Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston Biography

  • Biography

    In 1973, while conducting research on West Indian voodoo, a young writer named Alice Walker came across Mules and Men, a book on the subject written by one Zora Neale Hurston. By the book's end, Walker found herself more interested in the author of the book than its subject. She did a little digging and found another book by Hurston, an obscure novel called Their Eyes Were Watching God. Walker, who would later go on to earn her own fame as the author of The Color Purple, realized after reading Eyes that "There is no book more important to me than this one." she wrote in a letter to her friend, the poet Countee Cullen. And what nerve it was. Zora Neale Hurston may have died in obscurity, but her works live on.

  • Childhood

    Zora Neale Hurston was born 7 January 1891 (remember that date) in Notasulga, Alabama. She was the fifth of eight children born to John and Lucy Potts Hurston. When Zora was still a small child, John Hurston packed up his family and moved them all to Eatonville, Florida, a community north of Orlando. Founded in 1887, Eatonville was the oldest incorporated black town in America. Hurston grew up in a community where black people were completely self-governed. Her teachers were black. The town government was black. There was no one around to make her feel marginalized or to limit the scope of her dreams. Hurston's childhood in this unique environment may have shaped her later views on race, which often veered sharply from those of her black peers who had spent their childhoods navigating a white-dominated, Jim Crow-era America. Writing of her hometown years later, Hurston described it as a "city of five lakes, three croquet courts, three hundred brown skins, three hundred good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools, and no jailhouse." Hurston felt at home in Eatonville, and always maintained (non-factually) that she had been born there instead of the less-idealized Notasulga.

    In 1904, when Hurston was 13, her mother Lucy died. Shortly afterwards her father remarried Mattie Moge, a young woman only six years older than Zora (and three years younger than her oldest sibling). Hurston and her new stepmother fought bitterly, sometimes exchanging blows. It only took a few years before Hurston had had enough. The teenager packed up and took to the road, working odd jobs to support herself.

    By 1917 Hurston had moved to Baltimore, Maryland. She was eager to enroll at the public high school, but there was just one small problem: Hurston was by that time 26 years old, a few years too old to qualify for free public education. What Hurston did next would become a habit of hers over the years—she said what she needed to say to get what she wanted, even if it didn't exactly fit with the "facts." Hurston marched into the registrar's office and announced her date of birth as 1901, instantly axing the ten years that stood in the way of her education. Hurston enrolled in high school at "16." She stuck with this false birth date for the rest of her life.

    Hurston completed high school graduation requirements in a single year, earning her diploma in 1918. She then went to work as a manicurist and waitress to earn cash for college. The next year, she enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., the nation's most prestigious black college. Within a year she had obtained her associate's degree. In 1921, Howard's literary magazine Stylus published her first short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea." Three years later another short story, "Drenched in Light," appeared in the journal Opportunity, launching Hurston's long career as a published author.

    In 1925, two major developments marked a new phase in Hurston's literary and academic careers. The first was that she won second place in two categories in a literary contest sponsored by the journal Opportunity, earning her recognition among the black literary community and its patrons. The second was that she won a scholarship and transferred to New York City's Barnard College. At Barnard she met the prominent anthropologist Franz Boas, who became a mentor and a major influence on Hurston's own career. In 1926 Boas asked Hurston to go to Harlem to conduct field research on the black community there. Hurston—and Harlem — would never be the same.

  • Harlem

    Hurston arrived in Harlem when she was 35 years old (but claiming to be 26), with "no job, no friends and a lot of hope." The essay outlined Hurston's creed that she would never conform to expectations of blackness, as laid out by either blacks or whites. She enjoyed being herself too much to compromise her uniqueness for anybody.
    This period also saw the end of Hurston's friendship with Langston Hughes, a schism that was one of the greatest disappointments of Hurston's life. In 1930 the two collaborated on a play entitled Mule Bone, a work about racial identity. The pair argued over who would get credit for writing the play, and as a result of the feud their friendship dissolved and the play was never produced. Despite that disappointment, Hurston continued to work in the theater. Her own musical, The Great Day, premiered on Broadway in 1932.

