Novelist, Playwright, Poet
Major depositories of Zora Neale Hurston's manuscripts, letters, and other materials are located at various libraries: the Hurston Collection at the University of Florida Library, Gainesville; the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; the Schomburg Collection at the New York Public Library; the Alain Locke Collection, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee; and the University of South Florida.
[This entry was updated from the entries by Lillie P. Howard (Wright State University) in Dictionary of Literary Biography 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940,and by Laura M. Zaidman (University of South Carolina, Sumter) in Dictionary of Literary Biography 86: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, First Series.]
From the 1930s through the 1960s, Zora Neale Hurston was the most prolific and accomplished black woman writer in America. During that thirty-year period she published seven books, many short stories, magazine articles, and plays, and she gained a reputation as an outstanding folklorist and novelist. She called attention to herself because she insisted upon being herself at a time when blacks were being urged to assimilate in an effort to promote better relations between the races. Hurston, however, saw nothing wrong with being black: "I do not belong to that sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal." Indeed she felt there was something so special about her blackness that others could benefit just by being around her. Her works, then, may be seen as manifestos of selfhood, as affirmations of blackness and the positive aspects of black life.
Hurston wrote in her autiobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), that she "heard tell" she was born on 7 January 1903 in Eatonville, Florida, the fifth of eight children. However, one brother gave 1891 as the year; another brother, Everette, was convinced by Hurston to set his age back seven years to cover the obvious discrepancies between what he said and what she wrote; and her brother John cited the 1903 date in a 1936 affidavit. Hurston used 1903 most oftenbut variously gave the year as 1900, 1901, and 1902. Hurston scholars Robert Hemenway and Alice Walker used 1901; but the 1900 census records subsequently proved she was born in 1891. Her parents, Lucy Ann Potts, a country schoolteacher, and John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, met and married in Alabama, then moved to Eatonville, Florida, north of Orlando. Her father, a three-term mayor, helped codify the laws of this all-black community, the first to be incorporated in the United States.
Lucy Hurston died in 1904, and this fact more than any other disrupted Hurston's schooling and her life. She was passed around from relative to relative, rejected by her father and his second wife, and forced to fend for herself. At fourteen Hurston left Eatonville, working as a maid for whites but refusing to act humble or to accept sexual advances from male employers; consequently, she never stayed at one job long. Hired as a wardrobe girl with a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company, she traveled around the South for eighteen months, always reading in hopes of completing her education. Later she enrolled in a Baltimore high school, Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University), while working as a live-in maid.
In the fall of 1918 Hurston entered Howard University, attending the college preparatory program until 1919 and taking university courses intermittently until 1924, paying for her expenses by working as a barbershop manicurist and as a maid for prominent blacks. At Howard she met and studied under poet Georgia Douglas Johnson and the young philosophy professor Alain Locke. She also met Herbert Sheen, who, on 19 May 1927, became her first husband. As Sheen later told Hurston's biographer, Hemenway, the marriage was doomed "to an early, amicable divorce" because Hurston's career was her first priority. In a 1953 letter to Sheen, Hurston recalls the idealistic dreams they shared in their youth, regretting nothing because she lived her life to the fullest.
Hurston had been extremely imaginative and curious as a child; these qualities inform her fiction. She records in her autobiography that as a child "I used to climb to the top of one of the huge chinaberry trees which guarded our front gate and look out over the world. The most interesting thing that I saw was the horizon.... It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like." This tendency toward the picaresque colors her work. Her main characters are dreamers who long for experience and spiritual freedom and want to break with the fixity of things. Hurston's first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea" (May 1921), was written in this picaresque tradition and was published in Stylus, the official magazine of the literary club at Howard University. The protagonist of "John Redding Goes to Sea" cannot "stifle that longing for the open road, rolling seas, for peoples and countries I have never seen". The story brought the young author to the attention of sociologist Charles S. Johnson, and by January 1925 Hurston was in New York City with "$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope."
She could not have arrived in New York at a more opportune time. The Harlem Renaissance, the black literary and cultural movement of the 1920s, was already under way. Countee Cullen, Du Bois were already in New York. Other black writers from all overClaude McKay from Jamaica, Eric Walrond from Barbados, Langston Hughes from Kansas, Wallace Thurman from Salt Lake City, Rudolph Fisher from Rhode Island, Jean Toomer and Sterling Brown from Washington, D.C.were flocking to New York, as Hughes so aptly put it, to "express their individual dark-skinned selves." Charles Johnson was just founding Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, and he was interested in material that exemplified "New Negro" (the phrase coined by Locke) philosophy. Hurston's works celebrated blackness, and she became an enthusiastic contributor to the New Negro Renaissance literary movement.
