Editor's note: I've included a plethora of links to Hurston's available novels, partly because I love the art on the covers of the paperback editions, put out by Harperperennial.
The graphic of Hurston is from the cover of Dust Tracks on the Road.

Christine Daley
City University of New York
Graduate School & University Center

September 2000

A Rocky Road to Posterity:  The Publication of Zora Neale Hurston

     Examination of the publication history of Zora Neale Hurston’s major works reveals a glimpse into the cultural and political climate of twentieth-century reading tastes.  Hurston, a controversial figure in her own time, has proved to be a touchstone of modern reception of both African-American literature and unconventional writing by women.  In looking at the narrative of Hurston’s works as they fall in and out of favor with the reading public, we can detect trends which uncover some truths about twentieth-century reading appetites, publishing practices, and their relation to the dominant discourse.  This favorite of the Harlem Renaissance has traveled a rocky road to posterity since the 1930s and why she is still the subject of discussion has as much to do with forks in the path of her publication history as it has to do with the power of her writing. The first of Hurston’s major works to be published was Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1934.  In order for a major publishing company like J.B. Lippincott to consider printing an African-American female writer, she would necessarily have had to make a name for herself elsewhere.  After a relatively unhappy childhood in various parts of the South, Hurston attended Howard University and caught the eye of the editor of such periodicals as The New Negro, Alain Locke, who championed other Harlem Renaissance writers like Countee Cullen, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes.  Following her first publication in a campus magazine, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in 1921 and her first publication in the literary journal Opportunity, “Drenched in Light,” in 1924, Hurston moved to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.         
     The editor of Opportunity, Charles S. Johnson, had been told of the burgeoning writer’s talent by Alain Locke, and she proved herself by winning a contest sponsored by the journal in 1925 with her short story “Spunk.”  At about this time, Hurston began studying anthropology at Barnard College under Franz Boas, work which eventually led to such texts as Mules and Men.  During this period, the anthropology student continued to pursue her fiction career, re-publishing the short story “John Redding Goes to Sea” in Opportunity in 1926 and another story “Muttsy” later that year.  Her story “Possum or Pig” was published that same year in Forum and another tale “Sweat” in the only issue of Fire, a journal founded by Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman.  In 1927, Hurston added drama and essays to her repertoire, which led to an offer of patronage by the so-called “godmother” of the Harlem Renaissance, Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason.  Before the publication of Jonah’s Gourd Vine  in 1934, essays and short stories appeared in such various journals as the Journal of Negro History, World Tomorrow, Fast and Furious, Journal of American Folklore, Story, and in Nancy Cunard’s anthology Negro.  In addition to plays by Hurston being performed on Broadway and at Rollins College, she also founded a school of drama at Bethune-Cookman College primarily concerned with African-American expression.  Needless to say, when J.B. Lippincott decided to print Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Hurston was already a well-established creative force in the African-American and literary communities.
              The literary audience at the time was also ripe for the acceptance of Hurston’s work.  The best-seller in 1931 and 1932, as well as winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1932, was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth which paved the way for Hurston’s anthropological bent and her voice as Other.  African-American literature was also popular publishing fodder at the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s with Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem in 1928, Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry in 1929, Langston Hughes’s Not Without Laughter in 1930, and Countee Cullen’s One Way to Heaven and Arna Bontemps’s God Sends Sunday in 1931.  In publishing Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Lippincott was responding to a demand from the reading audience for work such as Hurston’s.        
     The relative popularity of Jonah’s Gourd Vine led Lippincott to publish Hurston’s anthropological study Mules and Men the next year and her most successful novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.  Tell My Horse followed in 1938 and Lippincott went on to publish Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1939, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography in 1942, and Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948.  Seraph on the Suwanee was the last new edition of Hurston’s work to come out until 1965, five years after Hurston’s death and burial in an unmarked grave.  What happened to the princess of the Harlem Renaissance, the Boas protégé, and the Lippincott dynamo that led to her relatively anonymous death?          
   The tragedy of Zora Neale Hurston is as much informed by her literary life as it is by her personal life.  For one thing, Hurston was always at odds with literary critics.  There was constant friction between Hurston and other, primarily male, writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Alain Locke, who once supported Hurston and encouraged her move to New York, eventually denounced her work for its lack of social criticism.  Others believed Hurston’s use of folklore and dialect helped to support the prejudice and racism apparent in such white institutions as the minstrel show.  Hurston was also seen as too prosaic in her approach to race relations by refusing to address them in her fiction.  Jeremy Cart observes, “Throughout her career she chose to attack ‘the sobbing school of Negrohood’ which saw all black action as a pathological response to white oppression.  Instead she tended to celebrate both African-American folk culture (often buried as embarrassing by leading African-American ‘race leaders’ of the time) and individual achievement.”  However, despite this controversy, Hurston’s work was not initially prevented from receiving widespread acclaim.        
     After numerous accolades following her Lippincott publications, such as a Guggenheim Fellowship, an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Morgan State College, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations, a cover story in the Saturday Review, and Howard University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, things started to sour for Hurston when her novel Mrs. Doctor was rejected by Lippincott in 1945.  After living an isolated existence in New York until 1947, she traveled to British Honduras, and then in 1948 was accused of child molestation.  Her final novel came out during this time.  She was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the trial and media coverage left her depressed, suicidal, and near the end of her publishing career as far as major works are concerned.  She moved to Florida where she worked as a maid while printing intermittent essays in the Saturday Evening Post, American Legion, and the Pittsburgh Courier.  Hurston managed to alienate her potential public further in 1954, when she defended segregation, claiming African-Americans were better off without the taint of a white education system.  From this point on, Hurston’s employment and publication histories reflect a series of failures.  In 1959, she suffered a stroke and died in 1960 of heart disease, at which time she was buried in an unmarked grave in a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida.         
    Following the publication of Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948, almost two decades transpired before 1965, during which none of Hurston’s major works were printed in editions of any form.  Once the rage of the Harlem Renaissance passed and Hurston fell out of popularity with the reading public and the publishing world, the 1950s was not a climate that would have sought to resurrect her work.  In a decade where James Jones’s From Here to Eternity, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, and Boris Paternak’s Doctor Zhivago topped the best-seller lists, the unconventional and controversial Hurston would have been hard-pressed to find a reading audience in the shadow of these titanic tomes.  The appetite for epics by white male writers left no room for the anthropological adventures of an African-American woman.            
     Many know the story of Hurston’s resurrection by Alice Walker in 1975 with her publication of “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine.  The popular author of such texts as The Color Purple came across Hurston’s work in folklore and subsequently her identity while conducting research for a short story in 1970.  In 1973, Walker went “in search of” Hurston’s burial site, marked the grave, and chronicled the experience in the Ms. article.  Since then, Hurston has slowly settled within the canon and Their Eyes Were Watching God sold over a million copies between 1990 and 1995.  Though Walker deserves much credit for Hurston’s current popularity and acceptance within the academy, it is possible that Walker’s discovery of Hurston is not as singular as suspected.  The publication history reflects a revitalized interest in Hurston’s work as early as five years before Walker’s findings.       
     The 1960s witnessed a move away from the popularity of white male epics and a move towards the work of female writers and other voices from the margin.  The best-seller lists of the early 1960s featured works such as Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Dearly Beloved, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group.  The sexual revolution also paved the way for a resurgence of Hurston’s honest portrayals of female sexuality and independence.  In 1966, the year after Their Eyes Were Watching God saw its first re-publication since the 1940s, the annual best-seller list boasted two novels rife with sexual intrigue, Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls and Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers.  In addition to increased moral and literary freedom, the civil rights movement of the late 1960s also renewed an interest in the work of African-American writers as well as validating their voices.  Zora Neale Hurston was slowly moving from a publishing liability to a profit-making industry, however major publishers were not willing to take a chance until the 1970s.
            In the 1960s, only small publishers wished to re-publish Hurston.  Even the mainstream university presses did not yet consider her work viable academic product.  Fawcett Publications of Greenwich, Connecticut published an edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1965, followed by an edition of Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1967 by Chatham, New Jersey’s Chatham Bookseller.  New York’s Arno Press came out with an edition of Dust Tracks on a Road in 1969.  The only other publisher to consider Hurston worthy of new editions in the 1960s was the forward-thinking Negro Universities Press.  They published an edition of Mules and Men and another of Their Eyes Were Watching God, both in 1969.       
