Although Zora Neale Hurston is probably the most recognized novelist to come out of Harlem, she began her writing career with folktale studies, and her novels reflect that. Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen wrote novels focusing on middle class women. Wallace Thurman ‘s The Blacker the Berry looks at discrimination among black people, and Walter White‘s novel looks at the discrimination in the South.
Harlem Renaissance authors wrote in every genre. Randolph Fisher wrote a Harlem-based mystery novel. George Schuyler wrote dystopian science fiction. Arna Bontemps wrote historical fiction. Claude McKay‘s novels captured the “gritty” side of life in Harlem, from alcohol and murder, and Richard Bruce Nugent was the African-American to write about open homosexuals, focusing on life in Harlem in the 1920s.
In short, in addition to the lesser-known short story and drama writers, there are plenty of fiction options to choose from in the Harlem Renaissance!
Zora Neale Hurston wrote collections of folklore, as well as short stories, novels, plays, essays, and memoirs. Many of her works are written with idiomatic African-American dialect. Although her novels were published after the Renaissance had ended, she was a prominent figure in the Harlem community during many of the years of the movement.
The Complete Stories (a copy with introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke was published in 1995). Some of the notable short stories are Sweat (1926) and The Gilded Six-Bits (1933). Another collection of stories, Spunk: Selected Stories, was published in 1985)
- “The stories in this book cover just about everything from tales of alligator men to torrid love affairs.” Aphrael at Amazon
- “These legends, folk tales, poems, and short stories, spendidly told, created and rewritten by Hurston, beautifully illustrate the pathos, passion and pleasure of the African American existence.” legenddrw at Amazon
- “John Redding Goes to Sea,” written during her college days, accurately describes the life of an intelligent young black man feeling trapped by the illiteracy around him. “The EatonVille Anthology” is a rich collection of anecdotes about her hometown of Eatonville, Fla. “Drenched in Light” is about a free-spirited young black girl and her exasperated mother. “The Bone of Contention” is an old handed-down folklore that inspired her aborted play with Langston Hughes MULE BONE.” Andre M. “brnn64″ at Amazon
Jonah’s Gourd Vine (290 pages; 1934). John Buddy Pearson loves “loves too many women for his own good.” The community he lives in must learn to resolve the tension between the physical with the spiritual. (via Amazon)
- “This is a fascinating read. It took me a few pages to get comfortable with the writing and the phrasing of the book but by then I was deeply immersed in it. I didn’t want this one to end and was quite saddened when it did. Neither did I see the ending coming.” nannybebette at LibraryThing
- “Every bit as enjoyable as “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston’s first novel recounts the rise-and-fall trajectory of John “Buddy” Pearson from a backwoods adolescent to pillar of an all-black community to a philandering preacher. What gives her debut special resonance is that it is a wholly undisguised portrait of her family–not even the names of her siblings have been changed–and she incorporates much of the black folklore, Caribbean mysticism, and African spirituality she encountered in her scholarly research.” D. Cloyce Smith at Amazon
- “I enjoyed this book better than Their Eyes Were Watching God, and that says alot.” Jacque Cartwright “shopper extraordinary” at Amazon
- “Another underground treasure you don’t want to miss.” A Customer at Amazon
Their Eyes Were Watching God (240 pages; 1937). When Janie Crawford returns to her hometown after twenty years, there is lots of gossip about her. She confides her story of self-discovery to her friend.
- “This is a novel of fighting…of overcoming things that most of us can’t even imagine having to overcome.” Chris at Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
- “I’m not remotely qualified to speak to the novel’s credentials as a seminal work of African-American literature … but I can tell you that, academic labels aside, Their Eyes works beautifully as a love story, a shared journey and a sensitive and wryly humorous exploration of the human need to belong, be wanted and be loved.” Moira at Vulpes Libris
- “Their Eyes Were Watching God is many things, and one of them is a very readable piece of good old storytelling.” Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot
- “I’d love to have Janie as a mentor: she’s beautiful, strong, and intelligent. Most of all, she’s true to herself.” Eva at A Striped Armchair
Moses, Man of the Mountain (about 350 pages; 1939). A retelling of the Moses story found in Exodus through the lens of black history in America.
