by Valerie Boyd
Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God under emotional duress. She’d kept the novel “dammed up” inside for months, she would recall, and she wrote it under “internal pressure.”
By the fall of 1936, when Hurston began working on her transcendent tale of a black woman’s journey of self-discovery, she had already made a name for herself as a promising novelist and anthropologist. In 1934, Hurston had published her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine-partly a fictionalized account of her parents' marriage-to critical acclaim. “Jonah’s Gourd Vine can be called without fear of exaggeration the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written,” the New York Times declared. A year later, Hurston published Mules and Men, a book of folklore that grew out of her experience as a daughter of the black South.
Though Hurston left Eatonville, Florida, as a teenager, she returned there again and again in her fiction. She also made frequent visits to the village-and to many other places in the South-to study black folk culture under the tutelage of famed anthropologist Franz Boas, her professor at New York’s Barnard College. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Barnard, becoming a bright light of the Harlem Renaissance, and dropping out of a PhD program at Columbia University, Hurston won a Guggenheim fellowship to study indigenous religious practices in Jamaica and Haiti. The fellowship also gave the famously independent author a way out of a problematic love affair.
For more than a year, Hurston, a divorcee in her mid-forties, had been dating a man twenty years her junior. A graduate student at Columbia University, his name was Percival McGuire Punter. Though she would later identify him only by his initials in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston noted that he “was tall, dark brown” and “magnificently built.” But, she hastened to add: “His looks only drew my eyes in the beginning. I did not fall in love with him just for that. He had a fine mind and that intrigued me. When a man keeps beating me to the draw mentally, he begins to get glamorous.”
In short order, Hurston and Punter were immersed in an intensely passionate, mutually satisfying romance-a relationship that the thrice-married Hurston called “the real love affair of my life.”
Eventually, Punter asked her to give up her career, marry him, and leave New York. The idea of giving up her career was chilling. “I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do,” Hurston wrote, “but that one thing I could not do.”
“Punter did not seem to understand that Hurston’s work was her sustenance. “I’m tired of seeing you work so hard,” he told her. “I wouldn’t want my wife to do anything but look after me.” But Zora needed to do more with her life than look after a man, no matter how wonderful he might be. “I had things clawing inside of me that must be said,” she tried to explain. “I could not see that my work should make any difference in marriage. He was all and everything else to me but that. One did not conflict with the other in my mind. But it was different with him. He felt that he did not matter to me enough. He was the master kind. All or nothing, for him.”
Hurston and Punter continued to see each other, despite this fundamental conflict, and mutual jealousies erupted and escalated. If Punter smiled too broadly at a woman on Seventh Avenue, Zora fumed. If she accepted a kiss on the cheek from a male acquaintance, Punter smoldered. Their love became blissful misery. “We were alternately the happiest people in the world,” Zora recognized, “and the most miserable.”
One night, an argument turned particularly ugly. “Something primitive inside me tore past the barriers and before I realized it, I had slapped his face,” Hurston remembered. Angry over some week-old hurt, Punter struck back. To Hurston’s horror, she and Punter were soon trading slaps and shoves. “No broken bones,” she recalled, “and no black eyes,” but combat nonetheless. Stunned by the wrong turn their passion had taken, the two ended up on the floor together, entwined in mutual apologies.
But something had changed for Hurston. “Then I knew I was too deeply in love to be my old self,” she admitted. “For always a blow to my body had infuriated me beyond measure… But somehow, I didn’t hate him at all.” Hurston-“delirious with joy and pain”-had lost hold of herself. And this frightened her.
The Guggenheim fellowship, as she saw it, was “my chance to release him, and fight myself free from my obsession.” With this justification, Hurston said a hasty farewell to her beloved and sailed off to Jamaica, where she threw herself into her research in an attempt to smother her feelings for Punter.
A few months later, she moved on to Haiti, which released a flood of emotions that forced her to sit down and write-sometimes late at night after a strenuous day of research for her forthcoming book on Haitian Vodou and Caribbean culture. Commanded by a “force somewhere in Space,” as she dramatically put it, Hurston started writing a novel, working urgently for days on end. All the while, her love for Punter stayed on her mind. “The plot was far from the circumstances,” she noted, “but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In just seven weeks, right before Christmas 1936, Hurston finished her second novel.
