On this date the great American novelist and folklorist ZORA NEALE HURSTON was born (d. 1960). An author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, of Hurston’s four novels and more than fifty published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston graduated from Morgan Academy (high school division of what is now Morgan State University) in 1918. She lived in Washington, DC and attended Howard University and received her B.A. in anthropology from Barnard College, Columbia University in 1928.
Her father was a Baptist preacher, tenant farmer, and carpenter. At age three her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated black community in America, of which her father would become mayor. In her writings she would glorify Eatonville as a utopia where black Americans could live independent of the prejudices of white society.
A novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston was the prototypical authority on black culture from the Harlem Renaissance. In this artistic movement of the 1920s black artists moved from traditional dialectical works and imitation of white writers to explore their own culture and affirm pride in their race. Zora Neale Hurston pursued this objective by combining literature with anthropology. She first gained attention with her short stories such as “John Redding Goes to Sea” and “Spunk” which appeared in black literary magazines. After several years of anthropological research financed through grants and fellowships, Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934 to critical success. In 1935, her book Mules and Men, which investigated voodoo practices in black communities in Florida and New Orleans, also brought her kudos.
The year 1937 saw the publication of Hurston’s masterwork novel Their Eyes Watching God. And the following year her travelogue and study of Caribbean voodoo Tell My Horse was published. It received mixed reviews, as did her 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain. Her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road was a commercial success in 1942, despite its overall absurdness, and her final novel Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948, was a critical failure.
Hurston was a utopian, who held that black Americans could attain sovereignty from white American society and all its bigotry, as proven by her hometown of Eatonville. Never in her works did she address the issue of racism of whites toward blacks, and as this became a nascent theme among black writers in the post World War II era of civil rights, Hurston’s literary influence faded. She further scathed her own reputation by railing the civil rights movement and supporting ultraconservative politicians. She died in poverty and obscurity.
An article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, by Alice Walker was published in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine. This article revived interest in her work. The reemergence of Hurston’s work coincided with the emergence of authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walker herself, whose works are centered on African American experiences and include, but do not necessarily focus upon, racial struggle.
Biographies of Hurston include Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert Hemenway, Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd, and Speak So You Can Speak Again by Hurston’s niece, Lucy Anne Hurston.