The short story "Spunk" was published in Opportunity in June 1925 and in Locke's landmark publication The New Negro (1925). "Spunk" is a story about Spunk Banks, a "giant of a brown skinned man" who goes too far in manipulating and intimidating people. Set in a black village much like Eatonville, the story follows Banks, who "ain't skeered of nothin' on God's green footstoolnothin'." His overweening pride brings his downfall when he "struts 'round wid another man's wife" (Lena Kanty) and triggers revenge from the husband. Joe Kanty, however, is killed when he sneaks up behind Banks, for his pocket razor is no match for Spunk's army .45. Free after a brief murder trial, Spunk ironically finds he has lost his courage, for he believes he is being haunted by a big, black bobcat, Joe's ghost "done sneaked back from Hell!" The townspeople even see Joe Kanty differently; no longer thought of as the town coward, he is considered courageous for seeking revenge with only a razor. Mysteriously caught in the saw blade at the mill, Spunk suffers a grisly death; both Spunk and the townspeople credit Joe's spirit for pushing him into the saw. Hubris is punished as the once-heroic "giant" is quickly forgotten. His corpse, covered by a dingy sheet, lies on three boards on sawhorses at his wake, as the women "ate heartily ... and wondered who would be Lena's next," and the men "whispered coarse conjectures between guzzles of whiskey."
"Spunk" illustrates Hurston's growth in the way she shows rather than tells about the characters. Her dialogue, using the rural black dialect of central Florida, reflects this increased narrative strength. In addition, Hurston seems more sure of her special expertisethe richness of Eatonville's folk beliefs. For example, the black bobcat (Joe's ghost), the three "cooling boards," and the turning of Spunk to the east as he dies all reflect this folklore.
At an awards dinner sponsored by Opportunity, Hurston's works won second prizes; but more important, Hurston herself was introduced to two people: novelist Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life, 1933), who gave Hurston a job, and Annie Nathan Meyer, who arranged for her to receive a scholarship to Barnard College. Between 1925 and 1933 Hurston saw several of her works published, including "John Redding" and the tale "Muttsy," which appeared in Opportunity, and a play, The First One, collected in Charles Johnson's Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea (1927). Hurston had made a propitious beginning, but many frustrating years passed before she published a full-length work.
"Sweat," published in the single issue of Wallace Thurman's avant-garde magazine Fire!! (November 1926), depicts the death of a marriage. Founded by Hurston, Hughes, and Thurman, advocated writing for art's sakecontrary to writers such as Locke and Du Bois, who urged blacks to reflect a racial perspective, especially in portraying relationships with whites. Hurston succeeds in blending the vivid and intense fire of passions in this portrait of the marriage of a black couple, Delia and Sykes Jones. Set in Eatonville, the story shows how the hard work ("sweat") of Delia is counteracted by the hatred of her adulterous husband, who beats her brutally after two months of marriage, openly flaunts his extramarital affairs from the beginning, and chooses as his mistress a woman named Bertha, a big, fat "greasy Mogul ... who couldn't kiss a sardine can ... throwed out de back do' 'way las' yeah." Delia has slaved over whites' laundry to earn a living for fifteen years; she alone has paid for the house, and now Sykes promises to give the house to Bertha. To scare off his wife, who is terrified of snakes, he first tries taunting her with his snakelike bullwhip. When the "long, round, limp and black" whip falls across her shoulders and slithers along the floor beside her, she is so frightened that "it softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move." When that does not work, he pens up a rattlesnake near the back door. As a final resort, Sykes tries to kill his stubborn wife by placing the deadly snake in the clothes hamper just before she is to sort the clothes. Delia escapes the poisonous fangs, but Sykes is bitten and dies. Delia refuses to warn or even help him, having understood finally how deadly his hatred of her has become; she watches him with "his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope."
As in several of Hurston's stories, the woman is strong, proud, independent; the man does not appreciate these strengths because he feels emasculated and dependent. Sykes attempts to prove his masculinity by cruelly abusing his wife. The townspeople comment on how despicably Sykes treats Delia, saying he had "beat huh 'nough tuh kill three women let 'lone change they looks." This mistreatment is described by general-store owner Joe Clarke:
There's plenty men dat takes a wif lak dey do a joint uh sugarcane. It's round, juicy, an' sweet when dey gets it. But dey squeeze an grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out. When dey's satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats 'em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws 'em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin' while dey is at it, an' hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hanging after huh tell she's empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein' a cane-chew an' in de way.
Hurston reinforces this narrative action of Sykes's horrible abuse of Delia with the traditional symbolism of the snake to represent evil in the world. Referred to as "Ol Satan" and "Ol Scratch," the snake Sykes brings home to terrify Delia is identified with Sykes's evil (the s sounds in his name hint at the comparison), although Freudian critics may see the snakelike whip in phallic terms as well.
"Eatonville Anthology" was published in three installments in the Messenger (September-November 1926) and collected in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (1979). This series of fourteen brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, illustrates her artistic use of cultural experiences, fusing folklore studies with fiction. These self-contained tales include glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backwoods farmer, the greatest liar in the village, and a cheating husband. They become an appropriate transition to mark the end of her short stories of the 1920s and the beginning of her work as folklorist.
Near the end of her studies at Barnard, Hurston came to the attention of anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then teaching at Columbia. Impressed by a term paper Hurston had written, Boas decided to make an anthropologist of her. Under Boas's tutelage, Hurston learned the value of the material she had already incorporated into her fiction. She learned to view the good old lies and racy, sidesplitting anecdotes that were being passed around among black folk every day in her native Eatonville as invaluable folklore, creative material that continued the African oral tradition and reflected the ebb and flow of a people. Encouraged by Boas and a $1,400 fellowship from the Carter G. Woodson Foundation, Hurston decided to collect some of this African-American lore, to record songs, customs, tales, superstitions, lies, jokes, dances, and games.
