Margaret Fuller–a Hero for Our Time

Sunday, July 19, 2020 will be the 170th anniversary of the death of a famous woman, perhaps the best-known  woman of her time. She was  both glorified and laughed at for her revolutionary views on how women should live their lives. Her name was Margaret Fuller,  a name known today mostly to students and historians. But I think of her often. She has been a favorite hero of mine ever since I first heard about her many years ago in a college classroom. In the years since then I have not only written a biography of Margaret but paid tribute to her through her cameo appearances in each of my four mystery novels.

During the 1840s, Margaret Fuller became an important figure in the intellectual life of New England. She edited one of America’s first important journals, The Dial, she wrote the first book calling for equality for American women, Women in the Nineteenth Century, and served as a foreign correspondent covering the 1848 Italian revolution for Horace Greeley’s newspaper the New York Tribune. Although she died in a shipwreck at the age of 40, she left an enduring legacy. And many of her ideas are still important to us today.

Margaret famously declared that  women should play an active role in the world. “But if you ask me what offices they may fill, I reply—any. I do not care what case you put; let them be sea-captains if you will.” That line caused a lot of scornful laughter in Boston and New York, but it aroused many women to think about their lives and ignited the flame of the women’s suffrage movement that changed the world.

It wasn’t only women’s causes that Margaret worked for. She was one of the few Americans in early 19th century who recognized the wrongs inflicted on Native Americans by relentless European invasions. “Our people and our government alike have sinned against the first-born of the soil” she wrote. The injustices she called out are still blots on American history.

Because I admired Margaret Fuller, I wanted others to know about her. Several years ago, I wrote a short biography, Margaret Fuller: An Uncommon Woman,  to introduce others to this unforgettable woman. The Kindle version of the book is now on sale at Smashwords.com for $1.50 during the month of July. Both the Kindle and print versions are available on Amazon.com.

Even after I had written the biography, Margaret continued to fascinate me. When I wrote my quartet of historical mysteries—the Charlotte Edgerton Mysteries—I followed Margaret’s footsteps, setting each book in one of the places Margaret visited during her lifetime.

A Death in Utopia is set in Massachusetts

Death Visits a Bawdy House in New York City

Death Calls at the Palace in London, England

Death Enters the Convent in Florence, Italy

You can find these books in print and Kindle versions on Amazon.com.

Jessie Fremont–Daughter and Wife

Daughter of a Senator and wife of a famous explorer and presidential candidate, Jessie Benton Fremont spent much of her life in the public eye. She was clever, well-educated and energetic, but she lived under the 19th century rule that women never interfere in the important schemes of their menfolk. Because of this, her life became a delicate dance between her interests and talents and the rules that limited women’s lives.  

Jessie Benton Fremont

Jessie’s father, Thomas Hart Benton, always longed for a son, so when Jessie, his second daughter was born in 1824, he didn’t let her gender stop him from giving her a male name and educating her as though she were a boy.  And Jessie enjoyed the role. She was quick to learn, loved reading, and picked up languages quickly. As a young teen she began following her father around to serious adult meetings soaking up the political atmosphere of Washington D.C.

Jessie was only sixteen when she met John Fremont, a handsome Army officer who, like Senator Benton, was eager to see America expand. Although he was eleven years older than Jessie, John Fremont fell in love with her. Jessie’s parents strongly opposed their marriage, because of Jessie’s youth, and perhaps also because John was the illegitimate son of an obscure French immigrant. However, Jessie and John would not be stopped. Eventually they eloped and found a Catholic priest who would marry them.

Senator Benton and his wife finally accepted the marriage and the young couple moved into the Benton household. Having learned to serve as her father’s unofficial assistant, Jessie soon found a way to transfer her skills to serving her husband’s career. Senator Benton arranged for John to be appointed as leader of an expedition to explore territory west of the Missouri River.

Both Senator Benton and the Fremonts accepted the idea of Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States would eventually expand its territory to the Pacific Coast.

John Fremont

John Fremont led three exploratory expeditions to the West. His adventures caught the imagination of many Americans. Newspapers were eager to write about his exploits and Jessie saw to it that his letters were turned into exciting articles for readers. His picture became familiar across the country and several cities were named for him.

