Literature of the Harlem Renaissance Era

Why has Zora Neale Hurston become a cultural icon of the Renaissance?

Novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) was born in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town. Eatonville, sometimes called the first incorporated black town in America, is now an all-black town of current celebration. Hurston left home at age fourteen to work with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. She left the troupe when it arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, and entered high school, graduating in 1918. She entered Howard University in 1924, taking courses intermittently. While there she was influenced by Alain Leroy Locke. In 1921 Hurston published her story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in the school’s literary magazine. Hurston moved to New York in 1925 and became absorbed in the Harlem Renaissance; she befriended and worked alongside such writers as Claude McKay, Eric Waldron, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman. She also served on the editorial board and collaborated with Hughes, Thurman, and others in publishing the short-lived literary magazine Fire! In 1928 Hurston graduated from Barnard College and continued graduate study at Columbia University under renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. She returned to Eatonville and collected black folklore. Her book Mules and Men, published in 1935, includes the folklore that she collected in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana from 1929 to 1931, as well as her hoodoo essay written in 1931 for the Journal of American Folklore. Issued by Lippincott, Mules and Men became the first such collection of folklore compiled and published by a black American woman. It was also the first by a woman indigenous to the culture from which the stories emerged. Hurston’s other works include Jonah’s Gourd Vine, a novel (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God, considered her best novel (1937); Tell My Horse, her second collection of folklore (1938); Moses, Man of the Mountain, her third novel (1939); Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography (1942); and Seraph on the Sewanee, her fourth and last novel (1948).

Hurston’s career began to slide in the 1950s, forcing her to take a series of menial jobs in Florida’s small towns. After suffering a stroke in 1959, she was confined to Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida, and she died in poverty on January 28, 1960. Writer Alice Walker rediscovered Hurston’s work in 1973, placed a headstone at the approximate site of her unmarked grave, and arranged Hurston festivals to be held regularly in Eatonville to celebrate her life and work. The Zora Neale Hurston Festival, held in Eatonville each year, now honors the author’s life and work. Hurston’s play Polk County resurfaced in 1997 at the Library of Congress and was produced at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Between 1925 and 1944, Hurston had deposited typescripts of ten of her unpublished and unproduced plays at the Library of Congress for copyright protection. Once rediscovered in 1997, these works were placed in the library’s Manuscripts, Music, and Rare Books and Special Collections division. Hurston is celebrated for her writings, which include her perspectives as a black woman, feminist, anthropologist, and a keeper of the culture.

Best remembered for her acclaimed 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston was also a short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy African American History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App