Zora Neale Hurston, celebrated Tuesday in a Google Doodle, died in 1960 in a welfare home after giving the world some of its greatest literature. Although her greatest renown came after death, in life the African American novelist and anthropologist was a dazzler.
She grew up in America’s first all-black incorporated town, Eatonville, Fla., from which she drew in her fiction. Today, the small city proudly proclaims it was “authenticated by the works of Zora Neale Hurston, a writer, anthropologist, a black woman.”
Hurston’s schoolteacher mother was an inspiration to her, pushing her to “jump at de sun.” After her mother died and her preacher father remarried, she left home at 14, putting herself through school at Morgan Academy in Baltimore and Howard University in Washington, D.C., working at various jobs including manicurist and maid.
She arrived in New York in 1925 with $1.50 to her name, yet she still made a splash.
She “dazzled” at a formal literary affair, flinging a red scarf and animated stories to the room. Among those she impressed was author, activist and playwright Langston Hughes, as well as Annie Nathan Meyer, a Barnard College founder, who then made Hurston the first black student at Barnard, where she studied anthropology.
Carla Kaplan, author and professor at Wellesley College, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that “Hurston was, in her own terms, ‘bodacious’ -- bold, pioneering, and always brave about stepping into the public sphere.”
Kaplan, author of “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters,” said Hurston “would have loved being celebrated by today’s Google Doodle; her email, Facebook and Twitter pages would have been flying.”
Hurston wrote short stories, essays and novels. But she struggled for financial security. Most of her books were published during the Depression, and the largest royalty any of Hurston’s books earned was $943.75. At one point, she pawned her typewriter for cash.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God,” now seen by many as her greatest novel, was published in 1937 to notably negative reaction. At the time, author Richard Wright (“Black Boy,” “Native Son”) blasted the book. He said it was written to whites, with a “minstrel technique” that made them laugh.
Hurston had a stroke in 1959 and died on Jan. 28, 1960. It was author Alice Walker who helped bring her back into the public eye. Walker wrote in Ms. Magazine in 1975 of searching for and finding Hurston’s weed-choked grave. Since then, her writing has found new, appreciative audiences.
“It’s wonderful to see Hurston so widely recognized,” Kaplan said, “especially as one of her most constant themes was how similar we all are to one another, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”
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