While John continued his explorations throughout the western territories, Jessie remained in Washington D.C. maintaining her ties with her father’s government friends and strengthening John’s fame. When John reached California in 1846, he found it a paradise and agreed with his father-in-law and many others in determining that it should be part of the United State. Jessie joined him for a while in California, one of the few times in their married life that the couple lived together.

The rest of John Fremont’s life was dominated by the struggle to make California a part of the Union, but somehow things always seemed to go wrong for him. He often acted impulsively without waiting for orders from Washington, which, of course, were slow in arriving from the East Coast. He was court martialed in 1848 for exceeding his authority, but nonetheless remained popular enough so that when California finally became a state in 1850, he was elected a senator. He returned to Washington to serve his term but stayed only one year before returning to California to campaign for re-election. By that time, of course, gold had been discovered in California and the state’s population had exploded.

The 1856 presidential election was one of the most bitter in American history as divisions grew between slave states and free states. Both John and Jessie Fremont opposed slavery and John was finally chosen as the first candidate of the new Republican Party. His campaign was disastrous and John Buchanan, the Democratic candidate, became the new president.

We will never know what Jessie Fremont thought of her role in her husband’s exploits. One commentator wrote of the couple “I thought as many others did, that Jessie Benton Fremont was the better man of the two, far more intelligent and comprehensive.” Jessie herself supported her husband throughout his life and never indicated that she could have handled his role better than he did. She remained in the background trying to correct his mistakes and keep the family going. When he finally lost the fortune he had gained in California, she managed to support him by writing stories and articles. Reading about her now in the 21st century, I can’t help but wonder what Jessie Fremont would have become if she had been born in our times.

 A new book by Steve Inskeep Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War tells the exciting story of this tumultuous period. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about the people who built America. 

America’s First Poet–Phillis Wheatley

What can we say about a woman who was welcomed as America’s first poet, published in both England and America, but who nonetheless died in poverty and obscurity before she reached the age of 40? Phillis Wheatley inspired some of America’s most honored leaders and demonstrated how much African Americans had to offer in the arts and culture. But despite her triumphs, she was finally defeated by the economic force of the slave trade.

Born in Africa about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston by slave ship at age 7 or 8. She was bought by the Wheatley family who recognized that she was too frail (not to mention too young) for hard labor, so she was kept as a house slave. Mrs. Wheatley taught her English and how to read and write. The girl’s talents soon became apparent and she was encouraged to read widely and to write poetry.

Phyillis Wheatley

As a woman of her time, she read and admired the poems of John Milton and Alexander Pope and wrote in the fashionable heroic couplet style. Some of her poems were published as broadsides and circulated widely, but she had to go to England to find a publisher for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral–the first book of poems published by an African American.

Some of Wheatley’s poems present a surprisingly benign view of the effects of slavery, which she appears to welcome as a way of discovering Christianity.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Taught my benighted soul to understand

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic die.”

Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

As a devout Christian, Wheatley expressed her gratitude for having been introduced to the Christian religion in America. Some commentators have criticized her work because of this, but there is no reason to think that Wheatley approved of slavery or accepted her status. She was writing only about her own life in this poem. Because of her unusual experiences, she never observed the worst cruelty of the plantation culture nor suffered the hardships of most enslaved Africans, but she was aware of them.

Soon after her book was published, the Wheatley family emancipated Phillis. In 1778, or thereabouts, Phillis Wheatley married a free Black grocer and started a family. By this time, both Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley had died, so Phillis has no one left to help further her work. She and her husband struggled with poverty, while he tried to establish himself as a businessman. Although Wheatley did not give up writing poetry, she found it difficult to secure a publisher. She was never able to publish a second book of poems she had planned, and many of her later poems have been lost. She did, however, correspond with some well-known people, including George Washington, about ways of securing freedom for African Americans. Her death at the age of 31, ended her all-too-short career.   

Phillis Wheatley’s life leaves us with far more questions than answers. If she had lived into the nineteenth century and continued her work, would her early promise have been fulfilled? Perhaps her example would have convinced more people of the talents and possibilities of African Americans. Might Phillis Wheatley have become the poet laureate of the abolition movement?

