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When I was fourteen I was given Their Eyes Were Watching God by my mother. I was reluctant to read it. I knew what she meant by giving it to me, and I resented the inference. In the same spirit she had introduced me to Wide Sargasso Sea and The Bluest Eye, and I had not liked either of them (better to say, I had not allowed myself to like either of them). I preferred my own freely chosen, heterogeneous reading list. I flattered myself I ranged widely in my reading, never choosing books for genetic or sociocultural reasons. Spotting Their Eyes Were Watching God unopened on my bedside table, my mother persisted:

“But you’ll like it.”

“Why, because she’s black?”

“No-because it’s really good writing.”

I had my own ideas of “good writing.” It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly “lyrical” language, mythic imagery, accurately rendered “folk speech” or the love tribulations of women. My literary defenses were up in preparation for Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then I read the first page:

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.

It was an aphorism, yet it had me pinned to the ground, unable to deny its strength. It capitalized Time (I was against the capitalization of abstract nouns), but still I found myself melancholy for these nameless men and their inevitable losses. The second part, about women, struck home. It remains as accurate a description of my mother and me as I have ever read: Then they act and do things accordingly. Well, all right then. I relaxed in my chair a little and laid down my pencil. I inhaled that book. Three hours later I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale.

I lost many literary battles the day I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I had to concede that occasionally aphorisms have their power. I had to give up the idea that Keats had a monopoly on the lyrical:

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-nearing 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. [1]

I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good:

Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him?

My resistance to dialogue (encouraged by Nabokov, whom I idolized) struggled and then tumbled before Hurston’s ear for black colloquial speech. In the mouths of unlettered people she finds the bliss of quotidian metaphor:

“If God don’t think no mo’ ’bout ’em than Ah do, they’s a lost ball in de high grass.”

Of wisdom lightly worn:

“To my thinkin’ mourning oughtn’t tuh last no longer’n grief.”

Her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all:

“Where y’all come from in sich uh big haste?” Lee Coker asked. “Middle Georgy,” Starks answered briskly. “Joe Starks is mah name, from in and through Georgy.”

“You and yo’ daughter goin’ tuh join wid us in fellowship?” the other reclining figure asked. “Mighty glad to have yuh. Hicks is the name. Guv’nor Amos Hicks from Buford, South Carolina. Free, single, disengaged.”

“I god, Ah ain’t nowhere near old enough to have no grown daughter. This here is mah wife.”

Hicks sank back and lost interest at once.

“Where is de Mayor?” Starks persisted. “Ah wants tuh talk wid him.”

“Youse uh mite too previous for dat,” Coker told him. “Us ain’t got none yit.”

Above all, I had to let go of my objection to the love tribulations of women. The story of Janie’s progress through three marriages confronts the reader with the significant idea that the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives. A world you share with Logan Killicks is evidently not the same world you would share with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. In these two discrete worlds, you will not even think the same way; a mind trapped with Logan is freed with Tea Cake. But who, in this context, dare speak of freedoms? In practical terms, a black woman in turn-of-the-century America, a woman like Janie, or like Hurston herself, had approximately the same civil liberties as a farm animal: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” So goes Janie’s grandmother’s famous line-it hurt my pride to read it. It hurts Janie, too; she rejects the realpolitik of her grandmother, embarking on an existential revenge that is of the imagination and impossible to restrict:

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.

That part of Janie that is looking for someone (or something) that “spoke for far horizon” has its proud ancestors in Elizabeth Bennet, in Dorothea Brooke, in Jane Eyre, even-in a very debased form-in Emma Bovary. Since the beginning of fiction concerning the love tribulations of women (which is to say, since the beginning of fiction), the “romantic quest” aspect of these fictions has been too often casually ridiculed: not long ago I sat down to dinner with an American woman who told me how disappointed she had been to finally read Middlemarch and find that it was “Just this long, whiny, trawling search for a man!” Those who read Middlemarch in that way will find little in Their Eyes Were Watching God to please them. It’s about a girl who takes some time to find the man she really loves. It is about the discovery of self in and through another. It implies that even the dark and terrible banality of racism can recede to a vanishing point when you understand, and are understood by, another human being. Goddammit if it doesn’t claim that love sets you free. These days “self-actualization” is the aim, and if you can’t do it alone you are admitting a weakness. The potential rapture of human relationships to which Hurston gives unabashed expression, the profound “self-crushing love” that Janie feels for Tea Cake, may, I suppose, look like the dull finale of a “long, whiny, trawling search for a man.” For Tea Cake and Janie, though, the choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame. That Tea Cake would not be our choice, that we disapprove of him often, and despair of him occasionally, only lends power to the portrait. He seems to act with freedom, and Janie to choose him freely. We have no power; we only watch. Despite the novel’s fairy-tale structure (as far as husbands go, third time’s the charm), it is not a novel of wish fulfillment, least of all the fulfillment of our wishes. [2] It is odd to diagnose weakness where lovers themselves do not feel it.

