To complement jderrida's useful bibliography and futurebird's excellent account of the critical debates regarding Hurston, here is a brief account of her life.
American novelist and anthropologist
Born Notasulga, Alabama, January 7, 1891?
Died Fort Pierce, Florida, January 28, 1960
1891, 1901 or 1903. Hurston's exact date of birth is shrouded in mystery. Earlier biographical accounts tended to specify 1901 or sometimes 1903, but 1891 is now considered most probable. Her birthplace was most likely Notasulga in Alabama, although it was also widely believed to be Eatonville, Florida.
Her father John Hurston was a tenant farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher, and her mother was Lucy Ann Potts Hurston. Soon afterwards the family moved to Eatonville, the first incorporated black community in the USA. Her father later became mayor of the town, and Hurston wrote about it as an idyllic place in many of her novels.
1904. Hurston's mother died, and Hurston was removed from school by her father.
1917. Following years of itineracy, and with little in the way of education, Hurston found herself in Baltimore, working as a domestic. She enrolled in high school at Morgan Academy, lying about her age.
1918. Hurston graduated high school, and went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied under Alain Locke, a leading authority on black culture. While at Howard, she decided to to pursue a literary career.
1921. The publication of her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea" in The Stylus, her college literary magazine. In the next few years, she published more stories in various journals, coming to the attention of poet Langston Hughes and other prominent black writers.
1925. Offered a scholarship, Hurston studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York, an affiliate of Columbia University, from which she eventually gained a B.A. in 1928. In New York, she became involved with the Harlem Renaissance.
1927. She married Herbert Sheen, a fellow student at Howard. They divorced in 1931.
1927. Hurston undertook anthropological field research in the American South. Instructed by professor Franz Boas and thanks to a fellowship from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, this was to be for a doctorate at Columbia, although she never completed her studies. She published her first research in a paper, "Cudjo's Own Story of the Last African Slaves", in 1927, which after her death was found to be plagiarised from Historic Sketches of the Old South by Emma Langdon Roche, written in 1914.
1930. Hurston collaborated with Langston Hughes on a play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. However, they quarreled over credits, and the play was not performed.
1932. Wallace Thurman's novel Infants of the Spring fictionalised Hurston as Sweetie Mae Carr, one of a number of characters based on leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
1934. Hurston received a Rosenwald Fellowship to support anthropological fieldwork.
1934. Publication of her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, to general critical acclaim. It is set in a fictional town called Sanford, based on her old home of Eatonville, and the main character is a womanising Baptist preacher.
1935. Publication of Mules and Men, a study of voodoo in the American South, focussing on the areas of Florida and New Orleans.
1936-1938. Having received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hurston travelled through Jamaica and Haiti. Her field studies led to the 1938 publication of Tell My Horse, a study of voodoo in the region. This book was praised for its keen eye for detail, and the vividness and wit of its anecdotes, but has also been criticised for its lack of factual accuracy.
1937. Publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, her most acclaimed novel. It is the story of a mixed-race woman and her three marriages, mixing folkloric narrative and anthropological knowledge with her keen feel for black life in the rural South. One of its few critics was Richard Wright, a communist and existentialist whose bleak urban novels were far from Hurston's joyful tales of the rural poor. Wright condemned it as counter-revolutionary.
1939. Married Albert Price III, whom she later divorced.
1939. Publication of Moses, Man of the Mountains, another novel, based on a modern version of the story of the Biblical patriarch Moses. The critical reception was mixed.
1942. Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography, was published. In this work Hurston attempted to take an anthropological approach to the story of her life. The book was an instant critical and commercial success, and is still widely read and critically acclaimed; however it is now believed to contain numerous inaccuracies.
1948. Publication of Seraph on the Suwanee, her final novel. This tells the story of a white family in Florida early in the century.
1948. Hurston was arrested for molesting a mentally-disabled ten-year-old boy. The charges were subsequently dropped and it was established that Hurston was out of the country at the time. However the damage to her reputation accelerated the fall in her standing caused by poor reviews and the growing distance between her and other black intellectuals.
1952. Hurston campaigned for conservative Republican senator Robert Taft in his campaign to be president.
Hurston had become more and more out of step with the black civil rights movement. She was accused of failing to engage with racism, because most of her books had been about the all-black society of Eatonville, and her work often seemed to celebrate the poverty-stricken nature of rural life. In the 1950s she wrote for right-wing publications, criticising campaigns for black voting rights and other issues.
Early 1950s. Without any significant income from writing or academic work, Hurston was forced to return to her old employment as a domestic servant back in Florida. Despite spells as a journalist, librarian substitute teacher, and drama professor, this remained a major source of income for the rest of her life.
1954. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of school desegregation in the American South in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Hurston spoke out against this judgment, on the grounds that black children could learn on their own without white children.
1959. She suffered a stroke, and was confined to the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.
1960. Zora Neale Hurston died of hypertensive heart disease, in poverty and largely ignored. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce (Alice Walker later paid for a marker), and left behind an incomplete book, The Life of Herod the Great.
Following her death, her reputation gradually grew, but she remains a controversial figure. Debate over her symbolic role as an early black woman writer, often couched in identity-politics terms of treachery and "whose side are you on?", still outweighs objective consideration of the merits of her work.
- Women in History. "Zora Neale Hurston biography - extended". Lakewood Public Library. http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/hurs-zorx.htm. June 17, 2003.
- AALBC. "Zora Neale Hurston". http://aalbc.com/authors/zoraneal.htm. June 17, 2003.
- "Classic Notes: Zora Neale Hurston". http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Authors/about_zora_neale_hurston.html. June 17, 2003.