National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time… They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.


Zora Neale Hurston, 1934 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Here's your host, the director of The Big Read, David Kipen.

David Kipen: Today we'll discuss the classic 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.

Carla Kaplan: Here's somebody who takes the oldest storytelling form really that we have, which is the quest romance.

Kipen: Scholar and Professor Carla Kaplan.

Kaplan: In 1937, for a black woman writer not yet that well known, to take the oldest literary form and rewrite the quester as a 16-year-old black girl. This was an absolutely wild thing to do.

Kipen: This teenage character is Janie Mae Crawford, who leaves her grandmother's plantation shack on an odyssey that will carry her from a loveless arranged marriage with older man to a second marriage with the founder and mayor of an all black town, to her final passionate union to a silver tongue charmer by the name of Tea Cake.

Here is novelist Bret Lott.

Lott: To me, when I first read it, it reminded me of Huck Finn in a way that the main character is on a journey and she moves through one community to another community to another community. So in a lot of ways I was thinking about Huck Finn and the way he moves down the river toward his reckoning with Jim and slavery and his decisions about that. With Janie, she's moving through, basically, Florida and ends out on the swaps in the muck. At that time, a novel about a woman achieving selfhood, as a novelist I look back and then I say, "Man that was really daring, she was very brave."

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

The people all saw she her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Alice Walker: Janie is content.

Kipen: Novelist Alice Walker.

Walker: She is fulfilled as a woman and as a person. She has reached that point where she can say, "I've been there." And Janie has managed to have the guts to actually make that journey and she has come back and so she is really fine sitting there on her porch with her fan. Really, I so identify with that moment, because it is what we all hope. I mean, we hope to go and engage the world on our own terms. And then if we survive, and we might not, that's the chance we take. Then we come back, and we're home.

Kipen: Upon returning home, Janie tells the story of her travels to her friend Phoebe and through Phoebe to us. Author Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi: And when her friend goes in to talk to her, she says "Let me tell you my story and you go out and tell them the story." And this is the weapon women have always had. Let me tell you my story, and by telling her story, she takes hold of her life.

Kipen: Telling the story of Their Eyes Were Watching God may have helped Hurston regain hold of her own life. She wrote it after refusing to marry a man whom she passionately loved but who wanted her to forsake her career. While hardly an autobiography, the novel does reflect several aspects of Hurston's personal experience.

Robert Hemenway wrote the first biography of Hurston.

Hemenway: Well, Hurston grew up in Eatonville, which was an all black town. She made a point that it wasn't the black backside of a white town, it was an all black town and Hurston, I think, took on the security of that environment. Eatonville was a place where people could go down to the general store, Joe Clark's General Store, and sit around on nail kegs and benches and, as she put it, and passed this world and the next through their mouth. They created, she once said, "crayon enlargements of life."

Kipen: Hurston's speaking voice has the same richness that we find in her writing. In a 1943 interview with Mary Margaret McBride, Hurston discusses the acceptance of her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine. Notice how she can't help making a dramatic story out of selling that novel just in time to escape eviction. Then listen to the pure poetry she lavishes on what would otherwise be a simple telegram.

Zora Neale Hurston: And November the 16th, the day I was put out the house, I got an acceptance by wire from Lippincott that day--how nice! And so, that morning they put me out, and that afternoon, I got the acceptance and Mr. Bertram Lippincott, Col. Bertram. He's a Colonel to me because he's a prince. He telegraphed me that they liked Jonah's Gourd Vine and they accepted it and they were offering me $200 advance royalty, and would I accept it? So I dashed to the telegraph office and sent them a wire: Terms accepted. I'm singing on my silver singing trumpet.

Kipen: That silver singing trumpet rarely fell silent. Not only was Hurston a novelist, she wrote plays, essays, an autobiography and dozens of stories and articles. And, after graduating as the only black anthropology student at Bernard College, she made road trips around the American South collecting folklore by offering prize money for the tallest tale."

Robert Hemenway.

Hemenway: And that whole dense texture of African-American folklore and the way that black people interact with each other verbally—that was Hurston's world.

Kaplan: Hurston was interested in what she called the "Negro farthest down," that's her phrase, and what she was really interested in was depicting black difference. As an anthropologist, as a storyteller, and as a playwright, she wanted to show that black culture was a world unto its own and was actually very, very different than white culture.

Kipen: Carla Kaplan.

Kaplan: In the 1920s this was an extremely risky thing to do because the black arts were seen as an important edge against racism in the way of showing sameness. So here comes Hurston with an aesthetic of difference.

Kipen: Hurston searched out and recorded countless African-American folk songs from the south. Here she sings a couple of verses from one song called "Mule on the Mount."

Hurston: This song I am going to sing is a lining rhythm and I am going to call it "Mule on the Mount," but you can start with any verse you want and give it a name and it is the most widely distributed work song in the United States. Well, I heard the first verse that I got in my native village of Eatonville, Florida.

