Zora Neale Hurston Biography


Early Years

According to a bit of folk wisdom that Zora Neale Hurston may have known, "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." In this case, for boy, read girl, and for girl, read Hurston. Throughout her professional career as an anthropologist and writer, as well as her personal life, Hurston never really left the little country town of Eatonville, Florida, and its environs. Writing at a time when "local color" was out of fashion as an ingredient of worthy literature, Hurston's writings were rich in local color, and the front porch of Joe Clarke's Eatonville store became Hurston's symbol of hometown security. That setting could easily have been the place that Robert Frost described when he wrote, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Eatonville was that sort of home for Hurston, but she did not ask Eatonville to "take her in." Instead, she took Eatonville into her life and kept it there.

The date of Hurston's birth is open to question. According to her, she was 9 years old when her mother died. The 1900 census report, however, which lists all members of her family, gives her year of birth as 1891. For reasons of her own, she gave the public the year 1901. She died on January 28, 1960. In between were 69 years of an extraordinary life.

Life for Hurston began in Eatonville, the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Incorporated in 1866, this small, all-black town, about five miles north of Orlando, is located on the road that connects Florida Highway 17 and Interstate 4.

Biographers, including Robert Hemenway, must rely on Hurston's own story of her childhood as she tells it in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Hers was a carefree, rough-and-tumble childhood lived as children should live, at least until her mother's sudden death. Perhaps because Hurston grew up without a lot of mothering, she became a strong, vigorous, independent girl who did not back off from fights with her brothers and other boys. She climbed trees to look at the horizon, just as Janie does in this novel, and she knew the different scent of blossoms and various colors of foliage in her yard.

As a youngster, Hurston loitered at Joe Clarke's store in Eatonville as much as she dared, listening to men talking, absorbing their tall tales and stories and filing them away for future use. As an adult, wherever it seemed as though she would stay in one place for a year or more, she always planted a garden of flowers, greens, and beans. Perhaps this habit was a carryover from the large gardens that helped her parents, John and Lucy Hurston, feed their family of eight children.

Family Life

If her parents had marital problems, Hurston never elaborated on them. The closest she came to baring paternal infidelities is reflected in her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934). A major character in the novel is, like her father, a popular pastor of a small Baptist church and a man who is attractive to the ladies in the church. Lucy Hurston, Zora's mother, was a small, frail woman. However, she was quite capable of managing her husband, as well as her children. Although he was an assertive, three-time mayor of Eatonville, John Hurston never stressed education. Lucy, on the other hand, encouraged Hurston and the other children to "jump at de sun." Like Janie's Nanny, Lucy was ambitious for her children.

Lucy's death was half of a double trauma for Hurston. When Lucy was dying, she asked Hurston to reject two folklore traditions: her pillow was not to be removed from under her head, and the clock and mirror were not to be draped. These requests were heavy burdens for the child. Needless to say, the women of the town always followed tradition, and little Zora was told to disobey her dying mother's last requests. As a result, Lucy left a distraught daughter, one who would carry a bothersome sense of guilt for many years.

The other half of Hurston's trauma was her father's rather hasty marriage to a woman who rejected his children. Hurston and her sister Sarah had been sent to a school in Jacksonville, Florida, but Sarah pleaded homesickness and returned to Eatonville. It was Sarah who wrote to Zora that their father had remarried. Whenever Hurston was home, squabbling between her and her stepmother continued, and several years later, the miserable situation finally culminated in a pitched battle between Hurston and her stepmother. Experienced from many fights with her brothers, Hurston easily won. However, she realized later that, during the fight with her stepmother, she was well on her way to killing the woman, a fate that Hurston believed that the woman deserved.

Work and School

Hurston describes herself as a student who always kept an inner privacy. She was something of a loner, and that inner loneliness may have been part of the baggage she carried with her when she left school, presumably to follow her mother's advice to "jump at de sun."

Hurston's first real job was far from the sun. She worked for about a year and a half as a maid to a performer in a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan company. When she left that job, she continued her education, first at the secondary school division of Morgan Academy in Baltimore (graduating in 1918), and later at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for five years. With limited employment opportunities, Hurston worked as a waitress and manicurist, barely supporting herself on the average income of twelve to fifteen dollars a week at Howard. However, in spite of the economic hardships, these were happy and challenging years for Hurston.