- “Hurston’s novel is particularly relevent in today’s world of spin politics and soundbites. To read this book is to better understand the news you’re stuck with being fed.” Myron Makewater “redcrosseknight” at Amazon
- “I found myself captivated. Hurston made Moses human, with human needs and problems. This made his faith more real. Wonderful, I can’t praise it enough.” A Customer at Amazon
- “It’s often a marvel when an author can take a well-known story and make it seem fresh. … Nevertheless, Hurston manages to make this timeworn story new again for modern readers.” D. Cloyce Smith at Amazon
- “Ms Hurston has a wonderfully unique style of presentation. Zora’s book of Moses is one of the most entertaining, refreshing approaches of story- telling I’ve come across in a while, especially in the biblical realm.” A Customer at Amazon
Seraph on the Suwanee (about 400 pages; 1948). Unlike her other novels and stories, in this novel, Hurston writes about a white couple in Florida, exploring the evolution of a marriage full of love but without communication.
- “Zora Neale Hurston never fails. SERAPH ON THE SUWANEE, Hurston’s lengthiest novel, portrays the lives of Arvay and Jim–a couple who love each other very much, but never seem able to communicate with each other. And Hurston’s background as an anthropologist proves helpful again because this novel features some very interesting and detailed accounts of the lives of the white “Florida Crackers.” Fans of Hurston won’t be disappointed with SERAPH.” A Customer at Amazon
- “Hurston had a way of delving into human emotions and the ways of the heart. This book is a sterling example.” Art Ellis at Amazon
- “An enjoyably complex book that I will re-read again.” Goodreads’ Penumbra
Collected Plays (introduction by Jean Lee Cole and Charles Mitchell; published 2008, information on Amazon). Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (written with Langston Hughes; not produced until 1991) and Color Struck (1926) were some of the most notable plays by Hurston.
- “Hurston and Hughes wrote an interesting play that needs a bit of fine tuning in order to be a truly great play.” (thoughts on Mule Bone) grasshopper4 at Amazon
Mules and Men (about 370 pages; 1935). A collection of black oral history, including songs, sermons, sayings, and tall tales of growing up in the South.
- “[An] Extremely lively participant-observer account of the author socializing with folk in her home time and incidentally sharing stories from the African-American tradition.” antiquary on LibraryThing
- “Includes spells, and superstions, witch craft, and some of the best short stories around. She gathers up the urban legends of the 1930-40′s rural south and connects you to a culture and way of thinking that is both delightful and intriguing. At times amusing; it is written in the way of oral tradition, where people gather around and tell stories, the more outlandish, the more unique the better. Her work is simply wonderful.” Tiffany Tallar “canjubliss” at Amazon
- “[T]his book is much more than a compilation of folk materials. Hurston brings her material to life by bringing the story-tellers and the communities she visited to life.” Robin Friedman at Amazon
Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (about 350 pages; 1937). As the title indicates, the book is Hurston’s account of her travels in the Caribbean.
- “Zora maintains her usual stance of the involved, inquisitive participant, and her initiation into the ways of voodoo was, and is, both remarkable and engaging. From sexism in Jamaica to threats about her voodoo investigations, from commentary on her role as ethnographer to criticism of previous white studies of voodoo, the book is wild, and collects a huge range of important black cultural practices.” Dr. Stephen Hicks at Amazon
- “Finding non-fiction that reads like a novel is a rare and wonderful treasure.” A Customer at Amazon
- “This is one of the best academic ‘insiders’ view of real haitian vodou.” astrea at LibraryThing
Dust Tracks on a Road (about 320 pages; 1942). Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir.
