Of late, I find I am easily overwhelmed when either witnessing or experiencing what appears and feels to me to be some aspect of beauty, goodness, kindness, and love, am brought to quick tears by all of it. I’ve avoided listening to a beloved piece of music because of an unwillingness to undergo what would be its effect. Such had been the same with the reading of a novel I was required to write about. I put off reading the work. How could I bear the book? I read it once long ago. Its beauty was a revelation then, a natural poetry in nearly every passage. How could I read it again now? Its words would make me weep, yet the paper was due. I read; I wept. Such is the beauty of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I could not write about the novel without considering something Hurston herself had to say about looking at works of art. In editor Cheryl A. Wall’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, A Casebook, Hurston is quoted as having written that “‘we each have our own standards of art, and thus we are all interested parties and so unfit to pass judgments upon the art concepts of others.” This advice is not always followed; for proof, look no further than what some of Hurston’s contemporaries had to say about her novel. The esteemed Alain Locke, seen as the dean of the Harlem Renaissance, thought it an “oversimplification” of the life Hurston sought to depict. Richard Wright considered it “minstrelsy.” Ralph Ellison called it “calculated burlesque.” These responses bring to mind a question posed in “Postcolonial Fiction and the Outsider Within,” an essay by Brooke Lenz in which she asks “…to what extent any given literary analysis reflects the standpoint of the critic, rather than the character or author.”
So, what is one to make of Their Eyes Were Watching God other than how it makes one think and feel? Is it possible to suss out Hurston’s intent in writing the novel – assuming she had one? For all the reams of information proffered by scholars, it may be best to read what Hurston writes about it. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she tells the reader that she wrote the book “under internal pressure in seven weeks” following a romance with a younger man that had ended, and that – in the book – she had “tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him.” She accomplishes much more than that. To me, it seems that Hurston, in her mid-forties at the time and conducting ethnographic research in Haiti, decided to use a good part of her life-experiences to create the story the reader encounters. Hurston seems to revel in Black culture at its roots, in Black independence (that of individuals and of communities), and in the joys and vagaries of human existence — of being alive.
One of the most striking features of Zora Neale Hurston’s work is her use of a culture’s root — its language. This, no doubt, can be attributed to her skill as a writer, her ear as an anthropologist, and to her being the daughter of a man described as “a preacher/poet.” Hurston, immersed in the southern culture from which she sprang, is able to bring that culture to life in ways that would escape a lesser artist. Take, for example, how she uses the characters portraying the citizens of Eatonville, her real-life hometown fictionalized. The residents of the town appear in much the same way as the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, offering vital information to listeners. Though one reads Hurston, she is able to make readers hear. I remember visiting family in the Alabama countryside and seeing and hearing men born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sitting on the porch of a small, wood-framed store in a sleepy southern town on a summer’s afternoon. Because of that experience, I can read the words Hurston puts into the mouths of her characters and hear the drawls, the cadences, the emphasis on certain words, and the imagery of their lives. Thus, it is easily relatable when Sherley Anne Williams, in her essay, “Encountering Zora Neale Hurston,” writes that “In the speech of her characters I heard my own country voice…”
As Neal A. Lester notes in his Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Hurston’s novel exalts an African tradition of storytelling over what Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer calls “‘being hypnotized by literacy…’” Lester adds that the language of the book’s characters “is something that Hurston aesthetically raises to high art.” Hurston delights in the language of the commoner, as evidenced by her prodigious use of black idioms. A good woman can’t be gotten “wid no fish sandwich.” Janie Mae Crawford, the heroine at the center of Hurston’s novel, has a certain rank in the community and “must look on herself as the bell-cow.” One can’t invite guests “just dry long so;” one must be prepared to feed them well. Cheap or pointless talk is “gum-grease.” To be in a committed relationship with someone is to be in the “go-long.” Hurston reminds or teaches the reader that “going straight by walking crooked” is sometimes the best way to reach a destination.
Having grown up in an independent black community, the first incorporated black township in the United States, it is likely more than chance that Hurston chose to do anthropological field work in Haiti, what was then the only independent Black nation in the western hemisphere. In her novel, Huston writes with a great love of black freedom and strength in all its forms. Robert E. Hemenway, in Zora Neale Hurston, his literary biography of the writer, tells the reader that Hurston’s “sense of racial pride had contributed much to Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In her own words, Hurston is “on fire about my people.”
