Zora Neale Hurston’s lessons in writing a love story
uring my second year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, my sixteen-year-old daughter called crying. “How did she do it?” She was Zora Neale Hurston: novelist, playwright, folklorist. A writer who, despite the proliferation of posthumous biographies and critical analyses of her life and work, remains in some ways impervious to intimate scrutiny. It was Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. Set in Florida during the early 1900s, the novel is a bona fide romance with a striking African-American heroine: Janie Mae Crawford survives three marriages, each bringing her closer to love and closer to herself. During the climax, she is forced to shoot Tea Cake—her third husband and the love of her life—in self-defense. Like many readers, my daughter had seen Tea Cake’s death foreshadowed, but she still couldn’t understand how Hurston had managed to surprise and move her so.
The question gave me pause. I had spent nearly two years writing, studying, and analyzing craft with peers in graduate fiction seminars and workshops. My daughter was introduced to Their Eyes Were Watching God in her high school English class, and at an earlier age than I had been. Raised in New York—the city Hurston had come to during the Harlem Renaissance to pursue a writing career—she seemed to readily embrace the same vernacular in the novel that I had initially rejected.
Everyone loves Hurston now, in the same way that everyone loves James Baldwin, so it’s easy to forget that both Hurston’s and Baldwin’s writing (like the authors themselves) fell out of favor for a time. During Black History Month, I attended an event in Zora Neale Hurston’s honor at the Brooklyn Public Library sponsored by the Black Luminaries, an organization dedicated to introducing works by artists of color to their public. One of the founders read aloud Alice Walker’s famous quote: “We are a people. A people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone.” We are not always kind to our writers, but it was kindness and, yes, love that inspired a young Walker to journey to Fort Pierce, Florida, and place a simple headstone on Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave. Walker opened the door for America to reclaim one of its greatest writers, with all the complexities that reclaiming entails.
Ironically, as a black child growing up in the post-segregated South of Savannah, Georgia, and traversing two worlds—one black and one white—I struggled with African-American dialect. During school, standard “proper” English was not only mandated but validated. I would return to my neighborhood, Monday through Friday, with the knowledge that the idiom, the patois of family members and friends I loved, was deemed improper, broken, full of mistakes to be slashed through with thin red markers. The red marks gave mixed signals about mastery of the English language and its relationship to status and self. I discovered Zora Neale Hurston after I left the South to attend college in New York. Even then, if I am to be honest, the rawness of the folk aesthetic in Their Eyes Were Watching God shamed me. Now, of course, I am humbled by the beauty and complexity of the characters in Hurston’s masterwork. Now, of course, I wouldn’t address my daughter’s question without some meditation on the richness of the African-American vernacular and the symbolism and poetry inherent within the oral tradition. Now, of course, I understand Their Eyes Were Watching God is a testament to Hurston’s keen scholarship as an ethnographer as well as her unshakable foresight and confidence as a writer. Now, of course, I would argue that Hurston challenges stereotypes by holding them up to the light and transcending them.
How did she do it? What compelled Hurston to draft a love story with an African-American heroine who does not meet the same fate as some of modern literature’s other great heroines? (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Lily Bart come immediately to mind.) Hurston’s depiction of romantic relationships in her novel inspired me to reassess my relationship to love in fiction. To what degree, if any, had I internalized certain pathologies, dysfunctions, and stereotypes as narrative norms without even being aware of it? How much time did I take to carve out moments of tenderness, concern, or kindness between my characters, regardless of their age, race, gender, or sexual orientation? Was it possible that I perceived love in fiction as a privilege? Something to be enjoyed by others? People who didn’t even look like me?
If it is true that a writer tells us how to read her work, we might begin by considering the opening paragraphs of 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. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
The people all saw 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.