We will never know the answers to those questions, but there is much to celebrate about the life and work of Phillis Wheatley. She was a pioneer whose work should not be forgotten. 

Making Art during Difficult Days

Across the country and around the world, thousands of people are spending more time at home than they ever expected or wanted to do. As we enter our third month of sheltering in place, many of us are searching for new and satisfying ways of occupying our leisure time. According to a New York Times report, sales of groceries are booming as more people cook at home. The gaming industry is expanding. And even the sales of coloring books designed for adults have increased. Sheltering in place can lead to all sorts of new activities.

Mary Queen of Scots

All of this may be new to most of us, but we are not the first people to experience long, tedious months of forced isolation. Over the centuries, some people have used unexpected free time in remarkable ways. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, although she is remembered now mostly for her good looks and her political losses, showed an entirely different side to her talents during the eighteen years of her imprisonment in England. She designed and stitched a wealth of embroidered pieces that are still as attractive and appealing as when she first made them.

If you remember your history, you may recall that back in the 15th century Mary struggled with Queen Elizabeth I of England over who should rule Scotland and England. For many years Mary was a prisoner of Elizabeth’s and some of those years were spent in an uncomfortable, cold, drafty medieval castle of Tutbury in Staffordshire. The castle had been built many years earlier and repaired infrequently so it had become extremely damp and had a marsh underneath it from which “malevolent fumes arose, unpleasant enough for anyone and especially so for a woman of Mary Stuart’s delicate health” according to Mary’s biographer Antonia Fraser. Nonetheless, Mary was stuck there and had to make the best of it. One of the ways she did that was by turning to art and developing her skills by designing and executing lavish embroideries.

Design by Mary Queen of Scots

Embroidery is not usually considered a major art form, but it has been used to produce work of lasting value by producing pieces that combine images with words and symbols. This combination can make embroidered pictures into art works to read and understand as well as view. Many of Mary’s embroideries are in the Victoria and Albert Museum and can be seen on their website.

If you want to explore further the kind of art that has been created in isolation, the Tate Gallery has a fascinating selection and discussion of modern artists who have created art under situations that would have silenced most people. Each of the pieces on display is different and the stories of how the artists came to create their work varies. Not all of us can create masterpieces in isolation, but perhaps we can at least attempt to explore new possibilities.

Happy Birthday ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, usually known simply as ACLU, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The year of its birth, 1920, was a year very much like our own. Many Americans were fearful of the future in which so many things were changing. The world had just survived a terrifying flu epidemic, women were demanding the right to vote and to decide their own lives, Russia had just installed a communist government and many Americans felt threatened by the success of revolutionary movements in Europe.

In 1917 the fear of radicals had led to the passage of the Espionage Act. Thousands of people were arrested for expressing radical ideas in speeches and publishing them in magazines. Often the government did not respect the traditional American rights to assemble and to speak freely about their ideas. It was in this climate that a small group of liberals started the ACLU in order to defend the traditional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution.  

Although the ACLU was originally supported mainly by people with liberal political views, in the years since its founding, questions have arisen about where it stands. Liberals cheered in 1925 when the ACLU stood up for the right to teach evolution in schools. Conservatives began to cheer for the ACLU as they supported Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag in schools, defended white supremacists and supported the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited political contributions by corporations as well as individuals.

As an organization the ACLU has always been resistant to being categorized. People who strongly support it for one action may turn against it for another. Overall, it has earned the respect and gratitude of both liberals and conservatives, but never a year goes by that someone in one political camp or another doesn’t disagree with a specific action. Sticking by your principles in all situations has always been a difficult stance to maintain.

The fate of the ACLU has to some extent been mirrored in the fate of one of its important founders. Crystal Eastman, one of the most charismatic and well-known activists of the early 20th century, had been famous for years when she joined with others to start the ACLU. Eastman had been an activist fighting to gain women’s right to vote, to own property, and to equality in marriage. She was also a socialist and a dedicated pacifist during the years leading up to World War I. Like the organization she helped found, she refused to settle down to one theme in her life. She supported numerous causes but refused to be defined by them.