(singing) "Oh, hand me down for two or three cans of tomatoes. Oh, hand me down, two or three cans of tomatoes, a can of corn. Lord, lord, a can of corn. I got a woman, she's pretty but she's too bulldozin'. I got a woman, she's pretty but she's too bulldozin'. She won't live long. Lord, lord, she won't live long."

Kaplan: Not only does she have an aesthetic of difference, which makes her very interested in folklore and in looking at other cultures, but she's not writing about middle class blacks in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia or Boston. She wants to write about blacks in Florida and Alabama.

Walker: She takes up a black community because that's what she grew up in and she helps you to understand and to see the people whose voices that are in the novel.

Kipen: Once again, Alice Walker.

Walker: And so you get to reconnect with uncles and aunts and cousins and people down the road that you wouldn't ordinarily. She captured the language perfectly. It is so amazingly beautiful.

Kipen: Robert Hemenway traces the beauty of Hurston's language to her upbringing in Eatonville.

Henenway: Her voice is a folk voice, her voice comes straight from black people sitting around in the store porch in Joe Clark's store in Eatonville, Florida telling stories, telling jokes, using language to captivate a listener, using language to get at the profound issues of life.

Walker: She was the only Southerner who, black Southerner, who truly loved her blackness and her Southernness. The other people sometimes felt that it wasn't quite the right thing, that people should really be speaking standard English, and it upset them. Hurston just threw all caution to the winds and said, "Gee, I like these people. I like the way they sound, and if other people think that we're ignorant and backward because we sound this way, they obviously don't know our history, and why we sound this way. And I like the people themselves, so I'm going to present them in their complexity and completeness and their fullness and their richness and their contrariness." And that's what you get.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

At five-thirty a tall man came into the place. Janie was leaning on the counter making aimless pencil marks on a piece of wrapping paper. She knew she didn't know his name, but he looked familiar.

"Good evenin', Mis' Starks," he said with a sly grin as if they had a good joke together. She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it.

"Good evenin'," she answered pleasantly. "You got all de advantage 'cause Ah don't know yo' name."

"People wouldn't know me lak dey would you." [...]

"[...] You got any smokin' tobacco?"

She opened the glass case. She handed over the cigarettes and took the money. He broke the pack and thrust one between his full, purple lips.

"You got a lil piece uh fire over dere, lady?"

They both laughed and she handed him two kitchen matches out of a box for that purpose. It was time for him to go but he didn't. He leaned on the counter with one elbow and cold-cocked her a look. [...]

"How about playin' you some checkers? You looks hard tuh beat."

Jerry Pinkney: First of all, there's a tremendous power in the language.

Kipen: Artist Jerry Pinkney illustrated a special edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Pinkney: There is a poetic sense to the language and certainly a language rooted in the South and one read, you might think well gosh, in so many ways in the spirit of her writing that she's actually illustrated the book with words. When Janie and Tea Cake first meet and there's an illustration that I created where they are on the front porch of the store and they're playing checkers. And there's a moment there when you know that there's a spark and you know that something is going to change for Janie.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

"Now, ain't you somethin'! Mr. er—er—You never did tell me whut yo' name wuz."

"Ah sho didn't. Wuzn't expectin' fuh it to be needed. De name mah mama gimme is Vergible Woods. Dey calls me Tea Cake for short."

"Tea Cake! So you sweet as all dat?" She laughed and he gave her a little cut-eye look to get her meaning.

"Ah may be guilty. You better try me and see."

Pinkney: Her history, her past, has been an uphill battle to survive and to find herself and to keep herself intact. And I think we know when we reach that part of the story that her life will begin to blossom.

Reed: You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we're discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Kipen: All through the novel, Hurston identifies blooms and vegetation with Janie's fulfillment. Maybe the most famous metaphor in the whole book comes as the young Janie lounges on her newly flowering pear tree. It's a deeply sensual passage drenched in voluptuous imagery. Perfect for describing Janie's slow awakening into womanhood.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

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?

Nafisi: So, her consciousness begins with a "Why?"

Kipen: Again, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi: It is so beautiful because the pear tree becomes a metaphor for who she is and the fact that we remain mysteries to ourselves. And the whole book is a journey from the pear tree and back to the pear tree.

Kipen: This passage from Chapter Two is where Janie begins to tell the story of her journey.

Carla Kaplan.

Kaplan: Hurston's pear tree passage, which is often read by people, is not only beautifully written, but it's extraordinary in the history of the American novel as one of the most amazing depictions of longing and desire for fulfillment. It's just a beautiful thing.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

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 dust-bearing 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. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.

Kipen: The first great flowering in Hurston's career coincided with the Harlem Renaissance—that 1920s golden age of African-American creative expression. At last, black literature, music, art and politics no longer dealt in apology or defeat, but in assertion and pride. In this creative outpouring as in so much else, Hurston was the exception. She didn't care a fig whether her work showed black people in a favorable or an unfavorable light. All she wanted was to tell the truth as lyrically as she could, and not everybody would thank her for that.

Glorious though the Harlem Renaissance was, it didn't last and neither did Hurston's popular success. She published Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, but within a decade, she was pawning her typewriter just to make ends meet. Though her work became politically unfashionable, she kept on writing. Hurston died in a welfare home on January 28, 1960.

