Hurston's Life

"I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back–side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal town." Zora Neale Hurston declares in her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, that she is a child of the first incorporated African–American community, incorporated by 27 African–American males on August 18, 1887. Her father, John Cornelius Hurston, was the minister of one of the two churches in town and the mayor for three terms. In her small town she led a privileged position as the mayor's daughter and felt that she had a special destiny: "My soul was with the gods and my body in the village."

In reality, Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 15, 1891. She often changed the date of her birth, to 1901, 1903, or 1910–perhaps, to be thought a child of the new century or to gain an advantage in appearing younger while being older. Hurston obscured the basic fact of her existence–that her father was from "over de creek" in Notasulga, a share–cropping former slave who married up. Hurston, instead, was like Athena, born of her father's head, a child of imagination, who insisted on creating her own, unique identity. Later in life, Hurston would become an anthropologist and scientifically study mythology and folk tales, but early on in her life she must have had a strong sense of her own mythologizing tendencies and believed that a Story about her genesis in the first all–black town suited her purposes as a special individual. Her biographer, Robert Hemenway, calls her "a woman of fierce independence," who "was a complex woman with a high tolerance of contradiction." In African–American terms, she was skilled in the art of "masking," disguising her inner life for her own purposes.

Perhaps, she began her masking career on September 18, 1904, the day her mother died. At Lucy Hurston's funeral, her family "assembled together for the last time on earth." Two weeks later, thirteen–year–old Zora Neale Hurston was forced to pack her bags and leave the only home she had ever known. "With a grief that was more than common," she began a life of wandering from one family member to another, never sinking roots for long in the Florida soil she loved. Her childhood had been idyllic in Eatonville, where the family moved the year or so after Hurston was born. Florida was the new South, in contrast to the Old Jim Crow South of Alabama. In her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston writes of her love of nature, of books and learning, and of Story–telling. She recalls the Florida landscape: "I was only happy in the woods, and when the ecstatic Florida springtime came strolling from the sea, trance–glorifying the world with its aura." She also reminisces lovingly of her home as "the center of the world." Yet, the bigger world outside always beckoned to her: "It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like."

After her mother's death, Hurston was not allowed to explore the world on her own terms; instead, she was in a struggle for her very existence. Hurston calls the years, from 1904–14, her "haunted years," because her life was so dismal. Unfortunately, not many records exist from this period of her life, except for the fact that she moved to Jacksonville to live with her sister, Sarah, and brother, Robert. In Jacksonville, she learned that she was "a little colored girl." She was not able to get much education, probably, because she had to work, most likely as a maid; and her father sometimes did not pay for her tuition.

This desperate period ended when Hurston's brother, Robert, now a practicing physician, invited her to care for his children in Nashville, Tennessee. When he did not encourage her to attend high school, she ran off to become the personal maid to Miss M., a singer in a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. Little is known about Hurston's first direct contact with the theater, but drama would become the great passion of her life. Even though Hurston was to gain her fame as a novelist, she would have loved to have made her mark as a dramatist. Her connection to the troupe ended in 1916, in Baltimore after Hurston had an appendicitis attack. Fortunately, her sister, Sarah, was living in Baltimore and Hurston stayed on with her.

This turn of events changed Hurston's life. She was finally able to attend school and enrolled at Morgan Academy. After graduation in 1918, she entered Howard University. At long last, Hurston was in a position finally to actualize her potential and associate with the brilliant minds of her generation. Lorenzo Dow Turner, who wrote Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, taught her African words and Montgomery Gregory directed her as a member of the Howard Players. His desire to establish a National Negro Theatre would become Hurston's lifelong dream. Hurston also joined a literary club, sponsored by Alain Locke, who encouraged her to publish in Howard University journals. She met other writers known as the "New Negroes" in Georgia Douglas Johnson's literary salon. These writers–Bruce Nugent, Jean Toomer, Alice Dunbar–Nelson, and Jessie Fauset, among others–would in the next decade become part of the core group of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston's literary career began when she submitted her work to journals and it was accepted. In 1924, she sent her second short Story, "Drenched in Light," to Charles S. Johnson, the editor of Opportunity, a publication of the Urban League. Hurston's Story was not only published but received second prize in the annual Opportunity literary contest. The subject of "Drenched in Light" is Eatonville, which is, according to Hemenway, "her unique subject, and she was encouraged to make it the source of her art." Johnson urged her to move to New York City and by 1925, she found herself living in Harlem.

At the next Opportunity awards banquet in 1925, Hurston not only won more prizes for her work, but met Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten, Fannie Hurst, and Annie Nathan Meyer–all of whom would befriend and support her in the coming decade. Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, would assist Hurston into getting accepted into the college and awarded a scholarship. Barnard provided another turning point for Hurston. She began to study anthropology with Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology, who believed in the distinctive culture of African Americans. Boas urged Hurston to do fieldwork in her hometown, in order to preserve her heritage that was slipping away.

