Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography

Robert E. Hemenway

Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography

Robert E. Hemenway

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography Summary

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Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography is a nonfiction book by scholar and author Robert E. Hemenway, first published in 1977 by the University of Illinois Press. This biography is a celebration of Hurston's life and its impact both on her own literary work and on the larger world of American letters. Hurston proudly and adeptly wore many hats; she was a writer, a folklorist, an anthropologist, and a daughter of the American South, the Jazz Age, and the Harlem Renaissance. She lived life to the fullest, experienced dizzying highs and unbearable lows, and she used it all to fuel her work. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography won the Society of Midland Authors Award for Biography and the Rembert W. Patrick Memorial Prize from the Florida Historical Society.

In a foreword, Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker discusses Hurston's influence and her unfettered bravery in living her life according to her own terms. In an era that relegated African American women to the margins, Hurston lived her truth, with a fierce intellect, a towering talent, and an inimitable style. Critics took aim at everything from her writing style to the clothes she wore. She rooted her novels in black folklife and featured bright, empowered, fully-realized characters of color. For Walker, Hurston belongs in a "trinity" with Billie Holliday and Bessie Smith, as a singer more than a writer. Indeed, Hurston "sang" the songs of her life with a distinctive voice filled with pain and triumph and seasoned with the music of black history, culture, and community.

The book opens with Hurston's 1925 arrival in New York City. She is 35 years old, hopeful, and broke, with just $1.25 in her pocket. Though born in Alabama, she's arrived in New York from Washington, D.C., where she attended Howard University. She comes to the City to continue her studies at Barnard College—the only black student in attendance. Hurston receives a B.A. in anthropology in 1928.

As part of her coursework at Barnard, she works with a man who will become her mentor, the anthropologist Franz Boas. She does graduate work under his tutelage, and he challenges her at every turn. For Hurston, the relationship is by turns frustrating and invigorating but always educational.

During this period, Hurston has another relationship that proves tremendously formative. She meets Charlotte Osgood Mason, a socialite and philanthropist who became a patron to several young writers of the day, including Alain Locke and Langston Hughes. As Hurston sets out to write novels, Mason is her benefactor, financing Hurston's research trips to the South and allowing her to live and write without fear of starvation or homelessness. Hurston shares with Mason all she learns on her travels, as well as her extensive knowledge of black folklore and culture.

She develops a tumultuous friendship with Hughes, and the two inevitably influence one another's work. Their relationship is both fueled and fractured by their respective intense creative energies. The friendship disintegrates during their collaboration writing the 1930 play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts.

Hurston marries twice. In 1927, she weds a former Howard University professor and jazz musician, Herbert Sheen. The marriage ends four years later. In 1939, she weds a man named Albert Price in Florida. They separate within months but do not officially divorce until 1943. These relationships, as well as many other love affairs, undoubtedly play a role in the male characters she creates in her novels.

In 1948, Hurston becomes embroiled in a scandal that results in her arrest on morals charges and her subsequent decision to flee her beloved Harlem. Billy Allen, the son of her former landlady, accuses Hurston of molesting him and two friends. Because she briefly lived in Honduras at the time the alleged incidents occurred, Hurston seeks to prove her innocence and clear her name. Her editor, Burroughs Mitchell, bails her out of jail. Because the juvenile courts deal with the case, there is no publicity surrounding the trial. But an employee of the courts leaks the story to two black newspapers, and they publish scandalous—and fact-free—stories about Hurston and the accusations against her. Despite the fact that Billy Allen has mental health issues, despite the fact that the D.A.'s office drops the charges against her the following year, Hurston is left devastated. She feels betrayed by her own community, that they did not support her in her time of need and instead turned on her and spread lies and gossip.

Heartbroken, she leaves Harlem and eventually settles in Florida. But through it all, she writes; in fact, she publishes more work than any other black female writer in history. And she creates some of the foremost novels, short stories, and essays of her time, including Their Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee, as well as the autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. Despite the incomparable quality of her creative work, Hurston lives in poverty throughout her final years, even working for a time as a maid. She dies penniless in 1960.

In the end, Hurston's impressive literary oeuvre is her legacy. Though she wrote only one memoir, she infused all of her writings with her unique experiences, perspectives, and voice. Hurston wrote in Dust Tracks on a Road, "What all my work shall be, I don't know that either, every hour being a stranger to you until you live it." As time has proven, Hurston's work is a testament to her soaring talent, her zest for life, and her commitment to living and telling stories in her own distinctive and unparalleled way.
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