Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
The original publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 brought a less than positive response. Richard Wright, who would become the best known African American novelist with the publication of Native Son (1940), harshly criticized the novel as being irrelevant to the struggles of the African American community. Wright was particularly critical of Hurston’s portrayal of race relations in the South, arguing that Hurston considered the repression of African Americans to be irrelevant. The critical consensus has recently come full circle; novelist Alice Walker, for example, has written that “there is no book more important to me than this one.”
Hurston’s strained relations with other African American writers may account for the negative reactions to the novel. She was one of the youngest writers to be associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though most of her work was done after its heyday. She had alienated particularly the leader of the movement, poet and short-story writer Langston Hughes, by claiming sole authorship of a play they had written together. Her politically conservative views and cultivation of wealthy white patrons also angered some writers, Wright in particular.
The critical consensus on the novel changed after its reprinting by the University of Illinois Press in 1965. The novel subsequently gained an underground following and became one of the most successful books in the history of academic publishing. It was not until the women’s movement of the 1970’s, however, that the book gained the status of an American classic, on the level of the works of Wright and William Faulkner. Hurston’s influence continued to be widely felt in the 1970’s and 1980’s, particularly in the works of younger African American novelists such as Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara.