Zora Neale Hurston’s colorful life was a strange mixture of acclaim and censure, success and poverty, pride and shame. But her varied life, insatiable curiosity, and profound wit made her one of the most fascinating writers America has known. Even her date of birth remains a mystery. She claimed in her autobiography to have been born on 7 January 1903, but family members swore she was born anywhere from 1891 to 1902. Nevertheless, it is known that she was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was to become the Setting for most of her fiction and was the first all-black incorporated town in the nation. Growing up there, where her father was mayor, Hurston was largely sheltered from the racial prejudice African Americans experienced elsewhere in America.
At the age of fourteen, Hurston struck out on her own, working as a maid for white families, and was sent to Morgan Academy in Baltimore by one of her employers. Her educational opportunities continued to grow, and she studied at Barnard College, where she worked under the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas, at Howard University, and at Columbia University, where she began work towards a Ph.D. in anthropology.
Hurston published her first story in 1921 and quickly gained recognition among the writers of the newly forming Harlem Renaissance, an outpouring of artistic innovation in the African American community of Harlem. She moved there in 1925 with little money but much ambition, and she became well-known as the most colorful member of the artistic and literary circles of the city. She also gained the attention of Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, a wealthy white patron who agreed to fund Hurston’s trips to Florida where she gathered folklore. Although she married Herbert Sheen during this period, they lived together only eight months before her career came between them. They split amicably, although a later marriage to Albert Price III, which lasted from 1939 to 1943, ended much more bitterly.
Hurston’s career as a novelist picked up in the 1930s. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, appeared in 1934 and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. The following year, she published Mules and Men, a collection of folktales that mixed anthropology and fiction. This book gained her widespread recognition and helped her win a Guggenheim fellowship to study folklore in the West Indies. Before leaving for Haiti, though, she had fallen in love with a younger man. When he demanded that she give up her career, she ended the affair, but wrote the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, translating their romance into the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake. The novel appeared in 1937 to some recognition and controversy, but it quickly receded from the limelight and was not a commercial success.
Although she published two more novels, another book of folklore, and dozens of stories, Hurston’s literary reputation dwindled throughout the 1940s and ’50s. In 1948 she was charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy and was later absolved of the crime, but the damage to her public reputation had been done. Hurston felt that she was forever outcast from the African American literary community of Harlem, so she spent the rest of her life in Florida, where she worked various jobs and tried to keep her head above water financially. When she suffered a stroke in 1959, she was committed to a welfare home where she died penniless and alone in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the segregated cemetery of Fort Pierce, but in 1973 Alice Walker found her burial place and erected a gravestone inscribed with a tribute to this influential but forgotten writer.