Who Was Zora Neale Hurston?

Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the US library of the Congress
Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy of the US Library of the Congress

I have a confession to make; I enjoy reading writing magazines.  A recent issue of “The Writer”, brought to light the life and literary accomplishments of a noted Southern writer, who moved to NYC in the “Roaring Twenties” to pursue her writing career.

Once a part of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston had moderate success as a writer during her own lifetime. Her literary notoriety began in 1934 with the publication of her first novel “Jonah’s Gourd Vine”. A year later “Mules and Men” was put out by her publisher, Lippincott. This accounting of black dialect began as a play done in conjunction with Langston Hughes, but turned into her on publication after a major rift developed between her and the noted poet. These writings were followed by her most acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God”, which was released in 1937. Another novel, “Moses Man of the Mountain”, came out in 1939, followed by an autobiography entitled, “Dust Tracks On a Road”. Her last release was called  “Seraphs on the Suwanee” (1948) and it featured as the central characters, a rural white couple living in rural Florida.

After the publication of Seraphs on the Suwanee, times changed and Hurston’s work fell out of favor with the general public. She died in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Port Pierce, Florida, after having spent the last ten years living alone in a welfare home. However, Zora and her literary accomplishments did not remain forgotten for long.

In the 1970’s, the contemporary novelist, Alice Walker, helped resurrect Hurston’s literary status with an article  entitled, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, which was published in Ms. Magazine. Walker also tracked down Hurston’s grave and added a headstone to mark her final resting place. Though the writer’s resurgence was already on the rebound, the article by Alice Walker did a lot to put her writings on the reading list of many readers throughout the world.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston is complex. She contrasted sharply with many of the celebrated male writers of the Harlem Renaissance, even the legendary Hughes. The woman from Eatonville, Florida did not fare much better with the publishing world with her written journey into the folkways of the rural South. This was made most apparent by her 1950 article entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, which was published in the “Negro Digest” in 1950. Fortunately, today her books are readily available in most bookstores.