Rediscovering Zora Neale Hurston: Author and Anthropologist

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston, the celebrated author of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and anthropological works such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. The subject of a recent PBS documentary, Hurston is also the focus of Jennifer L. Freeman Marshall’s book Ain’t I An Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston, Beyond the Literary Icon, which will add new perceptions to longstanding views of the author.

Ain’t I An Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston, Beyond the Literary Icon is not a biography of the beloved writer or even an exploration of her anthropological investigations. Rather, the book is a highly detailed, critical study on Hurston scholarship, and an assessment of her experimental ethnographies. By the time you have finished the book, you will feel that everyone who is anyone has an opinion about “Hurstonism,” and by the book’s end you will have your own well-informed opinion, too.

Hurstonism is a name given to the phenomenon of Hurston’s rediscovery and her continuing popularity even after her death, including the enduring admiration for Their Eyes Were Watching God. Freeman Marshall puts it this way: “Hurston’s now ritual commemoration, through the folktale of her resurrection, symbolically rights the wrongs of an unjust past.” Hurston’s popularity has also been controversial in that her fame is believed by some to have obscured the literary contributions of some of her contemporary Black women authors, including Nella Larsen and Jessie Redmon Fauset. Marshall capably unpacks this controversy and examines every side with a dizzying amount of research – that is, formalized curiosity.

With the advent of postculturalist theory, Hurston has been accused of not being a serious enough anthropologist, and for deferring to her white mentors. Despite her excellent education, funding from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and her dedication to preserving Black culture, Hurston is often viewed as far too conservative. Freeman Marshall presents a wide array of viewpoints of Hurston’s contributions to both literature and anthropology, and argues that Hurston “both analyzed and modeled the complex intellectual capacity of individuals and communities within the African diasporic oral and literary traditions beyond the limits of patronage, personal challenges, and public receptions.”

Freeman Marshall takes what she refers to as an “interdisciplinary approach” to reading Hurston, and she writes from a Black feminist praxis perspective. This provides a deep, intensive, and knowledgeable lens through which to view Hurston’s legacy. Her research is dizzying, and its examination of Black literary traditions, controversies, and scholarly inquiry is immensely valuable.

It must be said that this is not a book for those who are new to Hurston; it is too dense and overwhelming for those who have only a passing interest in her or even in early 20th century anthropology. Discussion of Hurston’s contributions to and career in anthropology do not arrive until halfway through the book. When Hurston’s symbiotic relationship between her anthropological career and her literary writing is finally explored, the narrative is considerably enlivened and more readable.

Freeman Marshall makes clear that Hurston’s reputation as an anthropologist has been undermined by the glamour of her rediscovery and subsequent literary “canonization.” She writes that Hurston’s anthropological research in Jamaica and Haiti was invaluable and her ethnographies are “a vital source for understanding her literary productions.” Freeman Marshall also compellingly argues that “Hurston’s anthropological work has not been more fully recognized within the field of anthropology in part due to the marginalization of American folklore and in, in particular, African American folklore within the discipline.” Hopefully, with this new study, Hurston’s contributions to anthropology will finally be recognized.

Ain’t I An Anthropologist: Zora Neale Hurston, Beyond the Literary Icon
By Jennifer L. Freeman Marshall
University of Illinois Press
Published February 28, 2023