Zora Neale Hurston: Breaking Literary Norms

Lucille Erdmann, Staff Writer

In a career that lasted 30 years, American author, folklorist, playwright and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston broke 1930’s literary norms. She published an autobiography, four novels, two books of folklore, several stories, plays, and articles, defining an era of literature and earning her spot as one of the greatest Black writers in history (zoranealehurston.com). 

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, the daughter of two former slaves, John Hurston, a pastor to a local church, and Lucy Potts Hurston (Biography.com).  When she was only a year old her father moved the family to the first U.S. incorporated Black township of Eatonville, Florida, where he later became the mayor for three terms (zoranealehurston.com). Following her mother’s death in 1904, her family “assembled for the last time on earth,” at the funeral (chdr.cah.ucf.edu). 

In 1918 Hurston attended Howard Prep School; however, by this time she was 26 years old and hadn’t completed high school. To ensure that she received the education she needed, she cut ten years off her age and presented herself as 16. Later, she enrolled in Howard University and earned her associates degree two years later, majoring in English (zoranealehurston.com). A hard-working student, Hurston played an active role in student government. She also co-founded the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop. In that very same newspaper she published her first story John Redding Goes to Sea (thedig.howard.edu). 

In 1925 Hurston moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood. While there, she became known as the “Queen of the Harlem Renaissance,” befriending many other authors including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Together they produced a short-lived literary magazine called Fire!! which featured a variety of writers, performers, and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. This magazine’s first and only issue featured Hurston’s short story “Sweat (Biography.com).

Zora Neale Hurston’s apartment became somewhat of an unofficial meeting place for members of the movement. Fellow writer Sterling Brown recalled, “When Zora was there, she was the party.” (zoranealehurston.com). Along with her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance, she also landed a scholarship to Barnard University, where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas and earned her B.A. degree, labeling her as Barnard’s first Black graduate (barnard.edu).

Hurston dedicated her life to the preservation of study of Black culture, even traveling to Haiti and Jamaica to study voodoo. In 1936, after just seven weeks in Haiti, she published her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God. Although it is now very highly acclaimed, at the time, the story faced a great deal of criticism, specifically from the male audience, due to Hurston’s decision to focus her work on Black women, which differed from the literary norms at the time (chdr.cah.ucf.edu).

While in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston researched how the dispersion of Africans from their homes affected their religion. She incorporated these findings into her writing, one of these stories being Tell My Horse, about her personal experiences while studying voodoo in Haiti (womenshistory.com). 

Although her work now receives high praise, Hurston was underpaid and lived in poverty. After many years of writing, she was placed in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. In 1960 she suffered a stroke and passed away (chdr.cah.ucf.edu).

For thirteen years, she was buried in an unmarked grave, until author Alice Walker located her remains and created a marker. Even though Hurston’s work never received the acclaim it deserved while she was alive, posthumously she is known as one the most influential authors of the 20th century (womenshistory.com). 


Citation Information 


  1. Article Title: About Zora Neale Hurston

Website Name: Zora Neale Hurston

URL: https://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/ 

Access Date: February 27, 2023

Last Updated : 2023

Original Publish Date: 


  1. Article Title: Zora Neale Hurston Biography

Author: Biography.com Editors

Website Name: Biography.com

URL: https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/zora-neale-hurston 

Access Date: February 27, 2023

Publisher: A&E; Television Networks

Last Updated : April 23, 2021

Original Publish Date: April 2, 2014


  1. Article Title: Hurston’s Life

Website Name: Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive 

URL: https://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/hurstonarchive/?p=hurstons-life 

Access Date: February 27, 2023

Publisher: University of Central Florida

Last Updated : 2023


  1. Article Title: Zora Neale Hurston

Website Name: The Dig at Howard University 

URL: https://thedig.howard.edu/node/11261 

Access Date: February 27, 2023

Publisher: Howard University 

Last Updated : 2023

Original Publish Date: 


  1. Article Title: Zora Neale Hurston ‘28

Website Name: Barnard College

URL: https://barnard.edu/news/zora-neale-hurston-28 

Access Date:  February 27, 2023

Publisher: Barnard College

Original Publish Date: July 16, 2019


  1. Article Title: Chronology of Hurston’s Life

Website Name:  Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive 

URL: https://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/hurstonarchive/?p=chronology 

Access Date:  February 27, 2023

Publisher: University of Central Florida

Last Updated : 2023


  1. Article Title: Zora Neale Hurston

Author: Arlisha R. Norwood

Website Name: Women’s History

URL: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/zora-hurston 

Access Date:  February 27, 2023

Publisher: National Women’s History Museum

Original Publish Date: 2017



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