Their Eyes Are Watching Their Eyes Were Watching God

[Unsigned publisher's foreword, first edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1937):]

       In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Miss Hurston has fulfilled the early promise of her first books. Her writing is of the essence of poetry, deeply communicative, possessed of a primitive rhythm that speaks truly to the consciousness even before thought can form. This new novel is one of warmth and humor and rich, transcendent beauty. Janie's conscious life had begun at Grandma's gate. When Nanny had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost she had called Janie to come inside the house. That had been the end of her childhood. Soon after that Janie and Logan Killicks were married in Nanny's parlor. But love did not come to Janie as Nanny had told her it would. And one day Joe Starks, "from in and through Georgy," came walking down the road. Though he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, Joe spoke for far horizons, for change and chance, and Janie at last agreed to go off with him. But in the years of their marriage Janie was never very happy with him. When Joe died, Janie was not yet forty and still a handsome woman. She had refused more than one offer of marriage before the day that Tea Cake stepped into the store. He was younger than she, so much younger that at first Janie dared not believe in the happiness he brought to her. But their life together told her all that she needed to know. This is the story of Miss Hurston's own people, but it is also a story of all peoples--of man and of woman, and of the mystery that the world holds.

[Review by George Stevens, The Saturday Review of Literature, 18 September 1937:]

       Whether or not there was ever a town in Florida inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes, you will have no difficulty believing in the Negro community which Zora Neale Hurston has either reconstructed or imagined in this novel. The town of Eatonville is as real in these pages as Jacksonville is in the pages of Rand McNally; and the lives of its people are rich, racy, and authentic. The few white characters in the book appear momentarily and incidentally. The title carries a suggestion of "The Green Pastures," but it is to this extent misleading; no religious element dominates this story of human relationships.

       The central character is Janie, born to love and look for love through three marriages. She escapes from the first marriage, with a steady but middle-aged and unsympathetic farmer, to run away with Joe Starks, an unusual and delightful Negro go-getter with something in him of Babbit and a little of the Emperor Jones. How Joe becomes mayor, boss, and plutocrat of Eatonville, is a good story, humorous, eventful, and full of character. Rewarding as Joe is to the reader, he is a disappointment to Janie; when he becomes too successful he doesn't love her any more; and Janie, though she is cowed by public opinion, eventually goes off with Tea Cake, a shiftless, warm-blooded gambler who leads her a chase but makes her happy. The rest of their story is of their life and work together on a Florida plantation, until a hurricane brings on a melodramatic, but credible, conclusion.

       The only weak spots in the novel are technical; it begins awkwardly with a confusing and unnecessary preview of the end; and the dramatic action, as in the story of the hurricane, is sometimes hurriedly and clumsily handled. Otherwise the narration is exactly right, because most of it is in dialogue, and the dialogue gives us a constant sense of character in action. No one has ever reported the speech of Negroes with a more accurate ear for its raciness, its rich invention, and its music. In many ways "Their Eyes Were Watching God" recalls Lyle Saxon's recent "Children of Strangers"; both of them are love stories of women with mixed blood; and in both there is an undertone, never loud enough to be isolated, of racial frustration. But "Their Eyes Were Watching God" has much more humor in it; and paradoxically--possibly because the author is writing unselfconsciously of her own people--it is more objective. It never comes to the verge of conscious, sentimental "sympathy." A simple and unpretentious story, but there is nothing else quite like it.

[Review by Lucille Tompkins, New York Times Book Review, 26 September 1937:]

       This is Zora Hurston's third novel, again about her own people--and it is beautiful. It is about Negroes, and a good deal of it is written in dialect, but really it is about every one, or least every one who isn't so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory.

