Hemenway is nationally recognized for his biography of African-American novelist, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. With an introduction by novelist Alice Walker, the biography won a number of awards and was listed by The New York Times among its "Best Books of 1978." In 1991, a reprinting was included as a Quality Paperback Book Club selection.
Born in Sioux City, Iowa, and raised in Iowa and Nebraska, Hemenway received his bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and his doctorate in English from Kent State University in Ohio at age 24. He has served as chancellor of the University of Kansas since 1995.