Henenway: Hurston certainly at the end of her life was in a reduced circumstance and she had been ill for a good while and that affected her physical being. But even the people that knew her at that period, and I interviewed a number of people who knew her during the last couple years of her life, her spirit was still irrepressible.

Kipen: Once again, Robert Hemenway.

Henenway: She was still the kind of person people loved to be around. She told stories, she challenged people, she laughed, she was a person that even in the midst of difficult circumstances, which she was certainly in at the end of her life, and she was too proud to let other people know that she was in those reduced circumstances. Hurston was still the life of the party.

Kaplan: Her work was still revered and held onto in black communities, but it had fallen completely out of the public eye and out of the national eye.

Kipen: Carla Kaplan.

Kaplan: So that when she died in 1960, everything was out of print and in fact her personal effects were burned in a bonfire behind the house. And if a local black deputy sheriff, at that time a young man named Pat Duval hadn't been driving by and realized whose house it was, we would have almost nothing of hers left from that period in her life. He put the fire out and saved quite a bit of material. But we actually almost lost everything. All of her manuscripts all the papers she had saved, the letters that had been written to her by people like Langston Hughes and DuBois and Dorothy West, and Countee Cullen. We almost lost all of that because it was all taken out behind her house and set on fire. By the time she died she had that much fallen out of the public eye. During her life, she was on everybody's tongue. Everybody knew who Zora Neale Hurston was.

Kipen: Even death couldn't silence Hurston's ravishing voice. Her writing eventually found a crucial champion in Robert Hemenway. His study of Hurston's life and work coincided with the young Alice Walker's article from his magazine called, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston."

Together, Hemenway and Walker sparked a revival of her work and, thanks to them, American literature without Zora Neale Hurston is now unthinkable.

Walker: When Robert Hemenway wrote his wonderful biography of Zora and I read it, loved it, felt really embarrassed as a person of color, and as a woman, and as writer that she seemed to have been thrown away. I couldn't believe it. There was something in me that was just so mortified. So, I felt that it was really my duty and my pleasure of course as duty sometimes is to go and to try to rectify this.

Kipen: Robert Hemenway.

Henenway: Alice went down to Fort Pierce, Florida and put a gravestone on the spot where people thought probably Zora was buried, but it was really a-we didn't for sure because it was a segregated cemetery.

Walker: Nobody really knew and we finally went to the funeral home and they said, "Well, we think she's kind of over there." In something called the Garden of the Heavenly Rest, and it was this overgrown field. And I went out searching around, nobody else out there but her in this fairly big area, and I found this sunken grave. Then I went to try to buy a headstone and there was a really huge wonderful one that she would love, but I got a smaller that is okay. It says, "Zora Neale Hurston - A Genius of the South" and that line, "A Genius of the South" is from Jean Toomer.

Kipen: Near the climax of Their Eyes were Watching God, Janie, Tea Cake and their fellow laborers all huddle in a Florida shack with a hurricane on the way.

Novelist Bret Loft.

Loft: When the hurricane was bearing down on them and Tea Cake still doesn't really understand the depth to which Janie loves him and all of the people in the shanties are praying and their eyes are closed, but their eyes were watching God. Right before that line, which is the title of the book, is where she says how much she loves him and Tea Cake's worried because she's a woman of class and money and he's worried that she's not really happy with him. And then she tells him "I love you" basically and then he puts head in her lap and he is so thankful for the fact that she does in fact love him for who he is. It's the most moving moment in the book.

Ruby Dee reads from Their Eyes Were Watching God...

Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. [...] And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him.

In a little wind-lull, Tea Cake touched Janie and said, "Ah reckon you wish now you had stayed in yo' big house 'way from such as dis, don't yuh?" [...]

"Yeah, naw. People don't die till dey time come no how, don't keer where you at. [...] We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don't keer if you die at dusk. It's so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin' round and God opened de door."

He dropped to the floor and put his head in her lap. "Well then, Janie, you meant whut you didn't say, 'cause Ah never knowed you wuz so satisfied wid me lak dat, Ah kinda thought—"

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

Loft: It is about people first. It's about this relationship that she has and the journey of self first. I think that's what makes a book have staying power."

Walker: I had never read a book that showed me my own culture and it was vivifying. I felt so much more alive. It was as if someone had given me an infusion of some very good organic food like greens, or peas, or just something that everybody had had for a couple of hundred years and it kept them strong and I just loved it."

Hurston: (singing) I got a rainbow wrapped and tied around my shoulder, hah.
I got a rainbow wrapped and tied around my shoulder.
It look like rain, Lord, Lord, it look like rain...

Dana Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from Their Eyes were Watching God were by Ruby Dee, used with permission of Harper Audio. Original Music for the program by Clint Hoover, Pat Donohue and Phillip Brunelle.

Special thanks to Katie Davies, Sarah Spitz, Molly Murphy, and Erika Koss. David Kipen was our host. I'm Dana Gioia.

Hurston: Terms accepted. I'm singing on my silver singing trumpet.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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