       "When God made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over." But, in the name of love, Janie's grandmother took "the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon . . . and pinched it into such a little thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her." So it was a long time before Janie found her "shine." Her grandmother had been a slave. So she wanted Janie born in freedom, to have advantages. In Janie, she figured, the Lawd had given her a second chance. "Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high," she said, "but they wasn't no pulpit for me. . . . So whilst ah was tendin' you of nights ah said ah'd save de text for you. . . . Ah raked and scraped and bought dis lil piece uh land so you wouldn't have to stay in de white folks' yard and tuck yo' head befo' other chillun at school. . . . Ah don't want yo' feathers always crumpled by folks throwin' up things in yo' face." And she thought she could die easy if she knew neither white men nor black could use Janie the way she'd been used. What she wanted for Janie was protection. So when she saw her kissing a "trashy nigger" over the gatepost she figured Janie had come on her womanhood and married her off straightway to a widower who spelled security.

       But Janie found that marriage didn't compel love, neither didn't it "end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated." So she married Jody Starks and went off with him to a town made all out of colored folks. Jody soon ran the town, and being Mayor went to his head. But being Mrs. Mayor didn't go to Janie's head: it hung around her like a stone. She had had something quite different in her mind's eye when she was 16. She had wanted "flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything" and all she got on her second try was position and a one-track husband who was so busy being boss to the town and her that he thought of nothing else. All the folks of the town, of course, envied Janie. Her place looked like heaven to them. And as for Jody, he thought he'd done quite enough to make a fine lady out of her. Finally she told him, "all dis bowin' down, all dis obedience under yo' voice--dat ain't whut ah rushed off down de road to find out about you." But Jody, like the Emperor Jones, changed everything, and unlike the Emperor, nothing ever changed him.

       So Janie had her old age first, and when shortly before she was 40 Jody died and Tea Cake came along she wasn't too spent and disillusioned to live as sooner or later all creatures ought. How different the story would have been if a sophisticated woman stood, at 40, in Janie's shoes, scores of novels already testify!

       The story of Janie's life down on the muck of Florida Glades, bean picking, hunting and the men shooting dice in the evening and how the hurricane came up and drove the animals and the Indians and finally the black people and the white people before it, and how Tea Cake, in Janie's eyes the "son of Evening Son," and incidentally the best crap shooter in the place, made Janie sing and glitter all over at last, is a little epic all by itself. Indeed, from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story--a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible.

[Review by Sheila Hibben, The New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, 26 September 1937:]

       Somewhere in Zora Hurston's book somebody is talking tall about Big John the Conqueror. "Nature and salt, dats what makes a strong man like Big John the Conqueror. He was a man wid salt in him," says this somebody. "He could give uh flavor to anything." Well, that's just what Zora Hurston can give to her writing, and when a book has Nature and salt, it's got a lot.

       Not that Miss Hurston has to depend on wit and feeling in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Here is an author who writes with her head as well as with her heart, and at a time when there seems to be some principle of physics set dead against the appearance of novelists who give out a cheerful warmth and at the same time write with intelligence. You have to be as tired as I am of writers who offer to do so much for folks as Atlas, Joan of Arc, Faith, Hope and Charity, Numerology, NBC, and Q.E.D. to be as pleased as I am with Zora Hurston's lovely book--sensitive book I might have said, if the publisher's blurb writers had not taken over that adjective for their own.

       Readers of Jonah's Gourd Vine and Mules and Men are familiar with Miss Hurston's vibrant Negro lingo with its guitar twang of poetry, and its deep, vivid humor. If in Their Eyes Were Watching God the flowers of the sweet speech of black people are not quite so full blown and striking as in those earlier books, on the other hand, the sap flows more freely, and the roots touch deeper levels of human life. The author has definitely crossed over from the limbo of folklore into the realm of conventional narrative.

       As a great many novelists--good and bad--ought to know by this time, it is awfully easy to write nonsense about Negroes. That Miss Hurston can write of them with simple tenderness, so that her story is filled with the ache of her own people, is, I think, due to the fact that she is not too much preoccupied with the current fetish of the primitive. In a rich prose (which has, at the same time, a sort of nervous sensibility) she tells the tale of a girl who "wanted things sweet with mah marriage, lak when you sit under a pear tree and think." Janie did not get sweetness when her Grandma married her to Mister Killicks with his sixty acres of West Florida land, and his sagging belly, and his toenails that looked like mules' foots; and she didn't get it when she ran off with Joe Starks and got to be the Mayor's wife, and sat on her own store porch. But when Tea Cake came along with his trampish clothes and his easy ways and his nice grin that made even a middle-aged woman like Janie sort of wishful the minute she sets eyes on him, he handed her the keys of the kingdom, and their life together (what there was of it) was rapture and fun and tenderness and understanding--the perfect relationship of man and woman, whether they be black or white.

       If I tried to tell you the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God (an inept enough title, to my mind) I would only make a mess of it, so dependent is the story upon Miss Hurston's warm, vibrant touch. There are homely, unforgettable phrases of colored people (you would know, all right, that a man wasn't fooling if he threatened to kill you cemetery daid); there is a gigantic and magnificent picture of a hurricane in the Everglades country of Florida; and there is a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless exuberance of humor, and a wild, strange sadness. There is also death--"not the death of the sick and ailing, with friends at the pillow and at the feet," but "the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment." Mostly, though, there is life--a swarming, passionate life, and in spite of the Tea Cake's tragic end and the crumbling of Janie's happiness, there is a sense of triumph and glory when the tale is done.

[from "Between Laughter and Tears," a review by Richard Wright of two novels about African American life; The New Masses, 5 October 1937:]

       It is difficult to evaluate Waters Turpin's These Low Grounds and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is not because there is an esoteric meaning hidden or implied in either of the two novels; but rather because neither of the two novels has a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation. Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction. . . .

       Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Zora Neale Hurston's Janie who, at sixteen, married a grubbing farmer at the anxious instigation of her slave-born grandmother. The romantic Janie, in the highly-charged language of Miss Hurston, longed to be a pear tree in blossom and have a "dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace." Restless, she fled from her farmer husband and married Jody, an up-and-coming Negro business man who, in the end, proved to be no better than her first husband. After twenty years of clerking for her self-made Jody, Janie found herself a frustrated widow of forty with a small fortune on her hands. Tea Cake, "from in and through Georgia," drifted along and, despite his youth, Janie took him. For more than two years they lived happily; but Tea Cake was bitten by a mad dog and was infected with rabies. One night in a canine rage Tea Cake tried to murder Janie, thereby forcing her to shoot the only man she had ever loved.

       Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.

       Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

       Turpin's faults as a writer are those of an honest man trying desperately to say something; but Zora Neale Hurston lacks even that excuse. The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.

[Review by Otis Ferguson, The New Republic, 13 October 1937:]

       It isn't that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull--yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful. Its story comes mostly through the person of Janie, a mulatto girl carefully married off to a proper fellow whom she ran away from shortly because that wasn't love and living as she hoped would be. And her second husband, though he built a town and promoted for himself a main place in its life, cooped her up and smothered her with rectitude until he died, leaving her wiser with middle age and still handsome.

       Through these chapters there has been some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unselfconscious grace; the book is absolutely free of Uncle Toms, absolutely unlimbered of the clumsy formality, defiance, and apology of a Minority Cause. And when Tea Cake swaggers in with his banter, music, rolling bones, and fierce tender loyalty, there is a lot more picturing of what we would never have known: Darktown and the work on the Everglades muck, the singing and boasting and play-acting, people living the good life but, in the absence of the sour and pretentious and proper, seeming to live it in a different world. It is the time of the Big Blow in Florida, and though Tea Cake and Janie fought through it, the aftermath left the man with hydrophobia, and she had to kill him like a dog. Janie went back to her town after that, her late years to be mellowed with the knowledge of how wide life can be.

       If this isn't as grand as it should be, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are in a tangle of lush exposition and overblown symbols; action is described and characters are talked about, and everything is more heard than seen. The speech is founded in observation and sometimes wonderfully so, a gold mine of traditional sayings. "Don't come to me with your hair blowing back," someone says. Or "My old woman . . . get her good and mad and she'll wade through solid rock up to her hip pockets"; "She ain't a fact and neither do she make a good story when you tell about her." Or such phrases in their proper place as "Well all right then," and "Got the world in a jug." Or such vivid, simple picture making as a comment on great wind and thunder: "Big Massa draw him a chair upstairs." Or illustrations from natural life, as in the case of the old girl who said you didn't have to worry about her blabbing; she was like a chicken--"Chicken drink water but he don't pee-pee."

