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Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) is one of the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. As a writer, she posthumously became recognized not just as a female or an African American writer, but simply as a fantastic writer who has well earned her place in the Literary Canon. Her most famous work is the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was prolific, composing several other novels, plays, her autobiography, and numerous short stories and essays.
Alice Walker, Tony Morrison and Maya Angelou all cite Zora Neale Hurston as an extraordinary influence on their careers. In fact, Walker so loved Hurston that she went through significant effort to find her unmarked grave and purchase a headstone for it. Hurston is certainly well worth the admiration of these other writers because her work represents significant scholarship, and strong understanding of anthropology. It continues to resonate with the modern reader.
The early life of Zora Neale Hurston was spent in Eatonville, Florida, an all black township. Hurston was actually likely born in Alabama, but her family moved to Florida when she was about three. Her father was a minister and her mother taught school, while raising eight children. Hurston recalls her early years in Eatonville as good ones, as her experience as a black child growing up in the South is markedly different than many others because the town was not subject to significant discrimination by whites. In fact she saw achievement all around her, allowing her to feel that she could reach for her dreams.
Life changed dramatically for Zora Neale Hurston when her mother passed away. Hurston was only 13, and became persona non grata when her father quickly remarried a woman who disliked her. Hurston began working various jobs, ultimately joining a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan troupe, first as a maid and then as a singer. Yet, she craved education, which had been cut short by her mother’s death. In order to return to high school, she claimed to be ten years younger than her actual age, and began attending Morgan Academy, where she received her high school diploma. She then attended Howard University before finishing her undergrad work at Barnard University in anthropology in 1927.
Prior to finishing her college degree, Hurston became one of the key members of the Harlem Renaissance, and an associate of Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. The three published the literary magazine Fire!!. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published in 1934. Mules and Men followed in 1935, and was a collection of African American folklore. This was followed in 1937 with what many consider to be her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Because Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and writer, she continued to pursue anthropological work, traveling in Haiti in 1937 to study the practice of Voodoo. Her studies there led to her next work of fiction, Moses, Man of the Mountain. Several more works, including plays, essays and an autobiography followed. As a writer, Hurston often chose to write in African American dialect, which somewhat contributed to her works being considered obscure.
While Hurston’s career peaked in the 1940s, her last years were spent in Florida, working in relative obscurity. She wrote as a freelance writer, and worked as a substitute teacher. She died with little money (her books had seldom netted her much in profit), and was buried in an unmarked grave. Full critical attention on her significant contributions to literature was not paid to her until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article In Search of Zora Neale Hurston. Since then, Walker and others have done much to reestablish Hurston’s work as perhaps some of the most important 20th century American literature written, and an extraordinary voice in African American literature.