Hurston invites us to engage the novel externally and internally. We—the audience—are encouraged to take sides and interact with the text. The lyrical language of the opening passage is amplified by the townsfolk’s visceral, probing dialogue:
“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?—Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?—Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her?—What dat ole forty year ole ’oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?—Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? —Thought she was going to marry?—Where he left her? —What he done wid all her money?—Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs—why she don’t stay in her class?—”
Elements of folklore are distilled throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s third-person omniscient narrator possesses the ability to roam anywhere she pleases. One moment she focuses her gaze on Janie Crawford, and the next moment she shifts her point of view to the townsfolk of Eatonville, a collective voice on the front porch of Joe Starks’s village store. The front porch functions like a magical carpet; Hurston uses the porch to manipulate time. She starts at the end of Janie’s journey—around sundown—and plays the narrative forward. This backwards-frontways telling works in tandem with the narrator’s omniscient voice. Janie’s story is a creation tale. And what creation tale ever told itself? Creation tales need people—a community—to bear witness and give their stories meaning. They require an audience to repeat the words aloud in keeping with the oral tradition and to testify for, and sometimes against, the narrative as it unfolds. We are Hurston’s audience. The culture she seeks to celebrate by examining nuanced interpersonal and communal relationships in the African-American folk aesthetic. Ralph Ellison said of Picasso and his use of symbols: “Why, he’s the greatest wrestler with forms and techniques of them all. Just the same he’s never abandoned the old symbolic forms of Spanish art: the guitar, the bull, daggers, women, shawls, veils, mirrors. Such symbols serve a dual function: they allow the artist to speak of complex experiences and to annihilate time with simple lines and curves; and they allow the viewer an orientation, both emotional and associative, which goes so deep that a total culture may resound in a simple rhythm, an image.”
Symbolically, the front porch in Their Eyes Were Watching God has its place in two realms: the present and the past. And so, when we first meet Janie Crawford, she is a lone traveler, the dead mayor Joe Starks’s highbrow wife, returning to Eatonville, the small, all-black Florida town that she abandoned to travel with her lover. The townsfolk itch to know her story. Hurston provides Janie Crawford the space and leisure to sit down on her back porch (where she is free from the townsfolk’s gaze) and unwind her adventures to Pheoby Watson, the one friend in Eatonville she can rely on to scratch the surface and get the details right. Even here, Hurston seems to ask, Who will you trust with your story? Pheoby’s “hungry listening” encouraged Janie to continue:
She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny’s gate. On a late afternoon Nanny had called her to come inside the house because she had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost.
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.
Janie’s sexual awakening is written with the fervor of a fever and the fever of a prayer. How brilliant of Hurston to ground consciousness in adolescent sensuality. I hear the poetry of the King James Bible in Janie’s arousal. I hear the Passions, specifically, the Gospel According to John. (John Hurston, Zora’s father, was a Baptist preacher.) Janie Mae Crawford’s baptism into adolescence is too much for her old grandmother. Romantic love does not figure into Nanny’s consciousness. The only solution she can think of to protect Janie’s womanhood—her virginity—is to marry her off to Logan Killicks, the stoic old farmer who is stalled on the pleasures of life. Janie releases a sobbing sigh at this arrangement, and Nanny replies:
“You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will. Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did. Ah even hated de way you was born. But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance. Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.”
Janie’s well-meaning grandmother is a subversive reminder of how the peculiar institution systematically robbed human beings of physical movement, self-expression, and agency. Janie will endeavor to attain these same liberties in her romantic relationships. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the novel is the young girl’s attempt to explain to Nanny how underwhelmed she is by the stale and stingy love that has been prescribed for her.
“Ah ain’t studyin’ ’bout none of ’em. At de same time Ah ain’t takin’ dat ole land tuh heart neither. Ah could throw ten acres of it over de fence every day and never look back to see where it fell. Ah feel de same way ’bout Mr. Killicks too. Some folks never was meant to be loved and he’s one of ’em.”
Here I think of Vivian Gornick’s The End of the Novel of Love. Gornick’s arresting collection of critical essays examines the lives and literature of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers such as George Meredith, Kate Chopin, D. H. Lawrence, Jean Rhys, and Willa Cather. Inevitably, a need or longing for interiority and independence forces characters, usually heroines, to confront and negotiate the limitations of marriage and love. Gornick draws stark parallels between the authors’ subject matter and the lives they lived. She unravels the ways romantic love in fiction (as in life) is often disastrous for women. When faced with the consequences of love’s restrictions, heroines often rebel, risking scandal, condemnation, sometimes death, rather than forfeiting the total sum of their interiority or happiness. In this tradition, Zora Neale Hurston establishes early on that Janie requires more than shelter and food and an old husband who will keep the farm so that she might have water and daily bread.
Janie tells Nanny, “Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. Ah . . .”
Notice the juxtaposition of the words “things sweet” and “think”—the natural impulse to wed the physical with the metaphysical. Janie’s curiosity is anchored in more than physical desire or feminine wiles. At sixteen, she’s seeking language, trying to find words to pin down existential questions around happiness and belonging not just in the context of a marriage but in the context of the larger world. It is astonishing to me that Hurston had the wherewithal to invest a sixteen-year-old girl who seems on the surface helpless with so much power.
Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1936, but the emotional questions around love and self-actualization hold up remarkably well today. So much so that I began to wonder why we don’t see more fully realized contemporary love stories between African-American men and women in literature. After speaking to my daughter, I asked African-American writers in my program at Iowa to name love stories between black men and women that fell into the category of great or classic literature. Immediately, Beloved, Sula, The Color Purple, and Giovanni’s Room were mentioned. All four novels are love stories, but the main narratives within them are not relationships between African-American men and women. Beloved is, primarily, a love story between a mother and her dead child. It is a love story about forgiveness. The Color Purple is Celie’s story about her relationship to God, herself, Shug Avery, her sister and children. Sula follows the lifelong friendship between two women who become estranged in their small Southern town. And Giovanni’s Room is a tragic love story told from the point of view of a bisexual American man living in Paris who falls in love with another man. Both men are white. I do not know, given the homophobia that existed during James Baldwin’s time and that still persists today, if Baldwin felt he could write openly about two black male lovers, or if he simply wanted the freedom to experiment and write the characters as he heard and saw them. As I said earlier, we are not always kind to our writers, and sometimes unspoken and unseen pressures are put on our narratives (and our lives) as a result. It was Tameka Cage-Conley who walked up to me a day after I asked the question and said, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” I hadn’t read If Beale Street Could Talk in years, but smiled because, yes, it is a love story, but the young lovers spend the bulk of the time separated by a jail cell (an ugly reality of Baldwin’s time and an uglier reality of ours, given the mass incarceration of African-American men).
Their Eyes Were Watching God forced me to review the relationships depicted in the novel I was writing at Iowa. Their Eyes Were Watching God taught me to lean in closer to the text and bless each character, even the ones I didn’t like, with a moment, a sliver, an inkling of something human. Their Eyes Were Watching God gave me permission to weave tall tales into my narrative, to revisit the card games and crab boils and family reunions and church revivals and weddings and funerals that were in my storehouse of memories. Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me to study the Old South and its impact on the New South, and to create women—one in particular named Eloise Delaney, a confirmed lesbian, who possesses Hurston’s grit, wit, and love of hats. Women who do not always fit anyone’s mold, including their own. They break the mold and use the broken pieces to fashion new lives for themselves.
Janie, who breaks many molds herself, observes seeds falling to the ground and offers a metaphorically rich sentiment about it:
She often spoke to falling seeds and said, “Ah hope you fall on soft ground,” because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. She knew the world was a station rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
Even if a seed is carried off by a bird, there is the potential for pollination and new life. And this is what I love about Hurston. She allows her heroine to experience trials and tribulations. Janie “catches hell,” as they say down South, but she is never defined by the hell she catches. As such, even when she is victimized, she is never rendered entirely a victim.
Not long after Nanny dies, Janie’s peeling potatoes in Logan Killicks’s yard when she sees a well-dressed man—Joe Starks—ambling down the road. Their courtship is brief. Janie is given the opportunity to leave Killicks and start a new life in Eatonville with Starks. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but she knows it’s better than the life she has.
True to his word, Starks wastes no time becoming a big voice in Eatonville. He convinces a white landowner to sell him additional land and uses the lots to attract new families. He organizes a town committee and makes himself mayor. He builds Janie the grandest house in town and opens a village store, which Janie is expected to run. He places his pretty wife on a pedestal, not as his equal, but high above the townsfolk who shop in their general store. Janie is flat-out forbidden to socialize with the townsfolk and is reprimanded for disobedience privately and in public. At one point, she confronts her second husband:
“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”
“Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”
Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.
So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor.
Joe Starks is hemmed in by patriarchal social codes around race and gender directly linked to slavery. He emulates the “boss man” and the landed gentry. Janie is his wife, and Eatonville is his town. When Janie questions the “inside” of her marriage, she is dissecting what privilege means. Joe’s privilege puts a death grip on their marriage and his (and her) life. When Joe realizes that he is dying, he can’t resist the urge to take Janie down a peg. He uses a weapon that is still leveled against women today: her age. Janie is a forty-year-old woman on the cusp of the change. Joe tries to convince Janie that no man will want her. “The change of life” is a phrase I’ve heard since I was a little girl. Years would pass before I understood it as a woman’s rite of passage and not a monster waiting beneath her bed to hurt her.
