By John Winters
Zora Neale Hurston wrote her famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in seven weeks in 1936. It was a fast birth, but the conception must not have been easy. After quitting a much younger man, and heading off to do anthropological work on a Guggenheim grant in Haiti and Jamaica, the author settled down to write a story that was “damned up” in her. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you,” she said. And so in Haiti, she penned what would become a book for the ages.
That tale focuses on a woman named Janie Crawford and her journey to find herself. Janie returns to her Florida home to reflect on the outcome of her third marriage to a charismatic man named Tea Cake. In recounting her tale, Janie also tells of her first two marriages, neither borne out of love and both quickly turning to disaster. Janie is stronger for her trials and returns home at peace with her life.
Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Fla., an all-black community. She bounced around different schools growing up, but eventually found her way to Barnard College. After graduation, she befriended the leading lights of the African American literary world, including the poet Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote a play. Hurston also wrote articles and short stories, but didn’t become famous until the publication of “Eyes,” her second novel.
The book is often viewed as a rebuke to W.E.B. Du bois’ Racial Uplift Program, his assertion that African Americans should forge and maintain a positive identity in American society. Hurston’s famous novel, meanwhile, is full of characters that speak in dialect. ”Lawd a’ mussy! Look lak Ah kin see it all over again,” is a typical line of dialogue. This did not mesh well with the concept of uplifting the race, perhaps, but it was real. Which is what Hurston was going for. It also drew on her work as a folklorist. The use of dialect, or vernacular, makes reading the book a bit of a challenge, but soon the sound and rhythm of Hurston’s unique style becomes familiar and adds a sense of realism to “Eyes” that would be achievable no other way.
The remarkable thing about the novel is the way Hurston depicts the obstacles facing Janie. For what is a quest if it’s easy going all the way? Janie’s first two husbands present formidable challenges to her destiny: they make her cover up her long, beautiful hair. They tell her to be quiet. They compare her to an animal and make her work long, hard hours. One of them even strikes her. The symbols and actions are powerful, recalling the ways of slavery. They take away her sexuality. They silence her voice. They treat her like property. They try to beat her into subservience. Yet, through it all, Janie gets the last laugh, leaving or outliving them and going on to find a new and better life.
Judgment is another major theme throughout the story. Janie’s neighbors sit on the porch and tsk tsk as she saunters by, thinking and saying the most unsavory things about her. Like an angry Greek chorus, the women prattle on, but do nothing so much as project onto Janie their own dashed hopes and missed chances. However, Janie’s quest was always to find true love. She does, and ultimately knows that it’s better to have… Well, I’ll keep the spoilers to myself.
In real life, “Eyes” faced plenty of judgment itself. Viewed by some as the first feminist novel in the African-American canon, and a book that was surprisingly full of humor, “Eyes” is hailed as a milestone in fiction, and a highlight of the Harlem Renaissance. However, others protested that the use of vernacular played to negative stereotypes.
In the end, things didn’t turn out so well for Zora. Her books went out of print and in her later years she struggled with a lack of money and health problems. She died in 1960, and her grave was unmarked until the novelist Alice Walker and scholar Charlotte Hunt tracked her burial site down in 1973 and had a marker put up. Walker became a champion of her idol, saying of “Eyes,” “There is no book more important to me than this one.” It was the boost Zora Nealre Hurston needed. Today, her famous book is de rigueur on syllabi around the U.S. and beyond. Its love story, themes, comedy and tragedy continue to speak to readers of all ages and backgrounds.
Read more: Off the shelf: A look back at Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ - Quincy, MA - The Patriot Ledger http://www.patriotledger.com/blogs/bookmarks/x1406975088/Off-the-shelf-A-look-back-at-Zora-Neale-Hurston-s-Their-Eyes-Were-Watching-God#ixzz2g9PSSBMo
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