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>Their Eyes Were Watching God

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I find Zora Neale Hurston so fascinating and I loved this novel. It’s difficult to know which one to talk about first.
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According to the introduction to the novel by Henry Louis Gates, Zora Neale Hurston was a well-known and respected novelist and essayist for a couple of decades, but the top male writers of that time like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were critical of her work. It didn’t help that many of her male characters weren’t portrayed in a flattering light. Furthermore, Hurston dared to mention that prejudice about skin color existed among blacks. These things certainly rankled, and Wright took Hurston to task for writing the shuck and jive kind of stuff that condescending white readers might expect from African-American writers while he and Ellison and others were writing seriously about the horror of being a person of color in America.
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What Wright & Co. failed to grasp was that Hurston’s work had a scholarly basis. She was an ethnographer — an anthropologist specializing in dialects and folklore. She studied at Columbia University with Franz Boas, one of the pioneers of anthropology. One of Hurston’s classmates was Margaret Mead, who would go on to do some noteworthy cultural studies. Hurston would go on to do research in the south and in places like Haiti, where she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.
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Unfortunately, Hurston and her work fell into obscurity, probably because she didn’t fit in with writers like Wright, Ellison and James Baldwin. Late in her life, she wrote freelance articles and worked as a maid and at other odd jobs. She died penniless in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. About 15 years later, Alice Walker, who viewed Hurston as a spiritual mentor and muse found the grave and put up a marker. (It’s interesting to note that another Harlem Renaissance writer, Nella Larsen, suffered a similar fate and has only recently been rediscovered.)
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Their Eyes Were Watching God is told in flashback. A woman named Janie comes walking back into her small hometown after a significant absence. She walks past all the neighbors who are on their front porches gawking at her. She goes into her house and shuts the door and her best friend, Phoeby goes to check on Janie, bring her some supper and yes, find out what’s been going on. Janie uses this opportunity to tell Phoeby her life story. (This device seemed a little artificial, but it really works.)
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From the first, Janie had an idea that marriage could be love, romance, sharing mutual adventures, etc. Her grandmother who brought her up and has had an impossibly hard life tries to discourage that type of thinking. When she realizes that her death is imminent, she “protects” Janie by marrying her off to an older man who basically just wants her as a farm hand. After a year or so, Janie runs off with an admirer, Joe, just as the husband asks for help in moving a manure pile.
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Joe and Janie move to Eatonville where Joe opens a store. Hurston’s portrayal of the culture in that town is rich and humorous and quite attractive to Janie, but Joe wants her to be his trophy wife and no joining in the chat and fun that goes on right outside the store. After 20 grim years of marriage, Joe dies, leaving Janie well-off. Many men want to marry her, or as she tartly notes, her bank account, but she takes up with Tea Cake, a young harmonica-playing drifter 10 or 12 years her junior.
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Even though the couple have several problems — Tea Cake gambles, drinks, occasionally beats Janie and both have jealousy issues — Janie finally feels she’s found the marriage she always wanted, and she’s got a co-adventurer as well as a lover. Janie and Tea Cake go “on the muck” in the Florida Everglades. Everything goes well until the Okeechobee hurricane. During this part of the novel that Hurston’s dramatic storytelling gifts are magnificently showcased.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful book. There are one or two scenes in Eatonville in which I felt that Hurston the ethnographer got the better of Hurston the storyteller and it slowed the story down a bit, but that’s a very minor gripe.
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Reading this novel makes me so glad that it (and its author) was rescued from near-obscurity and raised to its proper place as a classic American novel during the late 1960s and early 70s. I was also pleased to see how profoundly Alice Walker was influenced by Zora Neale Hurston. The Color Purple with its rich use of dialect, strong female characters (as well as some scoundrelly male characters) and epic storytelling is a perfect homage to Zora Neale Hurston.
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Would I read more of Hurston? I’m almost sure that nothing could top Their Eyes Were Watching God but I’m eager to read more, especially some of her essays and Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston’s 1942 autobiography.
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Because I read this book during the week of February 14, I’ll always associate Their Eyes Were Watching God with Valentine’s Day and count Janie and Tea Cake among my favorite couples in literature.
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