Although Hurston’s novel is viewed by many as an early work of black feminism, in her depiction of the character, Joe Starks, I see Hurston also pointedly painting a portrait of a strong black man. For all that character’s foibles, Hurston obviously is interested in having the reader see Joe in his fullness. Joe is agent rather than victim, and his agency uplifts others. The reader meets him wearing a “hat set at an angle that didn’t belong” in the area through which he is travelling when he meets Janie. Joe has “a bow-down command in his face, and every step he took made the thing more tangible.” He is “a whirlwind among breezes.” He is a natural-born monarch with “a throne in the seat of his pants.” He has “books in his jaws.” Eatonville “bowed down to him…because he was all these things…” The theme of the strong black man is reprised in the character of Tea Cake, “the son of Evening Sun” who, like Joe before him, commands the attention of his community. For the migrant field hands drawn to the Florida Everglades for seasonal work, “Tea Cake’s house was a magnet, the unauthorized center of the “‘job.’”
That Hurston wrote her novel while studying in Haiti makes it easy to surmise that she was struck not by the differences but by the similarities of cultures and communities, and that she utilized those similarities in her writing. What southern blacks knew as hoodoo, Haitians knew as Vodou. In “Vodou Imagery, African American Tradition, and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” essayist Daphne Lamothe writes that Hurston’s novel has allusions to Vodou “so embedded into the foundation of the narrative that they are virtually invisible…” This is true only if one does not know what to look for. If, as Lamothe suggests, it is true that there are allusions to “similarities between Janie…and the Vodou Goddess Ezili,” one can then read additional meaning into Tea Cake’s insistence that Janie dress in blue.
As stated earlier, Hurston seems to have used a good part of her life-experiences when writing her novel, which is why – as also stated before – the work is suffused with a natural poetry, a poetry evident even in the novel’s now-famous opening line: “Ships at a distance has every man’s wish on board.” Even the poet Sterling Brown, while criticizing the novel, had to admit that it is “chock-full of earthy and touching poetry.” In her introduction to Hemenway’s book, writer Alice Walker notes that Their Eyes Were Watching God “is regarded as one of the most poetic works of fiction by a black writer in the first half of the twentieth century.” Hemenway himself believes that “Janie’s poetic self-realization is inseparable from Zora’s concomitant awareness.” Robert Bone, in his essay “Ships at a Distance,” writes that “If the first half of the novel deals with the prose of Janie’s life, the latter half deals with its poetry.” How did Hurston come by this sensibility? What life-experience imparted this? Hemenway says of her that “she enjoyed Keats but recognized the poetry in her father’s sermons.” Lester points out that traditional southern black church services “become art in process, patterns of movement and language always expected but quite unpredictable.”
It is the poetry that comes from the novel’s most arresting character that is most notable, that of the book’s omniscient narrator, Hurston herself. She forces the reader to pause and savor lines. One learns there are “dinners that chasten all women sometimes.” At a moonrise, “its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.” Tea Cake, the one true-love of Janie’s life, “looked like the love thoughts of women…He was a glance from God.” At one point, still feeling his presence after he has left a room, Janie “got up and opened the window and let Tea Cake leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind.” At the approach of a hurricane, “dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man.” The storm leads to flooding, and “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.” Surveying the destruction wrought by wind and water, Tea Cake “saw the hand of horror on everything,” saw that “the mother of malice had trifled with men.”
It is Hurston’s life-experiences, no doubt, that gives truth to the fact that just as notable as her poetic sensibilities is the wisdom she exudes throughout the book as the all-knowing teller of the tale. Though, as mentioned before, she was in her mid-forties when writing the novel, one suspects Hurston had always been wise beyond her years. In the essay, “A Personality Sketch,” the writer Fanny Hurst — a sometime employer, sometime patron, sometime companion of Hurston — thought she possessed “a vulnerable philosophy at variance with much of her splendor, and splendor she had.” It is Hurston-the-wise, not the ever-evolving Janie, who teaches the reader that humans are singing, glittering beings who were covered in mud by jealous angels. Hurston understands that doubt is “the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers.” It is Hurston who knows that no amount of determination should keep one “turning round in one place.” She makes the reader contemplate the truth that “it’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you.” Perhaps most cogently, Hurston tells the reader that jealous angels are the least of one’s celestial worries:
“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”
It is with this passage that Hurston shows the reader that she, mud-covered or not, has more than just glimpsed the machinations behind the human condition.
Now, following my second reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I find I am drawn to the same things that endeared the novel to me originally: its poetry; its loving and true-to-life depiction of a people in their place and time; its knowingness; its overall beauty. I find it both interesting and ironic that, of the many critics of the novel at its publication, it is a white critic, Lucille Thompkins, who is most closely aligned with my own view of what Hurston has given the world. As Lovalerie King writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston, “Thompkins saw in the novel a universal tale: ‘It is about Negroes…but really it is about everyone, or at least everyone who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory.’” I’ll let Thompkins have the last word.