Born in Alabama in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston is more often associated with Eatonville, Florida, the all-Black farming town near Orlando where she spent most of her childhood. Many of her stories are set in Eatonville, which strongly resembles the unnamed setting of “Sweat.” Hurston described her Eatonville childhood as idyllic, free from racism in a sense because everyone was Black, secure in the town where her father was first the mayor and then the Baptist preacher. The death of her mother upended her life and forced her to leave school without graduating. When she found an opportunity to finish high school at 26, she took it, though doing so required her to lie about her age and claim to be 16. For the rest of her life, she claimed to have been born around 1901. 

Ultimately, she attended college at Howard University and then at Barnard, where she was the only Black student. As an undergraduate and later as a graduate student at Columbia, she studied anthropology with Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology. Hurston conducted field work in the American South and the Caribbean, specializing in documenting Black folklore and songs. Her published work includes ethnography, poetry, and fiction, all shaped by that research. In “Sweat” and in her best known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston mixes formal English narration with dialogue written in Southern Black vernacular, an example of her effort to establish the language of her childhood home in print and in the literary world. 

During the 1920s and 1930s, Hurston was a prominent writer in the Harlem Renaissance, but her work fell out of popularity for decades afterwards—in part because her politically conservative views were unpopular with influential Black writers of the mid-twentieth century, including Richard Wright, and in part because her use of dialect came to be seen as pandering to racist white people by depicting Black people as primitive. She died in 1960, living in a Florida welfare home, her books out of print. The renewed interest in her work in the 1970s is due to the advocacy of Black feminists, notably The Color Purple author Alice Walker, whose 1975 Ms. magazine article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” recounts the story of Walker’s travels in Florida to find people who knew Hurston and to locate her burial site. Today Hurston’s work is back in print and widely read, and she has reclaimed her position as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.