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Their Eyes Were Watching God ()

Feminista 100 Greatest Works of 20th Century Fiction by Women Writers

Even had she never written a word, Alice Walker would have secured her place as an important figure in the history of African American fiction simply by rehabilitating Zora Neale Hurston.  In her own day, Hurston was recognized as a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, doing ground breaking work on black folklore, collaborating with Langston Hughes and writing an autobiography, several novels and many short stories.  But she had the great misfortune to fall afoul of her fellow black intellectuals, like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who took offense at her use of vernacular language in her stories and who thought that her writing was not sufficiently negative about the black experience in America.  Her opponents were better connected politically and saw to it that she was dismissed by the Left intelligentsia.  She died in obscurity in a Welfare home and her works went out of print, largely forgotten.  Then, in 1975, Alice Walker wrote a piece for Ms Magazine, about her search for Hurston's grave and began a reawakening of interest in her work.  Walker's attentions seem to have been amply repaid, as this fine novel seems to have been a significant influence on her own book The Color Purple (see review).

Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford.  Raised in Florida by a grandmother, she experiences several loveless marriages, but develops into a strong and independent woman, then finds love with an itinerant worker named Tea Cake.  Their happiness ends rather brutally when Tea Cake gets infected saving Janie from a rabid dog and Janie is forced to kill him.  Besides the central theme of Janie's growth as a woman, the story is similar to The Color Purple for the almost eerie absence of white people.  This was, in fact, one of the complaints lodged against her in the 30's, that she shied away from the issues of race and racism that other authors were focussing on and bringing to public attention.  The novel does also render characters' speech in unvarnished dialect.  You can see why fellow authors would have been embarrassed by the language, but that does not delegitimize its use.

In the end, the very things that her cohort found objectionable about her work--the colorful dialogue and the relatively upbeat portrayal of black characters--make Hurston's writing much more enjoyable than the earnest but polemical, to the point of agitprop, works of folks like Wright and Ellison.  I liked the book quite a bit; which actually, when you get right down to it, pretty much proves Richard Wright's point.


Grade: (B)


Zora Hurston Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Zore Neale Hurston
-LETTER: Zora Neale Hurston: In a controversial letter, the versatile author expressed frustration with critics of segregation (JSTOR)
    -REVIEW: of You Don’t Know Us Negroes by Zora Neale Hurston (Colin Grant, The Observer)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Zora Neale Hurston We Don’t Talk About: In the new nonfiction collection “You Don’t Know Us Negroes,” what emerges is a writer who mastered a Black idiom but seldom championed race pride. (Lauren Michele Jackson, February 14, 2022, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW: of 'Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston' by Valerie Boyd (Jake Lamar, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Zora Neale Hurston: American Author
    -Voices From the Gaps: Zora Neale Hurston
    -Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) : Teacher Resource File
    -PAL: Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)(Perspectives in American Literature)
    -Zora Neale Hurston (links, essays, etc.)
    -THEATER; Renaissance For a Pioneer Of Black Pride (Rosemary L. Bray, NY Times)
    -Folktales of Zora Neale Hurston (Mary Ellen Riccio, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute)
    -ETEXT: Spunk  Zora Neale Hurston
    -ETEXT: Black Death Zora Neale Hurston
    -ESSAY: Individualism and the Issue of Race in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston (Pouria Saidi)
    -ESSAY: Mothers and Wives: Women's Roles in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain  (Bryan D. Bourn)a
    -REVIEW: DUST TRACKS ON A ROAD An Autobiography. By Zora Neale Hurston ( Henry Louis Gates Jr., NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: In Sorrow's Kitchen, NY Review of Books
        Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography by Robert E. Hemenway
    -Conjured Into Being: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
    -Kingwood College Library: Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
    -Excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God
    -ETEXT: Their Eyes Were Watching God Chapter 1
    -AUDIO: Wired for Books: reader Comments on Their Eyes... or transcript
        Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston and preface by Franz Boas
   -REVIEW: of Wrapped in Rainbows The Life of Zora Neale Hurston By Valerie Boyd (Ann Ducille, NY Times Book Review)
   -REVIEW: of Wrapped in Rainbows The Life of Zora Neale Hurston By Valerie Boyd (Nia-Malika Henderson, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: Aristocrats, NY Review of Books
        Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood by Gerald Early
        Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society by John Edgar Wideman
        Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
        The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study by W. E. B. Du Bois
        No Day of Triumph by J. Saunders Redding
        The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
        Dust Tracks on a Road in Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writing by Zora Neale Hurston
        The Negro Family: A Study of Family Origins Before the Civil War by E. Franklin Frazier
        Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States by E. Franklin Frazier
        Coming Up Down Home: A Memoir of a Southern Childhood by Cecil Brown
        Pushed Back to Strength: A Black Woman's Journey Home by Gloria Wade-Gayles
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: The Party's Over, NY Review of Books
        This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950 by Jervis Anderson
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: Black Victims, Black Villains, NY Review of Books
        The Color Purple by Alice Walker
        The Color Purple a film by Steven Spielberg
        Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed
    -REVIEW: of  THE COLOR PURPLE By Alice Walker SOME LETTERS WENT TO GOD (Mel Watkins, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Darryl Pinckney: Suitcase in Harlem, NY Review of Books
        The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America by Arnold Rampersad
        The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 1941-1967: I Dream a World by Arnold Rampersad
    -REVIEW: of THE SIGNIFYING MONKEY A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. By     Henry Louis Gates Jr  PLAYING, NOT JOKING, WITH LANGUAGE (John Wideman, NY Times Book Review)
       -REVIEW: CHANGING OUR OWN WORDS Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women. Edited by Cheryl A. Wall (Eric J. Sundquist, NY Times Book Review)