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The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: Zora Neale Hurston

By Mary Arnold

Zora Neale Hurston (1891"1960) grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the "first incorporated black community in America" (Wall 376). Perhaps her isolation from white racism and discrimination during her childhood and her mother's encouragement to "jump at da sun" contributed to her strong sense of self and her audacity in crossing racial, social, and gendered boundaries (Wall 376). Indeed, in exploring Hurston's life and experiences, it is difficult to believe that Hurston herself discerned any boundaries attempting to be foisted on her. Hurston describes her literary aesthetics as:

Every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized. No matter how joyful or how sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama. Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned. (Wall 163)

In her four novels, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948); in her two works of ethnography, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938); a memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942); and "more than fifty published short stories, essays, and plays" Hurston worked to recreate "the sense of drama and will to adorn" that she found in the language of African Americans (Wall).

But Hurston did not limit herself to dramatizing Negro life; she also dramatized herself. Her contemporaries believed Hurston to be ten years younger than what she was. Her ability to pass off her age exhibits her extraordinary skill in 'acting.' She had the ability to pass back and forth between high and low culture, black or white. I do not mean to imply that she could 'pass' for white, or that she did so. I mean that she could adapt herself to the manners of high society, middle class society, or working class society with no apparent difficulty. Wall describes many instances of Hurston's crossing boundaries, too many to narrate here. But the anecdotes of Hurston's personal life clearly show she is unafraid, and what is more, she is unabashed to "go where no [woman] has gone before" {Wall}

Tragically for Hurston, once the Negro was 'out of vogue', she experienced, as did most of her fellow artists, a swift decline in fortune. Although Hurston continued to write until her death, she largely went unpublished. She ended her life where she began: in domestic service. At the time of her death in 1960, none of her works were in print; likewise with Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen (Wall 204). The only person of the Harlem Renaissance who "truly enjoyed a lengthy career" was Langston Hughes (Wintz 230).


Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Wintz, Cary D. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston: Rice University Press, 1988.

About The Author

Mary Arnold holds a B.A. in literature and history. She is an author on Writing.Com which is located at http://www.Writing.Com/ and is accessible by anyone.

Her writing portfolio may be viewed at


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