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 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.