Special Commissioned Entry on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Earley Whitt - Essay

Zora Neale Hurston


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Entry on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston Margaret Earley Whitt

Written by noted Hurston scholar Margaret Early Whitt of the University of Denver, the following special essay provides in-depth analysis and explication of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). For discussion of Hurston's complete works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 30, and 61.

When in 1942 Zora Neale Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she named Eatonville, Florida “a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” She died January 28, 1960, in relative obscurity in the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in southern Florida. Though her obituary in the New York Times (“Zora Hurston, 57, Writer, Is Dead,” 5 Feb. 1960: 27) gives her age as fifty-seven, placing her birth year in 1903, Hurston herself claimed birthdates from 1898 to 1903, most often using 1901, but the census of 1900 lists a Zora L. Hurston born to Lucy Potts (American National Biography, vol. 11, eds. John Garraty and Mark Carnes [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]). Hurston actually died when she was sixty-nine. The recasting of her story in her autobiography suggests that Hurston used facts creatively. It is easy for readers today to understand that Eatonville is the dominant place in young Zora's conscious memory. Alice Walker writes that “everything Zora Neale Hurston wrote came out of her experience in Eatonville” (Alice Walker, ed., I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [New York: Feminist Press, 1979] 176).

The fifth of eight children, Hurston enjoyed the relative prosperity of her parents in Eatonville. Her father owned land and a substantial house. He served Eatonville as a three-term mayor and was the preacher of Zion Hope Baptist Church in nearby Sanford (though Wall's Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings also says her father was pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church). Her mother was a former country schoolteacher. After the untimely death of her mother in 1904 and the subsequent remarriage of her father to a stepmother with whom she developed a stormy relationship, Hurston's mooring in her once stable community of Eatonville shifted dramatically. Living with various family members in different places for short increments of time also disrupted her schooling, while providing her experience in domestic work, an economic necessity. By 1915 she attached herself to the Gilbert and Sullivan traveling dramatic troupe as a maid (Robert Hemenway's Zora Neal Hurston: A Literary Biography lists her role with the company as that of a “wardrobe girl”) and went with them from Jacksonville to Baltimore. Here she enrolled in Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University), moved on to Howard University in Washington, and eventually graduated from Barnard College in New York in 1928. Hurston's educational path through school was far from direct; she was constantly challenged by her economic situation. However, her fiercely savvy street wisdom, obvious creative talent, and assertive personality combined to open doors to the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston arrived in New York's Harlem neighborhood in 1925, and the flowering of Negro arts was already underway. The Urban League's magazine, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, edited by Charles S. Johnson, had published one of her stories, and its editor was supportive during her early days in New York. Hurston had had earlier encouragement from Alain Locke, whose seminal work The New Negro would define and represent the exploding Negro arts movement, when he published her first story while she was still a student at Howard University. Hurston became a presence at literary salons, where she met Jean Toomer, author of Cane, W. E. B. Du Bois, author of Souls of Black Folk, and fiction writers Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset, to name a few of the prominent talents.

Soon after her arrival in Harlem, Hurston met the first of three important white women who significantly contributed to her life. She accepted a position with the well-known novelist Fannie Hurst, who hired her as a live-in secretary, despite Hurston's rather poor clerical skills. The two met when Hurst served as a judge in a contest in which Hurston's story “Spunk” had won a prize. The arrangement provided Hurston a much-needed roof over her head. Around this time, Hurston attracted the attention of novelist Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College, who arranged for a scholarship so that Hurston could continue her schooling.

As a student at Barnard, Hurston anticipated that she would be an English major. Along the way, however, she enrolled in an anthropology course, and her professor brought her work for the class to the attention of Dr. Franz Boas, one of the country's leading anthropologists. Hurston soon changed her major and began attending departmental social gatherings, where she continued to impress him. In February of 1927 Boas arranged a fellowship for her to travel south and record the stories of her people.

The third white woman, and clearly the most important person for the next five years of Hurston's life, was Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason (Charlotte), a socially prominent patron of the Negro arts. Hurston met Mrs. Mason in September 1927; they signed a legal contract in December of that year that assured Hurston $200 each month plus the use of a car to travel to the South to begin a serious collection of black folklore. A formal arrangement lasted until the end of March 1931 and continued with irregular payments until September 1932. The major downside of the agreement for Hurston was that the collection was to become the property of Mrs. Mason, with whom Hurston developed a spiritual and psychic connection. Referred to as “godmother” by her proteges, Mrs. Mason was a patron for a number of talented, young, black writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance—most notably, Langston Hughes, whose relationship with her was also a struggle against censorship and excessive dependence.

The first six months on her collecting trip were unsuccessful as Hurston tried to use her northern, Barnard style of talk, which was not the way to open conversation with the kind of people she knew could tell her stories. Not until she reached Polk County in Florida and met a local legend known as Big Sweet did her collecting begin to prosper. Hurston gained acceptance in the community through her friendship with Big Sweet, who had easy access to the best liars/storytellers. Big Sweet saved Hurston's skin as well. When a fight broke out among the locals, Hurston managed to get out of the jook joint safely, collect her belongings, and get on the road to New Orleans for another round of research, this time on the study of hoodoo.

From New Orleans, she traveled to south Florida and on to the Bahamas. Her stay in the Bahamas was devoted mostly to the collection of native songs and learning about the Jumping Dance. During her stay in the Bahamas in 1929, she experienced a five-day hurricane, which resulted in the deaths of animals and people and the washing away of hundreds of homes. Hurston called on the memory a few years later to develop and duplicate the terror in her Everglades hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is actually based on the Okeechobee Hurricane, which struck Florida in 1928 and caused severe flooding. She repeated her trips to the Bahamas during the latter part of the 1920s and early 1930s.