After that first reading of the novel, I wept, and not only for Tea Cake, and not simply for the perfection of the writing, nor even the real loss I felt upon leaving the world contained in its pages. It meant something more than all that to me, something I could not, or would not, articulate. Later, I took it to the dinner table, still holding on to it, as we do sometimes with books we are not quite ready to relinquish.

“So?” my mother asked.

I told her it was basically sound.

At fourteen, I did Zora Neale Hurston a critical disservice. I feared my “extraliterary” feelings for her. I wanted to be an objective aesthete and not a sentimental fool. I disliked the idea of “identifying” with the fiction I read: I wanted to like Hurston because she represented “good writing,” not because she represented me. In the two decades since, Zora Neale Hurston has gone from being a well-kept, well-loved secret among black women of my mother’s generation to an entire literary industry-biographies [3] and films and Oprah and African American literature departments all pay homage to her life [4] and work as avatars of black woman-ness. In the process, a different kind of critical disservice is being done to her, an overcompensation in the opposite direction. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is depressed by Joe Starks’s determination to idolize her: he intends to put her on a lonely pedestal before the whole town and establish a symbol (the Mayor’s Wife) in place of the woman she is. Something similar has been done to Hurston herself. She is like Janie, set on her porch-pedestal (“Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere”), far from the people and things she really cared about, representing only the ideas and beliefs of her admirers, distorted by their gaze. In the space of one volume of collected essays, we find a critic arguing that the negative criticism of Hurston’s work represents an “intellectual lynching” by black men, white men and white women; a critic dismissing Hurston’s final work with the sentence “Seraph on the Suwanee is not even about black people, which is no crime, but is about white people who are bores, which is”; and another explaining the “one great flaw” in Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston’s “curious insistence” on having her main character’s tale told in the omniscient third person (instead of allowing Janie her “voice outright”). We are in a critical world of some banality here, one in which most of our nineteenth-century heroines would be judged oppressed creatures, cruelly deprived of the therapeutic first-person voice. It is also a world in which what is called the “Black Female Literary Tradition” is beyond reproach:

Black women writers have consistently rejected the falsification of their Black female experience, thereby avoiding the negative stereotypes such falsification has often created in the white American female and Black male literary traditions. Unlike many of their Black male and white female peers, Black women writers have usually refused to dispense with whatever was clearly Black and/or female in their sensibilities in an effort to achieve the mythical “neutral” voice of universal art. [5]

Gratifying as it would be to agree that black women writers “have consistently rejected the falsification” of their experience, the honest reader knows that this is simply not the case. In place of negative falsification, we have nurtured, in the past thirty years, a new fetishization. Black female protagonists are now unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid; they take the unreal forms of earth mothers, African queens, divas, spirits of history; they process grandly through novels thick with a breed of greeting-card lyricism. They have little of the complexity, the flaws and uncertainties, depth and beauty of Janie Crawford and the novel she springs from. They are pressed into service as role models to patch over our psychic wounds; they are perfect; [6] they overcompensate. The truth is, black women writers, while writing many wonderful things, [7] have been no more or less successful at avoiding the falsification of human experience than any other group of writers. It is not the Black Female Literary Tradition that makes Hurston great. It is Hurston herself. Zora Neale Hurston-capable of expressing human vulnerability as well as its strength, lyrical without sentiment, romantic and yet rigorous and one of the few truly eloquent writers of sex-is as exceptional among black women writers as Tolstoy is among white male writers. [8]

