Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

An unintentional theme uniting my reading, of late, has been greatness unacknowledged or unappreciated. Leonard Gardner’s Fat City and John Williams’ Stoner deserve far more acclaim than they have won, and certainly more than they knew in the lifetimes of their authors. The same can be said for Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God, which belongs beside The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury on the short list of great 20th century American novels. First published in 1937, it was destined to sink like a stone in the political atmosphere of the time, where the small but remarkably talented community of black American writers demanded bold assertions of black equality or harsh condemnations of white racism. Both Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright – giants of black America’s literary scene – condemned Hurston’s novel, and on similar grounds: Ellison referred to the book’s “blight of calculated burlesque,” while Wright was even more scathing:

Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley… Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

It would seem both men were more focused on the book’s hypothetical reception among white audiences than on its own merits. Their shortsightedness might have been excusable in the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1970s, when a new generation of writers and thinkers looked to black American literature with renewed interest, a reappraisal was long overdue. It was Alice Walker, in an essay entitled “Looking for Zora” published in Ms. magazine, who is owed the greatest debt for rehabilitating Zora Neale Hurston in the public imagination, just as it was Walker who sought out Hurston’s grave, in a “blacks only” Florida cemetery, and marked it with a new headstone.

What condemned Hurston to obscurity in her own time was her absolute insistence on artistic autonomy, as unfashionable today as it was then. While her fellow black artists were hewing to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Uplift” agenda, which sought to counter centuries of racist propaganda, Hurston carved her own path: Their Eyes Were Watching God has almost no white characters, and those few that do exist – despite their prejudices – do not hold sway over the lives of the novel’s black characters. (The majority of the book’s events take place in an all-black Florida town, modelled after Eatonville, where Hurston grew up.) Asked why she seemingly side-stepped the most imperative political question of the day, the so-called “race problem,” Hurston was unapologetic:

Because I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. […] I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now, not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.

Judged by that standard, Their Eyes Were Watching God is an unqualified success. The novel is plotted as a retrospective: Janie Crawford, a black woman in her early 40s, recounts the events of her life to her best friend, Phoebe Watson, after having returned from an extended trip. But the first voice we readers encounter is not Janie’s but Zora’s, and the opening paragraphs – deeply lyrical, hauntingly evocative – merit quotation:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

In three paragraphs, we move from the abstraction of “man” to the abstraction of “women” before we arrive, finally, at a particular woman, someone who has lately been “burying the dead,” and not the dead of old age or lengthy illness, but the “sudden dead,” those taken before their time – the hardest to bury. This is Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, who, we soon learn, has been in Florida with her third husband, Tea Cake, some ten years her junior. She arrives at sundown, an inopportune time when the men and women of the town are on their porches, eager to gossip, and we get our first glimpse of the power of words in Hurston’s world, as these idlers speculate about Janie’s fate: “They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.” Hurston studied anthropology and ethnography at Barnard and Columbia, and so, unlike Ellison, who saw only a “burlesque,” she was able to appreciate the linguistic inventiveness of the black dialect. Degraded, downtrodden, and denied the full citizenship rights of their white compatriots, the men and women of black America nonetheless found the words to shape their inmost thoughts and feelings, and their particular genius for self-expression is evidenced on almost every page of this book. Here, for example, is how Janie and Pheoby greet each other:

“Hello, Janie, how you comin’?”
“Aw, pretty good, Ah’m tryin’ to soak some uh de tiredness and de dirt outa mah feet.” She laughed a little.
“Ah see you is. Gal, you sho looks good. You looks like youse yo’ own daughter.” They both laughed. “Even wid dem overhalls on, you shows yo’ womanhood.”
“G’wan! G’wan! You must think Ah brought yuh somethin’. When Ah ain’t brought home a thing but mahself.”
“Dat’s a gracious plenty. Yo’ friends wouldn’t want nothin’ better.”

This is a book to be read aloud, it so lavishes us in sound. And if we don’t yet take Pheoby at her word, that the reception of Janie is a “gracious plenty,” we soon will, for Janie, “full of that oldest human longing – self revelation,” begins to share the details of her life. “Ah been a delegate to de big ‘ssociation of life,” she boasts. “Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just where Ah been dis year and a half y’all ain’t seen me.”

And yet, when she begins to tell her story, it does not begin a year and a half ago, but with her childhood. “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” If your life is a tree, the story begins at the roots. At sixteen, Janie is being raised by her grandmother, who tells us the painful truth of Janie’s conception: Janie’s mother was raped, at 17, by her own schoolteacher, who ran off the very next day, leaving her with the double burden of pregnancy. One of the book’s most beautiful and moving passages describes Janie’s grandmother’s wish for her grandchild:

You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will. Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did. Ah even hated de way you was born. But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance. Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said ah’d take a brook and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. She would expound what Ah felt. But somehow she got lost offa de highway and next thing Ah knowed here you was in de world. So whilst Ah was tendin’ you of nights Ah said Ah’d save de text for you. Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed.

I see no burlesque in this passage, and certainly nothing so degrading as pointless misery. I see an elderly woman, noble despite long suffering, expressing that most ancient of human wishes: that her daughter live a greater, freer life than she did. Note, also, her poignant lament: “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.” This book is that sermon, the story of one woman’s ascent to individuality (described, again and again, in terms of finding her own words).

It takes Janie Crawford three marriages and four decades, but she emerges from her travails on high ground, exactly where her grandmother envisioned her. But Their Eyes Were Watching God is not, as modern scholarship would have it, only the story of a woman’s emancipation; it is also a love story, and that love – between Janie and Tea Cake – is inextricably bound up with Janie’s budding individuality. Janie’s first marriage, to a much older, wealthy black man, is a concession to her grandmother, who wants for her what she believes to be the good life: material comfort. But her husband cannot see beyond Janie’s physical beauty, and the marriage, therefore, is a new form of bondage. Her second husband is little better, treating Janie as an adornment to his life, rather than a being separate from him. Tea Cake, however, is different. “Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles,” she tells Phoeby, early in her relationship to Tea Cake. “Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

For its psychological acuity, for the kinetic energy of its dialogue, and for the truth of its characterization, Their Eyes Were Watching God is nothing less than a masterpiece, and Janie Crawford is as memorable and fully formed a character as exists in American fiction.