In the midst of her research trips, Hurston took time to marry medical student Herbert Sheen in St. Augustine, Florida, on May 19, 1927. They had met and fallen in love while students at Howard. Sheen and Hurston were both driven individuals, intent upon professional success in different fields of study. Hurston believed that she could have both her man and her work, but she had second thoughts almost immediately. Sheen became aware that his bride would never follow him in his career if it meant sacrificing her own. In less than eight months, they declared a separation, but the divorce was not final until July 7, 1931. Her second marriage, also brief, was to Albert Price III, whom she wed on June 27, 1939 in Fernandina, Florida. Price was younger than Hurston, and the relationship was strained from the beginning. The divorce was eventually granted on November 9, 1943, but the couple never lived together more than two weeks at a time, and the marriage itself, for all practical purposes, was over within the first year (Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977] 273–74). The first marriage involved two people who had a long history with each other and remained on good terms for the rest of Hurston's life. On the other hand, Price's involvement appears to have been of a much shorter duration. Long before the days of no-fault divorce, reasons couples gave for seeking a divorce were often fabricated. While the records and the stated reasons for obtaining the divorce are available, they may have little connection with the truth of the situation.

After publishing a dozen short stories, Hurston began her first novel in 1929 by transcribing a preacher's sermon, which she later used in Jonah's Gourd Vine. (Wall's Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings states that she only transcribed a preacher's sermon, later used in Jonah's Gourd Vine, in 1929; chronology further states that she began to write Jonah's Gourd Vine in Sanford, Florida in 1933, mailing the completed manuscript Oct. 3, which Lippincott accepted Oct. 16). As she explains in her autobiography, she knew she was “supposed to write about the Race Problem,” but she declares herself “thoroughly sick of the subject.” (Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 713). In 1933 she began to write the novel in earnest, spending about three months on the writing, and when Lippincott responded positively to the manuscript and offered her a $200 advance, she immediately accepted their terms. No book to follow was as exciting to her as the first one; Jonah's Gourd Vine affirmed her own belief in herself, that she did possess artistic talent. The book was published in 1934 and was greeted with mixed reviews. While her ability to capture the “pungent, expressive idiom of the country Negro, full of humor and folk-notions” (Josephine Pinckney, “A Pungent, Poetic Novel about Negroes,” New York Herald Tribune Books [6 May 1934]: 7) and “the lusciousness and beauty of the Negro dialect” (Andrew Burris, “The Browing Reader,” The Crisis [June 1934]: 167) was consistently lauded, the book fell short of pleasing those writers associated with the New Negro movement. The reception of the first novel repeated itself with her three following novels: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939); and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Because Hurston simply refused to reduce her fictional writing to polemical tirades on race, she was plagued by reviews calling attention again and again to what was widely considered her shortcoming.

Two collections of folklore—Mules and Men in 1935 and Tell My Horse in 1938—puzzled reviewers as well. Her work refused to fit comfortably into known paradigms. Hurston eschewed what she no doubt considered a dry, scientific style of reporting ethnographic material. She chose, instead, to write in such a way that the reader, whom Hurston imagined as an outsider to the community, could “hear” the stories, as though the reader were present on the porch, at the jook joint, or in the car, listening. Hurston evoked the oral tradition in her choice of delivery. The audience for Hurston's folklore collections, though, was difficult to assess. Many black readers saw racist slights and overtones—was she simply making fun of her own people? Those who held this particular view were concerned about how white readers would interpret the stories—would they understand? How would they begin to grasp the context, the subtext?

Divided in two parts—seventy folk tales in ten groupings and thirty rituals and brief introductions to hoodoo practitioners—Mules and Men, underappreciated in the 1930s, had to wait almost half a century to be rediscovered. Tell My Horse is a book in three parts that continues Hurston's pursuit of voodoo practice. She moves from Jamaica to political commentary to Haiti. Most criticized for the middle section, her attempts at analyzing politics, Hurston was encouraged to stick with genres she knew better.

Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942. Writing her own story was not her idea; Lippincott suggested the enterprise. Late in 1941 Hurston was in California with a friend, busy with the details of her own story, yet frustrated by the assignment—preferring fiction to nonfiction. While Hurston delivered what was asked of her, the autobiography was a loose play between fact and fantasy. Critics generally agree this is her least noteworthy effort, yet until Robert Hemenway's literary biography in 1977, Hurston's own account of her life was the best available source.

In 1948 Hurston's last novel was published, and she was accused of sexually molesting a minor. Out of the country at the time of the alleged offense, Hurston still made headlines in the black press. Though the charges were dropped, Hurston sunk into personal depression. Though her emotional health at length rallied, she was plagued with recurring physical ailments and an unsteady income for the remainder of her life. She continued to write but began meeting with less success. Her achievements were with essays, opinion pieces for newspapers, and reviews.

During the first half of the 1950s, she lived in Eau Gallie, Florida, where she became known as a gardener of some repute. In the last years of her life, she moved to Fort Pierce, where she wrote columns for the local black newspaper, the Chronicle, and continued to work on her novel of Herod the Great, although her publishers had rejected the manuscript. She believed in the story and hoped it would make a grand movie in the biblical epic genre. Those who knew her at the end of her life report on the gardens she planted at her rented home. She was out of touch with the literati with whom she had once rubbed shoulders; she had limited financial income. A few months after entering the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home, she died. She was buried in a segregated cemetery at the north end of 17th Street in Fort Pierce, the grave unmarked for nearly two decades.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “An Analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 121. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following original essay, Whitt examines Hurston's work on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, themes, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication. The parenthetical page numbers that appear throughout this essay refer to the edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God published by J. B. Lippincott (Philadelphia) in 1937.]


Janie Crawford...

(The entire section is 44569 words.)