The title line in Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) comes a good way into the novel. In the middle of a terrible hurricane, isolated in a migrant bean-picking camp near Lake Okeechobee, Florida, terrified people watch and wait.
“The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be starring at the dark , but their eyes were watching God.”
The storm, as storms in hundreds of other stories, is both itself, and an allegory of life, in its fullness, set against the “puny” strength of those in its midst.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was Hurston’s second novel, of four, and an addition to her many essays, short-stories, and anthropological studies. It tells the story of a spunky young woman, Janie, who has been after married off to an older man by her worried, severe, grandmother after seeing the 14 year old try her first kiss over the back yard fence. Into the stultifying mystery of marriage comes a much more promising man – young, and fun Joe Starks. He is filled with energy and entrepreneurial spirit and heading for a new town he has heard of, run for and by Negroes. For love and adventure she takes-up with him, away from husband and home. Joe promptly begins to spin energy into the small colony that has settled away from whites and with land they can call their own. He opens a store and is soon elected Mayor. With his new found importance the bloom between them begins to fade. She worries over the strain she feels.
“…it jus’ looks lak it keeps us in some way we ain’t natural wid one ‘nother. You’se always off talkin’ and fixin’ things, and Ah feels lak Ah’m jus’ markin’ time. Hope it soon gits over.”
“Over, Janie? I god, Ah ain’t even started good. Ah told you in the very first beginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ’cause dat makes a big woman outta you.”
A feeling of coldness and fear took hold of her. She felt far away from things, and lonely.
Salted throughout the story are front-porch stories between the older residents, bantering and slyly poking fun at one another. Flirtation and mock flirtation are a constant, and jealousy. Joe insists Janie wear a head-rag while working in the store so bothersome male customers can’t get a good, desirous, look at her hair. Fanciful one-up boasting about what a poor man would buy for a beautiful woman follows endless mule-talk about a neighbor’s wash-board ribbed mule.
Hurston’s insight into the ways of men and women is direct and true, and comes in language so engaging it’s hard to forget.
The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back into the bedroom again. …The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.
She wasn’t petal-open with him anymore. She was twenty-four, and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her in the kitchen….
The tension, in private and in public continue until finally Joe passes on, both of them bitter.
“All dis bowin’ down. All dis obedience under yo’ voice aint whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you.
Within weeks of Joe’s passing, Janie is the propertied widow of interest for men all over the county. Tea Cake, as he is called, 15 years younger and much of dandy, becomes her main interest, to the scandal of everyone in town.
He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be the bee to a blossom — a pear blossom in the spring. he seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
Despite their difference in age, despite the warnings from the neighbors that Tea Cake cannot be trusted she cannot resist.
“Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out of its hiding place.”
Given the attention and praise The Eyes of God has received in recent years, after its exhumation from the graveyard of forgotten novels by Alice Walker in 1973, it is interesting that its reception in 1937, especially by the Negro literary elite, was far from fulsome.
Though Arna Bontemps, who knew her from their Harlem years, 1925-26, praised “the gusto and flavor” of Hurston’s storytelling, Richard Wright wrote a scathing review in New Masses, saying it did for literature what the minstrels show did for theater — make white folks laugh. “It carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Another critic, Black scholar Alain Locke, accused her of creating “pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over, and envy. Ralph Ellison said the book contained a “blight of calculated burlesque.”
There were several issues it seems. Hurston was one of the many writers, intellectuals, artists and musicians in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s. She was also one of the few women. The rising urban, arts and intellectual community was intent on pushing back against the ugly and demeaning stereotypes of Negroes which dominated white politics and culture. Her characters in Their Eyes, rural and unschooled, did not meet the need for race uplift that inspirited so many. Not only that, Janie, the lead character was a self-determining woman; neither she, nor the narrator had high praise for Negro men. The majority, male writers, took notice of that. She was reinforcing the stereotypes held by whites, as it seemed to them.
“Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession.”
“Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.”
Interestingly, Wright himself was similarly castigated by James Baldwin and others, a few years later, for Bigger Thomas, in Native Son, for much the same reasons.
Hurston’s frank, and poetic sexual representation undoubtedly added to the lukewarm reception of Their Eyes. “She wasn’t petal-open to him anymore,” indeed! And by a woman, who put in print the enjoyment bodies find with each other!
The homeliness of the characters and their lives was exacerbated by Hurston’s use of written representation of rural Negro dialect, or eye-dialect as it’s sometimes called.
“Dat’s right, but Ah’m uh man even if Ah is de Mayor. But de mayor’s wife is somethin’ different again. Any how they’s liable tuh need me tuh say uh few words over de carcass, dis bein’ uh special case. But you ain’t goin’ off in all dat mess uh commonness. Ah’m surprised at yuh fuh askin’.”
Such dialect-in-print was once favored by many writers, in newspapers and dime-novels, either as an honest attempt at representation, or as snide caricature. Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner used it, effectively thought some, distracting and unnecessary by others. Its use has fallen far from favor in the past half-century, lead by many of the Harlem Renaissance, condemned as demeaning, implying the ignorance of the speakers. Hurston thought little of such opinions by her peers — “the niggerati” as she sometimes called them. Though Alice Walker and others have revived dialect use in their more recent fiction, it is a bit odd to encounter Hurston’s perhaps over-use of it. On the page it may be either difficult or annoying. However, as read by Ruby Dee for Audible the dialect rings true, with marvelous cadences and unexpected imagery. I’d strongly suggest you listen to, as well as read, the book. Such dialect is now understood as one of many linguistic variations of English, studied by linguists and anthropologists alike. Movie directors spend money and effort to get dialects right in their films. Zora Neale Hurston we can now see as an expert at code-shifting.
In recent years, Hurston has come to be recognized as one of the founding generation of Black American letters. Alice Walker in particular has championed her work. A decade after Hurston’s death in 1960, impoverished and in a Florida welfare home, Walker took a trip to find her grave, and more about her life. In an 1975 essay for Ms. Magazine, “Looking for Zora,” Walker brought her back from obscurity and into the light of new appreciation. Their Eyes Were Watching God, she has said “speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done. Zadie Smith writes in a blurb for the latest edition: “A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.” Toni Morrison says Hurston “is one of the greatest writers of our time.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God had insignificant sales when it was published in 1937. Since its revival, following Alice Walker’s essay, and with the rise of Black Studies in universities, and Black Feminism widely, it has sold over one million copies. It is now commonly referred to as “beloved,” ” a favorite novel,” and a classic of the the Harlem Renaissance.
In these years of wide reading, bringing the world of China, Algeria, India and Russia into closer sight, it would seem a good and necessary thing to turn our attention to those forgotten, hidden and suppressed writers of our own country, to understand them, and ourselves, in better measure. Zora Neale Hurston is a good place to start.
An official website is maintained in her name, here.
Her posthumously released anthropological-memoir, Barracoon, is reviewed here.
If you’d like to read more about her, start here.