Zora Hurston Essay

Zora Neale Hurston 1901?–1960

Black American novelist, folklorist, essayist, short story writer, dramatist, anthropologist, and autobiographer. See also Zora Neale Hurston Short Story Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, and Zora Neale Hurston Literary Criticism (Volume 7).

Hurston is recognized as an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented excellence in black American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. She is now considered among the foremost authors of that period—having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays—and she is also acknowledged as the first black American to collect and publish Afro-American folklore. Hurston has only recently gained substantial critical attention. Her fiction, which deals with the common black folk of her native southern Florida, was considered obsolete with the advent of the "protest novel" as presented by such writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin during the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years, however, Hurston's work, particularly her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has undergone substantial critical revaluation.

Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her novels. At fourteen, she left Eatonville to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. In 1923 Hurston entered Howard University. Her first short story was published in Stylus, the university literary magazine. She won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City in 1925, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928 Hurston continued her graduate studies with Boas at Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important black authors. Along with Langston Hughes and other black writers, Hurston founded Fire!, a literary magazine devoted to black culture, in 1927. However, the magazine folded after its first issue due to financial difficulties and a destructive fire.

With the assistance of fellowships and a private grant from a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to her hometown to collect folklore. Mules and Men (1935) is the result of Hurston's anthropological field work and academic studies. The book includes many folktales, which the tellers call "lies." These "lies," which contain hidden social and philosophical messages, were an important part of the culture of that region. Hurston also provides descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs. Critics of the time praised Mules and Men for its information on folklore practices. However, some black critics, especially Sterling Brown, charged that Hurston ignored racial oppression and exploitation in the South. These accusations recurred throughout Hurston's literary career.

In her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Hurston combined her knowledge of folklore with biblical themes. Loosely based on the lives of her parents, Jonah's Gourd Vine centers on John Pearson, a respected minister and town leader, and the life and death of his first wife, Lucy Potts. Written in the southern black dialect that Hurston used throughout her fic-tion, Jonah's Gourd Vine received critical attention for her "notable talents as a story teller." In Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) Hurston successfully utilized data obtained from her studies in folklore and voodoo. Basing her story on the premise that most black Americans view their heritage as similar to that of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, Hurston wrote Moses as an allegorical novel of American slavery. Moses is portrayed not as a prophet but as a powerful magician and voodoo practitioner. Critics praised Hurston's imaginative depiction of Moses, and some considered her use of black dialect important to the development of the narrative.

Most critics maintain that Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston's best work. The novel, now considered by some a classic in feminist literature, tells the story of a woman's quest for fulfillment and liberation in a society where women are objects to be used for physical burden and pleasure. Upon publication, critical opinion of the novel varied. Otis Ferguson contended that the book "is absolutely free of Uncle Toms," while Richard Wright accused Hurston of manipulating white stereotypes of black people to attract white readers. Other black critics at the time attacked Hurston for her lack of racial awareness. Contemporary critics, among them Alice Walker and June Jordan, have refuted these charges, asserting that Hurston was acutely aware of the racial climate of the time and describing the novel as an affirmation of black culture.

Critics generally agree that Hurston's last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), is her most ambitious but least successful work of fiction. The novel is thematically similar to Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Seraph on the Suwanee is the story of a neurotic woman's search for self-esteem and her attempt to return the love of her husband. In this book, Hurston's major characters are poor whites instead of the black inhabitants of Eatonville of her previous novels. This radical change prompted some black critics to label Hurston an assimilationist. The absence of the colorful prose that was associated with Hurston's earlier work has also been noted.

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston revealed her stance on race relations in America. She maintained that black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American life instead of indulging in what she termed "the sobbing school of Negrohood." Some critics attribute Hurston's early years in Eatonville as the major source for that position, for Eatonville was the first organized effort by blacks at self-government. However, Hurston did acknowledge racial prejudice, and she published essays on the problem in several journals and magazines. Hurston's early play Color Struck! (1925) addresses bigotry within the black community, which favors light-skinned over dark-skinned blacks. Recent critical discussion indicates that the original manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road included severe criticism of American racial and foreign policy, but these sections were omitted because Hurston's editors felt that some readers might interpret her views as an attack on America's role in World War II.

Many critical studies of Hurston have focused on her private life. Early in her career she depended on white patronage for support and financial assistance. Langston Hughes wrote that Hurston was "simply paid just to sit around and represent the Negro race." Other writers who knew Hurston during the 1920s and 1930s contend that she intentionally portrayed the role of a childlike primitive in order to advance her career. Hurston was caught between the emphasis on the "exotic" aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the angry voice of black literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Although some people have questioned Hurston's integrity, her work is valued for its knowledgeable depiction of black culture and for its insight into the human condition.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

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Zora Neale Hurston



Zora Neale Hurston was a phenomenal woman. At the height of her success she was known as the "Queen of the Harlem Renaissance." She came to overcome obstacles that were placed in front of her. Hurston rose from poverty to fame and lost it all at the time of her death. Zora had an unusual life; she was a child that was forced to grow up to fast. But despite Zora Neale Hurston"s unsettled life, she managed to surmount every obstacle to become one of the most profound authors of the century.

