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Running head: Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist and author during the time of the Harlem Renaissance, best known for the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was "purposefully inconsistent in the birth dates she dispensed during her lifetime, most of which were fictitious." For a long time, scholars believed that she was born in Eatonville, Florida in 1901. In the 1990s, a filmmaker established that Hurston had been born in Notasulga, Alabama and moved to Eatonville at a young age, spending her childhood there. It was Eatonville that inspired her imagination.

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When Hurston was 13, her mother died and her father sent her to a private school in Jacksonville. Hurston discussed her Eatonville childhood in the 1925 short story, "Drenched in Light," which she wrote for Opportunity magazine. Hurston applied her ethnographic training to document African American folklore in her critically acclaimed book Mules and Men (1935) along with fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and dance, assembling a folk-based performance group that recreated her Southern tableau, with one performance on Broadway. Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Haiti and conduct research on conjure in 1937. Her work was significant because she was able to break into the secret societies and expose their use of drugs to create the Vodun trance, also a subject of study for fellow dancer/anthropologist Katherine Dunham who was then at the University of Chicago.

In 1954 Hurston was unable to sell her fiction but was assigned by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the small-town murder trial of Ruby McCollum, the prosperous black wife of the local bolita racketeer, who had killed a racist white doctor. Hurston also contributed to Woman in the Suwanee County Jail, a book by journalist and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie. Hurston spent her last 10 years as a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers. She worked in a library in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and as a substitute teacher in Fort Pierce, where she died of a stroke and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1973 African-American novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the general area where Hurston had been buried and decided to mark it as hers. The publication of Walker's article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine revived interest in her work and helped spark a Hurston renaissance. Hurston's house in Fort Pierce is a National Historic Landmark. During her prime, Hurston was a bootstrap Republican and fan of Booker T. Washington's self-help and accommodationist politics. She was opposed to the collectivist visions (including communism) professed by many of her colleagues in the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, who wrote several poems in praise of the Soviet Union. Hurston thus became the leading black figure on the conservative Old Right, and in 1952 she actively promoted the presidential candidacy of Robert Taft, who was, like Hurston, opposed to integration.

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Hurston opposed the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954. She felt the physical closeness of blacks to whites was not going to be the salvation her people hoped for, as she herself had had many experiences to the contrary. And she worried about the demise of black schools and black teachers as a way to pass on cultural tradition to future generations of African-Americans. She voiced this opposition in a letter, Court Order Can't Make the Races Mix, which was published in the Orlando Sentinel in August 1955. 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. 

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The year 1937 saw the publication of what is considered Hurston's greatest 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. 

Zora Neale 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 ear 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. Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of reasons, both cultural and political. Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston's novels. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example (Amy from the opening of Jonah's Gourd Vine) (Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke 1995)

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Some critics during her time felt that Hurston's decision to render language in this way caricatured black culture. In more recent times, however, critics have praised Hurston for her artful capture of the actual spoken idiom of the day. In particular, a number of those that were associated with her in the growth and influence of the Harlem Renaissance were critical of her later writings, on the basis that they did not agree with or further the position of the overall movement.

One particular criticism, much noted, came from Richard Wright in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race."  The conservative politics of Hurston's work also hindered the public's reception of her books. During the 1930s and 1940s when her work was published, the pre-eminent African American author was Richard Wright. Unlike Hurston, Wright wrote in explicitly political terms, as someone who had become disenchanted with communism, using the struggle of black Americans for respect and economic advancement as both the setting and the motivation for his work. Other popular African American authors of the time, such as Ralph Ellison, were also aligned with Wright's vision of the struggle of African Americans. Hurston's work, which did not engage these political issues, simply did not fit in with this struggle.

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With the publication of the ambitious novel Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948, Hurston burst through the tight bounds of contemporary black writing in yet another seemingly apolitical way. This is a tale of poor whites struggling in rural Florida's citrus industry. Black characters recede to the background. Neither the black intellig entsia nor the white mainstream of the late 1940s could accept the notion of a black writer speaking through white characters. Panned across the board, Seraph ended up being Hurston's last major literary effort as she retreated to small-town Florida for the rest of her life. The text stands out, as she remarked herself, as a testimony to her own self-definition as a regional as much as a black writer. In academia, anthropologists often disdained Hurston's works as fiction, and thus unworthy of inclusion on anthropological reading lists. Feminist critics of academia have observed that a number of novels and non-fiction works of confessional literature written by women with anthropological training that draw upon their observations and experiences were sidelined in this fashion. Hurston's work was, in this respect, treated in the same manner as some books by Elsie Clews Parsons, Ella Deloria, and Laura Bohannon, among others. At the same time, when well known male anthropologists began to experiment with literary form and style in ethnography, they were often hailed for their work. Many critics therefore perceive the lack of academic acclaim for Hurston's work to indicate a form of institutional sexism. Hurston's books have since been discussed and celebrated not only as African American literature, but as feminist literature as well. (Cheryl A. Wall, 1995)


Women in History. Zora Neale Hurston biography.  Lakewood Public Library.

Novels & Stories: Jonah's Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee, Selected Stories (Cheryl A. Wall, ed.) (Library of America, 1995

The Complete Stories (by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke 1995)

Folklore, Memoirs, & Other Writings: Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Dust Tracks on a Road, Selected Articles (Cheryl A. Wall, 1995)

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