Folklore Into Fiction: the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston

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In 1973, Alice Walker, the author and poet, made a sentimental visit to the African American city of Eatonville, Florida. Her goal was to find the grave of a writer she greatly admired, Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, died in poverty in 1960 (“Hurston, Zora Neale”). Walker found no grave or marker in Eatonville, Hurston’s hometown. Instead, she learned that her literary idol had been buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida. She commissioned a headstone for the site that hailed Hurston as a genius of the South, a novelist, a folklorist, and, finally, an anthropologist.

It is significant that Alice Walker—poet, novelist, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction— would add “folklorist” and “anthropologist” to her description of the neglected author, for Zora Neale Hurston was more than a gifted novelist. She was also a perceptive student of African American culture, an author of two notable books of folklore, a member of the American Folklore Society and the American Ethnological Society (Hurston, Dust Tracks 171). Hurston’s work as an anthropologist is, in fact, directly related to her creative writing. The connection is clear in many elements of her fiction. Hurston’s life story begins in Eatonville, Florida, near Orlando. Eatonville was originally incorporated as an African American town—a unique situation that had an impact throughout Hurston’s life. Her hometown was also her earliest training ground (although she could hardly have realized it at the time) in black southern folklore, the place where she heard the local storytellers tell their colorful stories, or “lies” (Hurston, Dust Tracks 197).

Young Zora, whose father was a Baptist preacher, received little formal education and worked at menial jobs. However, she read whenever and whatever she could, and her great goal was education. Paying her own way, Hurston was able to study at Morgan College and Howard University. By Holmes 1

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|that time she was already a beginning writer, using folktales and her hometown in her fiction. At Howard she wrote “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which featured folk beliefs about witches’ curses and screech owls (Ikonné 185-86). Another early short story, “Spunk,” was set in a village “that is obviously Eatonville” (Hemenway 41, 77-78).

Then came a turning point in her life. In 1925 she was admitted to prestigious Barnard College in New York City as the school's first African American student (Howard, “Just Being Herself” 101-02). At Barnard, Hurston studied anthropology under Ruth Benedict. Just before Hurston graduated, Franz Boas of Columbia University, another eminent anthropologist, read one of her term papers. Boas invited Hurston to study with him and gave her another way to look at her Eatonville tales. According to Lillie Howard, Hurston learned to view these tales “as invaluable folklore, creative material that continued the African oral tradition” (“Zora Neale Hurston” 135). Hurston decided then to become a serious social scientist. In 1927 Boas recommended her for the first of several grants she was to receive. She went south to gather folklore.

Clearly, Hurston’s attraction to folk stories was always intertwined with her fiction. Anthropology simply made her attention to African American folklore and culture more systematic and intensive; as she said, “research is formalized curiosity” (qtd. in Chamberlain). After she began doing fieldwork, she alternated between anthropological and creative writing. Her study of Eatonville folktales and New Orleans hoodoo (voodoo) in 1927 and 1928 resulted in the book of folktales Mules and Men, and she wrote her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, soon after. Many critics have noted that all of Hurston’s novels showed effects of her study of anthropology, and one of the most obvious connections between...
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