The author of novels, short stories, scholarly studies of African-American, Haitian, and Jamaican folklore, and autobiographical writing, Zora Neale Hurston is among the most celebrated writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s warmth and charm along with her vibrant personality made her one of the best-liked members of the 1920s Harlem literary elite, a group which included Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Dorothy West, and Nella Larsen. That Hurston gave this set the sobriquet “niggerati” is evidence of her considerable wit.
Hurston was raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, though she moved north at eighteen. She spent a year at Howard University studying with the influential African-American scholar Alain Locke; it was at Howard that Hurston’s earliest stories were published, in the university’s literary magazine and in Opportunity, from which she received an award for her story “Spunk” in 1925. From Howard she went on to New York to attend Barnard College on a scholarship. Though she continued writing at Barnard, Hurston also studied anthropology and folklore. After completing her bachelor’s degree, Hurston received a grant to travel throughout the American south studying African-American folk traditions. This research led to numerous scholarly articles and the book Mules and Men.
Hurston incorporated her research into her novels about southern African Americans, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). She wrote dramatic pieces, too, and contributed work to African-American revues. She collaborated briefly with Langston Hughes on a play, Mule Bone. The project led to a deep conflict between the two writers and wasn’t produced until the 1991, when it played at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York.
Carl Van Vechten met Zora Neale Hurston when she was working as a secretary for the writer Fannie Hurst. They liked each other instantly and shared a close friendship thereafter. “Zora is picturesque, witty, electric, indiscreet, and unreliable,” Van Vechten wrote of his friend. “The later quality offers material for discussion; the former qualities induce her friends to forgive and love her. No engagement, no matter with whom, is sacred to Zora; nor does she find it important to advise you that she intends to break it.”1 He went on to remark on her unique sense of style, “she once appeared at a party we were giving attired in a wide Seminole Indian skirt, contrived of a thousand patches; still another time in a Norwegian skiing outfit, with a cap over her ears.”2
For her part, Hurston was tremendously fond of Van Vechten. “If Carl was a people instead of a person,” Hurston once said to Fannie Hurst, “I could then say, these are my people.”3 Van Vechten’s copy of Hurston’s novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine bears the inscription, “For Carl Van Vechten who blows the slide trombone in the same band with Ol’ Gabr’el.”4
Hurston returned to Eatonville toward the end of her life. She withdrew from the literary scene and worked as a domestic in the home of a white family. She died in Eatonville in relative obscurity. Hurston’s work returned to popularity in the 1970s in large part through the efforts of other African-American writers and scholars.