Zora Neale Hurston: Folklorist and Novelist

Zora Neale Hurston. Public Domain


Anthropologist, folklorist, essayist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston was one of the key players of the Harlem Renaissance period. Publishing more than 50 short stories, plays and essays as well as four novels and an autobiography, Hurston was revered by some people -- poet Sterling Brown once said, "When Zora was there, she was the party,"-- her use of dialect in literature appalled the likes of writer Richard Wright.

Early Life

Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Ala. Her father, John Hurston, was a farmer, carpenter and Baptist preacher. Her mother, Lucy Ann Potts Hurston, was a school teacher. When Hurston was three years old, her family moved to Eatonville, Fla.

In 1904, Hurston's mother died and her father remarried Matte Moge. Soon after, her father sent her to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Fla.


Following her education in Jacksonville, Hurston worked as a maid in the traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theatrical company.

By 1917, Hurston was attending Morgan Academy in Baltimore. The following year, Hurston graduated and began her undergraduate work at Howard University. While studying at Howard University, Hurston was one of the first women to become a member of Zeta Phi Beta sorority and helped establish The Hilltop, the student newspaper. In 1920, Hurston graduated with an associates degree from Howard University and began pursuing a bachelor's degree.

In 1921, after writing the short story, John Redding Goes to Sea, Hurston became a member of Alain Leroy Locke's literary club, The Stylus.

In 1925, Hurston was awarded a scholarship to attend Barnard College. Two years later, she received a bachelor's degree in anthropology. For the next two years, she was attended graduate school at Columbia University, studying with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.


When Hurston came to New York City in 1925 to study at Barnard College, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Hurston's short story, Spunk was published in The New Negro, an anthology of literary works edited by Locke. The following yer, Hurston, along with Langston Hughes and other up and coming writers published the literary journal Fire!!.

By the mid 1930s, Hurston had published a number of short stories as well as Mules and Men, a collection of African-American folklore and the play, Mule Bone with Hughes.

In 1937, Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct research in Jamaica and Haiti. The following year, Hurston published Tell My Horse, which documented her ethnographic research of African rituals in Jamaica and Haiti.

In addition to publishing folklore and ethnography, Hurston published three novels including, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).

Throughout the rest of her life, Hurston continued to publish--in literary journals such as The American Mercury and The Saturday Evening Post. By the 1950s, Hurston was working for the Pittsburgh Courier. Hurston also contributed to Woman in the Suwanee County Jail by journalist and civil rights activist William Bradford Huie.

Anthropologist and Folklorist

Hurston's work as a writer was heavily influenced by her work as an anthropologist and folklorist. Traveling throughout the Caribbean and southern states, Hurston used anthropological research methods she learned at Columbia to understand local cultures.

With the financial help of Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hurston was able to travel throughout the south for four years and collect folklore. This research was published in Mules and Men and also provided inspiration for texts such as Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God.


Towards the end of Hurston's career, she faced many financial difficulties and as a result, she lived in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. Soon after suffering a stroke, Hurston died in 1960 of hypertension. For more than thirteen years, her grave was unmarked.

Novelist Alice Walker marked the grave in 1973 and began a revival of Hurston's work.


Two years after placing a marker on Hurston's grave, Walker published "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston in Ms. magazine. Soon after, biographies were published of Hurston's life. These works include Robert Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography; Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd; and Speak So You Can Speak Again by Hurston's niece, Lucy Anne.

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Lewis, Femi. "Zora Neale Hurston: Folklorist and Novelist." ThoughtCo, Feb. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/zora-neale-hurston-folklorist-and-novelist-45235. Lewis, Femi. (2017, February 9). Zora Neale Hurston: Folklorist and Novelist. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/zora-neale-hurston-folklorist-and-novelist-45235 Lewis, Femi. "Zora Neale Hurston: Folklorist and Novelist." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/zora-neale-hurston-folklorist-and-novelist-45235 (accessed November 23, 2017).