Unfortunately, her Southern, country subjects balked at her "Barnard" accent, and her mission failed. As she says in her autobiography: "When I went about asking, in carefully-accented Barnardese, `Pardon me, do you know any folktales or folk-songs?' the men and women who had whole treasuries of material seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads. No, they had never heard of anything like that around here. Maybe it was over in the next county. Why didn't I try over there?" As a result, Hurston was not able to collect enough material "to make a flea a waltzing jacket." She did not make the attempt again until she accepted the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason.
Mason was a wealthy, white Park Avenue matron who supported Indian and African-American arts and any other endeavors that she felt exemplified "primitivisms." Hurston was probably introduced to Mason by Locke, who seems to have functioned as Mason's emissary to black artists. When Hurston met Mason in September 1927, Mason was already the patron of Langston Hughes, Miguel Covarrubias, Louise Thompson, and Richmond Barthè. To them and to Hurston, Mason became a beneficent godmother and a surrogate parent, prescribing and proscribing the courses of their lives. She was impressed by Hurston's credentials, and on 1 December 1927 she drew up a formal contract that would allow Hurston to return to the South to collect folklore. The contract promised a monthly stipend of $200, a moving-picture camera, and one Ford automobile. Hurston was "faithfully" to perform her task and "to return to Mason all of said information, data, transcripts of music, etc., which she shall have obtained." Though this opportunity was what Hurston needed, its accompanying restrictions were not. Hurston felt like a child laboring under a difficult taskmaster.
Though between 1927 and 1931 Hurston collected substantial material from small communities in Alabama and Florida, for several years she was unable to get any of it published. With Mason's approval, she was able to feature some of it in musical revues. The bulk of it, however, remained unpublished, even after the 1931 severing of the Mason-Hurston contract (Mason continued to offer intermittent support even after the contract ended).
Hurston had gone to New York expecting to fulfill her dreams. As the correspondence between Hurston and Mason in the Alain Locke Collection at Howard University shows, however, Hurston's dreams were bitterly deferred. She was desperately trying to prove herself to Mason and to herself, and she was beginning to doubt her abilities as a writer. Feeling herself an albatross around Mason's neck, she began to consider other sources of livelihood. In one letter, she proposed opening a chicken specialty business as a way of easing the financial burden she had become to Mason.
Hurston's musical revues received good notices; however, they generated little money. Still, there was one flattering response to one of these revues, The Great Day (1932): "George Antheil, the French composer, paid me the compliment of saying I would be the most stolen-from Negro in the world for the next ten years at least. He said that this sort of thievery is unavoidable. Unpleasant, of course, but at the bottom a tribute to one's originality." The Great Day, which was first performed at the John Golden Theatre on 10 January 1932, was, like her other musical revues (staged between 1931 and 1935), Hurston's attempt to bring pure black folk culture to both Northern and Southern audiences. What she had not yet been able to publish, she was able to present on stage with authentic folk characters. Much of the basis for the script of The Great Day may be found in Hurston's Mules and Men (1935).
By 6 January 1932 Hurston was working with the Creative Literature Department of Rollins College at Winter Park, Florida, in an effort to produce a concert program of African-American art. Though she produced a successful program, her personal problems only increased. She was intermittently ill, plagued by a painful stomach ailment that was to trouble her until her death. She wrote to Mason that she had "little food, no toothpaste, no stockings, needed shoes badly, no soap." Apparently little had changed for Hurston since her penurious arrival in New York seven years earlier.
She returned to New York only to have Locke, in his role as Mason's emissary, suggest that she return south to find work. She returned to Eatonville, where the pastoral atmosphere worked wonders, and Hurston was soon feeling "renewed like the eagle." She found time to compose a play, Mule Bone, with Langston Hughes, but a rift developed after Hurston tried to have the comedy staged before Hughes had completed his work on it. Meanwhile, Hurston's contact with George Antheil was paying off. In the fall of 1931 Antheil, now acting as the amanuensis of Nancy Cunard, asked Hurston to contribute some folklore essays for Cunard's Negro: An Anthology1931-1933 (1934). Hurston complied with six essays: "Characteristics of Negro Expression, ""Conversions and Visions," "The Sermon," "Mother Catherine," "Uncle Monday," and "Spirituals and Neo-Spirituals." All six were subsequently published in the anthology.
Hurston was happy about this achievement, but she still had not published a book. She had submitted her "story book"her cache from her folklore-collecting daysto various publishers, but none had been interested enough to print it. The "story book" did not get a serious reading until after a short story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," (published in Story, 1933) and her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), had appeared.