Career Highlights

From the time Hurston submitted her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," in 1921 to The Stylus, Howard University's literary club, until decades later, when she wrote a query letter to a publisher in the quavering hand of an old woman, Zora Hurston was a writer. If Hurston could have spoken to Alice Walker as Walker searched for her grave, Hurston might have said, "Remember me as a writer."

From Dust Tracks on a Road, we learn that Hurston gave the Howard University campus newspaper, The Hill Top, the name it still carries. At Howard, she became part of an exclusive literary group that included prolific writer and renowned educator Dr. Alain Locke. After her story, "Drenched in Light," was submitted to The Stylus, she sent it to Charles S. Johnson in New York City. As editor of Opportunity, he was looking for young writers, was impressed, and published it. Johnson also published another of Hurston's stories, "Spunk," and these two appearances in print fueled her desire to go to New York City and try her luck as a writer.

Only someone like Hurston would have had the courage to arrive in New York with no job and only a dollar and a half in her purse. She had friends, though. Earlier, she had met Johnson and his wife at Howard, and she paid tribute to Johnson and his support of young writers in Dust Tracks. She wrote that Johnson, through his editorship of Opportunity and his support of young black writers, really started the so-called Negro Renaissance.

The Negro Renaissance occurred during the 1920s, with Harlem known as its "culture capital," according to James Weldon Johnson. Since the community of Harlem in New York City became recognized as the center of the Negro Renaissance Movement, many refer to it also as the Harlem Renaissance Movement, sometimes also referred to as the New Negro Movement. During this time period, writers, poets, artists, musicians, and dancers gathered to share their talents and to tell the stories of the Negro experience. Such well-known figures as Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston is associated with the Harlem Renaissance because she was in New York City during that time period. The Great Depression caused many of the writers and artists to leave Harlem to find other sources of income.

In New York, Hurston made friends easily, and it wasn't long before she was part of literary circles that included Margaret Walker, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes. Her involvement with these writers and artists, as well as editors and publishers in the Harlem Renaissance movement, quickly earned her a reputation as an entertaining storyteller, sometimes to the despair of these new Negro artistic and literary elite, who often found her earthy style displeasing. Hurston didn't care; she kept on being herself. It wasn't long before Fannie Hurst, a successful and popular novelist of that era, offered Hurston a job, and another benevolent friend helped her to get a scholarship to Barnard.

Anthropology, Folklore, and Godmother

English literature had long fascinated Hurston as a possible college major, for she had been an avid reader as a child, but it was anthropology, with considerable help from Dr. Franz Boas, that Hurston finally chose as her major field of study. She emerged from Barnard a part-time writer and a full-time anthropologist, and Dr. Boas found grant money to support his student while she spent four years in the field gathering folklore. This collection of folklore provided models or precedents for the work she was doing, and she made mistakes in both her methods and her written reports.

Ultimately though, Hurston grasped what she was attempting and organized her material into Mules and Men, published in 1935. She focused on recording the tales told by the men on Joe Clarke's store porch in Eatonville, as well as stories she heard in the saw mills, turpentine camps, jook joints, and anywhere else that people gathered to relax and talk.

Like poet Langston Hughes and the artist Miguel Covarrubias, Hurston accepted the patronage of Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, whom she called Godmother. With more thought of her immediate needs than of her professional future, Hurston signed a contract that gave Mrs. Mason complete control over her literary output and its contents, including her research writings.

Hurston's Stories on the Stage

In 1931, Hurston had an unfortunate misunderstanding with Langston Hughes over the rights and authorship of Mule Bone, a play that they had hoped would be a collaborative effort. The bitter dispute severed their friendship. The 1991 edition of Mule Bone (Harper Perennial), edited by G. H. Barr and H. L. Gates, contains the complete story of the Mule Bone controversy.

With more zeal for her folklore than practical theatrical knowledge, Hurston launched into theatrical ventures to try to do alone what she had not been able to accomplish with Hughes. She was distressed that blacks were too often presented as caricatures onstage. She did not see what she considered to be honest presentations of the sort of people and lifestyles that she loved. She had no interest in acting, but she did want to try her hand at writing, casting, and producing. The odds were risky: Her knowledge of folklore far outweighed both her knowledge of the theater and her ability to get along with men and women in academia.