Crystal Eastman

During the first two decades of the 20th century more and more women supported the women’s suffrage movement. By the time of the 1916 election, both Democrats and Republicans were vying for the support of suffrage leaders. Many of these leaders, including Eastman, thought that the time for a women’s suffrage amendment was close at hand. Most of the same leaders were also eager to persuade the government not to enter the war which had started in Europe in 1914. Most of the suffrage leaders, decided that getting the vote for women was more important than trying to avoid going to war.

Crystal Eastman stood almost alone in deciding that her commitment to peace was more important at that time than her fight to get votes for women. She never stepped back from her suffrage work, but it became less important in her life. Perhaps that is one reason why she is less often remembered than some of the other suffragists. Many of the traditional suffragists who are honored for achieving votes for women had to sacrifice some of their other values to support that over-riding cause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals like Crystal Eastman or groups like the ACLU could decide what values they upheld and move ahead toward them on a straight path? Instead, fighting for any ideal inevitably raises questions.

  • When does defending freedom of speech turn into support for hate speech?
  • When does a desire to maintain peace mean that we ignore death and suffering in foreign lands?
  • When does a person’s right to privacy justify ignoring possible security threats being planned by online groups?

These are the questions that keep idealists lying awake at night. And the truth is those questions will probably never be completely answered. But they are questions we should keep thinking about. Two books I’ve read recently offer a lot of food for thought. One is a new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson and the other is the recent Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Both of them raise many questions about how we set priorities in our personal and political lives. No answers—just questions. In the end we all have to find our own answers.

A Nurse Who Made History–Florence Nightingale

During these painful days of the coronavirus pandemic, we are more aware than ever of the importance of our healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and their assistants are the people we rely on for help with illnesses. But they do more than just help us as individuals. They also build knowledge and systems that improve the quality of healthcare for all of us. Often, they don’t get credit for these achievements. Nurses especially are apt to be remembered only for their gentle kindness, but not their other valuable work. Florence Nightingale is a good example of a woman who is remembered for all the wrong reasons.  

The Legendary Florence Nightingale

Born into an old-fashioned English family in 1820, Nightingale had to fight hard to get the education she wanted and to become a nurse. Her big chance to shine came when England blundered into the Crimean War in 1854. The British had not fought a war in decades and were confident they could defeat Russia which was threatening to block their access to India. It wasn’t until British troops reached the Crimea that their vulnerability to the climate and poor sanitary conditions was demonstrated. Before the battles had even started, 20 percent of the troops had come down with diarrhea, cholera, or dysentery. Hospital facilities were poor or non-existent.

At last Florence Nightingale had an arena in which her talents shone, although it was a difficult struggle to convince the authorities that she could help. Finally she was able to gather together a group of women who had some experience as nurses. They included lay nurses and both Roman Catholic and Anglican nuns. Florence left for the Crimea in October 1854 and established her headquarters in the hospital at Scutari. It was there that she proved her abilities as an executive, managing the delicate relationships between the army and the nurses, establishing methods of providing food and supplies for the hospital, and introducing sanitary measures that saved lives.

While she was in the Crimea, Florence’s fame as the “lady with the lamp” grew even though she did less and less nursing. She was essentially a manager and purveyor of supplies, but the public insisted upon viewing her as a gentle nurse who soothed poor, sick soldiers. The army officers and politicians who interacted with her were more realistic in describing her as a tough executive who fought to build a viable organization of hospitals.

When Florence returned to England in the summer of 1856, she had no intention of stepping back. The more she learned about health conditions among the troops, the more determined she became to change the situation. She pushed hard to get an official commission appointed and although she was not allowed to serve on the commission herself, it was her persistence that eventually brought it about. She labored relentlessly to write a report, which she eventually published as Notes on Matters Affecting the Health, Efficiency, and Hospital Administration of the British Army. Founded Chiefly on the Experience of the Late War. Here her interest in statistics served her well. Realizing that people could visualize pictures better than rows of figures, she invented what she called her “coxcombs” to present the most important facts.