"The Gilded Six-Bits" is the best short story in the Hurston canon and it is the one most frequently anthologized. It has more depth than the other stories; its characters are more developed; and its dialect has much of the texture apparent in the novels. Like most of Hurston's works, it explores the marriage relationship and its attendant difficulties. Missie May and Joe Banks begin happilyshe keeps an immaculate home and cooks his favorite food, and he works hard and lovingly throws his week's pay into the doorway to announce his homecoming. The "gilded six-bits" are the coins of the serpent who intrudes in their garden. Otis D. Slemmons, a sly woman-chaser from Chicago, sporting showy gold teeth, a five-dollar-gold-piece stickpin, and a ten-dollar-gold-piece watch charm, causes Missie May's fall from grace inJoe's eyes. Joe unexpectedly arrives early one night and catches Slemmons with Missie May; she pleads for forgiveness because she just wanted to give the gold to Joe. After three months of abstaining from any contact with his unfaithful wife, Joe relents, but he leaves Slemmons's gilded half-dollar under her pillow to show his disgust with her prostituting herself. However, with the birth of a son, who definitely resembles Joe, the proud father uses the gilded half-dollar to buy molasses candy kisses for Missie May. He then throws his week's pay of fifteen silver dollars in the doorway, and she pretends to reproach him in the exact manner as she does at the beginning of the story, assuring the reader that the marriage has survived this test of their love.
That the temptations of Slemmons nearly destroy their happiness recalls the way big cities, with their gilded promises of easy money, lured blacks into situations that forced them to prostitute themselves and their values. Another theme is marital discord, showing how infidelity almost ruins the Banks's marriage, but renewed love, suggested by the birth of their child, saves it.
When "The Gilded Six-Bits" appeared in Story in August 1933, Hurston's fate was already decided. Bertram Lippincott of Lippincott publishers had read the story in manuscript and had written to inquire whether Hurston was writing a novel. She was not but said that she was; she moved from Eatonville to Sanford, Florida, and sat down to write "Big Nigger," published as Jonah's Gourd Vine. Hurston claims in Dust Tracks that the notion for Jonah's Gourd Vine had been in her head since 1929 but "the idea of attempting a book seemed so big, that I gazed at it in the quiet of the night, but hid it away from even myself in daylight." For one of the few times in her life, she was afraid to strike out on her own. She wanted to tell a story about "a man," but "Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem." Fortunately, she wrote her story, and the novel was published the first week of May 1934. Lippincott was pleased with the novel and wrote to Carl Van Vechten, a mutual friend, that he considered the book "a really important contribution to the literature on the American Negro." The novel sold well and was even recommended by the Book-of-the-Month Club for May. Reviewers were impressed by the rich language of the novel, "its compelling beauty and deep passion." Many of the reviewers, however, missed the essence of the story.
Jonah's Gourd Vine is an impressive first novel. Set in various parts of Florida, the novel centers around John Buddy Pearson, a likable but exasperating character, modeled in part after Hurston's own father. Though a Baptist minister, John all too frequently feels the temptations of life tugging at his sleeves. He spends his Sundays in the pulpit as a holy man, but he spends Mondays through Saturdays living an adulterous life. Hurston wrote to James Weldon Johnson on 16 April 1934: "I see a preacher as a man outside of his pulpit and so far as I am concerned he should be free to follow his bent as other men. He becomes the voice of the spirit when he ascends the rostrum." The plot turns on Pearson's attempts to live this double life in a community where ministers are supposed to be above the common man and thus above reproach.
John does not understand the objections of his parishioners and refuses to live the life they prescribe for him. Through careful characterization, Hurston makes a strong case for Pearson. He is obviously the product of a philosophy which recognizes no difference between the material and spiritual realms. Larry Neal explained it best in his introduction to the 1971 reprint of the novel: what Hurston gives us in Jonah's Gourd Vine, says Neal, are "two distinctly different cultural attitudes toward the concept of spirituality. The one springs from a formerly enslaved communal society, non-Christian in background, where there is really no clear dichotomy between the world of spirit and the world of flesh. The other attitude is clearly more rigid, being a blend of Puritan concepts and the fire-and-brimstone imagery of the white evangelical tradition." John's problems, then, are caused by his inability to reconcile himself to the society in which he must live. The real tragedy, notes Nick Aaron Ford, is that John never really discovers "the cultural dilemma that created his frustration. His rise to religious prominence and financial ease is but a millstone around his neck. He is held back by some unseen cord which seems to be tethered to his racial heritage. Life crushes him almost to death, but he comes out of the mills with no greater insight into the deep mysteries which surround him."
Other critics have focused upon the inconsistent imagery of Jonah's gourd vine in the novel and Hurston's failure to produce a work in which the parts all work together to produce a unified whole. In spite of these problems, however, the theme of the novel is universal and handled impressively. As Hemenway remarks, "Although the sum may be less than the parts, the parts are remarkable indeed."
After Jonah's Gourd Vine, the "story book," called Mules and Men, appeared. Bertram Lippincott liked Mules and Men but thought it too short for publication. He wanted a $3.50 book, 180 pages more than the 65,000 words Hurston had submitted. To lengthen the book, Hurston added the "between stories conversation and business" and a condensed article on hoodoo she had written in 1931 for the Journal of American Folklore. The book was finally published in 1935.
As folklore, Mules and Men offers invaluable insight into a people and a way of life. As Boas explains in his foreword to the volume:
To the student of cultural history the material is valuable not only by giving the Negro's reaction to every day events, to his emotional life, his humor and passions, but it throws into relief also the peculiar amalgamation of African and European tradition which is so important for understanding historically the character of American Negro life, with its strong African background in the West Indies, the importance of which diminishes with increasing distance from the south.
