Women and Literature: Zora Neale Hurston
Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photo collections, and a selected list of articles to further guide the reader. The September 2006 report explores the contributions of women to American literature. Twice a week we’ll offer additional articles that expand on that topic.
In this article from The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Susan Butterworth looks at the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston.
The oral tradition of southern black folklore was an art and a skill handed down from Africa, preserved through slavery, and still thriving in the early years of the twentieth century, when Zora Neale Hurston came of age. The tradition was preserved through generations of rural southern culture and began to decline when the black workers left the agricultural South for the cities of the North. Zora Neale Hurston was singularly placed to record this material as folklore and to transform it to art through fiction. Zora Hurston’s place and date of birth are obscured by the selective secrecy and mythology that veiled her personal life. Hurston wanted her contemporaries to believe that she was born 7 January 1901 in Eatonville, Florida. Birth records revealed years later, however, that she was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama.
The circumstances of her early life and family and the influence of growing up in Eatonville, Florida, are of primary importance in understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s life and works. Hurston’s father, John Hurston, had been conceived in slavery in Alabama, the son of the master and a slave. He moved with his strong-minded, intelligent wife, Lucie Potts, and seven children to the remarkable town of Eatonville, a tiny township in central Florida—organized, incorporated, and governed by black people—where he was a successful carpenter and Baptist preacher.
Zora Hurston’s youth as the intelligent daughter of respected Eatonville citizens was conducive to her self-esteem and her feeling of safety, free from the sense of second-class citizenship common in southern black life. Her circumstances also led to an inborn appreciation for the richness of southern black culture. Eatonville was a melting pot of black Americans from all over the South. The people there were a bottomless source of stories. The young Zora’s eyes and ears were open to the rich life of the community around her. She later wrote, “From the earliest rocking of my cradle, I had known about the capers Brer Rabbit is apt to cut and what the Squinch Owl says from the house top.” The porch of Joe Clarke’s general store was the scene of “lying contests,” stories, songs, jokes, folklore. With this porch Hurston created a powerful image, an icon, throughout her work. It appears in her novels, her drama, and her folklore as well as her autobiography. This safe and comfortable childhood ended abruptly with the death of her mother. Hurston wrote the moving deathbed scene in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), and her autobiographical novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934). Hurston’s father remarried in haste, but his new wife did not want his children and the siblings dispersed to relatives and boarding schools.
The young Hurston made her own way as a black woman in the world of the American South, working as a maid or nanny when she could. These times were the ten lost years that she never mentioned, that she erased from her story. No doubt these were the years when she learned the traits of survival and self-sufficiency. She emerged as a ladies’ maid and helper with a touring Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Hurston was able to return to school in Baltimore in 1917, attending Morgan Academy and graduating in 1918. An eager student, she went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., always working her way through school with odd jobs. Hurston blossomed at Howard and published her first short story in the college literary magazine, Stylus, in 1921.
In 1924 Hurston published her short story Drenched in Light in Opportunity magazine. Drenched in Light is thinly disguised autobiography, a story about a joyful child in Eatonville. The message is that the young protagonist is poor and black but “drenched in the light” of family, community, and culture. The story is a statement of affirmation, written by a woman who has pondered her identity and origins.
The Harlem Renaissance
The following year Hurston submitted a story, Spunk, and a play, Color Struck, to Opportunity‘s literary contest. Both won prizes. The Opportunity awards dinner, a showcase for young black talent attended by literary New York, was Hurston’s entrée to the Harlem Renaissance. The vibrant, confident young woman with the unusual background and stories was noticed. Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, obtained a scholarship for Hurston. Fannie Hurst, a popular writer, gave her a job as secretary and companion.
Hurston continued to write and publish short stories and plays, with Eatonville as her subject. Critic and biographer Robert E. Hemenway (1977) characterizes some of the work of this period as hackneyed, all theme with little plot. Yet the Eatonville material was compelling, matchless in its place in history and culture, and Hurston had an eye and ear for her subject along with a conviction of the importance of her message. She had not, however, yet found her genre or her voice. She was still struggling with her craft and her perspective.
