| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Zora Neale Hurston
An author who died in poverty in 1960, Zora Neale
Hurston now holds a posthumous reputation which she herself might not have
imagined. Her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has sold
over 50,000 copies in the past decade, and more of her work is in print now
than at any period during her lifetime. A writer who never earned appreciable
royalties on any of her books, Hurston understood the vagaries of literary
fortune: “I have been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then
I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a
sword in my hands.”
should this particular woman have such an impact? For two reasons. Her life
illustrates the folk wisdom of Hurston’s mother, who told her daughter to “jump
at de sun. You might not land on the sun, but at least you’ll get off the
ground.” At the same time, her work celebrates black culture, and leads us to
an appreciation of the courage and humor, art and intellect, life and society,
of black people living in the rural South in the early decades of the twentieth
century—men and women who didn’t jump at the sun so much as labor under its
rays from “can” in the morning till “can’t” at night.
in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston attended
Howard University, and in 1928 graduated from Barnard College, where she
studied with anthropologists Franz Boas and Gladys Reichard. While living in
New York in the twenties, an exuberant participant with Langston Hughes,
Countee Cullen, and others in the artist’s uprising they labeled “The Harlem
Renaissance,” she grew fascinated with the scholarly study of her home town’s
natural ways, which the anthropologists on Morningside Heights called
spent the late 1920s and early 1930s collecting the folklore she knew best, the
stories, songs, tales, proverbs, and crafts of black southern people. With a
pistol in her pocketbook and a cheap dress in her suitcase, she roamed the
backroads of Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, swapping tales at turpentine
camps, holding “lying sessions” at jook joints, and learning hoodoo rituals
from conjure doctors. If questioned too closely about being a single woman in
the sole possession of a Chevrolet coupe, she usually explained that she was a
bootlegger’s woman on the lam.
the mid-thirties she began publishing folklore collections (Mules and Men,
1935), novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Moses: Man of the Mountain, 1939), and
Caribbean travel books (Tell My Horse, 1938). Well received by reviewers and
critics, these books earned her a modest reputation, which reached its peak in
1942, when her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, won a national race
relations award and The Saturday Review featured her portrait on its cover.
last 20 years of her life saw this reputation steadily decline for a variety of
reasons, including her own withdrawal following a false morals charge in 1948
and increasing financial difficulties. In 1952 she was discovered working as a
maid the same week that the Saturday Evening Post published one of her stories.
Hurston’s death in Fort Pierce, Florida, friends collected small change from
school children to help pay for her burial. Until Alice Walker, the Pulitzer
Prize–winning author of The Color Purple, made a pilgrimage to Fort Pierce to
erect a memorial, however, she lay buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated
fascinating as her life is, however, Hurston’s influence arises from her art.
As Walker says, “We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first.” At a time
when the Ku Klux Klan was still a major force in national politics, in an era
when “negro coeds” were expected to limit their horizons to school teaching,
Hurston single-handedly, against great odds, became the best black woman writer
and “The Gilded Six-Bits” are early short stories, written before Hurston
reached her peak in the mid-thirties, but they illustrate the strengths of her
writing. Focusing on the lives of common folks—black people usually represented
as only sociological statistics—she demonstrates both the complexity of their
lives and the richness of their folk culture. In these stories, particularly,
she also explores the tangle of sexual power and personal oppression which can
characterize relationships between men and women.
Robert E. Hemenway|
University of Kansas
In the Heath Anthology
The Gilded Six-Bits
Johah's Gourd Vine
Mules and Men
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Tell My Horse
Moses: Man of the Mountain
Dust Tracks on a Road
Seraph on the Swanee
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Voices from the Gaps
Biography, criticism, photographs, selected bibliography, and links.
Wired for Books
RealAudio files of Edgar Whan, Marilyn Atlas, and Annette Oxindine discussing Hurston's Their Eyes are Watching God.
Zora Neal Hurston: Out of Obscurity
Article from Smithsonian Magazine about the renewed popularity of Hurston's work.
Zora Neale Hurston
A comprehensive site including stories, critical essays, links, and a lot of photographs.
Pearlie M. Fisher-Peters, The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston's Fiction, Folklore, and Drama, 1998
Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, 1977
Lillie P. Howard, Zora Neale Hurston, 1980
John Lowe, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy, 1997
Susan E. Meisenhelder, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston, 1999
Deborah G. Plant, Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston, 1995
Alice Walker, ed., I Love Myself When I am Laughing . . .: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979