Zora Neale Hurston was born January 7, 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the fifth of eight children to Reverend John Hurston and Lucy Potts Hurston. Zora was extraordinary person. When her mother died she was able to stay strong. Her father, didn"t have enough love in his heart to hold on to his daughter, she was casted out of the house by her estranged father; in addition, to being neglected Hurston, dealt with the periodic moving, against society expectations Hurston survived her harsh childhood.

At the age of thirteen, Zora Neal Hurston"s life came to a halt. The woman who she would look to for understanding, support, protection and encouragement, her mother, died. From that point she had no direction in her life. She started



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writing just to keep herself from emotional and physical loneness. Hurston was devastated by the death of her mother (Howard 3).

After the death of Zora"s mother, Hurston was sent to Jacksonville to go to

school. Two months after school started Zora received news that her father had remarried. Zora"s father was never close to her, nevertheless she would come to respect and admire him. In her eyes, Hurston saw her father as a remarkable man who had beaten tough odds to make something of himself. Zora was never to return home from school; unfortunately she didn"t have a choice, since the school would not adopt her, as her father wanted them to. "Without Lucy Hurston to spur him on, he seemed content with what he had already accomplished, not only unwilling to assume new responsibilities but eager to lighten the load" (Witcover 35). With the little interest that the new Ms. Hurston took in the ambition of her husband or his children Zora Neale Hurston left home never to return.

Zora found herself being passed from relative to relative. For the first time in her life she learned what poverty was like, how people "could be slave ships in shoes" (Hemenway 17). The constant relocation prompted Zora to go to work. Most of the jobs Hurston landed as maids and waitresses didn"t last long, due to her independent attitude. Hurston spent the next five years wandering from one job to another, living from hand to mouth, never able to afford new clothes or, even worse, books. Hurston, finally found a break when she became a wardrobe girl in the Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troop. For eighteen months, she traveled with them feeling like a part of their family. With the assistance of one of the actresses, Zora

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entered Morgan Academy in Baltimore, MD (The high school division of what is now Morgan State University) in the fall of 1917(Howard 5).

For the first time in her life, Zora Neale Hurston found a sense of accomplishment. Not only did she get her high school diploma, but she also went to college. During a time of racial oppression and Americans returning from World War I she managed to maintain various jobs to pay for her education. Morgan Academy was just the beginning of her extensive education. Howard University and Barnard College are where she obtained her degrees.

In the fall of 1919, Zora Neale Hurston became a freshman at Howard University. Hurston studied intermittently at Howard for the next five years; the institution she would proudly call "The capstone of the Negro education in the world." Hurston enjoyed college life even though she was a decade older than other freshmen. With the assistance of college professors Georgia Douglas Johnson and Alain Locke, Zora began to write short stories. These stories brought her to the attention of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the sociologist and shaker and mover of the Harlem Renaissance. He invited Hurston to New York to try her fortune as a writer. Zora wasn"t in New York long before she was met eminent black writers and sophisticated white writers, who invited her to dinner parties and nightclubs. It was at the Opportunity dinner party where Hurston met Annie Nathan Meyer who saw a brilliant mind beneath Zora"s flashy exterior (Howard 4).

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Zora Neale Hurston obtained a scholarship from Ms. Meyer to attend Barnard College (the woman"s division of Columbia). In the fall of 1925, Hurston began classes. Zora was Barnard first African American student. While at Barnard Hurston met Dr. Franz Boas, a professor at Columbia. Boas saw Hurston as an exceptionally gifted woman with on unusual background. He introduced Zora to anthropology. (The science of humankind and culture). In 1928, Hurston graduated from Barnard with a Bachelor Degree (Hemenway 62-63).

Zora Neale Hurston was a remarkable, widely published black woman of her day—the author of more than fifty articles and short stories as well as four novels, two folklore, an autobiography and some plays. She is well known for her greatest book Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Zora started writing short stories when she was in college. By the time of her death, she had written numerous of stories and articles in a variety of magazines, newspapers, and college papers. She wanted to tell stories about men and women, about love and hate misunderstandings, about marriage and life and life"s possibilities, about selfhood and ultimately nationhood (Howard 6).

Between 1934 and 1948 Zora Neale Hurston published seven books. Two Folklore Mules and Men and Tell my Horse, four novels Jonah"s Gourd Vine, Moses, Man, of the Mountain, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Seraph on the Suwanee, Dust Tracks on a Road was her autobiography (Witcover 114).

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Of all the books that were written by Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God was by far the most famous of her masterpieces. Today it stands as one of the most important pieces of fiction writing by a black woman. Zora was eccentric; she walks brightly among us today as a heroin (Howard 98-99).

Zora Neale Hurston was an outstanding woman. Although she had to struggle, Hurston was a hard working young lady that was determined to make it in life. Zora was able to finished high school and attend college. Zora also became a famous writer who wrote and published many plays and books throughout her career. Zora gained fame and lost it all at the time of her death. She was a remarkable woman who will never be forgotten.













 

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