The Harlem Renaissance was a period of a fertile flowering of black art, music, and voice in the 1920s and 1930s. Zora Neale Hurston was a presence in the Harlem Renaissance, meeting everyone, being noticed, becoming a full-fledged member of the “niggerati,” as she called the black literary community. In 1926 she organized the short-lived radical journal Fire!! with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Hurston found herself in the role of proletarian in New York City as she found the Harlem Renaissance largely a movement of northern-raised, middle-class black artists who were a generation removed from the source of their material. These were black artists who had absorbed a mainstream conception of high art; who took material with black origins and formalized it—for example turning the spirituals of the southern Baptist churches into composed and arranged songs to be performed for white audiences in concert halls. The goal of those presenting the “New Negro” and his art was to prove that black art and culture were equal to white art.
Hurston, however, was the genuine article, the folk, and her mission was to present and preserve the folk voice as she knew it from her youth in the South. Further, Hurston had a sense that the folk material that she loved was not a lower form of art but an oral tradition that had enabled the black people to survive with dignity and strength. Her goal was to glorify and preserve a form of black expression that she felt was being diluted by urbanization.
“The Spyglass of Anthropology”
At Barnard College, Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas, a noted authority in the field. She found that anthropology offered a scientific framework for her folklore. She had not found a voice for the Eatonville material in the short story genre; anthropology gave her the form she was searching for. In the introduction to Mules and Men (1935), Hurston wrote that she had to have “the spyglass of anthropology” to begin to codify her experience in Eatonville. Anthropology gave her the opportunity to look at her community culture and folktales with the objectivity of a social scientist; the step back from her personal experience helped to reconcile her to her past.
Soon Hurston was doing fieldwork for Boas in Harlem. Then, in February 1927 she was given a grant to collect folklore in Florida. Previously, some black folklore had been collected by white researchers, but their findings were often influenced by stereotypes and misconceptions of the black personality and experience. Hurston was unique: a black scholar and social scientist with a deep understanding of the culture she would study.
This first folklore-collecting trip was not very successful. She wrote later that people were suspicious of her Barnard manner and told her only what they wanted her to hear. She returned to Boas and admitted her disappointing results. Wise Boas was not surprised. Perhaps the cocky, confident Zora needed to learn from a failure.
In the fall of 1927 Hurston met Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, a wealthy white woman who was to play a major role in her life. Mrs. Mason was patron to several black artists, including Langston Hughes. At the behest of her eccentric whim, her protégées called her “Godmother.” Hurston signed a contract with Mrs. Mason that enabled her to go back to the South on another collecting trip. Mrs. Mason gave her a car and $200 a month and in December 1927 Hurston departed again, intending to begin in Mobile, Alabama, travel to Florida, and end up in New Orleans, Louisiana, to gather and record tales, songs, games, customs, and voodoo rituals of rural southern black Americans.
Hurston had learned from her first expedition. She would need the patience and imagination to live as a part of the community, not as an outsider, a northern-educated scientist. In Polk County, Florida, she created the fiction that she was a bootlegger’s girlfriend running from the law. She was welcomed into the lumber and railroad work camps, where she kept her ears open and took notes. Her Florida work ended when she was nearly knifed at a “jook joint” by a woman jealous of Zora’s attention from the men. She went on to New Orleans to collect voodoo practices and rituals, becoming an initiate under several practitioners.
That year spent collecting in the South under Mrs. Mason’s patronage was pivotal for Hurston. The financial support was liberating. Her collecting was so fertile that she drew on the material from this trip for the rest of her life. Hurston matured. She began to see the stories and customs of her childhood and her culture as part of a pattern of black experience and survival and to fit her own life as a survivor into the pattern. On the surface she was a scientist working on a folklore-collecting expedition, but underneath she was becoming a novelist who could connect the collective stories with individual experience in an expression of art.
Hurston spent much of 1929 living on Mrs. Mason’s money and organizing her field notes. Living in South Florida, Hurston met West Africans and became interested in their customs, folklore, and dancing. She began to make links between African-American and African-Caribbean folklore. She spent some time in Nassau in the Bahamas in 1929 and 1930, living again within the community, learning and collecting songs, dances, and customs.
