Zora Neale Hurston: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Zora Neale Hurston, who hailed from the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, is probably best known for her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what many readers don’t know is that Hurston was first and foremost an anthropologist and folklorist. After she left Florida, she studied at Barnard College with the great anthropologist Franz Boas. He helped her understand that her subject matter, her field of study, should be her own people – the working African Americans of Florida.

Hurston immersed herself in her fieldwork, traveling to and spending lots of time in the turpentine camps of Florida. She was very much a participant-observer anthropologist, an approach some say she took to an extreme when she went into training as a voodoo priestess in New Orleans and Haiti so that she could fully document this secretive subculture. If you’re curious about her anthropological experiences in Florida and New Orleans, her 1935 book, Mules and Men, is a must-read.

Despite the fascinating work she was doing, Hurston wasn’t satisfied being solely an anthropologist. She knew there must be more she could do with the rich African American culture, stories, and songs that she was documenting and that she had been immersed in as she was growing up.

As luck would have it, Hurston was at Barnard College (in New York City) in the 1920s just as the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. She befriended poet Langston Hughes, and it could be argued that her friendship with Hughes was every bit as influential in her creative and professional life as was her relationship with Boas. In fact, until they had a deep, permanent falling out, Hurston and Hughes were collaborators, creating together Mule Bone, a play that was never produced.

Of all her work – memoir, short stories, plays, anthropology, and novels – none stands out nearly as much as Their Eyes Were Watching God. When it was first published, this compelling story of Janie Crawford was criticized and dismissed, primarily by male reviewers. Hurston and her work eventually fell into obscurity. She died in 1960, penniless and alone, in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Fort Pierce, Florida.

In the early 1970s, Alice Walker – an outstanding African American writer in her own right – went on a journey to rediscover the great Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote about her literary inspiration in her 1975 Ms. magazine essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Through this essay, Walker almost singlehandedly brought back interest in Hurston’s work.

In 1978, with Hurston’s literary reputation on the upswing again, the University of Illinois Press reissued Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now the novel is frequently taught in classrooms around the country and is widely recognized as one of the defining classics of African American literature.

Before I come to the end of this post, I want to give you just a taste of this marvelous novel. What follows is the “pear tree” scene, which appears in the novel’s second chapter. Hurston is writing about the young Janie, who has just had her first kiss.

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dustbearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.

From there, the novel goes on to trace Janie’s lifelong search for the bee to her own blossom, which she finally discovers when she meets Tea Cake Woods.

Ready to explore Hurston’s work yourself? If you haven’t done so already, you simply must read Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s available online in a free PDF – but of course, this is a book you’ll love so much that you’ll want to buy a hard copy to keep in your collection. To explore Zora’s work and life fully, you’ll want to visit the Zora Neale Hurston Digital Archive, which is chock full of great resources. Also fun are the Hurston-related collections available online at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project. Her work as a folklorist for the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida is featured in the Florida Folklife collection. And in Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress, you’ll find ten plays written by Hurston but mostly unpublished and unproduced. Finally, you’ll absolutely want to take a virtual tour of the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail.

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Listen and Watch:Listen to Zora Neale Hurston sing “Halimuhfack,” a “jook” song she learned on the east coast of Florida as part of her work for the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida. In the clip, Hurston also explains how she collected this type of song. The clip runs just over two minutes and ends rather abruptly (so don’t be surprised!). To listen to Hurston sing other songs and tell other stories, visit the Library of Congress’s Florida Folklife collection and enter “Hurston” as your search term. As an added treat, you might want to watch this 12-minute video of Alice Walker talking about her journey to discover Zora Neale Hurston.

Image Credit: Zora Neale Hurston, public domain, Library of Congress.