Published in September 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford, a deep-thinking, deep-feeling black woman who embarks on a search for her own self. Janie’s journey begins at sixteen, when her dying grandmother marries her off to Logan Killicks, an older man with sixty acres, a mule, and a lump of fatback on his neck that Janie despises. Rebelling against Logan’s attempts to turn her into a workhorse, Janie runs off with Joe Starks, a citified fellow with big dreams and a big voice. Joe marries Janie and takes her to Eatonville, where he soon becomes mayor, postmaster, and primary landowner. The kind of man with “uh throne in de seat of his pants,” as one character puts it, Joe Starks is clearly modeled on Joe Clarke, the mayor of Eatonville during much of Hurston’s childhood there. Cowed by Joe’s chauvinism, Janie becomes “a rut in the road,” as Hurston writes. But after Joe’s death, the forty-year-old Janie falls in love with Tea Cake, a free-spirited laborer much younger than herself. Obviously cut from the same cloth as Hurston’s own younger man, Tea Cake is Janie’s true love-or, in the author’s words, he is “sun-up and pollen and blooming trees.” With Tea Cake, Janie is free to become herself.
Among the challenges that Janie and Tea Cake face together is a devastating hurricane, patterned after the 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane that killed nearly 2,000 people in the Florida Everglades. Though Hurston was not in Florida during that storm, she later interviewed many of its survivors; she also was able to re-create the hurricane in vivid detail because she herself had survived a 1929 hurricane in the Bahamas.
Hurston freely used such incidents from her own life to inform Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is, at heart, a love story inspired by her relationship with Punter. But Tea Cake is not Punter, and Janie is not Zora Neale Hurston. To be sure, Hurston imbued Janie with some of the questing quality that characterized her own life. But Janie is more conventional than Hurston ever was; consequently, she seeks her identity in the eyes and arms of men. Hurston, on the other hand, sought her identity in her own self, in her work, in speaking (and writing) her own mind.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston ransacked the language-the King’s English as well as Eatonville’s Ebonics-to achieve a precision of expression that was stunning. For more than 15 years, through her previous books as well as numerous short stories and plays, the author had been working to capture in words the beauty and the complexity of her Eatonville experience-and of the rural, self-educated black folks who’d been her neighbors there. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, she finally achieved this elusive goal. Significantly, she did so by making a crucial revision to her memories of the village: In all her previous attempts to depict Eatonville in fiction, the storytellers had been mostly men. In this novel, however, Hurston put her story in the mouth and the mind of a woman-and the result is a book of extraordinary appeal.
Because Hurston placed Janie on the road to self-realization and independence, Their Eyes Were Watching God has been hailed as a feminist novel. Whether Hurston saw it that way or not, she certainly used it to convey her view that women were the equals of men in every way-and that their inner lives were infinitely rich and worthy of exploration.
Given these protofeminist themes, the book was not well received by some male critics. Richard Wright, soon to become the best-selling author of Native Son, categorically dismissed Hurston’s book: “The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought,” he wrote.
Over the years, of course, most critics have emphatically disagreed with Wright’s dim assessment of Hurston’s novel, which is now required reading in many high schools and colleges throughout the country. “There is no book more important to me than this one,” Alice Walker has said. And Oprah Winfrey has called Their Eyes Were Watching God her “favorite love story of all time.” Winfrey’s admiration for the novel inspired her to produce a television adaptation of it, which aired for the first time on March 6, 2005. Starring Academy Award winner Halle Berry as Janie, the TV movie was watched by an estimated 24.6 million viewers, further entrenching the novel in the public consciousness and in the American literary canon.
Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God is widely regarded as a masterpiece. In 1937, though, the jury was still out, but certainly leaning in Hurston’s favor. The book earned rave reviews; Hurston was featured in several newspaper profiles; and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay sent Hurston a telegram congratulating her on her new novel. “God does love black people, doesn’t He?” Hurston joked with a friend. “Or am I just out on parole?”