people at exactly the moment she needed to do so. Time and again, by force of her powerful personality, her quick wit, her indefatigable unstoppability, sheer blind luck, or a combination, Hurston's life path was filled with people who stepped forth to help her, who extended themselves and made connections for her, often involving others who did not know Hurston but were related to or thought highly of people Hurston encountered. By Hurston's account, it was “fun and capers” on a random weekend at Morgan, during her days in Baltimore, with the visiting cousin of college classmates who spoke the words that were to set her path in ways she could not...

(The entire section is 1436 words.)

The Author At Work: Techniques

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Hurston was fed by many springs. She possessed an exuberance about and for life that is reflected in her correspondence, her autobiography, and her other published prose. She brought to the writing task a multi-faceted approach, employing various branches of her intellectual studies, spiritual pursuits, and emotional entanglements. Writing exclusively in and committing to one genre would have been impossible for her, and whichever genre she happened to be in at the moment seemed to fill her creative energies for the time being.

Hurston's usual practice was to handwrite in pencil on unlined paper the manuscripts for her book-length works. Surprisingly, Hurston's original manuscripts indicate very...

(The entire section is 3237 words.)

Hurston At Work: Subject To Revision

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

In the late 1920s, organizing notes from her fieldwork in the South, particularly Florida, Hurston began her first effort at a book-length manuscript. Shaping her notes would take several drafts. What existed on the market as guides were negative examples; she knew she wanted a different, more accessible approach. She completed the draft of what would be Mules and Men in 1932 in Eatonville, but found no publisher. Once Hurston had Jonah's Gourd Vine accepted by Lippincott in 1933, she pushed Mules and Men aside and directed her attention to Jonah's Gourd Vine, a novel she had had in her head for some time, and one she had lived with a lifetime, since the inspiration for this novel is her...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)

Hurston At Work: Critical Reception

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Before Hurston tackled her first book-length project, she thought that the kind of story she wanted to write was not acceptable—to white publishers, to black male authors, to the established literary patterns of the day, and in sum, to the American public as both readers and writers. She records in her autobiography these feelings: “What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color. … I was afraid to tell a story the way I wanted, or rather the way the story told itself to me.”1 So,...

(The entire section is 3359 words.)

Hurston's Works And Their Place In History

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Had it not been for the successful and widespread popularity of Alice Walker's 1982 novel The Color Purple, Hurston might still be a popular figure only among small groups of female professors who year after year would dedicate themselves to teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Walker wrote The Color Purple, and it won both a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Steven Spielberg made it into a movie, and Walker was interviewed widely on television and in the newspapers. She was a literary sensation—articulate and attractive—and people listened to what she had to say. One of her messages—loud and clear in Ms. magazine articles in the late 1970s and then republished in her...

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Public Response

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

During the 1930s, Lippincott was a major trade publishing house. Hurston published five titles during the decade, each of them with Lippincott. In the 7 August 1937 issue of Publisher's Weekly, a small article appeared announcing Lippincott's plans for promotion of their fall line of books, which included “generous appropriations” for advertising. Large space had already been “scheduled for the most widely-used book media.”1 The plan included posters, post cards, and circulars. In the next issue of Publisher's Weekly on 14 August 1937, full-page ads announced some of their titles, including Harbor Nights by Harvey Klemmer, Triumphant Pilgrimage by Owen Rutter, The Far...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)

Critical Summary And Survey

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

When J. B. Lippincott published Their Eyes Were Watching God on September 18, 1937, its 286 pages could be purchased for two dollars. This was Hurston's second novel and her third book to be published. Further, her reputation as the leading female literary light of the Harlem Renaissance demanded critical attention in major publications. At the time of its publication, however, it was seen as the next book in line from an author whose reputation was already established. Their Eyes Were Watching God was not any kind of a breakthrough moment, and Hurston did not pause to celebrate its publication. She just kept on writing and publishing—four more books before she would meet with resistance from her...

(The entire section is 7119 words.)

Other Authors Frequently Studied With Hurston

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Charles Chesnutt's 1899 The Conjure Woman (introduction by Robert Farnsworth, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983; includes two collections: The Conjure Woman and The Wife of His Youth. Also available edited by Richard Brodhead, Durham: Duke University Press, 1993) is a collection of short stories that draws heavily on folklore. A white narrator, John, with his wife leaves Ohio to reside in North Carolina, where they are met by black Uncle Julius McAdoo, who becomes his coachman and tells him stories about the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy. Chesnutt's stories include both an exterior frame, narrated by John, who offers an idyllic portrait of the...

(The entire section is 4277 words.)