The last third of the book, in essence, the hoodoo article, has drawn considerable attention to Hurston. Here Hurston chronicles her many experiences with the hoodoo culture in New Orleans. In some cases she apprenticed herself to local hoodoo doctors and was able to learn several "spells" with which she later threatened her second husband, Albert Price III (a Works Progress Administration playground worker some fifteen years younger than Hurston; they were married on 27 June 1939 in Fernandina, Florida, and divorced on 9 November 1943). According to Mules and Men Hurston found the practice of hoodoo to be widespread, "burning with a flame in America with all the intensity of a suppressed religion."
Despite its undeniable value Mules and Men was unfavorably reviewed by several critics, most of them black. Sterling Brown found the picture it presented "too pastoral, with only a bit of grumbling about hard work, or a few slave anecdotes that turn the tables on old marster.... Mules and Men should be more bitter, it would be nearer the total truth." Harold Preece, a white radical, attacked Hurston, saying, "When a Negro author describes her race with such a servile term as `Mules and Men' critical members of the race must necessarily evaluate the author as a literary climber." Hurston certainly wanted to succeed, but whether she omitted the bitter tone of her black subjects from Mules and Men for this reason is by no means clear. It is probably nearer the truth to say that Hurston sought to capture the sometimes happy, affirmative side of black life, to show that the picture of blacks being "saturated with our sorrows" was a partial if not a false one.
Between novels Hurston traveled the country with her musical revues. She presented From Sun to Sun to audiences in Florida and The Great Day and Singing Steel to audiences in Chicago. After one of the performances in Chicago she was approached by representatives of the Julius Rosenwald Foundation who offered her a fellowship to pursue a doctorate in anthropology and folklore at Columbia University. Hurston initially accepted the fellowship but soon objected to the rigorous, partly "irrelevant" schedule she was required to follow. She bristled under the restrictions and soon left.
In the fall of 1935 she joined the WPA Federal Theater Project. While working with the Project, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to collect folklore in the West Indies. By 14 April 1936 she was in the Caribbean, collecting material for her second book of folklore, Tell My Horse (1938). She stopped in Haiti and Kingston, Jamaica, proposing to make an exhaustive study of Obeah (magic) practices. She did much more than study magic, however, for the romantic atmosphere of the islands triggered emotions that had been "dammed up in" her since she had left the United States. Back in America she had been romantically involved with a twenty-three-year-old college student who had been a member of the cast of The Great Day. As usual the callings of Hurston's career were stronger than those of her heart, and she had left the young man to continue to pursue what she considered her mission in life. Fortunately, she was able to transpose her emotions into literature, releasing on paper, in just seven weeks, what became her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Lippincott liked the story, and the book was published on 18 September 1937.
Their Eyes Were Watching God has been called "a classic of black literature, one of the best novels of the period." It is a tribute to self-assertion and black womanhood, the story of a young black woman in search of self and genuine happiness, of people rather than things, the story of a woman with her eyes on the horizon. The heroine, Janie Crawford, against her better judgment, lives conventionally for much of her life. When she finds no real satisfaction in that life, she strikes out, like Huckleberry Finn, and like Hurston herself, for the territory and the possibility of a better life beyond the horizon.
Janie Crawford wants "marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think." The limited, non-communicative alliances that she makes, however, desecrate this image. She sees herself as a pear tree in bloom, but she is around forty years old before she finds the right "dust-bearing bee." Before that, she marries two men who represent her grandmother's and society's ideas of success. Both husbands own or acquire property, are much older than Janie, and are conventional in their thinking, the second husband even going so far as to group women with "chilluns, and chickens, and cows," all helpless beings who need a man to think and do for them. The first marriage had been arranged by the well-meaning grandmother to provide some "protection" for Janie' the second had been Janie's own doing. Janie survives these marriages by retreating into herself. She discovers that "she had an inside and an outside and how not to mix them."
Janie realizes her "pear tree" dreams with the man who becomes her third husband. Although Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods is several years Janie's junior, he is more mature and wiser in the ways that count. Whereas Janie's other husbands had wanted to restrict Janie's participation in life, Tea Cake, a hedonist, encourages her to enjoy it to the fullest. There are no forbidden areas. The two give and take equally and, for Janie, arriving at the horizon seems imminent.
To Janie, Tea Cake is "a glance from God," the embodiment of the best life has to offer. She eagerly embraces her life with him, throwing off the shackles of womanhood and society. Though their marriage is shortened by Tea Cake's untimely deathHurston, for reasons readers have yet to appreciate, has Janie shoot him after he is bitten by a rabid dogJanie has lived one full life during the year and one-half of the marriage. As she tells her best friend, Phoeby: "Ah been a delegate to de big 'ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin' is just where Ah been dis year and a half y'all ain't seen me." As she settles down to live through her memories, she has no regrets. She has seen the light"If yuh kin see de light at daybreak, you don't keer if you die at dusk. It's so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin' round and God opened de door."
The novel is a powerful affirmation of life, of physical and spiritual fulfillment. Its power is in its language, its vividly emotional, folksy, often heart-rending descriptions of the day-to-day yearnings of a woman who wanted more than a house and "respectability."
