SUDDENLY COLLEGE students are picking up a 40-year-old novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," and embracing its author, Zora Neale Hurston, and the book's heroine, Janie, as models for these freethinking times.

Suddenly Hurston, the most prolific black woman writer of her day, a woman who died in near-obscurity and poverty 18 years ago, a woman who was only consistent in the paradox of her moods, postures and ideas, is the center of a cult.

A fixture of the New York literary scene in the 1920s and 1930s, the folklorist and writer was one of the most controversial, colorful, ambivalent and lonely characters of those complicated times. It was a fast time and this woman from a remote Florida hamlet met the pace; sometimes she set it.

"Hurston was both a social and intellectual force in the group (the black artists known as the Harlem Renaissance). Probably the quickest wit in a very witty lot, she proclaimed herself 'Queen of the Niggerati,' and entertained entire parties with tales of Eatonville," wrote her biographer, Robert E. Hemenway. "She constantly stressed a need for a 'natural' art that did not emulate a bourgeois world, that was true to one's instincts of the moment, and she seldom hesitated to follow a whim."

With equal aplom, her head wrapped in African cloth or a spangled tam pulled over her eyes, Hurston would dance on a table for Sinclair Lewis, throw herself on the floor to make a point, or close her bedroom door on her guests and write through the night. She felt comfortable experiencing a voodoo initiation, "woofing" with lumberjacks, writing forthe American Legion Magazine, bringing gospel singers into the Park Avenue living room of a white patron or knocking out some joker who made a pass in the elevator.

Now Hurston has generated a movement. A group of Washington black women writers have dedicated a current exhibition on view at the Watha T. Daniel Library to her. Roger Rosenblatt, critic and columnist, has placed "Eyes," along with Milton's "Areopagitica" and Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" on a suggested reading list for Jimmy Carter.

The University of Illinois Press recently published the first biography of Hurston and a paperback reissue of "Eyes." The initial printings of both were 4,000 copies. "That's an unusual number for us but we felt both would be good sellers because of the interest in Hurston. Robert Hemenway's book sold 1,000 copies in its first month of publication," said one editor. A Hurston reader, edited by novelist and poet Alice Walker, will be published this fall by The Feminist Press. A new edition of "Mules and Men," her classic book of folklore, will be published this summer by the University of Indiana Press.

The libraries at the Howard and yale Universities and the University of Florida - the major repositories of Hurston materials - all report increased requests in the last two years. Said Laura Monti of the University of Florida at Gainesville, "For 10 years the papers were barely touched. But in the last two years the letters and visits from scholars have increased. Right now one dissertation and two masters theses on Hurston are in the works."

Why Hurston? Why Now? Alice Walker, who played a part in the resurgence by finding Hurston's unmarked grave in a pauper's cemetery in 1973, observed, "We are ready for her complexity. We are ready for someone who was herself and never held back." Larry Neal, the director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, wrote the introductions to two of Hurston's hardback reissues in 1971 and an unproduced screenplay based on "Eyes." Neal said, "She was a very free, exciting, intelligent woman. The times are now bland."

Born at the turn of the century in a rural, all-black Florida community, Hurston grew up in a large family. All her life she was energetic, open and daring, following her mother's advice to "jump at de sun." As a teen-ager she worked as a maid to an actress and landed at Howard University in the early 1920s. There she turned to writing. By the time Hurston reached New York in 1925, she was known as a gifted writer, and a spellbinding raconteur. She was also a pioneering anthropologist of black folklore, studying at Barnard College with the famed scientist, Franz Boas. Her first novel, "Jonah's Gourd Vine," was published in 1934, and before she died in 1960 she published two books of folklore, four novels, an autobiography, a score of short stories, essays and newspaper articles, two plays and some musical libretti.

Talent was her asset, not beauty. She once wrote, " . . . my face looking like it had been chopped out of a knot of pine wood with a hatchet on somebody's off day . . ." She was a plain-looking woman, with a broad nose, retreating eyes, high cheekbones and freckles.

Yet her ordinary looks are hardly ever mentioned. She is remembered for her flamboyance. Often she wore slacks and boots in a day when necklines were just dropping and hems rising; often a Pall Mall was dangling from her lips.

She could be outrageous - coining words like "Niggerati" for the contemporary black writers and spokesmen, "Negrotarians" for the racial uplift proselytes and "Astorperious" for the stuffed-shirts.Her opinions, as well as her actions, were frequently at odds with the other blacks in literary circles. She would go to a Barnard College alumni meeting, and jump up on the table, hiking up her chiffon skirt, and demonstrate how blacks shoot craps in turpentine camps. When the novelist Fannie Hurst asked Hurston, who briefly worked as Hurst's secretary, to pose as an African princess so they would be served in a segregated restaurant, Hurston acquiesced. Afterwards, Hurston said, "I didn't know a good meal could be so bitter."

