Zora Neale Hurston: Contribution as American Author

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      Born in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston (1903-1960) is known as one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance. She first came to New York City at the age of 6, having arrived as part of a traveling theatrical troupe. A strikingly gifted storyteller who captivated her listeners, she attended Barnard College on a scholarship, where she studied with anthropologist, Franz Boaz and came to grasp ethnicity from a scientific perspective. Boaz urged her native Florida environment which she did. The distinguished folklorist Alan Lomax called her Mules and Men (1935) “the most engaging, genuine, and skillfully written book in the field of folklore.”

      In 1937, Hurston published her noblest-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God which portrays the life of Janie Crawford, an independent black woman and a folk heroine. Hurston also spent time in Haiti studying voodoo and collecting Caribbean folklore that was anthologized in Tell My Horse (1938). Her natural command of colloquial English puts her in the great tradition of Mark Twain. Her writing sparkles with colorful language and from the African-American oral tradition. She also published Moses: The Man of the Mountain (1939) a novel which examines the figure of Moses as he appeared both in the Old Testament and in the black myth and an autobiography entitled Dust tracks on the Road (1942). Hurston was an impressive novelist. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is a moving, fresh depiction of a beautiful mulatto woman’s maturation and renewed happiness as she moves through three marriages.

      The story of Their Eyes Were Watching God centers On Janie Crawford, a strong-willed seeker of beauty who is unwilling to had an existence of drudgery and deprivation like that of he grandmother who raised her. She suffers through a marriage of convenience, finally leaving her lips arid for the smooth-talking and handsome visionary Joe Starks. Janie and Joe establish Florida’s first all-black town and Joe becomes its mayor. Following Joe’s death Janie is left financially secure, fortyish, and sexually, romantically and spiritually oppressed. Rather settle into comfortable widowhood, she falls passionately in love with Vergible Woods (known to everyone as tea cake), who is several years younger and penniless. Against friends’ advice she goes off with Tea Cake and marries him. Their marriage provides her with idyllic love she had dreamed of but it ends tragically. Following a violent hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and contracts the disease. When in his frenzy, he attacks Janie, she is forced to shoot him in self-defense. She is charged with murder but quickly exonerated. She returns, saddened but victorious, to the town she and Joe Starks had founded. The novel openly confronts the issues of civil and social rights in both a racial and a feministic context. The narrative vividly evokes the lives of African-Americans working the land in the rural South. A harbinger of the women’s movement, Hurston inspired and influenced such contemporary writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison through books such as her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Since her death, her popularity and critical reputation have grown. Alice Walker has edited a collection of her writings, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing (1979). A collection of short stories Speak appeared in 1984.

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