- “The spirit and nature of her life was captured beautifully: a sad (very), positive, hopeful, stubborn, opinionated, strong, resilient, hard-working woman.” Not Miss Havisham at Amazon
- “I found the memoir of this icon of a Renaissance woman to be very exciting and enlightening. Hurston’s revealing portrait was a curious blend of anecdote, memory, and observation.” Monica Frances at Amazon
- “Calling forth her memories from within, spinning yarns of the deep south and beyond, Zora Neale Hurston weaves a tapestry of language in her autobiographical Dust Tracks on a Road. Reading the memoirs of this phenomenal woman with such a zest for life, a love of living, one cannot help but get swept away by her eloquent prose, swept away to her childhood in the south.” A Customer at Amazon
The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston (about 140 pages; first published in 1981) A Collection of some of Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological studies.
- “It’s easy to take for granted, or even be “over” the colloquial speech patterns written phonetically, the spotlights on obscure-but-fascinating folks. It’s easy to forget she was an academic, and these are her reports.” Goodreads’ jainabee
How It Feels to Be Colored Me (1928) Included in many essay anthologies, this is Hurston’s notable self-declaration.
Hoodoo in America (1931) was an essay published in The Journal of American Folklore.
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (edited by Alice Walker; introduction by Mary Helen Washington) (1979). A general reader of Hurston’s work.
Fauset worked as an editor for NAACP’s The Crisis for many years. Many of her essays and stories showed up in those pages, but she also wrote a few novels. Although it is not easy to find collections of only Fauset’s poetry and essays, reading any of them (or many) for this project would also be fine.
There Is Confusion (written 1924; about 300 pages). A middle class African-American family in Pennsylvania and New York City must come to terms with discrimination of the past as the strive for respect in their surroundings.
- “fauset, when she wrote fiction at least, was the louisa may alcott of the harlem renaissance. … this book may be criticized for being too sentimental and/or pedestrian, but i fricking love it and wish it would come back into print.” eliza at Goodreads
- “This novel stands as a testament to the importance of individual relationships and personal happiness in the process of creating larger change.” Christy at Goodreads
- “Excellent characters, a good plot and an interesting perceptive view on the struggles of young African Americans in the 20′s and 30′s.” A.J. Hills at Amazon
Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral(written 1929; about 400 pages). When a black girl in Philadelphia discovers she can pass for white, she flees to New York City in the hopes of a life without discrimination, only to find that being a woman still has it’s complications.
- “I saw more in this story than simply a discussion of color and privilege, I was pleased by the complexity of the relationship between the two sisters in this novel.” Tamara at Amazon.
- “Her writing style proves that a good book is timeless.” alfost on Amazon.
- “The Harlem Renaissance is something great; I read all I can on it. This novel is quite representative of the era. ” A Customer at Amazon.
Chinaberry Tree (written 1931; about 350 pages). Illegitimacy threatens to end the happiness of two cousins.
- “…very few [characters] are ‘types,’ most are flesh-and-blood characters that seem at once strangely familiar and completely individual and unique. The novel incorporates spiritual themes such as individualism vs. community, the role of Providence in our lives, dealing with one’s own and others’ shortcomings, avoiding bitterness in a harsh and unjust world…. It is a rich and complex piece of literature.” Mark P. Buechsel “eichendorff” at Amazon
- “Another success by Jessie Redmon Fauset” A.J. Hills at Amazon
Comedy, American Style (written 1933; 300 pages). A mother denies her clan its heritage.
- “this is her last published novel and it’s her darkest. in that way, it’s interesting and incendiary…” stacia at Goodreads
Although best known as a novelist during the years of the Renaissance, Thurman was influential in Harlem during the later 20s. He worked as an editor The Messenger for many years and corroborated in publishing one volume a new magazine, Fire!, which aimed to profile young black artists. In addition to the two novels mentioned below, Thurman produced a play call Harlem in 1929 and a third novel in 1932 called Interne.
The Blacker the Berry (160 pages; 1929).Thurman’s first novel focuses on discrimination among black people.
