Writing about Zora Neale Hurston is a bit of a challenge. She began publishing her short stories in periodicals during the Harlem Renaissance, but didn’t publish her major novels until the 1930’s. Her age varied according to what she felt like saying at the time. She was bold and outspoken at a time when it wasn’t considered proper, particularly for a woman, and even more so for an African-American woman. In general she was fiercely independent, and didn’t feel obligated to live by anyone’s standards or give information about herself that she didn’t feel like giving.
According to Hurston she was born on January 7th, 1901 in Eatonville, Florida, but researchers have found her actual birth to have been in 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. She did move to Eatonville at a very early age however, where her father became a minister and later on the mayor. Eatonville was an all black incorporated town, and inspired the setting for her first novel, “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (1934). At an early age Zora’s mother died, and Zora felt she had failed her mother by not successfully completing her last request, which was to not allow a certain folk custom to take place at her death bed. When Hurston’s father remarried, Zora took an immediate dislking to her new stepmother, and began to travel with a theatre company. She moved to Baltimore afterwards to finish high school, and then began to attend college, where her first short story was published. In 1925 she published in Opportunity magazine, and decided to move to Harlem upon encouragement from Harlem Renaissance figureheads such as Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.
It was during this time that she began to study Anthropology, specializing in folk customs and folklore. She traveled through the South collecting information and stories from the people who lived there, which provided the basis for not only her fictional works, but for Anthropological writings such as “Mules and Men” (1935), and “Tell My Horse” (1938).
Before her first novel was published, Zora Neale Hurston co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes, until she allegedly grew tired of his attempts to steal all the credit and dominate the play. The publication of “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” revealed the truly unique style of Hurston: the beautifully musical-poetic style, the use of southern vernacular, and the depiction of southern rural life (and it’s folk customs) all came into play in this novel. She elaborated in this style for her most popular novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937), which has since become a classic and required reading for many High School English classes, and Women’s Literature classes as well. It tells the story of a woman and her coming of age in the somewhat oppressive rural America. Two fictional works followed, including “Moses, Man of the Mountain” (1939) in which the Old Testament was brought to life in the American south, and “Seraph in the Suwanee” (1948).
Aside from these, Hurston published an autobiography called “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942). By the time of Hurston’s death in 1960, her fame had sunk into obscurity. She was working as a maid, and hadn’t published since 1948. It would be 14 years until her rediscovery, which was aided by an essay written by up-and-coming writer Alice Walker, called “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”. Her play with Langston Hughes, “Mules and Men”, was finally published in 1991.
Hurston has always been the subject of much criticism. She was criticized as not being political enough by Richard Wright, and she has been criticized for not having any good male characters in her books. She wrote about life as she saw it, and was adament about not portraying African-Americans stereotypically or in the fashion accepted by white people at the time. It is perhaps because of her honesty and the beauty of her writings that she has made this resurgence in modern literary studies.