Hurston was beginning to chafe at the restrictions of her contract with Mrs. Mason. She had the Florida and New Orleans material organized and ready for publication. She wanted to work on some new, independent projects, while Mrs. Mason contended that the contract was not fulfilled until the folklore material was published. Unfortunately, Mrs. Mason held the title to the material and Hurston was prohibited by the contract from publishing anything without Mrs. Mason’s approval, so if Hurston wanted to see her book in print, she had to submit to Mrs. Mason’s terms. Hurston spent nearly two years organizing her vast notes and material. She published Hoodoo in America in the Journal of American Folklore in 1931 and looked for a book publisher for a scholarly presentation of her findings.
Both Hurston and Langston Hughes were living in New Jersey in a sort of artists’ colony where Mrs. Mason put up her protégées. Hurston and Hughes began to collaborate on a play, Mule Bone, a series of skits and songs based largely on the folklore that Hurston had collected in Eatonville. The first act takes place on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store. Hurston envisioned a form of theater that would present authentic material in an aural context, in an exuberant and accessible manner.
The Mule Bone project and her relationship with Langston Hughes fell apart in a bitter misunderstanding that was worsened by tensions relating to Mrs. Mason’s patronage. Hughes left the Mason payroll, feeling increasingly guilty about enjoying caviar in her home while writing about the blues of his people. Hurston needed Mrs. Mason’s patronage for a while longer, until she found a publisher for her collection. Hughes and Hurston became estranged; then Hughes discovered that the play was in negotiation with a theater company, to be produced with Hurston as sole author. He filed suit. It turned out that their mutual friend Carl Van Vechten had sent a draft of the play to the theater without Hurston’s knowledge, but the damage was done and the play was never produced.
The Great Day
Hurston’s relationship with Mrs. Mason was finally severed in March 1931 while Hurston was still searching for a publisher for her folklore collection. She found herself with a need to earn a living. She also found herself with a growing conviction that her stories and songs could be better presented in some living form than in a scientific journal. She envisioned a revue that would be artistically true to the folk tradition, including comedy, songs, and dances.
Hurston wrote and staged the theatrical revue The Great Day (1932), using her collected folk material and including authentic Jamaican dancers and drummers. The revue was structured around a day in a railroad work camp, ending with an evening at the “jook.” Produced on a shoestring with Hurston ingenuity, the performance in January 1932 was an artistic success. She was to use the same material for several years, repeating the New York City performance. Hurston also created a new version at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and took that show on the road. She still had no publisher for her folklore collection and so earned her living by this theatrical expression of her material and experience.
Hurston tried her hand at various academic jobs in the South, working on her conception of authentic theater in college drama departments. Hurston the scholar, with her Barnard credentials, and Hurston the exuberant voice of Eatonville, with her theatrical successes, sought to present an authentic and traditional form of expression. Her goal was to bring legitimate folklore to theater and concert audiences.
Segregated Florida in the Great Depression was not a fertile ground for black theater production, nor was Hurston’s vocation in academe. She was later awarded a fellowship to work on a Ph.D. in anthropology at Columbia starting in 1935, but by that time her focus was on a new form of expression for her experience.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine
Hurston turned to fiction in hopes of producing income and finding a medium for her Eatonville voice. She published The Gilded Six-Bits in Story magazine in August 1933. This is a mature story, set in Eatonville, and was the catalyst in attracting the publisher that she needed. The Philadelphia publisher J. B. Lippincott noticed the story and asked her for a novel. She rented a cabin in Eatonville and sat down and wrote Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934).
This, Hurston’s first novel, is a blend of autobiography, folklore, and fiction. The book succeeds because the voice of Eatonville pours from her pen. The story is authentic, based on the life of her father, the Baptist preacher born into slavery. John Pearson rises with determination, the help of his strong wife Lucie, and his gift for poetry. But John has a fatal flaw; he is a philanderer. After his wife dies, in a deathbed scene based on the death of Hurston’s mother, John—filled with guilt but bewitched by his lover with the help of a hoodoo man—remarries in haste and eventually is cast out by his congregation.
The use of the collected folklore is central to the novel, which describes customs, food, celebrations, and the telling of “lies” on the porch of the general store and is written in the black vernacular. John’s farewell sermon, a triumph of language and poetry, is quoted directly from a sermon Hurston collected while in Florida.
If sometimes the transitions are flawed, if the reader is brought too abruptly from the folklore material to the fictional plot, Hurston nevertheless has the gift of knowing where to leave autobiography behind and move into the realm of fiction. From the suggestion of hoodoo in John’s hasty remarriage to his failed redemption, Hurston departs from life and finishes the fictional tale. Jonah’s Gourd Vine was written in a fresh and knowledgeable voice, with an ear for dialect and using material and a setting that Hurston was uniquely placed to present.