- “At once radical and inclusive, Thurman’s work presents a different picture from the stereotypes, and shows how self-acceptance is the prerequisite for social equity.” A Customer at Amazon
- “This beautiful and somewhat sad story is great to read more about colorism and/or color consciousness. the irony in the book is great.” M. Buisman at Amazon
- “Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry was an outstanding piece of work. His vocabulary was exquisite. Emma Lou evoked sorry, shame, and anger in me all at once because I refused to accept her as the “underdog” and her constantly looking for the “right sort of people” to make her feel whole and accepted. I did feel empathy for her because she longed to be truly loved but did not recognize that the ultimate love comes from within and the sooner she accepted herself as a worthy human being she would forever be dissappointed in her relations with others. The book had a lot of passion…” VBHarris at Amazon
Infants of the Spring(about 280 pages; 1932). A thinly disguised memoir of Thurman’s unhappy experiences during the Renaissance, making of fun of characters such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
- “From the conversations between the characters, to the pictures painted of Harlem in the 1920′s, the author gives an intimate look into the thoughts, fashions, music, literature and themes of the day.” A. Grissett “Anthony Amir” at Amazon
- “There are so many memorable characters in this book, and they all are real and possess unique personalities. Even the minor characters are fleshed out.” EarlRandy at Amazon
- “Politically incorrect, pedantic, with laughingly awful flights of “serious writing”, this novel nonetheless opens up a window to the past with an immediacy few novels match. Thurman was there and he lets you know how it was. Important both as a historical document and one of the earliest examples of black gay literature, it will fascinate despite the clumsy writing. A window into a lost world if you’re willing to forgive the prose.” A Customer at Amazon
Fisher wrote a short story (“City of Refuge”) which was included in the 1925 The New Negro edited by Locke. He also wrote the following notable novels.
The Walls of Jericho (1928) A novel about black life in Harlem.
- “There is only one word I can use to describe this and that is fantastic. This book is very well written and contains a good message about peoples personalities. Not only is this book interesting but it is funny as well.” A Customer at Amazon.
- “The pulse of The Walls of Jericho beats to the music of the characters’ intelligence, self-reliance, commitment,and friendship. Although the sting of racism is a central theme, Fisher shines a greater light on the plague of “colorism” and its implications in the African-American culture.” A Customer at Amazon.
- “Hilarious over-the-top satire of the denizens of Harlem during its 1920s Renaissance.” Colleen at Goodreads
The Conjure Man Dies (1932) A mystery set in 1930s Harlem.
- “The language and setting brim with so much vitality that the rather formally structured book feels quite fresh. ” A. Ross at Amazon.
- “It has the vernacular, the attitude, the mystique, and the community values of residents of 1930 Harlem down pat. I found the narrative very inviting. This book has detectives, criminals, lawmen, africans, and mystics. Once you read the first chapter, you will not be able to put the book down.” Raithman at Amazon.
- “I read this book on a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle and just couldn’t put it down. The characters come alive, the plot thickens with each passing page and the ending is fabulous. A MUST READ!!!” Dilip S. Kumar on Amazon.
Although Larsen did not write a lot during the Renaissance, her works are praised for the high quality of writing she shared.
Quicksand (1928; about 145 pages). An “autobiographical portrait of a biracial woman’s quest for self-identity and acceptance offers a cautionary tale of an individual lost between two cultures.” (via Amazon).