To study voodoo, she underwent initiation by followers of the famed Madame Leveau in New Orleans. Hurston fasted for 69 hours, lay naked on a couch with a snake skin on her navel and had, by her own account, five psychic experiences. "In one, I strode across the heavens with lightinng flashing from under my feet, and grumbling thunder following in my wake," she recalled. Still, she moved with ease at the salons of writers and patrons, Carl Van Vechten and Nancy Cunard, and didn't think anything of stopping a brother on Lenox Avenue and measuring his head for her anthropological studies.

"She was full of sidesplitting anecdotes, humorous tales and tragicomic stories . . . She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next," described Langston Hughes. "To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect 'darkie' in the nice meaning they give the term - that is, naive, childlike, sweet, humorous and highly colored Negro . . . But Miss Hurston was clever, too." Hughes' friendship with Hurston turned bitter after she threatened a libel suit over material they had for a play.

Not surprisingly her flamboyance drew criticism. Amond her faults, her peer felt, were a dependence on w*hites for approval (financial patrons were a necessity for most), a comfort in playing their pet black, conservative political views and picturesque writing that skipped over questions on racial oppression. Richard Wright, the most successful black writer of the last 40 years, said in a review for New Masses that she was perpetuating a minstrel image.

Now, as the country has eased into a largely nonactivist and narcissistie period, several trends have undergirded the Hurston reinterest. First, feminism - witness the activity around Virginia Woolf, George Sand and other woman writers. Janie Crawford, Hurston's best known character, fights against the restrictions of her first two husbands and revels in the embryonic self-respect of the third. "Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil . . . The funeral was going on outside . . . Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life . . . she sent her face to Joe's funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world."

Second, the renewed scholarship and craze around folklore, the occult and ethnic heritage, the foundations of Hurston's research and writing. "She seized her husband's razor and split the live bird down the breast and thrust her fist inside. As the hot blood and entrails enveloped her hand, she went into a sort of frenzy, shouting, 'I got her, I got her, I got her now,'" goes a folklore-inspired scene in "Mules and Men."

Third, the hunger for different role models has added to Hurston's renewed popularity. Traditionally dominating the media's portrayal of black women have been the superstars - the lone achievers in sports, politics or entertainment - or the narrow, negative stereotypes, such as the hussy, the long-suffering mother or the dutiful maid. In her complex individuality, Hurston presents sizable faults, ample flair, but, most important, a healthy and loving understanding of ordinary black men and women.

Hurston once set the record straight on her own personality. "I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my eyes . . . No, I do not weep at the world - I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

Zora Neale Hurston was born Jan. 7, 1901 (she sometimes used 1902 or 1903) in Eatonville, Fla., the first incorporated all-black town in the United States.

She was born a rebel. She was born curious about the "horizon." And her father, a carpenter, preacher and for three terms, Eatonville's mayor, worried. "He predicted dire things for me. The white folks were not going to stand for it. I was going to be hung before I got grown," wrote Hurston in her autobiography, " Dust Tracts on a Road."

To a degree, Hurston was right. Zora Hurston never had an easy life. When she was 9, her mother died, and she ended up in a boarding school in Jacksonville. After a few frustrating years, Hurston left school and became a maid to a member of a Gilbert and Sullivan traveling troupe.

After the storefront porches of Eatonville, Hurston's next literary watering hole was Howard University. Through the nudging of Washington poet and playwright May Miller Sullivan, whom she met in Baltimore, Hurston arrived at Howard in 1923. During her year at Howard, Hurston paid her bills by working as a waitress at the Cosmos Club and as a manicurist. At Howard she came under the influence of literary critic-scholar Alain Locke, among others. In 1925 she won a prestigious prize from Opportunity Magazine, organ of the National Urban League.%TMay Miller remembered the party after the awards ceremony: "Zora loved the tall tales, loved the attention, and she walked into this room, flung a winding, bright scarf around her neck and bellowed, 'Calaaah struuuck.'" "Color Struck" was the name of her award-winning play. Once entrenched in New York, Hurston attended Barnard on a scholarship and received her B.A. in 1928.

Under the tutelage of Franz Boas, and with the financial help of Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, Hurston spent most of the next decard collecting folklore in the South and the Caribbean. She taught briefly at Bethune Cookman College, also worked for the Works Progress Administration and for Paramount Studios as a writer.

