Anthropologist, essayist, novelist, dramatist, and folklorist who played a major role in
compiling and analyzing African American and Afro-Caribbean folktales. Born January
7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida—the first incorporated black township in the United
States—Hurston enrolled at Howard University in 1918. Her first published story, “John
Redding Goes to Sea,” appeared in the Howard University literary magazine Stylus in
1921. In 1925 Hurston moved to New York City, where she became a part of the Harlem
Renaissance movement and entered Barnard College. She earned her B.A. from Barnard
in 1928, and continued her studies at Columbia University under anthropologist Franz
Boas. It was Boas who encouraged her to return to the South to collect folklore, with
funding from New York socialite Osgood Mason. Mules and Men (1935) is a
representative collection of materials she gathered in Florida and Alabama between 1929
and 1931. It also includes a revised and expanded version of Hurston’s celebrated essay
“Hoodoo in America,” which had appeared four years earlier in the Journal of American
Folklore (44:318–418). Mules and Men illustrates its author’s concern for what Henry
Louis Gates termed “the figurative capacity of Black language” (Gates 1990:294) a
concern reflected in all of Hurston’s books.
The year 1937 saw the publication of her most critically acclaimed novel, Their Eyes
Were Watching God, considered an accurate and insightful depiction of African
American folk beliefs, manners, and speech patterns of the period. This was followed in
1938 by a collection of folktales from Jamaica and Haiti entitled Tell My Horse. Part
travelogue, part ethnography, Tell My Horse provides a detailed and vivid description of
the ceremonial aspects of voodoo, with special attention to the role of spirit possession.
Tell My Horse also stands as one of the most engaging and accessible introductions to
Commissioned by her publisher, J.P.Lippincott, her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the
Road, appeared in 1942. It has been suggested that this book may contain as much
folklore as biography. For example, Lillie P.Howard points out that there is considerable
speculation as to whether she even gives her correct date of birth (Howard 1980:13).
Nevertheless, always the ethnographer, Hurston in Dust Tracks on the Road successfully
positions herself as a mediator between the Black folk community and her largely White
reading audience. She masterfully represents herself within the context of African
American folk traditions.
Her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, which dealt with psychological and emotional
problems of a working-class Southern White woman, was published in 1948. Biographers
have noted that Hurston’s career declined precipitously thereafter. In the 1950s, she
worked as a librarian and a maid before suffering a serious stroke in 1959. She died in
obscurity on January 28, 1960, at the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce,
Florida, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Gates, Henry Louis. 1990. Zora Neale Hurston: A Negro Way of Saying. In Tell My Horse. New
York: Harper and Row, pp. 289–299.
Hemenway, Robert E. 1977. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of
Howard, Lillie Pearl. 1980. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne.