Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960), folklorist and novelist, was best known for her collection of African American folklore Mules and Men (1935) and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she charted a young African American woman's journey for personal fulfillment.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1903, in Eatonville, Florida, to Reverend John and Lucy Hurston. Zora's mother died when she was nine years old, and her father soon remarried. Her relationship with her stepmother rapidly deteriorated, and her father sent her to school in Jacksonville. In her early teens she became a wardrobe girl in a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company touring the South. Eighteen months later she enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore in 1917. She graduated a year later and went to Howard University, where she completed a year and a half of course work between 1919 and 1924. She secured a scholarship which allowed her to transfer to Barnard College, where she earned her B.A. in 1928. From 1928 to 1932 she studied anthropology and folklore at Columbia University under Franz Boas, the renown anthropologist. In 1936 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for travelling and collecting folklore in Haiti and the British West Indies.
Hurston worked at a variety of jobs, from manicurist, to Fannie Hurst's secretary, to writer for Paramount and Warner Brothers Studios, to librarian at the Library of Congress, to drama coach at North Carolina College for Negroes. Hurston began her writing career while at Howard when she wrote her first short story for Stylus, a college literary magazine. She continued to write stories, and in 1925 won first prize in the Opportunity literary contest for "Spunk." In 1939 Morgan College awarded her an honorary doctorate. In 1943 she received the Annisfield Award for the autobiographical Dust Tracks on the Road; also in 1943 Howard University bestowed its alumni award upon her.
Although Hurston worked all of her life at many jobs and was a prolific writer, money was always a serious problem. In the late 1940s she returned to Florida and worked as a maid in Riva Alto. After several efforts to re-kindle her writing career, she died in poverty in the town of her birth.
Hurston's most famous work is her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in which she created the portrait of an African American female, Janie, growing into adulthood searching for her identity and fulfillment. Through a series of marriages Janie comes to know and define herself in terms of her relationship with whites. For several years after the novel's publication critics saw this work as a sentimental love story. However, if the novel is read with the understanding that love was the traditional way in which a woman was supposed to find fulfillment, then love can be seen as the vehicle for emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. The novel also portrays the awakening of a woman's sexuality. With the advent of the women's movement of the 1970s and the subsequent growth of female awareness, many critics cited this novel as the central text in the canon of literature by African American women writers, specifically, and by women writers in general.
Hurston was also a famous folklorist who applied her academic training to collecting African American folklore around her hometown in Florida. This work produced two collections of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1939). All of her work is characterized by her use of African American folk idioms, which are intrinsic to her character portrayals.
Hurston wrote three other novels: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), an autobiographical novel about her father's rise from an illiterate laborer to become a respected Baptist minister; Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), which recreated Mosaic biblical myth in an African context; and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which is about a woman's search for selfhood within the confines of marriage to a man who sees all women as inferior.
Hurston also wrote several plays: Fast and Furious (1931), The First One (1927), Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts (1931), and Polk County (1944), as well as many articles and short stories.
Further Reading on Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston tells her life story in the autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road (1942, 1985). For the best critical biographical source see Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977). Barbara Christian summarized Hurston's career and placed her in the context of her female contemporaries in Black Women Novelists (1980). Also see Daryl C. Dance, "Zora Neale Hurston," in American Women Writers: Bibliographical Essays, edited by Maurice Duke, et al.; Quandra P. Stadler, "Visibility and Difference: Black Women in History and Literature: Pieces of a Paper and Some Ruminations," in The Future of Difference (1980), edited by Alice Jardine. See also citations for Hurston in Black American Writers Past and Present, edited by Theressa G. Rush, et al., and Alice Walker's Hurston reader I Love Myself When I'm Laughing … for Hurston's posthumously published essay. Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1985.