Monday, September 3, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2018: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then, after that some angels got jealous and chopped him up 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, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

I happily chose Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for the 2018 Back to the Classics category “Classic by a new-to-you author”.   As my online friend Kathy pointed out in her excellent review at Reading Matters, readers have Alice Walker to thank for reviving interest in Hurston’s work in the mid-1970s.  

According to the Afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Harper Perennial Modern Classic that I read (pictured), Hurston was the preeminent woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. Gates suggests that her work fell into obscurity by the late 1950s and early 1960s possibly because her writing did not reflect the politics of other African Americans artists and thinkers of that era.  Gates goes on to compare Their Eyes Were Watching God with Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’ve not read that novel, but I was reminded of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening because Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in my opinion, primarily about one woman’s attempt to break free of societal constraints put upon her sexuality and her ambitions.  The book does indirectly address racism, but it is incidental to the rest of the narrative.

First published in 1937, the story is about Janie Crawford who is raised by her grandmother. Nanny was born into slavery and has a conservative view about marriage and wants Janie to marry the older, financially stable Logan Killicks.  But Janie at 17 has a more romantic view of marriage and what adventure life can offer her, if she is willing to chance it.  Eventually she gets her opportunity and without giving too much away, I think that this is ultimately a very positive and life affirming book, even if there are struggles along the way.

The dialogue is written entirely in dialect while the narrative is in standard American English. This does take some getting used to and it would have been much easier to read if Hurston hadn’t imitated phonetic pronunciations quite so often. On the other hand, while I read the print version, this book in audio would be pretty amazing.