Zora Neale Hurston on Her Books, Publishing, & Publishers

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960), was an African-American novelist, memoirist, and folklorist associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Here we’ll explore her first-person musings on her books, publishing experiences and her impressions of publishers in general.

She was the first Black student at Barnard College, the women’s college connected with Columbia.

While studying with the noted anthropologist Franz Boas, she was recognized for her talent for storytelling and abiding interest in black cultures of the American South and Caribbean.

Here are excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston‘s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, describing some of the process behind getting three of her books written and published: Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), Mules and Men (1935), and her best known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

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Jonah’s Gourd Vine

Jonah's Gourd vine original cover
While I was in the research field in 1929, the idea of Jonah’s Gourd Vine came to me. I had written a few short stories, but the idea of attempting a book seems so big, that I gazed at it in the quiet of the night, but hid it away from even myself in daylight.

For one thing, it seemed off-key. What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such and so, regardless of his color.

It seemed to me the the human beings I met reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli. Different idioms, yes. Circumstances and conditions having power to influence, yes. Inherent difference, no.

But I said to myself that that was not what was expected of me, so I was afraid to tell a story the way I wanted or rather the way the story told itself to me. So I went down that way for three years.”

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Mules and Men

Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
“In May 1932, the depression did away with money for research so far as I was concerned. So I took my nerve in my hand and decided to try to write the story I had been carrying around in me. Back in my native village, I wrote first Mules and Men. That is, I edited the huge mass of material I had, arranged in in some sequence and laid it aside. It was published after my first novel …

I rented a house with a bed and stove in it for $1.50 a week. I paid two weeks and then my money ran out. My cousin, Willie Lee Hurston, was working and making $3.50 per week, and she always gave me the fifty cents to buy groceries with. In three months, I finished the book. The problem of getting it typed was that upon me.

Municipal Judge S.A.B Wilkinson asked his secretary, Mildred Knight, if she would not do it for me and wait on the money. I explained to her that the book might not even be taken by Lippincott. I have been working on a hope.

She took the manuscript home with her and read it. Then she offered to type it for me. She said, “It is going to be accepted, all right. I’ll type it. Even if the first publisher does not take it, somebody will.” So between them, they bought the paper and carbon and the book was typed

I took it down the American Express office to mail it and found that it cost $1.83 to mail, and I did not have it. So I went to see Mrs. John Leonardi, a most capable woman lawyer, and the wife of the county prosecutor.

She did not have the money at the moment, but she was the treasurer of the local Daughter Elks. She ‘borrowed’ $2.00 from the treasury and gave it to me to mail my book. That was on October 3, 1933. On October 16, I had an acceptance by wire.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God 75th Anniversary Edition

“I wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God  in Haiti. It was dammed up in me, I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish that I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books. It is one of the tragedies of life that one cannot have all the wisdom one is ever to possess in the beginning.

Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would get written at all. It might be better to ask yourself ‘Why?’ afterwards than before.

Anyway, the force from somewhere in Space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

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Zora Neale Hurston Books

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