The author of fiction, scholarly studies of African-American folklore, and autobiographical writing, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Though she was well known in Harlem, Hurston spent much of the 1920s traveling through the American South, Jamaica, and Haiti doing anthropological research that resulted in several studies of folklore from these regions. She published numerous short pieces during this period, but her books were published in the 1930s and 1940s, when by some accounts, the Renaissance was already over.
Born and raised in the South, she spent much of her early life in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. As a young woman, she moved north, first to Washington, D.C., where she studied with African-American scholar Alain Locke at Howard University. Hurston left Howard after a year and traveled to New York City, where she became one of the first African-American women to study at Barnard College. Hurston was a regular at Harlem parties and she was very popular among the literary set. People talked about her vibrant personality and sometimes-unusual appearance only slightly less than they did her writing. Her one-time friend Langston Hughes wrote, “only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books — because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself...she was full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories....She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next.”1
Her career as a writer faltered in the late 1940s (meaning only that she was unable to support herself by her pen; her work continued to appear sporadically in magazines until her death), and Hurston returned to Eatonville, where she took a job as a domestic servant. Because she was alone and impoverished when she died, Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave. She left behind a number of unpublished books, including The Golden Bench of God, a novel about the life of Madame C.J. Walker. Some years after Hurston’s death, Alice Walker, the writer and scholar who was largely responsible for creating a new audience for Hurston’s work and for securing her position in the African-American canon, located her burial site and marked it with a small gravestone.