- “Quicksand touches upon so many subjects in such a sharp manner that it may take more than one read to discover the hidden layers within the novel. If any novel about race has come close to perfection this has to be the one.” J.C. Vera “intellectualised” at Amazon
- “Nella Larsen’s “Quicksand” is a sleeper masterpiece. She artfully weaves a tale of coming of age & unrequited love. The characters are real, and the conclusion is open to several different interpretations.” Giovanni Turner at Amazon
- “What I loved most was, on the one hand, the descriptions of the stages of Helga’s relationship with religion; and on the other hand her attempts, through whatever means she had at hand, to capture that elusive thing called “happiness”, attempts that never quite succeeded.” girlunderglass at LibraryThing
Passing (1929; about 160 pages) Two light-skinned black women try to escape racism in two different ways. (via Amazon)
- “an incredible, dark exploration of the lengths to which people go to secure personal happiness. … “Passing” manages to both cover and conceal a wealth of issues facing America in the decades preceding the national Civil Rights, Anti-War, and Sexual Revolution movements of the latter half of the 20th century. In the short space of a novella, Larsen produces a work of extraordinary power and indeterminacy. That the issues she addresses are still of a piece with our own present-day social landscape, so “Passing” remains a vital and important literary artifact.” Melvin Pena at Amazon
- “Larsen creates a story which despite its thin appearance, is full with large and small issues alike. Passing is a monumental novel which still applies to the issues that affect us today. Although the conclusion is rather vague and unclear, it is this author’s opinion that the conclusion only adds to the experience of reading and interpreting Passing for yourself. Larsen confronts many substantial issues while using such potent language that everyone can find joy in discovering Passing for themselves.” Greg Hot Stuff Minor at Amazon
- “More than a story of passing, hypocrisy, and adultery, Passing is a complex story of origins, history, and acceptance. ” Peggy Vincent on Amazon
Short Stories, notably “Freedom,” “The Wrong Man,” and “Sanctuary”
- “”The Wrong Man” and “Freedom”– these are two sensational short stories that Larsen published in women’s magazines at the beginning of her writing career. … “Sanctuary” is a brilliant and powerful short story about a man hiding from the law.” C. Gilbert fumiousb at Amazon
George Schuyler was a journalist, novelists, and social commenter during the years of the Renaissance. During World War I, he went AWOL after a white immigrant refused to shine his shoes. He spent nine months in prison for his desertion, and then he headed to Harlem.
Black No More(about 190 pages; 1930). An African-American physician discovers a formula for making blacks appear white; eventually, Max Disher discovers the “absurdities” of racial identity when the realities of white culture doesn’t quite measure to what he expected. (via Amazon).
- “This is a smart and gracefully written read. For anyone interested in considering race theory or race relations in the United States, or for anyone who appreciates satire, this is a must-read. Both frightening and understandable, the book draws you in easily, and holds you almost despite yourself until the inevitable, and yet surprising, end result. Highly recommended.” whitewavedarling at LibraryThing
- “The novel is also a fairly open satire of many of the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois. Schuyler’s prose style is fairly pulpy, but it works well for the satire, and although this review doesn’t necessarily reveal it, its a pretty funny, if occasionally disturbing, novel. ” wrobert at LibraryThing
- “This is a relatively small book, but probably one of the most thought provoking books that I’ve ever read. It forces you to look at the power of racisim in all of its incarnations, whether it is being imposed on black people from white people or if it is imposed on blacks from their own people.” R. Allen “uptown’s own” at Amazon
Black Empire, 1936-1938, 1993 (originally published pseudonymously in the Pittsburgh Courier in serial form as two separate works under the titles The Black Internationale and Black Empire) Google Books (about 330 pages). Written in two parts, this is the story of an African-American doctor who is upset by the racism against blacks; he designs a plan for taking over the world.
- “The story is great fun and Schuyler’s personal conflicts only serve to add a few layers of tension. The reader is often unsure whether he’s writing with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek or whether he’s allowing characters to speak his own forbidden thoughts. That you can read it on various levels merely adds to the enjoyment.” Orrin C. Judd brothersjudddotcom at Amazon
- “Regardless of what one thinks of Schuyler’s politics, Black Empire is unrelenting in its imagining of a different future, and the case for it, Love of super science , administrative utopia, women’s rights, seats it clearly with the great revolutionary utopian texts of the early twentieth century. The serial format makes it an action-driven romp as well.” Goodreads’ HonRevDrStainTruth
- “It’s interesting in what it addresses about race, as well as an entertaining read. ” Goodreads’ Kistiana Larimor
Rac(e)ing to the Right: Selected Essays of George S. Schuyler (published 2001)
- “Agree with him or not, Schuyler will make a person think.” Derek Manchette at Amazon
Black and Conservative (published 1966). Schuyler’s autobiography; now out of print.
