Zora Neale Hurston

Born in the small town of Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston is known as one of the lights of the Harlem Renaissance. She first came to New York City at the age of 16 -- having arrived as part of a traveling theatrical troupe. A strikingly gifted storyteller who captivated her listeners, she attended Barnard College, where she studied with anthropologist Franz Boaz and came to grasp ethnicity from a scientific perspective. Boaz urged her to collect folklore from her native Florida environment, which she did. The distinguished folklorist Alan Lomax called her Mules and Men (1935) "the most engaging, genuine, and skillfully written book in the field of folklore."

Hurston also spent time in Haiti, studying voodoo and collecting Caribbean folklore that was anthologized in Tell My Horse (1938). Her natural command of colloquial English puts her in the great tradition of Mark Twain. Her writing sparkles with colorful language and comic -- or tragic -- stories from the African- American oral tradition.

Hurston was an impressive novelist. Her most important work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is a moving, fresh depiction of a beautiful mulatto woman's maturation and renewed happiness as she moves through three marriages. The novel vividly evokes the lives of African-Americans working the land in the rural South. A harbinger of the women's movement, Hurston inspired and influenced such contemporary writers as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison through books such as her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road(1942).