Eight months after Joe Starks dies, Tea Cake Woods enters the general store.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, fourteen years after the end of Reconstruction. She came of age during an era when former slaves still traveled north and south trying to locate lost mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children. Some would spend lifetimes searching for kin, blood. She came of age when former slaves built churches and married in large numbers because while “jumping the broom” was good, a marriage license, a tangible piece of paper, actually meant something. Hurston sprang up during a time when emancipated freedmen erected schools and homesteads for their offspring, and when these structures were often burned to the ground by lynch mobs and Klansmen. Her father, John Hurston, had grown up on an Alabama plantation, but he settled in Eatonville with his wife and children when Hurston was still a small child.
In Hurston’s 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she describes Eatonville as a “pure Negro town” with a “charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all. The only white folks were those who were passing through.” The description sounds quaint and picturesque, but hold it up against the harsh reality of a recent Equal Justice Initiative report that found that Florida had among the highest statewide rates of lynching in the U.S. from 1880 to 1940, and Eatonville would surely have been a safe haven for the residents of its all-black community. Not only did Hurston have the comfort of seeing herself reflected every day, she had a stable home with a doting mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, who seemed to counter John Hurston’s sternness. In addition to being a preacher, John Hurston held several jobs, among them town mayor, serving three terms. As such, he (like Joe Starks) helped to create some of Eatonville’s laws. Lucy Potts Hurston died when her daughter was thirteen, and Hurston’s life took a blues turn. She did not get on well with her new young stepmother and her relationship with her father deteriorated even more. She left home and took on various jobs, one of them as a wardrobe girl with Gilbert and Sullivan, touring with the theatre group around the South. I can imagine Hurston watching the performers and thinking of her hometown and the natural performers she had grown up listening to shoot the breeze on the steps of Joe Clark’s store, which she later rechristened Joe Starks’s general store in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston was twenty-six when she attended Morgan Academy in Baltimore. She had whittled down her age to seventeen in order to complete her degree. She eventually made her way to Washington, D.C., to study at Howard University from 1919 to 1924, where she would meet philosopher Alain Locke, one of the gatekeepers of the Harlem Renaissance and a professed “New Negro” who would bring her work to the attention of Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life.
It is easy to imagine Hurston—attractive, large in body, mind, and spirit—taking up space in Johnson’s parlor. It is easy to imagine Hurston reveling in her Southern blackness, and easier still to imagine the more bourgeois African-American writers of the day being alternately intrigued and put off by her. Hurston, it’s fair to say, wasn’t above or beneath the occasional shucking and jiving for white patrons. If her fellow artists sometimes looked askance at her methods, they couldn’t deny Hurston’s wit, acumen, or talent. In 1925, Hurston took home two second-place prizes: one for her play “Color Struck” and the other for her short story “Spunk,” which Johnson published in Opportunity.
Home became Harlem where, according to Zora Neale Hurston, Robert Hemenway’s painstaking and vital biography, Johnson’s integrated social gatherings netted her the attention and patronage of writer Fannie Hurst, author of the novel Imitation of Life, which would be made into two Hollywood films. Hurston and Hurst’s business transaction had all the makings of a love-hate relationship. In addition to being Hurst’s secretary (although she couldn’t type), Zora also attended parties with Fannie.
That same year, Hurston transferred from Howard, becoming Barnard’s first black graduate. She continued her post-graduate studies in anthropology at Columbia University under the guidance of Franz Boas, now regarded as the father of American anthropology for his four field research techniques. With Boas’s endorsement, Hurston was awarded a grant to travel to the South to collect African-American folklore. It was rumored that one of her marriages (she would marry twice) took place during her first expedition, which was largely a failure. Hurston’s second expedition was sponsored by Charlotte Osgood Mason, an exacting philanthropist and patron with whom the author would share another strained relationship. Both Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes referred to Mason as their “godmother,” and Mason bound Hurston to contracts that prevented the writer from publishing the folklore she collected without Mason’s permission.
While Hurston viewed folklore and the folk tradition as art forms, she did not regard her research as solely academic. Folklore was interactive, meant to be experienced and lived, made accessible to the public. In keeping with the oral tradition, she understood that her work was rooted in African rituals and medicinal practices that lent themselves to physical expression and performance. In Mawuena Logan’s article “Legba in the House,” the scholar examines the extensive role of West African spiritualism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and of Legba, the trickster “god of the crossroads” on whose threshold Janie finds herself three times.
