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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.”

Why 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.

Born 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 “folklore.”

Hurston 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.

In 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.

The 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.

At 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 cemetery.

As 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 in America.

“Sweat” 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
Sweat (1926)
The Gilded Six-Bits (1933)

Other Works
Johah's Gourd Vine (1934)
Mules and Men (1935)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Tell My Horse (1938)
Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939)
Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
Seraph on the Swanee (1948)

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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.

Secondary Sources

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