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Book Cover: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I've read a whole lot of books, but I never read one quite like Their Eyes Were Watching God. I can feel power and magic here, but this novel doesn't fit inside the boxes and labels that clutter my understanding. It sings to me like a Classic American Novel, but it isn't built out of the shapes I'm used to reading. I addressed this otherness in my last diary, Which Afro-American Books Should Everyone Read?

Zora Neale Hurston writes in her own very distinctive voice. She also put a lot of her soul into Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora had an intense affair with a younger man: she fell in love "like a parachute jump". After they ended it, Hurston was researching folklore in Haiti, and this novel poured out of her in seven weeks. In it she "tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him". But the book holds much more than one great romance. In it Janie Crawford (later Starks) tells her whole journey from childhood to becoming a strong, deep woman; all the relationships that help and hinder her along the way; and how Blacks founded the first town of their own in the US, leaving behind the shadows of slavery, and building a place for freedom and joy on their own terms.

Hurston's story comes both from the heart of America, and from outside my own experience. Traveling to Eatonville, Florida in the 1920s was like visiting another country, where fables and customs were brand new to me. My job as a reader is not to cram this tale into my mental boxes: it's just to listen carefully, and find the rhythm of Janie's (and Zora's) song. I can't explain this novel to you - there is too much I sense, but can't wrap into words. I'll just point out three aspects that charmed and impressed me here: Hurston's language, psychology, and inspiration.


There are two voices in this book, braided together: Zora's and Janie's. Janie Starks tells most of the story to her friend Phoeby Watson, on her back porch, through the length of one night:

'Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked.'
Monstropolous. Perfect. The made-up word underlines the freshness of the narrator's voice; but it also resonates both with the kissing, young heroine who lives through decades and horrors in her tale, and with the fabulous, otherworldly tale she tells. (Monstropolous is now slang - but I don't think it was in 1937. Hurston also uses "freezolity" and "combunction", among others.)

Janie's voice, and her tale, are wrapped within Zora's. Hurston traveled widely and led an adventurous life. She soaked up the dialects of many societies, including the bright voices of writers, musicians and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. She studied folklore, in universities and in the field. Drawing on all she had heard and read, Hurston achieved a marriage of powerful oral traditions and graceful literary style.

There is so much poetry, and freshness, and heart in this book. I love how Hurston has precise, subtle insights, and then wraps them in phrases nobody else could have thought of. Here are a few examples:

'When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.'

'She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung above him. He was a glance from God.'

'Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.'



Just as Hurston weaves together oral and literary traditions, she also brings resonant fables and fine-grained realism on to the same stage, in the same characters. She writes people who are larger than life - who seem to represent universal types. But however good or bad they are to Janie, we also see their other side, and the forces of personality growing and fighting within them. Sometimes we will see a character fully lit, know exactly who they are - and then, many pages later, Hurston will take us in deeper, showing us why they were that way. She'll get you to dislike someone, to throw them away - and then get you to pick them up further down the road, and feel bad for your mistake. So much humanity and insight here.

Hurston is particularly good at the psychology of relationships, both one-on-one, and how we respond to the eyes of the world. Janie evolves, both gradually and in sudden leaps, throughout her tale. When she moves forward in life, she finds people who allow her to be a larger Janie, who accept and encourage her in ways her Grandma or her last home couldn't (or wouldn't) see. But the people and towns that give Janie room to grow, also demand that she only grow in certain directions.

This is especially true of Joe Starks (Janie calls him "Jody"). He offers Janie a better life and a broader horizon than she ever knew - but the more she grows, the harder he leans on her.

*SPOILER* (in block quote) There are a lot of incidents in this book, but this is one of the larger ones. It won't ruin the book for you; it does reveal a plot-turn, and some of Jody Starks's nature. But it demonstrates well just how deeply Hurston sees, and how clearly she tells it.

Joe: "All you got tuh do is mind me. How come you can't do lak Ah tell yuh?"

Janie: "You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can't tell you nothin' Ah see!"

"Dat's 'cause you need tellin'," he rejoined hotly. "It would be pitiful if Ah didn't. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don't think none theirselves."

"Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!"

"Aw naw they don't. They just think they's thinkin'. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don't understand one."

Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn't do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he'd keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and lay down when she was sleepy and tired.

She wasn't petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn't rise, and the fish wasn't quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store.

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside her to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.



"I love myself when I am laughing. And then again when I am looking mean and impressive."