Example of Nightingale’s Coxcomb

Florence Nightingale lived to be ninety years old and most of those years were devoted to improving public health. Like so many other women, her strengths have often been misunderstood. She is remembered as the sweet nurse tending soldiers, but her real achievement was far too “unwomanly” to be acknowledged while she was alive. It’s a shame that she is often misrepresented even now. There are several good biographies; one that I strongly recommend is Mark Bostridge’s recent Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. After reading it, you’ll never feel the same about Victorian women and their lives.

April and Poetry–Sara Teasdale

April is poetry month, a festival more honored by schools and publishers than by the general public. This year, our April is filled with fear of the coronavirus pandemic, and with questions about what the future holds. Poetry may seem like a frivolous escape, but if we ignore it, we may be missing one element of comfort that would help us get through these stressful days.

Poetry can help us see the world with fresh eyes and remember the sights that will be with us all our lives rather than the jangled thoughts of today. As we walk through today’s deserted streets, the words of Sara Teasdale, who wrote almost 100 years ago, can help us to see April with fresh eyes:

The roofs are shining from the rain,
     The sparrows twitter as they fly,
  And with a windy April grace
     The little clouds go by. (April)

Sara Teasdale was an American poet who had a gift for seeing the world through fresh eyes. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1884 and was home schooled for much of her childhood. She devoted herself to reading and started writing poetry as a teenager. After she went to high school, she became one of a group of women who published The Potter’s Wheel, a literary journal in St. Louis and contributed poems and essays to the journal.

Sara Teasdale as a child

During that time, she traveled frequently to Chicago where she met many writers and artists including Vachel Lindsay, a young poet famous for his attempt to revive the tradition of oral poetry. Lindsay and Teasdale apparently fell in love, but Lindsay did not have enough money to support a wife. Teasdale eventually married another admirer, Ernst Filsinger, a prosperous businessman.  

After her marriage in 1914 Teasdale continued to write and her third collection of poetry River to the Sea, published in 1916 became a bestseller and earned her a Pulitzer Prize. She and her husband moved to New York City where they became part of a circle of writers and artists.

Teasdale’s poetry is lyrical and filled with images of the world around us. Many of her poems have been published in children’s anthologies, but they have an enduring appeal for adults too. They are the kind of poems that often pop into your mind during walks in the country.

I stood beside a hill
Smooth with new-laid snow
A single star looked out
From the cold evening glow.   (February Twilight)

Sara Teasdale’s life did not continue as happily as her poetry did. She divorced her husband in 1929, her health deteriorated, and she became an invalid. She restarted her friendship with Vachel Lindsay, but he too had fallen on hard times and eventually killed himself.

Sara Teasdale herself committed suicide in 1933 at the age of 48. Her poetry collections live on in most libraries and much of her work can be found on the Gutenberg Project site. It is well worth reading and rereading. It is impossible to know why her life came to such a tragic end, but her poetry still brings joy to the reader. Many of her poems will linger in your mind for years, perhaps especially this one, which seems a fitting elegy for her short life.

WHEN I am dead and over me bright April
     Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
  Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
     I shall not care.

  I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
     When rain bends down the bough,
  And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
     Than you are now.

(All of the poems quoted above are available in many digital formats on the
Gutenberg Project website. http://www.gutenberg.org

Revisiting Past Horrors–Katherine Anne Porter

Katherine Anne Porter

These days it is difficult to hear any news or hold any conversation that doesn’t mention the coronavirus pandemic. Most of us are struggling to understand how this disaster moved into our lives and whether we will ever return to normal life. Americans haven’t seen anything like this for a hundred years when the country was struck by the flu epidemic of 1918-19. Now that schools and universities have shut their doors, libraries have closed, and classes have moved online, perhaps it’s time to talk about a writer who described the feeling of that early epidemic for generations of readers—Katherine Anne Porter. 

Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider captures perfectly the disoriented feeling of a woman facing the painful hazards of war-torn world being jolted by yet another attack from an unimaginable and unthinking enemy. The scene is set when Miranda, a young journalist as Porter herself was, first wakes up on an ordinary wartime morning: 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep. (Porter, Katherine Anne. Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels (p. 281). Library of America. Kindle Edition.) 

