Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher. Hurston was the fifth of eight children, and while she was still a toddler, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the United States, where John Hurston served several terms as mayor. In 1917, Hurston enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, where she completed her high school education.
Three years later, she enrolled at Howard University and began her writing career. She took classes there intermittently for several years and eventually earned an associate degree. The university’s literary magazine published her first story in 1921. In 1925, she moved to New York and became a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A year later, she, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman organized the journal Fire!, considered one of the defining publications of the era. Meanwhile, she enrolled in Barnard College and studied anthropology with arguably the greatest anthropologist of the twentieth century, Franz Boas. Hurston’s life in Eatonville and her extensive anthropological research on rural black folklore greatly influenced her writing.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, long after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. The literature of the 1920s, a period of postwar prosperity, was marked by a sense of freedom and experimentation, but the 1930s brought the Depression and an end to the cultural openness that had allowed the Harlem Renaissance to flourish. As the Depression worsened, political tension increased within the United States; cultural production came to be dominated by “social realism,” a gritty, political style associated with left-wing radicalism. The movement’s proponents felt that art should be primarily political and expose social injustice in the world. This new crop of writers and artists dismissed much of the Harlem Renaissance as bourgeois, devoid of important political content and thus devoid of any artistic merit. The influential and highly political black novelist Richard Wright, then an ardent Communist, wrote a scathing review of Their Eyes Were Watching God upon its publication, claiming that it was not “serious fiction” and that it “carries no theme, no message, no thought.”
Hurston was also criticized for her comportment: she refused to bow to gender conventions, and her behavior often seemed shocking if not outrageous. Although she won a Guggenheim Fellowship and had published prolifically (both works of fiction and anthropological works), Hurston fell into obscurity for a number of years. By the late 1940s, she began to have increasing difficulty getting her work published. By the early 1950s, she was forced to work as a maid. In the 1960s, the counterculture revolution continued to show disdain for any literature that was not overtly political, and Zora Neale Hurston’s writing was further ignored.
A stroke in the late 1950s forced Hurston to enter a welfare home in Florida. After she died penniless on January 28, 1960, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker, another prominent African-American writer, rediscovered her work in the late 1960s. In 1973, Walker traveled to Florida to place a marker on Hurston’s grave containing the phrase, “A Genius of the South.” Walker’s 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in Ms. magazine, propelled Hurston’s work back into vogue. Since then, Hurston’s opus has been published and republished many times; it has even been adapted for the cinema: Spike Lee’s first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, parallels Their Eyes Were Watching God and can be viewed as an interesting modern adaptation of the novel.
One of the strengths of Hurston’s work is that it can be studied in the context of a number of different American literary traditions. Most often, Their Eyes Were Watching God is associated with Harlem Renaissance literature, even though it was published in a later era, because of Hurston’s connection to that scene. Certain aspects of the book, though, make it possible to discuss it in other literary contexts. For example, some critics argue that the novel should be read in the context of American Southern literature: with its rural Southern setting and its focus on the relationship between man and nature, the dynamics of human relationships, and a hero’s quest for independence, Their Eyes Were Watching God fits well into the tradition that includes such works as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel is also important in the continuum of American feminist literature, comparing well to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. More specifically, and due in large part to Alice Walker’s essay, Zora Neale Hurston is often viewed as the first in a succession of great American black women writers that includes Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor. But Their Eyes Were Watching God resists reduction to a single movement, either literary or political. Wright’s criticism from 1937 is, to a certain extent, true: the book is not a political treatise—it carries no single, overwhelming message or moral. Far from being a weakness, however, this resistance is the secret of the novel’s strength: it is a profoundly rich, multifaceted work that can be read in a number of ways.