In January 1931, Hurston contributed three sketches to Fast and Furious, a revue that ran for a week and closed. Her next effort was Jungle Fever, a project for which she cared so much that she held rehearsals in her apartment and worked with a cast of Bahamans, including men with nicknames like Stew Beef and Motor Boat. Later, she used this play's storyline in subsequent theatrical efforts, including The Great Day, which was presented for a one-Sunday-only performance in January 1932.

Hurston attempted a collaborative production with Hall Johnson, whose reputation as a choral director was established. The arrangement came apart, however, because of differences in philosophy. Johnson favored concert arrangements of spirituals, and Hurston wanted simple folk arrangements. As happened with Hughes, Hurston later claimed that Johnson preempted some of her material to use in the concluding scenes of his Run, Little Children.

These theatrical projects brought Hurston offers to do dramatic work at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fisk University in Nashville, and North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. None of these commitments was successful, though, partly because of Hurston's intense dislike of academic life.

Enthusiasm has never been a substitute for experience, and Hurston's naiveté about the theater and her lack of contacts with theater people who had money and knowledge limited what she could do. Her efforts had been self-fulfilling, but they brought her no financial gains and made no lasting impression on the American stage. Unfortunately because of problems with ownership and production rights, her dramatic writings and musical scripts are not available to the public.

Back home in Florida, penniless as usual, Hurston became a writer for the Florida Writers Project, an extension of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs. For whatever nebulous work she did, she was paid $67.50 a month, bare sustenance wages even in 1935. She worked briefly on a research task with Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, and this project would be her first foray into research in Florida. Afterward, she settled in Haiti, where she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks. The novel roughly parallels Hurston's moving but hopeless romance with a delightful younger man who may have been the prototype for Tea Cake. Later, Hurston sailed to Jamaica, and Tell My Horse was the result of the research that she did there.

Was Hurston ahead of her time in her writings, or was she, as one of her characters puts it, "a mite too previous"? Although publication many years after one's death does not bring a promise of wealth or an audience for any writer, there are more opportunities for black female writers today than were open to Hurston while she was alive. She makes no mention of ever working with a literary agent, an intermediary that any post-Hurston writer would find essential. When the feminist (or, as Alice Walker prefers, womanist) critics, led by Walker, reintroduced Hurston's work to the public's attention in 1975, they opened not just a narrow path to Eatonville, but a broad national highway for black female writers to travel. Hurston would have reveled in their journeys.

Fading Tracks on a Dusty Road

Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948, was Hurston's last novel, and it was far from successful. The failure of the novel, however, was not the worst disaster for Hurston that year. In September, a month before the novel was published, she was wrongfully accused of sexually abusing a mentally handicapped 10-year-old boy. She was not even in New York City at the time the alleged act supposedly took place. Although the charges were false, and she was exonerated, the damage had been done rather viciously by a Harlem newspaper that had printed information leaked from confidential court records by a court employee.

Hurston returned to Florida to work at whatever jobs she could find and to continue to do freelance writing for a variety of publications. She also did research for a novel that would be based on the life of Herod. For a while, she worked as a maid, and she was also a librarian at a military installation, making $1.88 an hour. Characteristically, Hurston did not get along with the other employees, and she was soon fired.

The dusty Florida road that Hurston traveled was nearing an end, a point at which the traveler sees the sign "No Outlet." In her later years, she gained weight, and she suffered a stroke in 1959. She died on January 28, 1960, in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, in Fort Pierce. Her family, friends, and neighbors took up a collection to pay for her funeral and burial in an unmarked grave in the black section of the Garden of the Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery.

In 1973, novelist Alice Walker set out to search for Hurston's grave. As nearly as she could determine, she found it and had a plain, gray headstone placed on it, engraved with a phrase taken from one of the poems of Jean Toomer, "A Genius of the South." The resurgence of interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston can be largely attributed to the attention that Walker has given it.

Eatonville Honors Hurston

Decades after her death, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc., established the Zora Neale Hurston Street Festival of the Arts and Humanities. The affair is generally scheduled for the last weekend in January and usually runs from Thursday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. The program includes a great variety of events related to the humanities. These include a juried art show, theatrical performances, and workshops for adults and children, dances, crafts, booths, and displays, and a multimedia exhibit of Hurston and her Eatonville roots.

A list of Hurston's writing is much longer than most people expect. She published four novels, two collections of folklore, dramas, an autobiography, and many short stories and freelance articles for various newspapers and magazines.