Zora Neale Hurston Interview (1934)

Zora Neale Hurston

Having been forgotten, then rediscovered in a major way, it’s rare to find interviews with Zora Neale Hurston written in her time.

Here’s a newspaper article in which she was interviewed as she burst on the literary scene in the 1934, when her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, was published.

This article was published in The Richmond Item, Nov. 14, 1934. Of course, it contains some of the parlance and attitudes of that time.


Zora Neale Hurston: Author and Anthropologist

Spell-binding and bewitching is the personality of Zora Neale Hurston whom we met Monday. Zora Hurston is young and vibrant and spirited. And exceedingly attractive.

Modishly dressed in dark green coat and red Cossack hat with a startling quill poised on the front, her bubbling enthusiasm and liveliness is the root of her fetching personality, but style and good looks add immeasurably to it.

We had been talking more than five minutes to this young Negro woman who spoke Sunday at the Townsend Community Center, before we were quite won over by her personality. Zora Hurston is vivid, exciting, exhilarating. She is the young author of a book called Jonah’s Gourd Vine, published last May, and the author of another to be published in January.

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Jonah's Gourd Vine original 1934 cover

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Launching a stellar career

And now that she is firmly treading the earth on her own feet (and reputation) she doesn’t mind adding that she used to be Fannie Hurst’s secretary — yes, the same Fannie Hurst whose Imitation of Life you have just finished reading, and whose memorable short story “Humoresque” is a valuable addition to the short stories of the world.

But let us start with the beginning. She was born in Eatonville, Florida, in the first incorporated Negro town in the country. She attended grammar school in Eatonville and high school in Baltimore, MD.

She was in her second year at Howard College when entered a short story in a contest in Opportunity Magazine, a Negro publication. Her story called “Spunk” won first prize, and was later included in “The New Negro,” a collection of writings by contemporary Negro writers.

Fannie Hurst, one of the judges in the Opportunity contest, took an instant liking to her. She learned about Zora’s schooling and found she had two years at Howard College to her credit. Immediately she arranged a scholarship to Barnard College for Zora. Zora entered Barnard, the first Negro girl ever to enroll in that institution.

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Their eyes were watchin god by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston page on Amazon

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Studied under Franz Boas

She majored in anthropology and at graduation was awarded a fellowship to study under Franz Boas. Her study was concentrated on the folk lore of her people. She collected material – music, tales, dancing, religious experiences, superstitions, and the like —for three years in the West Indies, and published some of her findings in Harpers, World Tomorrow, and other publications.

Fannie Hurst urged her former secretary to write a novel. Reluctantly, because she doubted her ability to do it, she wrote a book which she titled Jonah’s Gourd Vine. She mailed it to Lippincott’s Nov. 3 of last year.

The publishers received the manuscript Nov. 6 and wired their acceptance on Nov. 16, only 10 days later! The publishers, the oldest house in the country, departed from a long-established custom of not publishing Negro books in their eagerness to print Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

The manuscript of the novel was sent to Julia Peterkin, author of “Scarlet Sister Mary,” “Black April,” and “Bright Skin” and other novels of the Negro, for her to read. She kept it for more than the three days allowed her and it was later learned that she had forwarded the manuscript to her own publishers who attempted at once to buy it from Zora Hurston. The rights were sold to Lippincott’s, however, and the publishers contracted for five more books from Zora Hurston.

 

Second Book to Be Published — January

When the novel was published in May, the critics gave it very favorable reviews. “The first book,” they wrote, “written absolutely from the Negro viewpoint. It is not Negro propaganda.” Ducksworth in London recently purchased the rights to publish it in Great Britain.

Her next book, the one scheduled for January, is called Mules and Men, and is a collection of Negro folk lore, practices, and voodoo, written more for popular reading than from the scientific approach.

Zora Hurston is currently absorbed in a Negro folk concert to be given Nov. 23 and 24 at the Woman’s Club Theater in Chicago.

Of her former employer, Fannie Hurst, Zora is all superlatives. She commented on Miss Hurst’s fascinating habit of dressing in red or in black and white, and spoke of her sensational appearance last year on the Magazine Day program at Winter Park, Fla., at Rollins College. There was an audience of 5,000 waiting to see her.

She made a dramatic entrance in a stunning red velvet gown that encircled her throat with a high collar and was slit down the back and bordered with gold buttons. The red velvet fell in deep folds and broadened into a train. With her dark eyes, long black lashes, creamy white skin and brilliantly painted lips, Fannie Hurst swept over the audience “like the sea sweeping over rocks,” to use Zora’s own words.

Fannie Hurst is the wife of Jack Danielson, the composer. They maintain separate apartments and are supposed, Zora said, to breakfast with each other three times a week. We smiled. “That’s only a publicity yarn,” we said, “and isn’t true, is it?”

Zora became suddenly mute. We persisted. “We’ve always suspected Fannie Hurst, Katherine Brush, and Claudette Colbert of creating those tales about maintaining separate apartments for publicity purposes.

How about Fannie Hurst? And if it isn’t true, why did you say ‘supposed’?” Zora refused to deny or affirm, switched the conversation to another subject, and left us to reach our own conclusions.

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