In the 1920's, Hurston's literary and scientific interests in anthropology were merging. She used the knowledge of her native community and its people to deepen and complicate her stories. She aspired to be "the authority on Afro–American folklore," according to Hemenway, with her main interest in the "Negro farthest down." But, finances were always a never–ending problem. In 1927, Hurston accepted the aid of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white New York woman, who was willing to fund Hurston's folklore expeditions as long as Mason retained control over how the material would be used. This devil's bargain would eventually cause Hurston to break her academic ties with her respected professors–although she did graduate from Barnard–and, on a psychic level, wear her down because of Mason's controlling nature. On the other hand, with the freedom from academic restraint and method this arrangement afforded her, Hurston was able to follow her own unique interests. She became intrigued by hoodoo and traveled to New Orleans to see how it was practiced and study the life of the priestess, Marie Leveau. Hoodoo appealed to Hurston, because women were allowed to play a prominent role in its rituals. Perhaps, she simply became her father's daughter, who was seeking an outlet for her spiritual side.

Around the same time that her relationship with Mason was at a breaking point (Mason eventually severed her contract with Hurston on March 31, 1931) and the country was heading towards the Great Depression, Hurston, desperate for an income, felt that the best vehicle for her work was the theater and the best type of production was a folk musical based on her memories of Eatonville. She was thrilled when her play, The Great Day, played for one night at the John Golden Theatre on January 27, 1931. Unfortunately, the play was forced to close, because Hurston had no producers waiting in the wings to keep the production going. Instead, she took her dream south, to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and staged two productions, From Sun to Sun and All De Live Long Day, in 1933 and 1934. Many people from her hometown of Eatonville acted in these plays; thus, her dream of a folk theater was partially realized.

Hurston's association with Rollins College was significant for another reason. Robert Wunsch, who was the theater director who assisted her in the staging of her plays, after reading one of her short stories, "The Gilded Two Bits"; sent it to Story magazine, which published it in 1933. The Story was read by publisher Bertram Lippincott, who wrote to Hurston asking if she had a novel that she could submit to him. Hurston replied affirmatively–and then on July 1, 1933, she moved to Sanford, Florida, to write one. She wrote Jonah's Gourd Vine by September 6 and was evicted from her apartment on the same day that she received an acceptance letter for her novel. Jonah's Gourd Vine was published in May 1934. The next year Lippincott published Hurston's book of folk tales, Mules and Men.

Hurston now entered her prime creative period in which she pursued fiction, drama, and anthropology simultaneously. She had her Opportunity when she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in March 1936 and was able to travel to Jamaica and Haiti. While she was in Haiti she began writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, embodying all of her passion for her lover, Percy Punter, into the portrayal of Tea Cake. She completed the book in seven weeks and Their Eyes Were Watching God was published on September 18, 1937. She also continued her anthropological studies in voodoo in Haiti and published Tell My Horse in 1938.

After this peak period in her life, Hurston struggled to survive. She began working for the Works Progress Administration on April 25, 1938, and contributed folklore and interviews with former slaves to The Florida Negro, which was not published at the time. This job lasted until 1939, when the WPA was dismantled. Hurston had once again to search for a vehicle in which to express herself. Her dramatic efforts had led nowhere, her ideas for new novels were rejected, and she had no more folklore to record. According to Hemenway, "In a sense she was written out." Bertram Lippincott suggested she write her autobiography. When Dust Tracks on a Road was published in 1942, Hurston experienced a revival: she won the $1,000 Anisfield–Wolf Award and was featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. A few years later, Hurston's writing career received another boost when Maxwell Perkins, the legendary Scribner's editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe; agreed to work with Hurston. Unfortunately, he died two months later and Hurston was deprived of his masterful guidance. Hurston did go on to publish in 1948 her last novel with Scribner's, Seraph on the Suwanee, a departure from her usual cast of Eatonville characters. For this novel, her heroes and heroines are white characters.

Besides her difficulties in getting her work published, on September 13, 1948, a mother accused Hurston of molesting her ten–year–old son, who was mentally retarded. Although Hurston's passport proved that she was in Honduras at the time, she was devastated when the Story was splashed across the African–American tabloids. She sunk into a period of depression, even though Scribner's stood beside her and hired lawyers to defend her. She was acquitted of all charges when the boy confessed that he had falsely accused Hurston of the act.

During the next decade, Hurston made her living by selling occasional articles to popular magazines and working as a maid. She became obsessed in telling the Story of Herod the Great and was deeply discouraged when Scribner's rejected the manuscript in 1955. Money became a gnawing problem, as well as Hurston's health. She was evicted from her Eau Gallie home in 1956. In the next two years, she was hired as a librarian at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, but fired 11 months later. When she was fired from a substitute teaching position at Lincoln Academy in Ft. Pierce, she couldn't pay her rent. In 1958, Hurston suffered a series of strokes and entered the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died on January 28, 1960. Patrick Duval rescued her manuscripts from destruction when her possessions were being burned after her death. She was buried in an unmarked grave at the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Ft. Pierce. Thirteen years later, Alice Walker located her grave and placed a grave stone on it, citing as a reason: "A people do not forget their geniuses . . ."

~ Anna Lillios


Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Novels and Stories. Ed. Cheryl Wall. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Kaplan, Carla, editor. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Otey, Frank M. Eatonville, Florida: A Brief HiStory of One of America's First Freedmen's Towns. Winter Park, FL: Four–G Publishers, 1989.