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

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(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...

(The entire section is 46,923 words.)