During Hurston’s second trip to the American South from the winter of 1927 until 1931, she compiled folktales and folksongs and games and culinary dishes and descriptions of hoodoo religious practices in New Orleans. She interviewed itinerant farmers and workers in turpentine and lumber camps throughout the South. I think of Shakespeare, for like an actor or a performance artist, Hurston immersed herself in her field work, hobnobbing with gamblers, bootleggers, piano players, men and women from all walks of life. She would become one of the country’s leading African-American ethnographers. By the time she sat down to write Their Eyes Were Watching God, the scholar and the storyteller were comfortable sharing the same conjugal bed.
Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks during the autumn of 1936. She had received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study religious practices in the Caribbean, and she was collecting firsthand data on voodoo rituals in Haiti. Hurston was also on the run from a troubled relationship with a young Columbia graduate student named Percival McGuire Punter. If Percival mirrored Tea Cake in age, he embodied all of Joe Starks’s possessiveness. Haiti provided Hurston the mental and physical space she needed to channel the raw energy from a destructive affair into a groundbreaking new work.
In Haiti, Hurston was heartbroken—but liberated from the gaze of both her lover and her patron. There are glimpses of Hurston in every character in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston is Tea Cake shirking social constraints and expectations—the gambler as writer—for what is a writer, if not a gambler of words? She is Janie questing for self-fulfillment, love, and consciousness. She is Nanny and Joe Starks and Logan Killicks, and even the self-hating Mrs. Turner, whom Janie meets in the Everglades.
And how did she do it? Well, for starters, Hurston did not skimp on time. Tea Cake Woods enters the novel in chapter ten, and Janie isn’t forced to shoot him until chapter nineteen. That’s about two years of world-building—exactly ninety pages in a novel that’s just over two hundred pages.
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.”
The casual banter between Janie and Tea Cake sizzles. Hurston never loses sight of the short and long lines of her story. By the time free-spirited Tea Cake introduces himself, we’re right there with our heroine. We are rooting for her. Janie has already been married twice. She has grown up, out, and beyond other people’s expectations of her. She has earned this playful, authentic love. It’s only natural for Janie to step away from the pedestal, let down her hair, and walk away from Joe Starks’s village store. She falls for a man who seems to have nothing but his guitar and the shirt on his back, but Janie knows firsthand that appearances can be deceiving. Janie jumps the sun—the way Hurston did as a child—into a sweet relationship, full of adventure. And why not? She is financially secure—a woman of privilege—but a woman of privilege who also worked and kept Joe Starks’s village store, which enabled him to run Eatonville with a firm hand. Related to this idea of privilege, Hurston isn’t the least bit shy about evaluating color biases within the African-American community in Their Eyes Were Watching God. She privileges Janie with “good” hair, light skin, and a shapely figure, physical assets that allow people to project their dreams, desires, and fears onto her. Like Lily Bart, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina, Janie soon realizes that privilege for the sake of privilege is a mundane deathtrap. That Hurston’s heroine neither takes arsenic nor loses her mind nor throws herself in front of a train says much about her courage and tenacity.
One of Tea Cake’s first questions is to ask Janie why she isn’t outside enjoying the ball game with the rest of the town. That same evening in the store, Tea Cake teaches Janie how to play checkers. Soon after, Janie’s behind the wheel of a car. And so, our heroine is reborn. In the Everglades, down in the muck, she shuns dresses in favor of heavy work shoes and overalls and welcomes the chance to pick beans alongside Tea Cake and the other itinerant pickers.
There was a suppressed murmur when she picked up a basket and went to work. She was already getting to be a special case on the muck. It was generally assumed that she thought herself too good to work like the rest of the women and that Tea Cake
“pomped her up tuh dat.” But all day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss’s back made her popular right away.
The woman who once sat silent in Joe Starks’s store now sits on the front porch in the Everglades spinning yarns. She cheers Tea Cake on when he gambles or plays guitar. The happy couple dances with the Bahaman workers, the “Saws,” and invites them to perform behind their house. For the first time in her life, Janie belongs to a community. Hurston understands that a relationship cannot and should not exist in isolation. She confirms for her readers that Janie and Tea Cake are truly a union. No man or woman can come between them—only a wild, crazed dog and a flood of biblical proportions. Forces of nature that feel pre-ordained and beyond their control.
It was the meanest moment of eternity. A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap. She had wanted him to live so much and he was dead. No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep. Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time. Then the grief of outer darkness descended.