Throughout her life, Hurston put her career before love. Two husbands intruded briefly, but she had a skeptical view of love."I was assailed by doubts. For the first time since I met him, I asked myself if I really were in love, or if this had been a habit. I had an uncomfortable feeling of unreality. The day and the occasion did not underscore any features of nature or circumstance, and I wondered why. Who had conceled the well-advertised tour of the moon? Somebody had turned a hose on the sun," was her viewpoint.

In her 1942 autobiography Hurston concluded, "Well, that is the way things stand up to now. I can look back and see sharp shadows, high lights and smudgy in betweens. I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands."

Six years later, Sorrow's kitchen seemed to take up permanent residence in Hurston's life. In September, "See HURSTON, F7, Col. 1> 1948, she was arrested in New York on a morals charge, accused of seducing a 10-year-old boy.Though the charges were dismissed, the black press created a front-page scandal. Her current novel, "Seraph on the Suwanee," an exploration of white Southerners, turned out to be her last published book. Thoroughly depressed over the scandal, she contemplated suicide, writing to a friend, " All that I have believed in had failed me. I have resolved to die."

Instead Hurston returned to the South that gave her rich material, psychic security but little financial comfort. her manuscripts were rejected and two years after the morals charge she was working as a maid when her employer discovered an article by Hurston in the Saturday Evening Post.

Despite the dramatic ricochet, Hurston never became totally inactive. In the 1950s, she covered the sensational trial of Ruby McCollum, the black mistress of a white Florida politician, for the Pittsburgh Courier, and contributed to several periodicals. She continued her independent political ways, championing George Smathers and Robert Taft, and criticizing the Supreme Court desegregation decision of 1954. Hurston interpreted it as a put-down of black teachers.

Just before she died, suffering from obesity, ulcers and hypertension, she wrote her first husband: "We struggled so hard to make our big dreams come true, didn't we? The world has gotten some benefits from us, though we had a swell time too. We lived!"

The people who have stimulated the Zora Neale Hurston cult have all come to the same crossroads for different reasons. In life and legacy, she had something for everybody.

"To me she was a fine scholar and writer who didn't fit the mold of her time," said Robert Hemenway, the author of "Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography." Hemenway, who is white, teaches at the University of Kentucky. "In her field she was a very affirmative person, showing that black culture was sophisticated and artistic. Even now that's not a widely accepted theory."

It was an essay that Hemenway wrote for an early 1970s anthology on the Harlem Renaissance that caught Alice Walker's attention. "Hemenway wrote that Zora was buried in an unmarked grave. I was insulted," said Walker. She wrote a very personal essay of her discovery of Hurston's grave for MS Magazine, which itself sparked much of the interest in Hurston.

Though novelist Ishmael Reed dismesses some of the new interest in Hurston as grandstanding and exploitation by "the feminists," he credited Hurston's influence on his own work, steeped in the hoodoo esthetic. "I greatly admire Hurston for her individualism. Studying the occult was a bold step in the 1920s. It is still considered subversive. But she was an intellectual maverick, some of us are often timid, but she was brave."

Verta Mae Grosvenor, a New York-based cookbook and short-story author, rereads "Eyes" each year and feels a different kinship to Hurston.

"You know that story about the woman discovering the maid was a writer? Well, sometimes I cater when I'm not writing. once I was doing an office party at a foundation where I had applied for a grant. There I was cooking and serving the board. And a sister on the reception desk asked, 'Aren't you the Verta Mae I saw on 'Soul?'' a New York television show. I laughed but I rememberedZora," said Grosvenor. "But you know one reason for this new interest, and it's not to take away from the serious study, but isn't it better to deal with a dead, outrageous woman than a living one?"

And she was, according to some Washingtonians who knew her, shocking, mesmerizing and wicked. "She was a great yarn spinner. She would keep you in stitches," said Sterling A.Brown, poet and folklorist. Like many others, Brown has been a critic of Hurston's interpretations.

"She didn't talk of the bitterness. She didn't reveal the harsh side of Negro life in the South," said Brown. "But her achievements are important in spite of that. She showed that folk material is a valuable literary material, as is the folk language. She didn't just collect material, she fashioned it into an art."

More than 30 years ago, Dorothy Porter, the bibliograper and former director of Howard's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, spent one evening with Hurston talking about folklore-gathering "She was intriguing. She was very animated. I had the same sort of reaction to (W.E.B.) DuBois, you just wanted to listen," said Porter. "I just don't just remember the specifics but whatever she said, I was awed."

The last time Mae Miller Sullivan saw Hurston was at a party in Washington, shortly after the morals charge. "She was not really depressed, somewhat bitter and she has brought all her possessions here and was staying for a while," said Sullivan.

"But she wasn't subdued that evening. She had a certain bearing, a flair. She rode high. She made much of what she had, whether it was writing or dressing. You had a notion she had come up knowing she had to use what she had."