Language is at the heart of the novel, as it was at the heart of all of Hurston’s subsequent writing. Her authentic and original use of the black idiom, a language rich with proverbs, wordplay, imagery, and metaphor, is a solid achievement. John Pearson is aware of the power of language; his gift for language raises him from laborer to leader. Most important, language, especially black language, is honored in Jonah’s Gourd Vine. John’s poetry rises from a culture that values skill and improvisation in oral art, from the store porch and from the pulpit.
Mules and Men
Pleased with Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Lippincott agreed to publish Hurston’s folklore collection, which became Mules and Men. Lippincott wanted the anthropology material popularized for the average reader. Hurston devised a form, a story within a story, in which she puts the folklore into context, creating a first-person role for herself as narrator and collector as well as the third-person role of social scientist and observer.
Hurston found a voice when she put herself as a character in her report. She created herself, the semifictitious narrator. Her introduction to Mules and Men is a statement of her method and identity, uniting her own past in Eatonville with the curious researcher. Hurston was criticized by the scholarly community for putting too much of her own personality into a scientific report. She was apprehensive of how her mentor, Franz Boas, would react to the form, but he agreed to write the preface and presented his protégée as a collector who was able to penetrate the true inner life of her subjects.
Hurston was sometimes accused of being less than scrupulous in her writing and collecting. She was as much an interpreter of the folklore she collected as an objective scientist. The line between fact and fiction was not always sharply drawn. Perhaps she embellished. Perhaps some of the tales are stories that she herself contributed to the lying sessions on the porch of the village store. Shortly after Mules and Men was published, Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to go to Jamaica and Haiti to collect material on religious practices. She spent much of 1936 and 1937 on those islands.
Hurston’s personal life was always complicated; she revealed as little as possible in her writing. She was married at least twice, and possibly another time during the lost ten years in her early life, those years whose existence she denied by changing her birthdate. There is, however, a chapter titled “Love” in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). One of her marriages was to Herbert Sheen, her sweetheart throughout the Howard and Barnard years. The marriage itself was brief; the conflict between marriage and career may have been the reason for its failure. The turmoil surrounding the marriage may have contributed to the failure of her first collecting expedition in early 1927.
Their Eyes were Watching God
The trip to the West Indies in 1936 and 1937 occurred at the time of another breakup, this time of an affair between Hurston and a man twenty years younger than herself. This man, she said in Dust Tracks, asked her to marry him and give up her career, “that one thing I could not do.” Thus, it is no coincidence that the book she wrote in exile from this affair was the story of a woman who is determined to find her own identity on her own terms, and a story of a love affair between a vibrant older woman and a younger man.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is Hurston’s masterpiece, an elegant short novel about a young woman’s search for self, for love, for freedom. The novel has the familiar autobiographical elements: a parent born in slavery, Eatonville, the porch of Joe Clarke’s store, a hurricane scene drawn from a storm she experienced in the Bahamas in 1929. It draws heavily on folklore and on black history, culture, and language.
The heroine is Janie Crawford, a young black woman raised by her grandmother, a former slave. When Janie feels the stirrings of sexual awakening, her grandmother quickly marries her off to an older man who can provide land and security. Once Janie realizes that love will not come to this marriage and that her husband will treat her as another piece of property, a mule to be worked, she runs away with Joe Starks. Joe is an ambitious young man on his way to Eatonville to make something of himself. He becomes the mayor and storekeeper of the town. Joe expects his wife to play the role of “mayor’s wife” and to work in the store, but he does not encourage her to join in the storytelling on the store porch or to mingle with the other women in the village. She is an adjunct to Joe’s prestige and is not allowed any personal expression or voice. For both of her husbands, upward mobility focuses on ownership and suppression of Janie’s own self-awareness. Janie sadly watches Joe become more pompous and demeaning, and this marriage, too, becomes loveless.
There is a moment of awakening in each marriage as Janie gradually becomes more self-aware. She walks away from her first husband when she realizes that he wants her to be “de mule uh de world.” Joe Starks represents change and the outside world and Janie is ready to move on. Later, after years with Joe, she understands that she has learned to keep her inner and outer lives separate. “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.” This woman’s awakening is a universal feminist theme, black or white.
