Zora Neale Hurston Analysis


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is clear as one reads through these two volumes of Zola Neale Hurston’s works that above all else she valued a good story told in vivid language. The Library of America’s choice of Hurston as the first African American woman to include in its canon of “America’s greatest writers” not only acknowledges the influential position her work has come to have in the last quarter of the twentieth century but also provides access to a broad spectrum of her writings, including some that were not always easily accessible.

Since the late 1970’s, Hurston’s best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has delighted countless readers, been analyzed and deconstructed by numerous critics, and become a staple of American literature courses. Even the redoubtable Harold Bloom included the novel as part of his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994). Hurston’s other novels and her nonfiction works are much less celebrated and sometimes puzzled over, especially by critics or champions who have a particular political or literary point to make. The Library of America’s edition serves to allow the reader to experience a substantial bulk of Hurston’s writings and to understand them in relation to one another. Editor Cheryl Wall’s thorough biographical chronology supplements and corrects the “lies” (Hurston’s own word for stories) sometimes found in her autobiography,Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). The complexity of Hurston’s experiences and ideas enriches the reader’s experience of the individual works, while definite themes and authorial preoccupations begin to emerge.

Zora Neale Hurston was a self-made woman who probably could not have created herself had she not grown up in one proud and vibrant community and later been adopted into another creative and intellectual community. The old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child is particularly illustrated in the nurturing of young Zora in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated African American town in the state. Despite her claim to have been born in Florida in 1901 or 1903, she was actually born in Georgia, the fifth of seven children of Lucy Ann Potts and John Hurston, who moved to Eatonville when Zora was three. It was Eatonville, entirely owned and governed by its citizens, that instilled in Zora her joy in her African American culture and reinforced the self-confidence that her mother encouraged when she told her daughter to “jump at de sun.” It was to the front porch of Joe Clarke’s general store in Eatonville that the Barnard College graduate returned to collect the “lies” that she would publish in Mules and Men (1935), her groundbreaking collection of African American folklore, and that she would continue to scatter through her novels and short stories. Eatonville has celebrated its daughter since 1990 with an annual festival in her honor.

Yet it was by leaving Eatonville that Hurston managed to enter a wider world and gain the distance and education that would allow her to become its voice. When Zora was thirteen, her mother died, and she was sent to a secondary school in Jacksonville along with her elder sister. This education abruptly ended when her father remarried and stopped supporting his children. Zora and her younger siblings lived with various relatives until 1915, when she joined a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe as maid to one of the singers. Landing in Baltimore, she attended Morgan Academy and then Howard University, earning an associate degree. After she published a story, “Drenched in Light” (1924), in the literary journal Opportunity, its editor, Charles S. Johnson, a leading proponent of the “New Negro” movement, encouraged her to move to New York. In 1925 she followed his advice and moved into the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, and the Harlem Renaissance.

The artists and intellectuals, both black and white, who created and supported the Harlem Renaissance welcomed the audacious Zora Hurston into their community. She became friends with such luminaries as poets Langston Hughes and Countée Cullen, author Carl Van Vechten, and novelist Fannie Hurst, for whom she served as chauffeur for a time. Under the sponsorship of Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College, she integrated the college and began to study under and work for Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas.

The contradictions and correlations between her anthropological training and her artistic sensibilities run through much of her work. Like most significant artists, she is both observer and performer. Hurston’s impulse to perform was well noted by her New York associates; Hughes, remarking on the circle of Harlem artists with whom they socialized and worked, said, “Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books—because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself.” Robert Hemenway, her biographer, has pointed out that her inspiration came from the oral sources of storytelling in Eatonville and that she was the only member of the Harlem Renaissance literati less than a full generation removed from the actual folk traditions they...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Which works of Zora Neale Hurston’s reveal her absorption with the character of her father?

How do the emphases in Hurston’s fiction reveal her to be a writer before her time?

How do Hurston’s anthropological interests color her depiction of African American life?

What qualities define the character of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God? Does Janie grow significantly in stature in the course of the novel?

What can be said in favor of Hurston’s critical attitude toward the historic Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. the Board of Education?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111201226-Hurston.jpg Zora Neale Hurston. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Though best known for her novels, especially Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston wrote in most major genres during her forty-year career. In addition to the posthumously published collection of short stories, she wrote a few early poems, several short plays, folklore collections, essays, reportage, and an autobiography.