It is, however, true that Hurston rejected the “neutral universal” for her novels-she wrote unapologetically in the black-inflected dialect in which she was raised. It took bravery to do that: the result was hostility and disinterest. In 1937, black readers were embarrassed by the unlettered nature of the dialogue and white readers preferred the exoticism of her anthropological writings. Who wanted to read about the poor Negroes one saw on the corner every day? Hurston’s biographers make clear that no matter what positive spin she put on it, her life was horribly difficult: she finished life working as a cleaner and died in obscurity. It is understandable that her reclaiming should be an emotive and personal journey for black readers and black critics. But still, one wants to make a neutral and solid case for her greatness, to say something more substantial than “She is my sister and I love her.” As a reader, I want to claim fellowship with “good writing” without limits; to be able to say that Hurston is my sister and Baldwin is my brother, and so is Kafka my brother, and Nabokov, and Woolf my sister, and Eliot and Ozick. Like all readers, I want my limits to be drawn by my own sensibilities, not by my melanin count. These forms of criticism that make black women the privileged readers of a black woman writer go against Hurston’s own grain. She saw things otherwise: “When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue… the cosmic Zora emerges… How can anybody deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me!” This is exactly right. No one should deny themselves the pleasure of Zora-of whatever color or background or gender. She’s too delightful not be shared. We all deserve to savor her neologisms (“sankled,” “monstropolous,” “rawbony”) or to read of the effects of a bad marriage, sketched with tragic accuracy:

The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods-come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value.

The visual imagination on display in Their Eyes Were Watching God shares its clarity and iconicity with Christian storytelling-many scenes in the novel put one in mind of the bold-stroke illustrations in a children’s Bible: young Janie staring at a photograph, not understanding that the black girl in the crowd is her; Joe Starks atop a dead mule’s distended belly, giving a speech; Tea Cake bitten high on his cheekbone by that rabid dog. I watched the TV footage of Hurricane Katrina with a strong sense of d'ej`a vu, thinking of Hurston’s flood rather than Noah’s: “Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet… [but] the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment…”

Above all, Hurston is essential universal reading because she is neither self-conscious nor restricted. She was raised in the real Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town; this unique experience went some way to making Hurston the writer she was. She grew up a fully human being, unaware that she was meant to consider herself a minority, an other, an exotic or something depleted in rights, talents, desires and expectations. As an adult, away from Eatonville, she found the world was determined to do its best to remind her of her supposed inferiority, but Hurston was already made, and the metaphysical confidence she claimed for her life (“I am not tragically colored”) is present, with equal, refreshing force, in her fiction. She liked to yell “Culllaaaah Struck!” [9] when she entered a fancy party-almost everybody was. But Hurston herself was not. “Blackness,” as she understood it and wrote about it, is as natural and inevitable and complete to her as, say, “Frenchness” is to Flaubert. It is also as complicated, as full of blessings and curses. One can be no more removed from it than from one’s arm, but it is no more the total measure of one’s being than an arm is.

But still, after all that, there is something else to say-and the “neutral universal” of literary criticism pens me in and makes it difficult. To write critically in English is to aspire to neutrality, to the high style of, say, Lionel Trilling or Edmund Wilson. In the high style, one’s loves never seem partial or personal, or even like “loves,” because white novelists are not white novelists but simply “novelists,” and white characters are not white characters but simply “human,” and criticism of both is not partial or personal but a matter of aesthetics. Such critics will always sound like the neutral universal, and the black women who have championed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the past, and the one doing so now, will seem like black women talking about a black book. When I began this piece, it felt important to distance myself from that idea. By doing so, I misrepresent a vital aspect of my response to this book, one that is entirely personal, as any response to a novel shall be. Fact is, I am a black woman, [10] and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of cultural residue that is (for convenience’s sake) called “Blackness” [11] are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it goes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. [12] These forms of identification are so natural to white readers-(Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me!)-that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least believe that they are identifying only at the highest, existential levels (His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human). White readers often believe they are colorblind. [13] I always thought I was a colorblind reader-until I read this novel, and that ultimate clich'e of black life that is inscribed in the word soulful took on new weight and sense for me. But what does soulful even mean? The dictionary has it this way: “expressing or appearing to express deep and often sorrowful feeling.” The culturally black meaning adds several more shades of color. First shade: soulfulness is sorrowful feeling transformed into something beautiful, creative and self-renewing, and-as it reaches a pitch-ecstatic. It is an alchemy of pain. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, when the townsfolk sing for the death of the mule, this is an example of soulfulness. Another shade: to be soulful is to follow and fall in line with a feeling, to go where it takes you and not to go against its grain. [14] When young Janie takes her lead from the blossoming tree and sits on her gatepost to kiss a passing boy, this is an example of soulfulness. A final shade: the word soulful, like its Jewish cousin, schmaltz, [15] has its roots in the digestive tract. “Soul food” is simple, flavorsome, hearty, unfussy, with spice. When Janie puts on her overalls and joyfully goes to work in the muck with Tea Cake, this is an example of soulfulness. [16]

This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”-that slow and particular [17] and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance-seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of onself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions…

Almost-but not quite. Better to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”

READING | Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays | Two – E. M. FORSTER, MIDDLE MANAGER