       But although the spoken word is remembered, it is not passed on. Dialect is really sloppy, in fact. Suggestion of speech difference is a difficult art, and none should practice it who can't grasp its first rule--that the key to difference must be indicated by the signature of a different rhythm and by the delicate tampering with an occasional main word. To let the really important words stand as in Webster and then consistently misspell all the eternal particles that are no more than an aspiration in any tongue, is to set up a mood of Eddie Cantor in blackface. The reader's eye is caught by distortions of the inconsequential, until a sentence in the supposedly vernacular reads with about this emphasis: "Dat wuz uh might fine thing fuh you tuh do."

       And so all this conflict between the real life we want to read about and the superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.

[Review by Sterling Brown, The Nation, 16 October 1937:]

       Janie's grandmother, remembering how in slavery she was used "for a work-ox and a brood sow," and remembering her daughter's shame, seeks Janie's security above all else. But to Janie, her husband, for all his sixty acres, looks like "some old skull-head in de graveyard," and she goes off down the road with slick-talking Jody Sparks. In Eatonville, an all-colored town, Jody becomes the "big voice," but Janie is first neglected and then browbeaten. When Jody dies, Tea Cake, with his contagious high spirits, whirls Janie into a marriage, idyllic until Tea Cake's tragic end. Janie returns home, grief-stricken but fulfilled. Better than her grandmother's security, she had found out about living for herself.

       Filling out Janie's story are sketches of Eatonville and farming down "on the muck" in the Everglades. On the porch of the mayor's store "big old lies" and comic/serious debates, with the tallest of metaphors, while away the evenings. The dedication of the town's first lamp and the community burial of an old mule are rich in humor but they are not cartoons. Many incidents are unusual, and there are narrative gaps in need of building up. Miss Hurston's forte is the recording and the creation of folk-speech. Her devotion to these people has rewarded her; Their Eyes Were Watching God is chock-full of earthy and touching poetry.

Ah don't want yo' feathers always crumpled by folks throwin' up things in yo' face. And ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolks white or black is makin' a spit cup outa you. Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate.

       Though inclined to violence and not strictly conventional, her people are not naive primitives. About human needs and frailties they have the unabashed shrewdness of the Blues. It is therefore surprising when, in spite of her clear innocence, all the Negroes turn away from Janie at her murder trial.

       But this is not the story of Miss Hurston's own people, as the foreword states, for the Negro novel is as unachievable as the Great American Novel. Living in an all-colored town, these people escape the worst pressures of class and caste. There is little harshness, there is enough money and work to go around. The author does not dwell upon the "people ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor" who swarm upon the "muck" for short-time jobs. But here is bitterness, sometimes oblique, in the enforced folk manner, and sometimes forthright. The slave, Nanny, for bearing too light a child with gray eyes, is ordered a terrible beating by her mistress, who in her jealousy is perfectly willing to "stand the loss" if the beating is fatal. And after the hurricane there is a great to-do lest white and black victims be buried together. To detect the race of the long-unburied corpses, the conscripted gravediggers must examine the hair. The whites get pine coffins, the Negroes get quicklime. "They's mighty particular how dese dead folks goes tuh judgment. Look lak they think God don't know nothin' 'bout de Jim Crow law."

[from review by Alain Locke, Opportunity, 1 June 1938:]

       And now, Zora Neale Hurston and her magical title: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie's story should not be re-told; it must be read. But as always thus far with this talented writer, setting and surprising flashes of contemporary folk lore are the main point. Her gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor keep her flashing on the surface of her community and her characters and from diving down deep either to the inner psychology of characterization or to sharp analysis of the social background. It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly -- which is Miss Hurston's cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!