Joe Starks dies and Janie is liberated from his oppression. Now a wealthy widow, she meets Tea Cake, an easygoing black man years younger than she. He is a free spirit who loves life, gambles without apology, and awakens laughter and stories in Janie. At last Janie blossoms, finally fulfilling the promise of womanhood that was nipped in the bud when her grandmother married her off to a respectable old man. Janie and Tea Cake leave Eatonville, walking away from disapproving public opinion, and live a joyous life picking beans in the Everglades.
The story ends tragically, however. Escaping from a violent hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. He succumbs to rabies himself and becomes irrational and violent; ultimately, Janie is forced to shoot him in self-defense. She is acquitted at her trial, and returns to Eatonville to live out her life, happy that she has at last known a true love and joy in life.
The novel is pure Hurston, infused throughout with folklore and autobiographical elements. She spans the history of black people in the South from the end of slavery through the 1930s. She writes with a lyrical ease, transforming folk tales into metaphor, rendering dialect with her impeccable ear. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist novel, resonating with a black voice. A woman’s freedom lies in discovering her own voice and identity apart from her husband; a people’s freedom lies in preserving their own voice and identity apart from the oppressor. With this novel, Hurston achieved a literary expression for her experience.
Tell My Horse
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), is Hurston’s report of her collecting experience in those islands. The practice of voodoo was a powerful spiritual experience for Hurston. She treats voodoo as a serious religion, originating in Africa and coexisting with Roman Catholicism. Tell My Horse, like so much of Hurston’s work, is written in an original mix of style and genre, travelogue and political commentary mingling with observations on art, dance, practices, and customs that only the now-experienced, mature, and confident Hurston could provide. Typically, she shifts between the first- and third-person voice, using the first person for observation and commentary, the third person to report history and politics. She describes instances of possession, the hierarchy of voodoo gods, and details of ceremonies, information that would only be accessible to an initiate. The book is illustrated with photos, including a remarkable photo (and report) of a zombie in Haiti.
After the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tell My Horse, Hurston returned to Florida. Through 1938 and 1939 she worked in the South, collecting, writing, working on drama projects. There was another short-lived marriage, this time to Albert Price III in 1939.
Moses, Man of the Mountain
Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) was published at Hurston’s zenith. The novel is complex, a display of virtuosity in character, background, language, themes, and satire, a Hurston blend of Eatonville, Africa, and finding a way into freedom. The basis of the novel lies in the African and voodoo approach to Moses, revered as a man of power who could talk to God face-to-face, and in the identification of American black slaves with the enslaved Jews in the Bible. The novel is set in Egypt and the promised land, but the characters are rural black Americans with the speech and mannerisms of Eatonville. The Jews of the biblical tale are black Americans and Pharaoh and the Egyptians are whites.
The voice of Eatonville, as interpreted by Zora Neale Hurston, is humorous and feisty. This was resented by some black leaders and intellectuals, who were beginning to complain that Hurston was too narrowly focused on Eatonville and that she ignored the many negatives of southern black experience. Moses, Man of the Mountain lacks bitterness. Hurston was expected as a black writer to write a protest novel, exposing the racial injustice of the South. She was determined instead to celebrate black culture in literature.
Dust Tracks on a Road
Having written five books in five years, Hurston was at a crossroads. Her publisher, J. B. Lippincott, suggested she write an autobiography. She moved to California in the spring of 1941, where she worked on the manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road and as a story consultant at Paramount Studios.
Dust Tracks on a Road is a book that mirrors the division that emerged in Hurston’s life. The early part of the book, where she describes her background, childhood, and early life is vibrant with stories and scenes and the voice of Eatonville. The reader sees the hopes and dreams of the joyful child whose father, the preacher, showed daily how language could enthrall, whose mother urged her to reach for the stars, and whose ears were tuned to the “lying” on the porch of Joe Clarke’s store in Eatonville. The reader experiences that child’s helplessness and despair at her mother’s deathbed and begins to grasp the tenacity and self-reliance Zora Hurston needed to get an education and reach New York City and professional recognition.