Although an African-American, Walter White was blond haired and blue-eyed, and so able to pass as white; he was able to learn a lot about the politics of the races. White was an influential founder and leader of NAACP, as well as a respected journalist, novelist and essayist during the Harlem Renaissance. (via Wikipedia)
The Fire in the Flint (1924; about 300 pages). A medical student returns to his home in the South and must face racism anew.
- “Overall this novel is tragic but insightful and as a student I found it very instructive.” A Customer at Amazon
- “he tells an intriguing tale of racism in the south during the early part of the twentieth century.” Goodreads’ Bridget Mabunga
- “a very impressive first effort, given that it is alleged that White wrote the entire novel only in a matter of weeks while on a vacation.” Hugh Pearson at Amazon
Flight (1926; about 300 pages). A New Orleans mulatto woman travels to Atlanta and then to Harlem, learning about the color-line, castes, and other challenges of being African-American.
A Man Called White (about 390 pages; 1948). White’s autobiography.
- “I read this autobiography in college, and it took my breath away. White … writes candidly of his work and life in the fight for civil rights. … The man was no saint … but you cannot read this book without having some kind of change in your thinking on race relations–then or now.” Lone Star Reader at Amazon
- “Fascinating.” Roseanne at Goodreads
Rope and Faggot (1929; about 270 pages). A first-hand account of a series of lynchings in the South.
A Rising Wind (1945, about 150 pages). An examination of discrimination of African American soldiers during WWII.
How Far the Promised Land(1955; about 240 pages). A description of the history of the Civil Rights movement, from the First World War until Vietnam. Now out of print
Richard Nugent’s Renaissance short story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,”(1926) is considered the first publication by an African-American to depict homosexuality. He also wrote novels, painted, and acted in key Renaissance plays.
Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selected Writings of Richard Bruce Nugent (issued in 2002; about 310 pages). A collection of Nugent’s most significant writings, paintings, and drawings, plus some biographical information.
- “Nugent, in “Smoke” and most other writings, was a blatant cheerleader for the Renaissance. I found his work challenging, though at times incredibly boring. It’s admitted that his artwork is faux Erte, but it’s implied homoeroticism must truly be relished. Be warned that it’s very campy. I applaud Nugent in his continual inclusion of women in his artwork, non-fiction, and fiction.” Jeffrey Mingo at Amazon
- “Gay Rebel” is a superb contribution to both African-American studies and gay studies. But beyond that it’s a very moving tribute to a remarkable cultural figure.” Michael J. Mazza at Amazon
- “Wirth allows Nugent’s words to speak for Nugent himself by offering a variety of work that was unpublished during Nugent’s lifetime and forgotten or lost. Wirth gives a brief introduction to each piece of work presented explaining nuiances and the history behind it. In addition, presented in GAY REBLE.. are some of Nugent’s diverse artwork.”`T. Kelley at Amazon
Gentleman Jigger (written 1928-1936, not published until 2008; about 350 pages). Story of a gay African-American man in the Jazz Age in Harlem.
- “Although the narrative is diffuse, the book shocks. It is sarcastic and earthy, stunning and eerie as it deals openly with sexual politics. It is a satire that reveals a great deal and an extremely important addition to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.” Amos Lassen at Amazon
Eric Walrond (1898-1966) wrote short stories, which were collected into a volume in 1926 (Tropic Death). His themes often revolve around the Pan-Caribbean diaspora. Short stories include: A Senator’s Memoirs” (1921); On Being Black (1922);On Being a Domestic (1923);Miss Kenny’s Marriage(1923);The Stone Rebounds (1923);Vignettes of the Dusk (1924);The Black City (1924);and City Love (1927).
May Miller (1899-1995) wrote award winning plays during the Harlem Renaissance. After the movement ended, she also wrote a number of volumes of poetry, which now appear to be out of print.
Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981) made a significant contribution to periodicals during the Harlem Renaissance in both poetry and prose. She is best known for her short story entitled “Wedding Day,” which appeared first in 1926.