Spunk

Spunk Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Zora Neale Hurston's Spunk. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, in the late nineteenth century. Eatonville was the first incorporated black township in the US, and Hurston thrived there, surrounded by diverse and successful black people who would later become the source of inspiration for many of her fictional characters. She had a happy and enriching childhood until her mother died when Hurston was just 13. Her father remarried quickly, and Hurston came to consider home a poor and loveless place. As soon as she could, Hurston moved to Maryland where she worked a series of menial jobs. Hurston’s early writing coincided with New York’s Harlem Renaissance—an artistic black liberation movement spanning the 1920s—and it was in New York where she first impressed the city’s literary elite. Her writing career took off in 1925 when she won second place for both the fiction and drama categories in a writing competition launched by the magazine Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. As an exciting and charismatic newcomer in New York’s fashionable artistic circles, Hurston’s talents finally began to be recognized. It was because of her literary success that she received a scholarship to study anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University. However, many Harlem Renaissance writers later criticized Hurston’s writing for its portrayal of rural, black communities. In particular, it was her celebration of the idiomatic vernacular she heard in the American South that was deemed to be degrading to black folk, and counter-productive to the black liberation movement. Hurston’s commitment to depicting black cultures without censorship often meant that her fiction exposed patriarchal power structures within the communities she fictionalized. This also garnered criticism from peers from within the Harlem Renaissance, who argued that she risked reinforcing stereotypes to her mostly white audience. It is largely due to her divergence from the political and cultural aims of the Harlem Renaissance that Hurston’s career faced obscurity in her later life. Despite the acclaim she received in the years that she was writing, Hurston never earned enough money to support herself. Having escaped rural poverty in Florida as a young woman, it is bitterly ironic that she also died there, aged 69, poor and alone.
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Historical Context of Spunk

Eatonville, Florida, was one of the first all-black municipalities to be officially recognized in the U.S. after President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order for the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in 1863. While these all-black towns often existed because racist police departments refused to serve black communities, this environment meant that Hurston grew up surrounded by successful black role models and diverse cultural customs. Her early experiences in Eatonville were clearly very formative because she set many of her stories, and based many of her characters, on what she observed there. Her interest in oral tradition stems from the stories she would have heard on porches and verandas across her local neighborhood.

Other Books Related to Spunk

While Hurston did have a complex (and sometimes fraught) relationship with the Harlem Renaissance and its proponents, her early literary success was due, at least in part, to the movement. Her early works debuted alongside the work of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Bennett, W.E.B. Du Bois, Eric D. Walrond and many other significant Harlem Renaissance writers. Jessie Redmon Fauset, like Hurston, used her writing to critique the racism and sexism experienced by African-American women, most famously in her second novel, Plum Bun. Similarly, with her celebrated novel, Passing, Nella Larson is another example of a female Harlem Renaissance writer determined to highlight the intersections of race and gender in America. Like “Spunk,” Hurston’s celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God interrogates power, masculinity, judgement, and jealousy and is also set in a town like Eatonville, where Hurston grew up. The novel portrays black experiences without directly tackling the theme of racism in America. Notably, it was after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God that the prominent African American writer Alice Walker began researching Hurston and discovered that most of her writing was out of print. Years after Hurston’s death, in the mid-1970s, Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington began to reexamine Hurston’s fiction from a black, feminist perspective, proclaiming Hurston the lost foremother of black feminism. Walker subsequently published an essay entitled, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which helped to restore popular and academic interest in Hurston’s work. Hurston’s political ideology is also frequently likened to that of Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and Ayn Rand, Libertarian women writers who celebrated individualism and embraced this philosophy in their writing. Paterson, Lane, and Hurston, for example, were all vocally against the New Deal welfare state, enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
Key Facts about Spunk
  • Full Title: “Spunk”
  • Where Written: Likely in New York
  • When Published: June 1925
  • Literary Period: Harlem Renaissance
  • Genre: Short story, African American literature, Black feminist fiction
  • Setting: A small rural town, based closely on Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston grew up.
  • Climax: Legendary throughout the town for his bravery when working at the sawmill, Spunk is eventually killed when he falls upon a moving saw.
  • Antagonist: Spunk Banks
  • Point of View: Third-person

Extra Credit for Spunk

Young at Heart. When Hurston moved to Baltimore at age 26, she was impoverished and desperate to continue her education, having never graduated from high school. In order to access free, public education, she pretended to be 16 years old. For the rest of her life, Hurston lived as if she were 10 years younger.

Rediscovering a Southern Genius. Hurston’s grave remained unmarked for 13 years. It was later discovered by the African American writer Alice Walker, who was fascinated by both Hurston’s writing and her tragic demise. Walker paid for a headstone to commemorate Hurston and her achievements, with the words “A Genius of the South […] Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist” engraved upon it.