Born: January 7, 1903
Died: January 28, 1960
Fort Pierce, Florida
African American author and folklorist
Folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston 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 personal journey.
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. After her relationship with her stepmother rapidly declined, her father sent her to school in Jacksonville, Florida. Hurston greatly missed her mother and the warm, loving family atmosphere that she had grown up in. Hurston found herself being passed from relative to relative, while working as a nanny and a housekeeper.
When Zora was in her early teens she became a wardrobe girl in a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company (a theatre company) touring the South. Eighteen months later, with the help of a former employer, she enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, 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 degree in 1928. From 1928 to 1932 she studied anthropology (the study of human culture) and folklore at Columbia University under Franz Boas, a well-known anthropologist. In 1936 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for travelling and collecting folklore in Haiti and the British West Indies.
Hurston had a variety of jobs in addition to the writing recognition that brought her fame. She worked as a secretary for writer Fannie Hurst (1889–1968), a writer for Paramount and Warner Brothers Studios, a librarian at the Library of Congress, and a 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 degree. In 1943 she received the Annisfield Award for the autobiographical Dust Tracks on the Road, a book about her life, which she wrote. Also in 1943 she was given an alumni award from Howard University.
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. 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 self-fulfillment (completing oneself), 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 women's movement of the 1970s and the growth of female awareness that followed, many critics cited this novel as the central text in the canon (list of the best) 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 home-town 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 (regional speech), which are important 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 (unable to read or write) laborer to 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.
Although Hurston worked all of her life at many jobs and was an extremely productive 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 restart her writing career, she died in poverty in Fort Pierce, Florida, on January 28, 1960.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on the Road. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1942. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Compiled by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow's Kitchen. New York: Scribner's, 1990.
MacKissak, Patricia, and Frederick MacKissak. Zora Neale Hurston, Writer and Storyteller. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1992.
Witcover, Paul. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.