Their Eyes Were Watching God was followed by the publication of Tell My Horse, the book based on Hurston's findings in the West Indies. For various reasons, it did not sell well. Less interesting than Mules and Men, it tried unsuccessfully to analyze the politics of the West Indies. It was not really the book Hurston had wanted to write. Frightened by some of the rituals she had observed, she had felt it wiser to write a book that would be "safe and acceptable" rather than honest.
Beginning in fall 1939, Hurston worked for a time as a drama instructor at North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham. While there, she met Paul Green, who was working in the drama department at Chapel Hill. The two discussed the possibility of writing a play together, but they never got beyond the discussion stage. Hurston was nevertheless hard at work. Not only had she found time to marry Price but she had also written her third novel. Moses, Man of the Mountain was published in November 1939.
Moses, Man of the Mountain is an ambitious amalgam of fiction, folklore, religion, and comedy, all provocatively combined. Darwin T. Turner calls it Hurston's "most accomplished achievement in fiction"; Robert Bone says it is a "brilliant allegory" in the picaresque tradition; and Hemenway refers to it as "one of Hurston's two masterpieces of the late thirties" and "one of the more interesting minor works in American literary history."
The book is a bold, problem-ridden reworking of the Moses legend. Hurston's Israelites appear to be American blacks, and Moses is a hoodoo man. The abundant humor these changes generate frequently clashes with the solemnity of the subject. Hemenway was prompted to call the book a "noble failure." Hurston, writing to Edwin Grover, to whom she dedicated the book, admitted: "I have the feeling of disappointment about it. I don't think that I achieved all that I set out to do. I thought that in this book I would achieve my ideal, but it seems that I have not yet reached it. ... It still doesn't say all that I want it to say." In spite of its problems, however, the novel is often compelling and deserves serious critical attention.
The winter of 1940-1941 found Hurston in New York contemplating what to write next. When her publisher suggested an autobiography, she at first balked at the idea"it is too hard to reveal one's inner self, and still there is no use in writing that kind of book unless you do"but soon settled in California with a rich friend, Katharine Mershon, to begin the book. From October 1941 to January 1942 she also found time to work as a story consultant at Paramount Studios. She revised the manuscript back in Florida, and Dust Tracks on a Road was published in late November 1942.
Unlike Moses, Man of the Mountain, the autobiography sold well and won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for its contribution to better race relations. Critics, however, found much to attack about the volume. Arna Bontemps concluded that "Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in Americashe ignores them." Others felt the book was perhaps the "best fiction she ever wrote."
Still, the book pleased many readers, for Hurston was deluged with requests for magazine articles. Soon her political views were appearing in American Mercury, The Saturday Evening Post, Negro Digest, World Telegram, and Reader's Digest. Many of these essays, because of their controversial sentiments, caused friction within the black community. In a World Telegram article (1 February 1943), for instance, Hurston claimed that "the Jim Crow system works." Two years later, in a December 1945 Negro Digest article, she was "all for the repeal of every Jim Crow law in the nation here and now." Her black readers were understandably suspicious and confused. Hurston was able to repair some of the damage with the explanation she offered through an interview with the New York Amsterdam News: "A writer's material is controlled by publishers who think of the Negro as picturesque. ... There is an over-simplification of the Negro. He is either pictured by the conservatives as happy, picking his banjo, or by the so-called liberals as low, miserable, and crying. The Negro's life is neither of these. Rather, it is in-between and above and below these pictures."
When World War II began, Hurston was living in St. Augustine, Florida, teaching part-time at Florida Norman, the local black college. Later she moved to Daytona Beach where she purchased the Wanago, a houseboat, which allowed her to take scenic tours up and down the Halifax and Indian Rivers. She read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's Cross Creek (1942), which impressed her, and struck up a correspondence with the novelist. This relationship later helped to further Hurston's career.
Though Hurston continued to write novels, they were all rejected because they lacked the quality of her published works. No doubt the quality of these works suffered because she was "burning to write" another one, a story about "the 3000 years struggle of the Jewish Peoples for democracy and the rights of man." She eventually wrote this story under the title "Life of Herod the Great." After Hurston died, a deputy sheriff saved the four-hundred-page Herod manuscript from being burned by a welfare-home janitor who had been instructed to destroy Hurston's personal effects. The manuscript, which is among Hurston's papers at the University of Florida Library, was badly damaged by the fire; but one surviving section was published in 1985 as an appendix to Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston.
Hurston's friendship with Rawlings resulted in Rawlings's publisher, Scribners, taking an interest in Hurston's work. By May 1947 Hurston had sold Scribners the option on a new novel, later called Seraph on the Suwanee, and had taken off for Honduras to write. The novel was published on 11 October 1948. Hurston's readers were in for a surprise: Seraph on the Suwanee was about white folks.
Set in various parts of Florida, Seraph on the Suwanee explores the psyche of Arvay Henson, a poor, neurotic white woman who feels that nothing good is ever going to happen to her because she does not deserve it. She must grow and learn to appreciate herself. The battle is an exasperatingly long one, for Arvay and for the reader, but Arvay emerges whole and with a positive sense of self. Hurston wrote to her editor that it was "very much by design" that the characters in the novel are white; she wrote to Carl Van Vechten that "I have hopes of breaking that old silly rule about Negroes not writing about white people." She had always felt that people were people, all of whom reacted in basically the same ways to the same stimuli. Seraph on the Suwanee was her proof of that hypothesis.