As the story moves on, Porter takes us through the vivid, chilling experience of suffering from the flu and having your life taken over by doctors and nurses. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget it. But who was Porter and how did she develop this gift of capturing the reality of an experience that many people live through, but few can describe? 

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Porter in Texas in 1890. Her mother died when Callie was two years old and her father took the children to live with their grandmother, who died when Callie was eleven. After losing so much, Callie left home at sixteen to marry an abusive husband—not a very good start in life. After a divorce in her mid-twenties and a long hospitalization with tuberculosis, Porter decided to become a writer.  

Porter started as a journalist and eventually moved to New York City where she met many other writers and artists. She continued to write journalism and short stories for the rest of her life, as well as working as a journalist in Mexico, Europe and the United States. During the years between 1930 and 1960, she wrote highly praised literary stories and essays, Her only novel, Ship of Foolsthe story of a long sea voyage in 1931, was published in 1962 and became a best-seller as well as being made into a movie.  

Some writers lead fascinating lives that are reflected in their works, but Katherine Anne Porter’s biography does not cast light on her stories. The power of her descriptions and the reality of her characters seem to spring from an inner knowledge that had little to do with the actual events of her life. We can know her best by reading her stories and her novel. They continue to be as vivid and alive as they were when first published and illuminate our own experiences as good fiction ought to do. All of her works are easily available in most libraries and many bookstores.  

Surviving the Virus

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives.  We work at home and count on digital connections with relatives and friends. It is scary not to be able to walk to a coffee shop and mingle comfortably with strangers or friends. And it is disturbing to go to a grocery store only to find shelves empty of our favorite comfort foods.  

But if we tear ourselves away from the endless flow of news, we can find a few unexpected pleasures.  Rather than paying attention to current news, it is better by far to stick to the books that take us away from our immediate surroundings. My library, the San Francisco Public Library, has closed all branches, but it has a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks that can be downloaded directly to our living rooms. Every day I can download several mysteries and browse through them at my leisure to decide whether to spend the evening with Maisie Dobbs or V.I. Warshawski or any of my other favorite detectives. It’s not the same as browsing along the shelves in the library, but it gives me almost the same thrill of discovering new adventures and new characters to take my mind off viruses and politics. And one bonus of borrowing digital books from the library is there is no need to return them. Each one magically disappears from my Kindle when my borrowing time is over. 

Of course, you don’t have to confine your reading to mystery stories. You can organize an impromptu reading group and discuss books with friends.  I’ve heard of people who have decided to read and discuss War and Peace during breaks from their work at home. That sounds a bit over-ambitious to me. I’d prefer to read and talk about a shorter classic. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome would work. I’m sure every public library in the country has copies of those. And they offer lots of ideas to talk about with friends. 

This digital life offers surprises that turn old pleasures into new ones. For years I’ve gone to concerts, sometimes in great concert halls, sometimes in university auditoriums, but I have always had a seat far in the back of the hall or in the balcony. Now I’ve discovered the special joy of watching a concert streamed online. Amazon Prime, of all places, offers a variety of choices from Bach to Mozart and dozens of other composers. The music is the same as in a concert hall, but the extraordinary photography makes an amazing difference to me. I can watch a close-up of elderly hands hovering over the piano keys or see the glances between two musicians as they coordinate their entrance into a piece. Watching them gives me a new appreciation of what it must feel like to be part of a musical group, something I have never been privileged to experience before. 

During this mandatory shelter-in-place life we are allowed to go outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. I am lucky to live only a few blocks from the beach and have always enjoyed watching the ocean as it moves relentlessly along the shore. No matter what comes along in life, the repetitive motion of the tides reassures us that nothing lasts forever. As the tide ebbs out, leaving stretches of beach marked only by seaweed, plastic bottles, and perhaps a few quivering jellyfish, we can be sure that in six hours and thirteen minutes the high tide will be back.  The world goes on and so will we.   

Ocean beach

Zora Neale Hurston—speaking for the unheard

What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.

Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published.  In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. 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 …  Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)

Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.