"When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue . . . the cosmic Zora emerges . . . How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."                                                                  - Zora Neale Hurston

My favorite spell in the book was the joyful, unbowed soul Zora put into it. As we go with Janie on a journey through the miles and the years, we encounter hardship, disappointment, betrayal, sickness, death, natural disasters. It all counts, it all tells upon Janie's face and body, and on the heart of the reader. But Janie endures and grows, if not taller, at least tougher, more sure of her own two feet.

There is a grand, gritty, thoroughly credible strength of spirit here. Janie doesn't end up with a Disney happiness, but with an adult self-fulfillment: mostly happy and calm, with some darkness and turbulence thrown in. For that is life, and how we face it. When I finished this book I felt charmed by Janie and Zora, and a little fonder of myself and this troubled world we're stuck with. Their Eyes Were Watching God stretched me a little, and made a bit more room for life than I knew before.

This book left me hungry for more of it, and wondering about the elements I sensed but could not put into words. One of the surest marks of a Great Book is, there is more there than you can fully grasp in one reading. In time I'll read more of Zora Neale Hurston's work, and eventually I'll come back to this one. To help me dig a little deeper in this very spot, I have two books out of the library, with a dozen essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. I'll read them before my next Books Go Boom! (Fri. Jan. 31st), which will be a closer look at aspects of this novel.

So if you've read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have observations on it; or if you haven't read it, and have questions, please put them in a comment below. If I can't satisfy your curiosity now, perhaps I'll be able to in a couple of weeks.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 05:39 PM PST.

Also republished by Sexism and Patriarchy and Community Spotlight.

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  •  Tip Jar & (49+ / 0-)

    Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:

    DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
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    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 05:29:31 PM PST

  •  Coming Soon to Books Go Boom! (21+ / 0-)

    (more on) Their Eyes Were Watching God

    Song of Solomon

    The God of Small Things

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 05:41:27 PM PST

  •  I read this as a first-semester Freshman (11+ / 0-)

    in a Freshman English Seminar called 'Southern Fiction.' I didn't take it by choice, but I was so glad I got "stuck" in it. An eye-opener, to say the least! As someone who read anything written by an Englishwoman, this was a genre of work I hadn't explored at all.


    I have always asked myself, didn't Janie get rabies? Tea Cake bit her before he died, and he had rabies. Did I miss something? That must seem like a tiny unimportant thing considering the scope of the novel, but it has always perplexed me.

    My favorite book from that course was The Moviegoer. I've read that one about 15 times. I really should read all the books from that class again. Train Whistle Guitar was one that I don't think I understood or appreciated the way I might be able to now.

  •  Favorite line of the book: (17+ / 0-)

    Janie is chasing Nunkie through a field of sugarcane, because she suspects Nunkie is trying to seduce Tea Cake away from her (emphasis mine):

    Janie made a move to seize Nunkie but the girl fled.  So she took out behind her over the humped-up cane rows.  But Nunkie did not mean to be caught.  So Janie went on home.
    What I love about this, first, is how Hurston can make her folk-imbued language so terse and specific, but no less expressive for her ruthless efficiency.  But look at the amazing idea here, subverting our usual associations of cause and effect.  It's not that Nunkie was a faster runner or a clever dodger, or that Janie got tired and gave up.  Nunkie did not mean to be caught.  That's the whole story, right there.

    Yeah, I love this book.  Last two pages were total emotional overload for me.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 06:11:15 PM PST

  •  I love it when books (12+ / 0-)

    stretch me...

    Thank you for another great diary!!!

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 06:20:54 PM PST

  •  Greatest American novel according to my philosophe (10+ / 0-)

    r partner.  I had never heard of her so I read it. I was blown away. My favorite American novel is Dreiser's  An American Tragedy however.

  •  Oh, I DO (13+ / 0-)

    You have to keep in mind when you read Hurston that aside from being a writer, she was also a trained anthropologist who studied with Franz Boas at Columbia. This is not just a great piece of writing, it's an attempt to capture the culture of the sugar-growing region of Florida. Carl Hiaasen covers some of the same material in Skinny Dip but he's interested in the managers, while Hurston was interested in the workers and the society and culture they developed to deal with their existence.

    I read this as part of my American Literature list for my qualifying exams. Very very powerful book.

  •  I haven't read any Hurston yet, nor any Morrison (9+ / 0-)

    either. These books sound like a whole new world. Thank you for this diary.

  •  It struck me that your mastery of (9+ / 0-)

    the English Language combined with your ability to make it perform just the way you command it, is not unlike that of ZHN.
    Take for example:

    and I wanted something less dark than Beloved - which wrestled me to the ground halfway through, and I never got up.
    Powerful imagery.