Once Hurston reaches the point where she acknowledges her patron—Mrs. Mason, her “godmother”—she begins to lose the vibrancy of Eatonville’s stories and her own confident voice. Her tone changes, becomes awkward and ingratiating. Dust Tracks on a Road‘s vitality seems to be a casualty of her odd patronage relationship. As she brings society and politics into the picture, her voice falters. Reactions were mixed. Whites liked the book; it harmed her reputation with her black peers, however.
Indeed, by the mid-1940s Hurston seemed to be losing her voice. A novel and a proposal were rejected by Lippincott, though she was publishing magazine articles and continuing to work on the black college circuit. Politically she grew more conservative; her voice shifted from the self-confident first person of idiomatic black speech to the artificial third person of unpopular political viewpoint.
Seraph on the Suwanee
In 1947 Hurston signed a contract with Charles Scribner’s Sons for a novel about a white southern family. Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) was written in Honduras, on a trip to look for a lost city, financed with the advance money from Scribner’s. She had ambitions for Seraph on the Suwanee. She hoped to challenge literary conventions, to prove that a black woman could write about whites. The novel tells the story of a poor white family in Florida that gradually achieves upward mobility and of a woman who struggles with her identity in marriage. The language of the novel is the southern vernacular. Hurston hoped to show that southern blacks and whites had language and cultural influences in common.
The early reviews of Seraph on the Suwanee were favorable. Just at the time that Hurston and her publisher would have promoted the new book, however, a bombshell fell. Hurston was accused of sexually molesting a ten-year-old boy. The charges were false. Hurston was able to prove that she was in Honduras at the time the incidents were alleged to have occurred; the boy was shown to be disturbed. But the damage had already been done. A national black newspaper, Baltimore’s Afro-American, picked up the story and created a lurid scandal. Hurston was devastated. She considered suicide. She removed herself from the public eye as best she could. Seraph on the Suwanee was to be her last published novel.
Hurston did recover from this blow. She moved back to Florida, bought a houseboat, planted a garden. She continued to write magazine articles for a mainstream audience, worked as a maid, did some substitute teaching in Fort Pierce, Florida. Her articles were increasingly conservative in tone and it was difficult to find publishers for her work. Money was a problem. Her health deteriorated. In 1959 she had a stroke and entered the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died there on 28 January 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Why did Zora Neale Hurston decline from her standing as a vibrant presence in the Harlem Renaissance, a fertile interpreter of black folklore, and a lyrical writer to become a poor woman buried in an unmarked grave? Part of the answer lies in the struggle for money. The need to make ends meet overcame her art and her scholarship in the end. At the mercy of patrons and publishers, it was always a struggle to collect, to keep writing, to make art. The Eatonville voice that Hurston so loved faltered as she looked for a mass magazine audience. An outsider in the white world of publishing, she was criticized by black leaders and intellectuals as well. Then the scandal of the false sexual accusation broke her spirit. She finally became bitter.
Hurston’s strength and gift was pride in the folk heritage embodied in her Eatonville experience. This emphasis on culture did not translate well to politics. She was outspoken; she wanted to affirm her belief in the individual, her belief that a black background need not be tragic. Black opinion accused her of ignoring the dark side of life in the American South, giving a whitewashed picture of southern black life. She grew even more conservative after the scandal. She was always an outsider but she had always been exuberant, excited by her work, believing in it. She lost her voice, she retreated to her garden, she was poor, she became ill, she died quietly.
Zora Neale Hurston’s books were out of print for thirty-five years. Then, in the late 1970s, black writer and scholar Alice Walker wrote an essay, Looking for Zora, and interest in Hurston was revived. In Zora Hurston, black women writers found a rare model, a woman who wrote in the black vernacular, who affirmed black folk culture with pride and exuberance.
Zora Neale Hurston left a record of an oral folk tradition that she was uniquely placed to provide. She had a clear, individual, woman’s voice, even if she was at times inhibited by her white patron, her publishers, and her need for cash. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has become a classic of African-American feminist literature, yet the theme of a woman finding her voice and equality in marriage is universal.
Zora Hurston was at her best when interpreting Eatonville. She was happiest in Florida, and at her worst when struggling for money. She was proud to have “the map of Dixie on her tongue.” The creation of an original black literature based on pride in the language and folk tradition of African Americans was Hurston’s lifelong goal and her major contribution.
photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress