The Google homepage today features a portrait of a middle-aged woman in a feathered cap, framed by a southern landscape spotted by palm trees and swamp. Literary-minded readers will recognize the doodle as an homage to the author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston – who was born 123 years ago today, in 1891 – and the substantial legacy she left behind.
As the British novelist Zadie Smith wrote in an essay on Ms. Hurston's most famous book, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Hurston's writing has the ability to "pin" readers "to the ground, unable to deny its strength."
In the essay, republished in the 2009 collection "Changing My Mind," Ms. Smith recalls that the first time she read "Watching God," at the age of 14, she wept, "not simply for the perfection of the writing, nor even the world contained in its pages. It meant something more than all that to me, something I could not, or would not, articulate. Later, I took it to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish."
Hurston grew up in rural Alabama, the fifth of eight children. When she was only three years old, her family moved to Eatonville, Fla., an all-black town not far from Orlando. The biography on the official Hurston website notes that Eatonville, with its omnipresent "evidence of black achievement," helped convince Hurston of her own potential:
She could look to town hall and see black men, including her father, John Hurston, formulating the laws that governed Eatonville. She could look to the Sunday Schools of the town's two churches and see black women, including her mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, directing the Christian curricula. She could look to the porch of the village store and see black men and women passing worlds through their mouths in the form of colorful, engaging stories.
Hurston felt the creative urge from an early age, although in her autobiography, she recalled that she was "weighed down by a power I did not want." She read relentlessly and listened with great interest to the stories of the men and women gathered in the Eatonville general store. "It is one of the blessings of the world," she later wrote, "that few people see visions and dream dreams."
In 1918, Hurston graduated from Morgan State University, in Baltimore; she went on to study at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and at Barnard College, in New York. It was in New York that Hurston met other titans of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, who would partner with Hurston to write a play called "Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life."
Hurston's first novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine," was published in 1934; "Their Eyes Were Watching God," a bildungsroman set in Florida in the early 1900s, arrived in 1937.
In 2010, Time included "Their Eyes Were Watching God" on its list of 100 best English-language novels. "This is the great tale of black female survival in a world beset by bad weather and bad men," the magazine's Richard Lacayo wrote at the time. "[Hurston's] succulent book has its stretches of overripe prose, but that’s the price of taking the chances she takes with language, chances you have to take to arrive at the witchy places she gets to."
But Hurston was not content to concentrate all her energy on fiction.
She also wrote journalism and traveled extensively across the south and Haiti and Jamaica in a series of anthropological expeditions. "Hurston’s willingness to go against the grain and to experiment with new ethnographic styles and methods positions her as the foremother of what is today called interpretive anthropology, or the new ethnography," the anthropologist Irma McClaurin has written.
By the late 1950s, Hurston, who had never managed to make a steady living from her work, moved to the St. Lucie County Welfare Home, in Florida. She died there in 1960. The southern writer Alice Walker is often credited with helping restore Hurston's legacy, and re-introducing her to a new wave of readers.