    I have a few chores to do and then I'll be back to read your review.

    Maya Angelou: "Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest."

    by JoanMar on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 07:24:56 PM PST

  •  I read Hurston (13+ / 0-)

    after reading Alice Walker, because Walker cited her as an inspiration.  Hurston's writing is rich and evocative, passionate.

    Right after your diary seeking suggestions on African-American writers, I read James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.  I was blown away by how Baldwin took a nearly indescribable experience - religious ecstasy - and put the reader right in the middle of it.

    I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll. - Edna St. Vincent Millay

    by Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 07:25:46 PM PST

  •  Their Eyes is a masterpiece, and Hurston was (9+ / 0-)

    a genius, I daresay, not appreciated during her lifetime and perhaps not even now. Her range of interests and accomplishments was great, far beyond what most ever attempt let alone accomplish, and she did live her own life as fully as she could. It is humanity's loss, too, that she had to do so much on a shoestring for her whole entire life.

    It's been a good twenty years since last I read Their Eyes, so I'll have to find my copy (a book I did insist on keeping) before your next installment. I think you'll enjoy reading the critical literature, Brecht, given your predilections, but it also should help you get a better grounding in reading Afr-Am lit generally. If I happen to come across anything that I think is compelling I'll drop you a note.

    This is a lovely introduction to the book, and I hope that you featuring it encourages many more people to take it up.

    Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

    by peregrine kate on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 08:04:52 PM PST

    •  This book is highly praised, and under-appreciated (7+ / 0-)

      I believe it's come a long way in the more enlightened, culturally open-minded side of the academy; and hardly anywhere else. Well, it sells a lot better than it used to. I think in 50 years it will be generally accepted as a Great American Novel.

      The saddest aspect of Hurston's story is that she was under-appreciated by great black writers of her time, when they really should have been able to see how fresh and bright her work was. It didn't help that she was very close with Langston Hughes, but they collaborated and then fell out.

      As I said, I don't fully get her style, but it appears to be this bold synthesis of oral and literary traditions, sung with her own powerful lungs. But when she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, here is how other black writers reacted:

      Hurston's cutting edge politics in Their Eyes Were Watching God generated push-back from several leading Harlem Renaissance authors.

      Novelist and essayist Richard Wright condemned Their Eyes Were Watching God, writing in a review for New Masses:

      "Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley... 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."

      Ralph Ellison said the book contained a "blight of calculated burlesque."

      Alain Locke writes in a review, "when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly—which is Miss Hurston's cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?"

      There were other, more appreciative reviews. But how did Hurston feel when she read these three? She pioneered a new kind of book, and the reigning heavyweight black writers ignored the power and grace of her masterpiece (irony intended), and called it a cartoon.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 08:56:57 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It's late, but I will venture a few comments. (10+ / 0-)

        Back then, in the 1920s and 30s, the American intellectual and literary communities weren't exactly welcoming havens for any black artists and writers. Yes, there were some exceptions, and Hurston was lucky enough to study with Franz Boas, who by all accounts was a generous and supportive human being, a wonderful mentor, in addition to his own formidable accomplishments. (It may well be relevant that he was an immigrant himself, of German-Jewish heritage. But it was most certainly relevant that he was emphatically, profoundly anti-racist, one of the most outspoken critics of the pseudo-scientific racism popular then.)

        But for the most part, black artistic innovators had to make their own way, at least creatively, having relatively few antecedents to draw upon. And virtually all of the sponsorship available to black artists at that time came from white people, almost all of that with enormously thick and heavy strings attached. That was true for Hurston, too.

        So, talk about the lived reality of double-consciousness! For many of the white sponsors, blackness in the artists they were interested in supporting was something to be performed and enacted, not lived and interpreted, if you catch my drift.  Hence there was always a serious emphasis on "authenticity," which is of course also a very fraught concept to begin with.  What counts as a legitimate representation of "the black experience," and how that relates to artistic expression, is a very loaded question, then and now.

        Who was more truly black than whom, in other words, and FOR whom? This is at least part of the context in which Hurston and all the other luminaries of the time had to operate. There was a fierce if rarely acknowledged competition for money and audiences. I don't know the scene well enough at all to talk about alliances, but I suspect they were almost all conditional.

        Another important factor is Hurston's gender. I suspect that even today her outspokenness would make her a controversial figure; she was never lady-like and respectable, and she didn't hesitate to call people out when she thought they were being phonies. She was a woman who had to work hard for every opportunity and every scrap of success she could gather. She was an unashamedly independent woman in a time when that was not the norm.

        It's important to consider her class background and small-town origins, too. She grew up in a relatively self-contained black community, and she believed there was a great deal of strength to be gained from such arrangements, politically and economically. So racial integration per se didn't appeal to her much, which was a rather contrarian stance. Similarly, she didn't agree with the predominant political attitudes regarding social programs, preferring to rely on her own initiative than on governmental supports. All these attitudes were at odds with the mainstream of artists in the Harlem Renaissance movement, as ad hoc as it was.

        Hurston is a fascinating person, as full of contradictions as any of us. Fortunately for us, she had an amazing drive to learn and to write, and much of what she wrote is still a valuable resource regarding the times and places she described, both fictional and not (or at least not so much).

        I may be stating the obvious in some places, and raising more questions than answers in others; I don't claim to be an expert on Hurston or on the Harlem Renaissance, a period and movement that could be the study of several people's lifetimes (and has already been).  I was prompted to write this comment to offer some possibilities as to why it might not have been obvious at the time of publication that this was really interesting and innovative. Lots of other stuff going on made it all much more complicated.  

        Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

        by peregrine kate on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 10:17:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'll wager you're an expert on Hurston compared to (6+ / 0-)

          most of us in this diary - you're certainly teaching me a lot. Thank you.

          I was just railing (below) against the "zero-sum game" of Literary Politics: why did Wright and Ellison tear Hurston down, when they should have been her most sympathetic audience? But you explain here that it was more of a zero-sum game than I realized, on many levels (very few white patrons and sponsors; different movements necessarily competing; limiting fashions for what was "authentically" black - how can you be black enough to impress white patrons, without being so black that you scare them?).

          As you say, "Hurston is a fascinating person, as full of contradictions as any of us." She seems exceptionally complex and turbulent. Look at all the contradictions she had to live through, before you even get to her own complex personality. Here Hurston was, beset by all these pressures and unfairness; at the same time, the Harlem Renaissance was opening up more artistic possibilities than her mother could have dreamed of. Zora has all this toughness and hunger, sensitivity and creative zest: and with all this, and all she accomplished, she still gets put out to pasture for the last decade of her life.

          When nothing else could take her down, Zora was hit with a blow she would never recover from. She was falsely accused of molesting a ten-year-old mentally retarded boy. Her passport logs her as out of the country at the time, and her publisher stood by her side. Later, the boy said he'd lied and the charges were dropped. But a bout of depression began Zora's slow decline. She wrote less, and struggled through a variety of short-term jobs. Despite her previous popularity, she died poor in 1960. And despite her attempts to establish a cemetery to remember famous blacks, she was buried without a marker.
          I'm going to go read the whole biography of Hurston (all 3 webpages) that I just linked to.

          Have you read any writing of Hurston's beyond Their Eyes Were Watching God? If so, do you remember what you thought of it?

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 11:46:23 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

      •  Well, keep in mind that all those writers (8+ / 0-)

        (except for Alaine Locke) were a generation younger than her, and living and responding to a different world than she was.  By the late 1930s, when she wrote her novel, the pendulum had swung fully into political and politically-engaged fiction, so her life and her work seemed passé to them rather than forward-looking.   Consider that Richard Wright was about to drop Native Son, which had the rough effect of a neutron bomb on the race discussion.

        In the meantime, she'd burned her bridges with her old allies (most notably Langston Hughes) and was far outside of what was considered, at that moment, the Black intellectual mainstream.  It's not that these critics weren't perceptive enough to see what Hurston was doing: it's that they fundamentally rejected it.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 10:18:54 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I didn't know that context - though I suspected (6+ / 0-)

          something. Thanks. It did occur to me, after I wrote that last comment, that Ellison didn't publish his great novel until 15 years after Hurston's.

          Who was it that said academic politics were particularly vicious because the stakes were so small? Literary Politics seem the same, a bitter zero-sum game. As Alice Walker says in that video, it gets toxic living in a culture under siege; she also says that

          "to actually have joy in your life is a great victory - and that is something that I feel she left to us, this ability to understand what true success is: true success is about being happy, and is about doing what you have to do to survive . . . she shared this with us at great cost to herself, and I just feel so grateful, and I wish the people who maligned her - I feel so sorry for them, you know, they just missed an opportunity to enlarge themselves, to grow the kind of self-acceptance, the kind of irrepressible courage, the kind of wisdom, you know, just being happy with who you are - what a joy."
          I quoted a lot, because that points at the precise inspiration I found in this book, the lesson Janie lived that moved me.

          There's still a lot more context here than I know about. Yet I'm sorry that these other black writers rejected Hurston's style. For someone who was under siege from every direction - as a black, as a woman, as a writer of unorthodox opinions - it looks like Hurston had a powerful, mostly positive  voice, which added to their harmonies some chords they needed to hear.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 11:04:01 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Certainly their problem with her novel (5+ / 0-)

            was that the stakes were too small within it (in their opinion).  Wright was in the process of writing what he considered A Grand Statement about the damage white American had done to the black psyche; Ellison was still writing short stories but had hooked up with the Communist party and their narratives of widespread social change.  For them, literature was a deadly serious business, and who has time for some random woman's love affairs?  

            This push-pull between the politically serious and the aesthetic object had been going on for a while, though.  Just look at the reaction to the 1926 journal Fire!!, which Hurston had co-founded.  It was considered vulgar and offensive (a lot of that, no doubt, on the shoulders of Bruce Nugent's bisexual fantasy, "Smoke, Lilies and Jade"), because the intelligentsia felt that, to progress and shake off centuries of social marginalization, the black community had to put its best, most sophisticated foot forward.  So Hurston was no stranger to these kinds of debates even in her own time.

            What the 30s brought was socialist realism, the Great Depression, and the rumbling that was about to cause the Second Great Migration.  (Also: the whole kerfuffle with Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics had happened just the year before Hurston's novel was published.)  So for the politically-minded, this was the time to strike with socially-engaged literature, not the passé romances of an aging relic.

            (Of course her work holds up much better than theirs does, in retrospect.)

            Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

            by pico on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 10:23:03 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  But there you have it again: best by whose (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              pico, RiveroftheWest, Brecht, poco

              aesthetic and intellectual standards? And who is insisting on damage?
              The balance between acknowledging harm and trauma and loss, and insisting on an indestructible integrity, is a difficult one for everyone to reach, whether in real life or in fiction. Yes, Hurston might have romanticized her characters, but she was also determined to grant them their own autonomy, however constrained by their circumstances.
              In that way alone, I think Hurston's approach is profoundly different from the deterministic visions dominant in the 30s, when realism was king (gender pun deliberate).
              All this discussion is making me intensely wistful about all I don't know about this literature, as well as about all I once might have known but have forgotten!
              Thanks for a very engaging conversation.

              Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

              by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:20:10 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Yes, I appreciate all the knowledge and thought (3+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                peregrine kate, poco, RiveroftheWest

                that you two have brought to the debate here, thank you.

                Now I get where these other writers were at in '37. They were committed to the frontlines of an ideological battle for the soul, power and potential of being black. They felt that Hurston was retreating, was weakening the gains they were making. On a political level, though I think they were over-simplifying, I see their perspective.

                Artistically, Their Eyes Were Watching God is easy to underestimate. There is a lot more craft, depth and subtly-wrought magic there than appears at first glance. Now that I'm reading the essays on it, I find that many critics have read the book as a kind of romantic daydream, with Janie looking for the man who will complete her. But she is such a powerful agent, and she makes such a strong journey through the several  stages of the book. Yes, she settles into the role Jody prescribes for her as his good wife. But her struggles with him add up so naturally over time, we can see how ready she is to transcend that place when he dies. I loved the steps toward enlightenment. Again, when she starts with Tea Cake, it takes her several steps and some setbacks before she can open herself fully to a larger love and a fuller Janie than she was before. Also the ways Hurston shows us the power of storytelling and voice, all the ways relationships and community work - a lot of wisdom and power in this book.

                It seems to me that Hurston's peers failed to see all the craft, thought, and human energy that Zora fit into this book. They were against it on principle, and failed to suspend their disbelief and let their hearts take the immersive journey that the book is about.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sun Jan 19, 2014 at 02:52:53 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

        •  I appreciate you laying out these details, (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, pico, RiveroftheWest, poco

          which fill in the picture considerably. Thanks.

          Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

          by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:13:06 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Sadly, Hurston won a Guggenheim too but spent (6+ / 0-)

    Her whole adult life in near poverty. She was also a republican and took a lot of heat for her political views in the black southern community.

    •  I haven't got too far into that, but I'm perplexed (4+ / 0-)

      She was pro-segregation, and held that Brown vs. Board of Education - which was a watershed in civil rights - was wrongly decided. It makes zero sense to me.

      Then again, most of Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Eatonville, a relatively idyllic black township, unsullied by whites. And every time Janie is outside of Eatonville, racist oppression rears its ugly head.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 08:32:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I fear making some mis-steps here, so let (5+ / 0-)

        me start by saying that in principle I think Brown v. Board of Ed was decided properly.

        But in practice, what did it lead to? The law of unintended consequences was demonstrated in many significant and frustrating ways.

        There were some very interesting studies and symposia about this topic, in association with the 50th anniversary of the decision, and the consensus was that it wasn't a uniformly positive outcome, at least not so far. Many small black businesses were outstripped by white businesses that generally had a lot more assets to bring to bear. White students left schools with black students, one way or another: by moving, in the north, and by creating private white schools in the south.

        From Hurston's perspective, if I can exercise some imagination, it was inappropriate to imply that black-only education was necessarily lesser-than. What mattered to her in such a context would be the lack of resources, not the black-only schools, run by black administrators, taught by black teachers, supported by black parents, and attended by black students. (One has to be careful about the curriculum, too, that it wouldn't be one aimed to inculcate white superiority.) I think that to her a black-centered learning and teaching experience would have been really valuable. There are some useful connections between this sort of position and the ideals of the Afro-centric curriculum/schools movement from the 60s forward.

        I am extrapolating a lot here, but I think for the most part I'm on solid ground. I'd be happy to be shown otherwise if that's the case.

        Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

        by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:11:48 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  This is pretty much right: (4+ / 0-)

          she also believed, understandably, that the move toward desegregation was a move toward using white culture as a measuring stick; that culture homogenization would privilege setting whiteness as the standard; and that black achievement would be considered acceptable only insofar as it was brought into contact with white achievement.

          Here's her editorial on the court decision.

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 10:25:27 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  What are the best sides of "separate but equal"? (4+ / 0-)

          We are dealing with complicated subjects, where it's easy to find your foot in your mouth. I'm not too worried about you, as you're both sensitive and well-informed hereabouts. But I sometimes spout like a pompous ass. Still, we're among friends.

          We can see in the book how Eatonville has a a slightly Edenic quality: a town uncorrupted by the knowledge of White vs. Black. In practice, in America, separate but equal gets sabotaged, and some of the people end up more equal than the others, in terms of financing and other perks from the powers that be. In idealistic terms, I can see where Hurston was coming from. Especially as she had her own slightly Edenic experience, in Eatonville before her own mother died when she was 13. But I haven't read her essay which tells this, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me".

          I can't tell you anything on this issue that you don't already know. But I had a small epiphany on similar lines in my own life. When I was in college, I transferred for a year to Wellesley. Ten young men had signed up for the exchange, but word got out that that year, we'd be living in Beebe, which was notorious as a nest of ardent feminists and lesbians. By September, when I moved there, there were only three men left on the exchange.

          It was an interesting year in many ways. Beautiful campus, and very good Poli. Sci. and English departments (my majors). Women would come up and introduce themselves, because I was a man on campus. Others would come up and harangue me, for invading a women's college, where I had no business being.

          The epiphany, and one of the sweetest parts of my experience, was this: I found myself in a land where women were people first, and women second. I realized how much society objectified women, and how much men saw first a beauty rating out of 10, and then perhaps discovered an individual as well. I met a lot of women with a natural confidence in who they were, unencumbered by male expectations of who they should be. And it seems to me that every young woman deserves a few years, where male expectations are pushed away, and room is made simply to grow into yourself.

          We were talking about all the conflicting pressures on Zora, being a black female writer relying on the patronage of whites and also buffeted by the judgments of her peers in the Harlem Renaissance. I wish she had had some safe, supportive, separate and special place to nurture her sensibilities, her hunger and her creativity - perhaps a community of artistic black women living in the Catskills, a place where she was loved and celebrated just for being whichever Zora she felt like being on any given day.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 10:25:42 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  There are many stories the other way around, too: (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest, Brecht, poco

            that is, in which the protagonist suddenly finds him/herself in an environment where s/he is no longer unusual, and what a liberating experience that is (at least for a while).

            My oldest daughter attended one of the few remaining all-female secular colleges, graduating a few years ago now. It was her decision to go, though I myself would have loved to attend such a school when I was younger. I think in many ways it was a good opportunity for her to gain confidence in herself as a woman. On the other hand, I also think she learned from it that sisterhood is far from automatic. Perhaps that's another matter altogether.

            I can't think of any ongoing experience I've had like that, though as a highly educated middle-class white woman I have had a considerable amount of opportunity to take my privilege for granted all the same. Learning that one can, in different circumstances, be part of a normative group, or part of an out group, is pretty educational. It would be a good thing if more could have those formative experiences.

            Oh, one more comment: recently Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about his reaction to returning to Howard University with his son for Homecoming. That Atlantic essay, and his NYT opinion piece to which it refers, are both extremely relevant to this particular discussion. They'd be worth reading because he's a superb writer anyway, but in this context they're indispensable.

            Support Small Business: Shop Kos Katalogue If you'd like to join the Motor City Kossacks, send me a Kosmail.

            by peregrine kate on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:39:43 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  The Ta-Nehisi Coates pieces nicely support (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              peregrine kate, poco, RiveroftheWest

              Hurston's own arguments and convictions.

              Reading the NYT, I realized I'd read it a couple of months ago. Bloggers frequently link to Ta-Nehisi Coates - with good reason.

              I came to Howard as an insecure 17-year-old boy from Maryland, with none of the confidence that oozes out of my son. In my youth, doubting your own humanity, which is to say your own beauty, your own intelligence, your own history, came easy. Resisting the hatred in my heart could be accomplished only in a crowd, where 10,000 others like me, who sang a variant of that same blues, could lay on hands.
              I hadn't seen the Atlantic piece, which was moving:
              I spent Saturday in my native country. The old feeling came over me like a quilt. Brothers saw me walking on the Yard, gave pounds, knowledge, told me they were proud of me, then moved on. Sisters who I'd adored, but had not lately seen, enlisted their children, handed them cameras. You can find us somewhere on Facebook smiling as though it is 96, and we are young, black and can not die.
              He has such a gift for conveying strong personal feelings so that they're easy to grasp, but then get you thinking about things you'd taken for granted.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sun Jan 19, 2014 at 02:30:17 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Wow, Brecht. (8+ / 0-)

    The first time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, these lines blew me away:

    Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside her to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered.
    But whenever this novel came up, no one else remembered those lines. And here you've quoted the entire passage.

    Thank you for this diary.

    "Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism." Hubert H. Humphrey

    by nomandates on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 10:05:52 PM PST

    •  How nice, that I found your favorite passage, (7+ / 0-)

      and showed it to you once more.

      Hurston has a real knack for discovering ways to express the subtle inner currents of the mind and heart. That excerpt was just over a page, but it tells a complete short story of love breaking down.

      One of the insights that surprised me was when Hurston had already showed us everything about how small and brittle Jody could be, and then she went around the other side and showed us all his human pain and fear, so we felt for him again.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 11:09:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  have read this book several times (7+ / 0-)

    and have taught it two or three times at a community college. I have always loved the poetry of it. Hurston was a complex figure, no doubt about it, but this work stands on its own regardless.

  •  Two things I've always liked about the novel-- (7+ / 0-)

    First is Janey's images of her men.  It encompasses who they are, who they really are--especially Tea Cake.  The imagery also reflects her growth.

    The second: watch who gets to talk and who has to hush.  The right to tell your own story is the ultimate freedom.

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 03:27:57 AM PST

    •  I'll be reading a dozen essays on the book, (4+ / 0-)

      in the next fortnight, to prepare for my next book diary. I hope I can also find time to reread the book itself. If I do, I'll watch particularly for the images of Janie's men. I so enjoy Hurston's way with metaphor.

      I didn't notice the five act structure of Janie's growth until I'd finished: girlhood with grandma, outgrowing her successive men, final self-realization.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 10:30:30 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Read It Twice, Years Apart (8+ / 0-)

    This confession comes from an inveterate non-re-reader.

    Both times it enchanted me.  I mean literally.  I fell into a reading spell and was aspirated into another world that, after closing the book and putting it down, I felt I had to struggle to regain my "real" life and breathe on my own.

    It's a rare and, yes, magical feeling.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 07:46:22 AM PST

    •  Hurston is gifted with language and storytelling. (6+ / 0-)

      The book feels so natural and artless - you can feel that it poured out in two months of fevered inspiration. But there is such grace and awareness in how, for instance, she captures the flavor of the Eatonville patois, while ensuring that every word's meaning is instantly clear.

      Zora was a vessel, caught in the same spell she weaves. As Alice Walker put on her tombstone, she was a Genius of the South.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 10:39:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  What a wonderful diary! (3+ / 0-)

    Haven't read it yet, Brecht, but one day I will.

    Thanks for this fresh and lively introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 08:45:16 AM PST

  •  Big tip and rec! (4+ / 0-)

    I love this book!

    God spare me the Heart to fight them... I'll fight the Pirates forever. -Mother Jones

    by JayRaye on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 09:52:27 AM PST

    •  I'm glad you enjoyed the diary (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye, poco, RiveroftheWest

      and thanks for republishing me to your group. I wrote another diary speaking to Sexism and Patriarchy: Jane Austen's Smarts & Why Girls Grow Up Stupid.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Jan 19, 2014 at 01:46:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  That was also a great diary, just read it! (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, Unca Joseph, Brecht

        Sorry I missed it when it came out.

        Repub'd to S & P even tho I'm not a fan of Austen. I find her writing to be boring, and she writes about people who bore me also. Nevertheless your diary about her I found very interesting!

        God spare me the Heart to fight them... I'll fight the Pirates forever. -Mother Jones

        by JayRaye on Sun Jan 19, 2014 at 12:08:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I used to find Austen shallow and predictable (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, JayRaye, poco

          but now I find that there's more there than I noticed before: subtle humor and very skillful style. But in that diary Austen was more of a jumping off point, to discuss how our culture ignores and undervalues feminine wisdom and sensitivity.

          I'm glad you enjoyed these two diaries. Happy Martin Luther King Day.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 01:38:06 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I don't find her shallow or predictable (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Brecht, Unca Joseph

            I am simply not interested in the problems of the class of people that she writes about, male or female. And the "feminine wisdom" that she writes about is upper class "feminine wisdom." Their lifestyle and their problems bore me.  Poor and working class women have their own struggles and their own type of wisdom as shown by the many authors who write about them, like Hurston, for example.

            God spare me the Heart to fight them... I'll fight the Pirates forever. -Mother Jones

            by JayRaye on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:49:44 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I hear you. My other Austen diary covered the Pros (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              JayRaye, RiveroftheWest

              and Cons of Jane Austen as a writer. I won't ask you to read a third of my diaries, but here is my analysis of what's missing from Austen's writing:

              First, Austen is all about the gentle middle, and leaves out all kinds of wild extremity. She sticks to towns and villages - not London, but not too far away, either. No Scotland, let alone continental Europe or beyond. She pays attention to the middle classes - we see very little of the truly poor or the really rich or powerful. She likes things small and peaceful. When she wrote, England was embroiled in wars on the continent, men were marching off, and coming back covered in glory or death. Yet these earth-shattering events hardly figure in her novels. Socially, geographically, thematically, she sticks to love and society in everyday settings.

              Second, Austen is a very feminine writer. That's a huge word with many implications. All I mean in this case is, she writes about the subjects we now make chick flicks out of, and she avoids the brutal masculine subjects that appealed to Hemingway and Norman Mailer. When it comes to Romance, all the subtleties of relationships, psychology - and what is admirable, or trustworthy, or dangerous in our characters: she gets all that to the nth degree. If you find those intricacies fascinating, you will love Jane Austen. If you want wars, bullfights and murders, you'll have to look elsewhere.

              Even in her psychology, Austen prefers the gentle middle. Dante and Dostoevsky are penetrating in their visions, but they're interested in heroes and lunatics, in angels and demons. They look in the dark, twisted corners of human nature, and they explore the brilliant illumination of heavenly grace. Austen won't go very far up, down, or out of the everyday. There is a coziness to her world: bad things happen, but you don't have to worry about a sympathetic main character getting hacked to pieces. She's no George R. R. Martin.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 04:59:08 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  This book is one of my favorites. (6+ / 0-)

    It is beautifully written.

    My reading group read the book, but had trouble with some of the language.
    I had no such trouble, my roots are from the poor rural south (South Carolina, and Louisiana).

    We took turns reading passages aloud. When it was my turn, My wife turned to a passage and handed me the book.
    She knew something about me that no one else in our reading group knew.
    Which was that the language of the book was the language I spoke when surrounded by my immediate family.
    It is not about putting on an accent, it is a song, a cadence and vocabulary like no other.

    I read the passage my wife had selected and attempted to pass the book to the next reader.
    The reading group would have none of it, so like Janie on the back porch, I told her tale in my first tongue.
    I read for close to 90 minutes.
    I was transformed, the reading group was transfixed and I fell in love with the book and for the first time I was not embarrassed by the soft sing song dialect that I learned as an infant.
    Life took me away from the south at an early age and not wanting to be different, I consciously worked at an succeeded in losing my southern twang.
    I now speak pure Educated Californian, but for a little while I was taken back to my childhood in the warm embrace of this wonderful book.

    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire

    by leftover on Sat Jan 18, 2014 at 02:40:56 PM PST

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