Critics have found the novel confusing and have speculated that perhaps Hurston was joining the ranks of a new group of assimilationist writersWillard Motley, Chester Himes, and Ann Petry. Since Hurston never published another novel, it is difficult to say where her interests were tending (although the Herod manuscript seems to indicate her subject matter was undergoing a broadening treatment).
Seraph on the Suwanee sold well, and good things seemed to be developing; however, Hurston soon reached the nadir of her life. On 13 September 1948 Hurston, then living in New York, was arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old, the son of a woman from whom Hurston had rented a room during the winter of 1946-1947. Though Hurston was able to prove that she had been out of the country at the time of the alleged crime, and the charges were subsequently dropped, the story was leaked to the press and sensational, humiliating news headlines followed. Hurston was devastated. She wrote to her friend Van Vechten, "I care nothing for anything anymore.... My race has seen fit to destroy me without reason, and with the vilest tools conceived of by man so far.... All that I have ever tried to do has proved useless. All that I have believed in has failed me. I have resolved to die.... I feel hurled down a filthy privy hole." Fortunately, she did not die, though the incident took its toll. Although she continued to publish in national magazines and sold an option on another novel to Scribners, she left New York and refused to communicate with her friends.
In March 1950 she was discovered working as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida. She claimed to be resting her mind and collecting material firsthand for a piece she intended to write about domestics; it is more probable that she needed the money.
In the winter of 1950-1951, at the invitation of friends, she moved to Belle Glade, Florida. In the spring she wrote to her literary agent that she was penniless, "just inching along like a stepped-on worm from day to day. Borrowing a little here and there." It was becoming embarrassing, she added, "having to avoid folks who have made me loans so that I could eat and sleep. The humiliation is getting to be much too much for my self-respect, to look and look at the magnificent sweep of the Everglades, birds included, and keep a smile on my face." The infrequent sale of a magazine article brought temporary relief, but over the next ten years Hurston worked at odd jobs. She lived in a one-room cabin she had purchased in Eau Gallie, while her stomach ailments and money problems made this period difficult.
In 1956 Hurston found work as a librarian at Patrick Air Force Base but was fired in 1957, ostensibly for having too much education for the job; in December 1957 she became a reporter for the Fort Pierce Chronicle, the local black weekly; and in 1958 she did some substitute teaching at Lincoln Park Academy, the black public school of Fort Pierce. These frequently humiliating jobs did not daunt Hurston's spirit. In 1955, in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, she expressed her outrage about the 1954 Supreme Court decision on desegregation. According to Hurston it all centered around "the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them? ... It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association."
On 29 October 1959, after suffering a stroke, Hurston was forced to enter the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home. She died there of hypertensive heart disease on 28 January 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of the Heavenly Rest, the segregated cemetery at Fort Pierce. She had died in poverty, and a collection had to be taken up to pay for her funeral. Yet Hurston had lived a rich life. She had risen from obscurity to become a member of the American Folklore Society, American Anthropological Society, American Ethnological Society, New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and she was listed in the 1937 edition of Who's Who in America. She had been courted by political figures and, most important, she had published an exceptional body of literature. Like Janie of Their Eyes Were Watching God, she had seen the "light," and no amount of dusk could dim its glow. As she wrote in 1941 while working on her autobiography:
While I am still below the allotted span of time, and notwithstanding, I feel that I have lived. I have had the joy and pain of strong friendships. I have served and been served. I have made enemies of which I am not ashamed. I have been faithless, and then I have been faithful and steadfast until the blood ran down into my shoes. I have loved unselfishly with all the ardor of a strong heart, and I have hated with all the power of my soul. What waits for me in the future? I do not know. I can't even imagine, and I am glad for that. But already, I have touched the four corners of the horizon, for from hard searching it seems to me that tears and laughter, love and hate make up the sum of life.
Interest in Hurston had diminished long before her death. Her works had been long out of print, and the literary world was being dominated by such male giants as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Fortunately, however, a few readers were beginning to discover Hurston, and in the 1970s this interest mushroomed into a coterie of Hurston followers. Comprehensive appraisal came in 1977 with Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Acknowledging his "white man's reconstruction of the intellectual process in a black woman's mind," he offers a favorable assessment of her literary career and tries to explain her enigmatic personality. Praising her work as a celebration of black culture, he concludes that her failure to achieve recognition in her life reflects America's poor treatment of its black artists. The critical acclaim awarded Hurston's writings since the 1970s has allowed readers to discover what Alice Walker (writing in the foreword to Hemenway's biography) finds: a "sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings." She honors Hurston's genius as a black woman writer and delights in her dynamic personality: "Zora was funny, irreverent (she was the first to call the Harlem Renaissance literati the `niggerati'), good-looking and sexy." The University of Florida set up a Zora Neale Hurston Fellowship in Anthropology; the City of Orlando, Florida, acknowledged Hurston's accomplishments by naming a city building after her. In 1973, as a tribute to Hurston's inspiration, Walker placed a gravestone inscribed: "ZORA NEALE HURSTON / `A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH' / 1901 - 1960 / NOVELIST, FOLKLORIST / ANTHROPOLOGIST."
