NEA 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)

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002.
A readable, detailed account of Hurston's life. Boyd not only accounts for the "dropped" decade of Hurston's life (1891-1901), but also provides a brief analysis of each novel. Teachers may find the end of Chapter 25 ("Mules, Men, and Maroons") and all of Chapter 26 ("A Glance from God") useful as they teach Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Hemenway, Robert.* Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Hemenway’s biography—the first about Hurston—helped launch the Hurston revival.

Hurston, Lucy Anne, and the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004.
Lucy Anne Hurston is Zora’s niece. This is a great addition to a teacher’s library, as it features a CD, historic papers, photographs, handwritten poems, and manuscripts (including the first few pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God).

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. New York: Harper, 1991.
This work diverges from the familiar pattern of recent autobiography: Hurston ignores such major historical events as the Depression and World War I. She is almost entirely silent on matters of race, politics, and education. She never mentions a single American president, and she hardly alludes to any of her three marriages. Critics often joke that this memoir is one of her best works of fiction. Hurston only refers to Their Eyes Were Watching God in two chapters. At the end of Chapter 11,“Books and Things,” she claims that of all her books, this is the one she most regrets writing. In Chapter 14, “Love,” Hurston mentions Percy Punter—the novel’s muse—and her attempt to repress her love for him during her 1937 flight to Haiti.

Kaplan, Carla,* ed., Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York, Doubleday, 2002.
In contrast to her autobiography, Hurston’s letters are politically savvy and unapologetically feminist. They demonstrate her self-awareness as a writer, though they say little about her published work or literary influences. As Kaplan says in the introduction: “Her letters showcase Hurston as writer, anthropologist, dramatist, teacher, celebrity, folklorist, and urbanite. They also reveal her less public personas: Hurston as wife, lover, sister, aunt, friend, entrepreneur, recluse, sailor, pet lover, gardener, and cook. Hurston was famously Janus-faced and has often been noted for dissembling and secrecy. But her letters are often startlingly—even brutally—honest.” (p. 13)

Walker, Alice.* In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt, 1983.
If you only have time to read one outside source, you will find these three essays interesting and informative. “Saving the Life That Is Your Own” (pp. 3-14) compares Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier (from The Awakening) to Hurston’s Janie Crawford. In “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View” (pp. 83-92) and “Looking for Zora”(pp. 93-116),Walker recounts her discovery of Hurston’s writings and later of her grave. This last essay was originally published in Ms. Magazine, propelling the Hurston revival.

* Featured on The NEA Big Read Audio Guide for Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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