When Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and she soon became one of the writers at its center. Shortly before she entered Barnard, Hurston's short story “Spunk” was selected for The New Negro, a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. In 1926, a group of young black writers including Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman, calling themselves the Niggerati, produced a literary magazine called Fire!! that featured many of the young artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1929, Hurston moved to Eau Gallie in Florida where she wrote Mules and Men, which was later published in 1935.
By the mid-1930s, Hurston had published several short stories and the critically acclaimed Mules and Men (1935), a groundbreaking work of "literary anthropology" documenting African-American folklore from timber camps in North Florida. In 1930, she collaborated with Langston Hughes on Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life in Three Acts, a play that they never finished. It was published posthumously in 1991.
In 1937, Hurston was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct ethnographic research in Jamaica and Haiti. Tell My Horse (1938) documents her account of her fieldwork studying spiritual and cultural rituals in Jamaica and vodoun in Haiti. Hurston also translated her anthropological work into the performing arts, and her folk revue, The Great Day, premiered at the John Golden Theatre in New York in 1932.
Hurston's first three novels were published in the 1930s: Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934); Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), written during her fieldwork in Haiti and considered her masterwork; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).
1940s and 1950s
In the 1940s, Hurston's work was published in such periodicals as The American Mercury and The Saturday Evening Post. Her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, notable principally for its focus on white characters, was published in 1948. It explores images of "white trash" women. Jackson (2000) argues that Hurston's meditation on abjection, waste, and the construction of class and gender identities among poor whites reflects the eugenics discourses of the 1920s.
In 1952, Hurston was assigned by the Pittsburgh Courier to cover the small-town murder trial of Ruby McCollum, the prosperous black wife of the local bolita racketeer, who had killed a racist white doctor. She also contributed to Woman in the Suwannee County Jail, a book by journalist and civil rights advocate William Bradford Huie. In 2008, The Library of America selected excerpts from this work for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime writing.
Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons.
Many readers objected to the representation of African-American dialect in Hurston's novels, given the racially charged history of dialect fiction in American literature. Her stylistic choices in terms of dialogue were influenced by her academic experiences. Thinking like a folklorist, Hurston strove to represent speech patterns of the period which she documented through ethnographic research. For example, a character in Jonah's Gourd Vine expresses herself in this manner:
- "Dat's a big ole resurrection lie, Ned. Uh slew-foot, drag-leg lie at dat, and Ah dare yuh tuh hit me too. You know Ahm uh fightin' dawg and mah hide is worth money. Hit me if you dare! Ah'll wash yo' tub uh 'gator guts and dat quick."
Several of Hurston's literary contemporaries criticized Hurston's use of dialect as a caricature of African-American culture rooted in a racist tradition. In particular, a number of writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance were critical of Hurston's later writings, on the basis that they did not agree with or further the position of the overall movement. One particular criticism came from Richard Wright in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
- ... The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.
More recently, many critics have praised Hurston's skillful use of idiomatic speech.
During the 1930s and 1940s when her work was published, the pre-eminent African-American author was Richard Wright. Unlike Hurston, Wright wrote in explicitly political terms, as someone who had become disenchanted with communism, using the struggle of African Americans for respect and economic advancement as both the setting and the motivation for his work. Other popular African-American authors of the time, such as Ralph Ellison, dealt with the same concerns as Wright. Hurston's work, which did not engage these political issues, did not fit in with this struggle. In 1951, for example, Hurston argued that New Deal economic support created a harmful dependency by African Americans on the government, and that this dependency ceded too much power to politicians.
- Author Alice Walker sought Hurston's grave in 1973 and planted a grave marker calling her "A Genius of the South." Walker then published "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, reviving interest in Hurston's work. The renewal of attention to Hurston was related also to the rise of new African-American authors such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Walker, whose works are centered on African-American experiences and include, but do not necessarily focus upon, racial struggle.
- Zora Neale Hurston's hometown of Eatonville, Florida, celebrates her life in an annual festival and is home to the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts, named in her honor. Her life and legacy are celebrated every year here at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.
- Hurston's house in Fort Pierce has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The city celebrates Hurston annually through various events such as Hattitudes, birthday parties, and a several-day festival at the end of April known as Zora Fest.
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Zora Neale Hurston on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- Barnard College dedicated its 2003 Virginia C. Gildersleeve Conference to Hurston. "Jumpin’ at the Sun: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston" focused on her work and influence. Alice Walker's Gildersleeve lecture detailed her work on discovering and publicizing Hurston's legacy.
- She was inducted as a member of the inaugural class of the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2010.
- On January 7, 2014, the 123rd anniversary of Hurston's birthday was commemorated by a Google Doodle.
- She was one of twelve inaugural inductees to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame on June 8, 2015.