And here is where Zora Neale Hurston pulls away from the characterization of some of the other great heroines cited by Gornick in The End of the Novel of Love. Hurston permits Janie not simply to love but to recognize the moment when love has ended and there is only a rabid, monstrous shell in the face of what love used to be. Janie can either kill or be killed by the man she loves. When she is given the choice, she acts. She loves herself and Tea Cake enough to take aim and end his misery. Janie does not fall to pieces in the aftermath of Tea Cake’s death or when faced with trial. She returns to Eatonville intact, possessing clarity about the woman she has become.
On a cold Wednesday in late February, I boarded the Metro North train from Grand Central to New Haven. I wanted to touch Hurston’s papers, to roam my fingers along the holograph pages of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University is home to an impressive body of Hurston’s work. Built in the 1960s, the modern building has six floors and is enclosed in glass and translucent marble. The Zora Neale Hurston Collection includes two boxes of correspondence and writings in draft and manuscript: short stories; Tell My Horse, the fruit of Hurston’s field research on voodoo in Haiti; Mule Bone, a play co-written with Langston Hughes; two novels, Moses, Man of the Mountain and Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Robert Hemenway’s 1972 study on Hurston. It was no small wonder that I could schedule an appointment two days in advance, check my bags with security, descend the stairs to the basement, and within ten minutes, have a portion of Hurston’s life on a table before me.
The first thing I noticed upon opening the manila folders was Hurston’s handwriting. Smaller, tidier, more pensive than I would have imagined for a woman who had no shortage of personality. Reading the correspondence, thin and ivory with time, I could hear the flavor in her voice, both the grit and the charm. One letter, dated March 29, 1944, caught my attention. In it, Hurston invites Harold Jackman to come for a visit on the Wanago, the houseboat she was living on in Daytona Beach. I wondered if Hurston might have been feeling lonely, despite her independent streak. Did she occasionally miss the community of friends and writers in Harlem? In Hemenway’s biography, he notes that Hurston always regretted not completing her PhD at Columbia. Southerners who migrate or leave the South and put down roots elsewhere, even temporarily, intrigue me. There is a price we pay for staying home and a cost we endure for leaving. Many Southerners return home. There is also, even today, unspoken tension between African Americans whose families left the South and those who remained, a tension which would have been more pronounced when Hurston first arrived in Harlem. I have never been able to pin down the precise nature of the tension—is it judgment around class strife or questions of agency? This tension plays out in my fiction. Certainly, for Hurston, who constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul, the cost of living was a factor.
In one box, the letters documenting Hughes and Hurston’s fallout over ownership of the play Mule Bone were awkward to read. And so was Hurston’s overly ingratiating tone in her correspondence with white author and photographer Carl Van Vechten. She butters him up shamelessly, imploring him to let her write a biography in his honor. I couldn’t resist the urge to peek into the folders and explore more of Hurston’s work, but I only had a few hours at my disposal. Their Eyes Were Watching God was what I had come for. The holograph manuscript seemed remarkably similar to the final text. How many drafts did Hurston write? I thought of Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby—yet another hero who pays a price for love. These two American classics have always been in conversation for their lyricism and their examinations of class and privilege.
It unnerved me to think that Hurston died dirt poor without even enough money for a proper burial. That like so many Americans she was plagued with poor health and could not earn a living wage. In the Beinecke Library, in the ivory tower that is Yale, I tried to imagine an alternate ending for the writer. If she came back today and saw the preponderance of biographies and critical and literary essays written about her, what would she say? If she saw the syllabi around the country in high schools and universities containing her body of work—or the bookshelves where her writing is prominently displayed? Surely her life would be more financially secure now. She’d have tenure at the University of Florida, North Carolina Central University (where she was a faculty member for several years), Barnard, Columbia—maybe even Yale. She’d have time to write without constantly worrying about money and time to travel and build on the anthropological field research she conducted in America, Jamaica, Haiti, and Honduras. Perhaps, even as our country becomes more segregated in some ways, Hurston would have enough optimism to view integration in a new, more positive light. (In the 1950s, she spoke out against Brown v. Board of Education, an act that surely helped shepherd her into obscurity.) She was complicated. All the biographies in the world will never unravel her interiority.
At one point, sitting in the Beinecke Library, I closed my eyes and let my fingers fall on random sentences of Hurston’s masterwork. Word for word, sentence for sentence, Their Eyes Were Watching God was damn near flawless.
How did she do it? Like most writers, one page at a time. But with a keen awareness that everyone deserves a great love in this life.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.