Family: Marriages: 19 May 1927 to Herbert Sheen (divorced 7 July 1931); 27 June 1939 to Albert Price III (divorced 9 November 1943). Education: Attended Howard University, 1918-1924; B.A., Barnard College, 1928; graduate study at Columbia University, 1934-1935.
AWARDS AND HONORS: Guggenheim fellowships, 1936 and 1938; honorary Litt.D., Morgan College, 1939; Anisfield-Wolf Award for Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942.
Jonah's Gourd Vine (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott, 1934; London: Duckworth, 1934);
Mules and Men (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott, 1935; London: Kegan Paul, 1936);
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott, 1937; London: Dent, 1938);
Tell My Horse (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1938); republished as Voodoo Gods. An Inquiry into Native Myths and Magic in Jamaica and Haiti (London: Dent, 1939);
Moses, Man of the Mountain (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1939); republished as The Man of the Mountain (London: Dent, 1941);
Dust Tracks on a Road (Philadelphia & London: Lippincott, 1942; London & New York: Hutchinson, 1944);
Seraph on the Suwanee: A Novel (New York: Scribners, 1948);
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1979);
The Sanctified Church (Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981);
Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, by Hurston and Langston Hughes, edited by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).
Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Bob Callahan (Berkeley, Cal.: Turtle Island Foundation, 1985);
The Complete Stories, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke (New York: HarperCollins, 1995);
Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, edited by Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995);
Novels and Stories (New York: Library of America, 1995);
Sweat, edited by Wall (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
The First One: A Play, in Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea, edited by Charles S. Johnson (New York: National Urban League, 1927), pp. 5357.
"O Night," Stylus, 1 (May 1921): 42;
"Poem," Howard University Record, 16 (February 1922): 236.
Color Struck, A Play in Four Scenes, in Fire!! 1 (November 1926): 715.
"The Hue and Cry about Howard University," Messenger, 7 (September 1925): 315-319, 338.
"Cudjo's Own Story of the Last African Slaver," Journal of Negro History, 12 (October 1927): 648-663.
"Communication," Journal of Negro History, 12 (October 1927): 664-667.
"Dance Songs and Tales From the Bahamas," Journal of American Folklore, 43 (July-September 1930): 294-312.
"Race Cannot Become Great Until It Recognizes Its Talent," Washington Tribune, 29 December 1934.
"Full of Mud, Sweat and Blood," review of God Shakes Creation by David M. Cohn, New York Herald Tribune Books, 3 November 1935, p. 8.
"Stories of Conflict," review of Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright, Saturday Review (2 April 1938): 32.
"Negroes Without Self-Pity," American Mercury, 57 (November 1943): 601603.
"The Last Slave Ship," American Mercury, 58 (March 1944): 351-358.
"Bible, Played by Ear in Africa," review of How God Fix Jonah by Lorenz Graham, New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, 24 November 1946, p. 5.
Review of Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant, Journal of American Folklore, 60 (October-December 1947): 436-438.
"I Saw Negro Votes Peddled," American Legion Magazine, 49 (November 1950): 1213, 5457, 5960.
"Mourner's Bench, Communist Line: Why the Negro Won't Buy Communism," American Legion Magazine, 50 (June 1951): 1415, 5560.
"A Negro Voter Sizes Up Taft," Saturday Evening Post, 223 (8 December 1951): 29, 50.
"Zora's Revealing Story of Ruby's First Day in Court," Pittsburgh Courier, 11 October 1952.
"Hoodoo and Black Magic" [weekly column], Fort Pierce Chronicle, 11 July 1958 - 7 August 1959.
"The Farm Laborer at Home," Fort Pierce Chronicle, 27 February 1959.
Adele S. Newson, Zora Neale Hurston: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987);
Rose Parkman Davis, Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).
Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).
Michael Awkward, ed., New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990);
Harold Bloom, ed., Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Chelsea House, 1986);
Bloom, ed., Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Chelsea House, 1987);
Robert Bone, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction From Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Putnam, 1975);
Gloria L. Cronin, ed., Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (New York: G. K. Hall, 1998);
Arthur P. Davis, From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974);
Nick Aaron Ford, The Contemporary Negro Novel (Boston: Meador, 1936);
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, eds., Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993);
Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, eds., Zora in Florida (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991);
Trudier Harris, The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996);
Robert E. Hemenway, "Zora Neale Hurston and the Eatonville Anthropology," in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972);
Karla F. C. Holloway, The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987);
Lillie P. Howard, Zora Neale Hurston (Boston: Twayne, 1980);
Howard, ed., Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston: The Common Bond (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993);
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Hill & Wang, 1963);
John Lowe, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994);
Mary E. Lyons, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Scribners, 1990);
Pearlie Mae Fisher Peters, The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston's Fiction, Folklore, and Drama (New York: Garland, 1997);
Deborah G. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995);
Eric J. Sundquist, The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992);
Darwin T. Turner, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971);
Alice Walker, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," Ms., 3 (March 1975): 74 90;
Paul Witcover, Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Chelsea House, 1991).