Other Literary Forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her four novels, Zora Neale Hurston produced two collections of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Hurston also published plays, short stories, and essays in anthologies and in magazines as diverse as Opportunity, Journal of Negro History, The Saturday Evening Post, Journal of American Folklore, and American Legion Magazine. Finally, she wrote several articles and reviews for such newspapers as the New York Herald Tribune and the Pittsburgh Courier. Hurston’s major works were only reissued in the late twentieth century. Some of her essays and stories have also been collected and reprinted. Although the anthologies I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . (1979) and The Sanctified Church (1981) helped to bring her writing back into critical focus, some of her works ceased to be readily available, and her numerous unpublished manuscripts can be seen only at university archives and the Library of Congress.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Zora Neale Hurston is best known as a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance literature of the 1920’. Not only was she a major contributor, but also she did much to characterize the style and temperament of the period; indeed, she is often referred to as the most colorful figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Though the short stories and short plays that she generated during the 1920’ are fine works in their own right, they are nevertheless apprentice works when compared to her most productive period, the 1930’. During the 1930’, Hurston produced three novels, all telling examples of her creative genius, as well as two collections of folklore, the fruits of her training in anthropology and her many years of fieldwork. It is Hurston's interest in preserving the culture of the black South that remains among her most valuable contributions. Not only did she collect and preserve folklore outright, but also she used folklore, native drama, and the black idiom and dialect in most of her fiction.

Although Hurston’s popularity declined during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and although she died in relative obscurity in 1960, scholars and critics sparked a Hurston revival during the mid-1970’s. Hurston’s popularity has never been greater, as her works are considered mainstays in any number of canons, among them African American literature, folklore, southern literature, feminist studies, and anthropology.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Zora Neale Hurston was the best and most prolific African American woman writer of the 1930’s. Her novels were highly praised. Even so, Hurston never made more than one thousand dollars in royalties on even her most successful works, and when she died in 1960 in Florida, she was nearly penniless and forgotten. Hurston’s career testifies to the difficulties of a black woman writing for a mainstream white audience whose appreciation was usually superficial and for a black audience whose responses to her work were, of necessity, politicized.

Hurston achieved recognition at a time when, as Langston Hughes declared, “the Negro was in vogue.” The Harlem Renaissance, the black literary and cultural movement of the 1920’s, created an interracial audience for her stories and plays. Enthusiasm for her work extended through the 1930’s, although that decade also marked the beginning of critical attacks. Hurston did not portray blacks as victims stunted by a racist society. Such a view, she believed, implies that black life is only a defensive reaction to white racism. Black and left-wing critics, however, complained that her unwillingness to represent the oppression of blacks and her focus, instead, on an autonomous, unresentful black folk culture served to perpetuate minstrel stereotypes and thus fueled white racism.

The radical, racial protest literature of Richard Wright, one of Hurston’s strongest critics, became the model for black literature in the 1940’s, and publishers on the lookout for protest works showed less and less interest in Hurston’s manuscripts. Yet, when she did speak out against American racism and imperialism, her work was often censored. Her autobiography, published in 1942, as well as a number of her stories and articles were tailored by editors to please white audiences. Caught between the attacks of black critics and the censorship of the white publishing industry, Hurston floundered, struggling through the 1940’s and 1950’s to find other subjects. She largely dropped out of public view in the 1950’s, though she continued to publish magazine and newspaper articles.

The African American and feminist political and cultural movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s provided the impetus for Hurston’s rediscovery. The publication of Robert Hemenway’s excellent book Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977) and the reissue of Hurston’s novels, her autobiography, and her folklore collections seem to promise the sustained critical recognition Hurston deserves.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Essays by Robert Hemenway and Nellie McKay on the biographical roots of the novel and by Hazel Carby on Hurston’s use of anthropology. Rachel Blau DuPlessis provides a feminist perspective.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. From the series Modern Critical Views. An excellent collection of criticism of Hurston’s work and life. Includes early commentary by Franz Boas and Langston Hughes, as well as later studies.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in...

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