     The 1970s saw a slow climb onto the bandwagon from various sources.  Lippincott caught on to the renewed interest in its Harlem Renaissance money-maker and came out with second editions of Dust Tracks on a Road and Jonah’s Gourd Vine in 1971.  Harper & Row stepped forward as the only other major publishing house that saw Hurston’s potential for profit in an edition of Mules and Men in 1970.  The smaller AMS Press printed an edition and reprint of Seraph on the Suwanee, in 1971 and 1974 respectively.  All this occurred before Walker’s article appeared in Ms. magazine.  Her position as a journalist most likely helped her reach a larger popular audience, but Hurston was slowly being rediscovered previous to Walker’s search.  Negro Universities Press issued a reprint of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1975, the same year as Walker’s article.  Other university presses also sensed Hurston’s returning popularity and potential for entry to the canon.  Indiana University Press came out with an edition of Mules and Men in 1978 and the University of Illinois Press published an edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God the same year.  In 1979, the Feminist Press published a collection of Hurston’s essays, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive:  A Zora Neale Hurston Reader.                
     It wasn’t until the 1990s that major publishing firms embraced the Hurston legacy and then did so with a vengeance.  The 1980s saw more of the trends established in the 1970s.  The University of Illinois Press published editions of Dust Tracks on a Road and Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1984 and then a reprint of Moses, Man of the Mountain in 1985.  An edition of Dust Tracks on a Road was also issued by the London firm Virago Press with an introduction by Dellita L. Martin in 1986.  Berkeley’s Turtle Island Foundation for the Netzalhaulcoyotl Historical Society was responsible for a majority of the editions of Hurston that originated in the 1980s.  The Sanctified Church and Tell My Horse were published in 1981 and a reprint of the paperback edition of Tell My Horse came out in 1983.  The Turtle Island Foundation was also responsible for the first edition of Hurston’s collected short stories in 1985, Spunk:  The Selected Stories.  Redpath Press of Minneapolis also published some of Hurston’s stories in their collection The Gilded Six-Bits:  Love Is Fragile in 1986.  The 1980s witnessed the last decade of relative obscurity that Hurston’s work would experience.       
     1990 was the year that the mainstream publishing world heartily welcomed Zora Neale Hurston.  Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, Tell My Horse, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dust Tracks on a Road, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Seraph on the Suwanee all received a Harper Perennial Library Edition in the first two years of the decade.  From that moment on, Hurston’s work has been perennially saved from being out of print at any point in the near future.  The University of Illinois Press came out with a second edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1991, Virago Press reprinted Dust Tracks on a Road in 1992, Chelsea House issued Janie Crawford, Their Eyes Were Watching God/Zora Neale Hurston in 1993, and Harper Collins released The Complete Stories in 1995.  G.K. Hall also issued an edition of Dust Tracks on a Road in 1997 and Rutgers University Press published the collection Sweat in 1997.
           The 1990s also saw two additional achievements for Hurston.  Her work entered other media, including Spunk: Three Tales, a libretto released by the Theatre Communications Group in 1991, and a sound recording of Mules and Men issued by Harper Audio in 1992.  In 1995, Hurston became the fourth African-American, the fifth woman, and the first African-American woman to be published in the Library of America series.  Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings and Novels and Stories have ensured that Zora Neale Hurston will not soon be forgotten.  In fact, scholar Pamela Bordelon is responsible for the most recent Hurston production which came out in 1999, Go Gator and Muddy the Water, a compilation of the writing Hurston did while working with the Federal Writer’s Project in Florida in 1938.  At some point in the near future, Harper Colins plans to publish yet another Hurston text entitled Barracoon.           
      Hurston’s history is a prime example of how the winds of fortune, and more specifically, the whimsy of politics and culture, can ensure an artist’s longevity or rob that same artist of identity.  Hurston’s plummet from triumph into despair and anonymity followed by her sluggish resurrection when the cultural climate dictated is a tragic tale, but not an uncommon one.  Simply because Hurston’s rise and fall and rise again occurred over a relatively short span of time, it can be used as an allegory of what has happened to countless artists over countless years who attempted to speak from the margins. 

 

Works Cited


Brooks, Molly. "1930s Literary Criticism and the Disappearance of Zora Neale Hurston." Grinnell University. Individual home pages. 1/25/1999. <http://www.grinnell.edu/individuals/gardnerj/thirties/mb.html>

Carl, Jeremy. "Hurston." Zora Neale Hurston Web Site. Kip Austin Hinton, ed. 11/16/98. <www.i.am/zora>

Corbett, William, ed. New York Literary Lights. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1998.

Hinton, Kip Austin. "Zora Neale Hurston." Zora Neale Hurston Web Site. Kip Austin Hinton, ed. 11/16/98. <www.i.am/zora>

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1995.

The Literary Almanac. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.

National Union Catalog: A Cumulative Author List Representing Library of Congress Printed Cards and Titles Reported by Other American Libraries, Pre-1956 Imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-81.

National Union Catalog: A Cumulative Author List Representing Library of Congress Printed Cards and Titles Reported by Other American Libraries. Washington: Library of Congress, 1958--.

More Hurston work

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