  • Writing Their Eyes Were Watching God

    By 1934, Hurston's freelance career was flourishing, with essays and short stories appearing frequently in journals. With the help of a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation she began studying for a doctorate at Columbia University (she never finished it). She also published her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine. The novel was based loosely on the lives of her parents, John and Lucy Potts Hurston. She followed that up a year later with Mules and Men, an acclaimed collection of black folklore compiled during her research expeditions in the Caribbean. The book highlighted both the fruits of Hurston's research and the unorthodox methods she used to obtain them. "Lying was for her both an art form and a methodology," a reviewer wrote years later. "When her shiny, late-model car made her suspect among the poor country folk she hoped to interview, she pretended to be a bootlegger on the lam in order to further her fieldwork—or so Hurston claims in 'Mules and Men.'"blank">Their Eyes Were Watching God and the collapse of her doomed, months-long marriage to Albert Price in 1939, the next few years of Hurston's life proved to be professionally rewarding. She published Tell My Horse, another well-received volume of black folklore collected on her research trips. In 1939 she went to work for the Federal Writers' Project in Florida, collecting important cultural notes about the black communities in Eatonville and other places. She published her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, as well as an acclaimed memoir of growing up in Eatonville called Dust Tracks on a Road. In 1947 she moved to Honduras to research the black experience there, and wrote and published a novel entitled Seraph on the Swanee.

  • Death

    In the final decade of her life, Hurston took on a series of eclectic and often menial jobs to support herself. She worked as a maid in Florida, even as she was publishing well-regarded essays in the Saturday Evening Post and other publications. The Pittsburgh Courier newspaper hired her in 1952 to cover the sensational trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman accused of shooting her white lover. Following the trial (McCollum's death sentence was eventually overturned and she was ruled insane), Hurston wrote a column for the Fort Pierce (Fla.) Chronicle about voodoo. She also refused to back down from her controversial politics, speaking out in 1954 against the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate the public schools. (Hurston feared that integrated schools would be bad for black children, denying them the opportunity of education by black teachers that she had enjoyed as a child in Eatonville.) She also worked as a substitute teacher during this time.

    In 1959, Hurston suffered a stroke. With no money or connections, she was forced to accept public assistance and moved into the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Florida. On 28 January 1960, a few weeks after her 69th birthday, Hurston died of heart disease at the welfare home. Her neighbors were able to raise enough money to cover the cost of her funeral, but not enough for a headstone. The writer who had made such a statement during her lifetime was buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper's field, where she lay in obscurity until another young writer, Alice Walker, decided to take it upon herself to bring Hurston's body of work back to life. We can only imagine that Hurston would have been proud. She certainly would have argued that she deserved no less. "God does love black people, doesn't He?" Hurston once joked with a friend, "Or am I just out on parole?"

    • Family

      Father: John Hurston (1861-1818)
      Stepmother: Mattie Moge (1885-?)
      Mother: Lucy Ann Potts Hurston (1865-1904)
      Brother: Hezekiah Robert Hurston (1882-?)
      Brother: Issac Hurston (1883-c. 1885)
      Brother: John Cornelius Hurston (1885-?)
      Sister: Sarah Emmeline Hurston (1889-?)
      Brother: Clifford Joel Hurston (1893-?)
      Brother: Benjamin Franklin Hurston (1895-?)
      Brother: Everett Edward Hurston (1898-?)

      Husband 1: Herbert Sheen (?-?) married 1927-1931

      Husband 2: Albert Price III (?-?) married 1939-1943

    • Education

      Howard University (1919-1924)
      Barnard College (1925-1927)
      Columbia University (1934-1935)

    • Work Experience

      Anthropology field researcher, Harlem (1926)
      Anthropology field researcher, Florida (1927)
      Anthropology field researcher, Jamaica (1936)
      Anthropology field researcher, Haiti (1937)
      Federal Writers' Project (1939)
      Drama Instructor (1939)
      Anthropology field researcher, South Carolina (1940)
      Story consultant, Paramount Pictures (1941-1942)
      Anthropology field researcher, Honduras (1947-1948)
      Maid (1950)
      Reporter, Pittsburgh Courier (1952)
      Librarian, Patrick Air Force Base (1956)
      Columnist, Fort Pierce Chronicle (1957-1959)
      Substitute Teacher, Lincoln Park Academy (1958)

    • Major Works

      The First One (1927)
      Mule Bone (1930)
      Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934)
      Mules and Men (1935)
      Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
      Tell My Horse (1938)
      Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
      Seraph on the Swanee (1948)

    • Awards

      Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship (1935)
      Guggenheim Fellowship (1936)
      Honorary Doctorate, Morgan State College (1939)
      Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1943)
      Distinguished Alumni Award, Howard University (1943)
      Education and Human Relations Award, Bethune-Bookman College (1956)