Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) – I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to like or dislike, in my heart of hearts, anything. It appears that the various Internet-based dispensations about artistic taste and personal virtue mostly only apply to public utterances. I recently had an acquaintance tell me it was important that I see a given pop star’s work as superlative, but that’s one of the few times lately I’ve had my internal headspace even lightly patrolled by woke types. To throw a somewhat inappropriate metaphor in there, most of us accept that individuals are the princes that decide on the religion of the subjects of their individual opinions in the feudalities of their minds- cuius regio, eius religio. Of course, the failures of that system led to the ghastly Thirty Years War, but what the hell, it’s just a metaphor.
But we are not concerned with my heart of hearts, here, because I express my opinions about books in public for all to read. I become “fair game.” This worried me, some. Humans are gregarious mammals and while I can shrug off abuse from strangers and enemies (there should be a good example of that up tomorrow, preview!) I don’t like to disappoint friends. So as I started “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I began to worry. What would the consequences be of publicly disliking this book? What are the consequences for publicly disliking a black women writer, besides the usual exceptions of your Candace Owens and Condoleezza Rices (Zora Neale Hurston’s politics weren’t great, either, but seemingly people don’t care)? What are the rules re black writers and women writers more generally? I found myself thinking about previous instances- I’ve disliked plenty of white women writers, like Sheila Heti and Sylvia Plath, with limited backlash, none of it moral/political. I’ve been critical of black male writers like Ibram Kendi and Colson Whitehead and it went fine. I haven’t read a ton of black women writers and I’ve liked most of them, especially Toni Morrison, Elaine Brown, and Octavia Butler. Hurston was by no means popular in her own time — Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison both denounced the book as patronizing to black people when it came out — but was rediscovered by seventies feminists.
As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry (probably didn’t need to in any event, but hey, worry keeps me on my toes). I wound up neither really liking nor really disliking this book. Part of my early worry was my pedantic dislike for the title. What else would they be watching God with? Their feet? I’ll also admit I wasn’t crazy about Hurston’s decision to write the vast majority of the book in southern black dialect orthography, including the first person singular becoming “Ah.” It made it more difficult to read, and if it were written by a non-black person, it would sound a lot like minstrel dialogue. I’ve seen examples of similar dialogue done better, but Hurston was something of a pioneer as a black writer writing black dialogue in literary fiction, so she sort of made the road.
Anyway- what is the book about? It is about a young black woman named Janie who wants more out of life than early twentieth century America wants to allow for black people, women, or especially black women. She wants independence, love, the simple pleasures of life. Her grandmother marries her off to a shitty dude. She runs off with another dude to Florida, where said dude becomes a big wheel and also turns out to be shitty, wanting her to be somewhere between a work mule (lots of mule imagery here, and pear trees- I never did like pears that weren’t caramelized, another innocuous feature conspiring against my enjoyment of this book) and a trophy wife. Said dude pops his clogs and Janie runs off with a younger man, nicknamed Tea Cakes. He’s the best of a bad lot. He’s fun, at least, and seems to sincerely like Jamie. He also steals from her and beats her at least once. The way Hurston depicts gradations of domestic abuse — she didn’t come out and say Tea Cakes’s beating “felt like a kiss” but it was basically considered “good” domestic violence — is both rough to read and probably reveals, in some backwards way, a truth about bad relationships. But then he gets bit by a rabid dog and gets rabies himself, forcing Janie to kill him. She gets off at her trial and then sets up as an independent lady, having found what happiness she can.
I’m sufficiently interested in experiences dissimilar to mine that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was worth engaging with in any event. That said, relationship stories need an extra “lift” to get them over on me (“but Peeeeeeter, alllllll stories are relationship stories!” bollocks). This has some lift, mostly towards the end. Hurston can tell a mean hurricane story. And you do wind up rooting for Janie. There’s less in the way of social commentary here than I expected. I tend to think that might be part of why Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance peers didn’t like it in the engagé thirties, and why it’s been an enduring classic since the seventies. White people basically don’t feature (except when white women rally around Janie’s defense after she kills Tea Cakes, an, errrr, interesting turn), and you can see why that would appeal. It’s not about criticizing an unfair society, it’s about relationships and their structural features. You can say there’s no such thing as society in this book, just men, women, and their dreams (not a ton of kids, either!)… but that’s probably the kind of thing that would get me in that trouble I was anticipating… ah, well. ***’