Here I go again. Writing about a woman author who became nameless through no fault of her own. It’s kind of my thing, and I think it always will be. I have serious FOMO, and when I think about women writers who are lost to us, it kicks in hard. But in the case of the author I’m writing about today, there’s a happy ending thanks to Alice Walker. Walker pretty much single-handedly restored Zora Neale Hurston to her rightful place in the literary canon. Hurston’s breathtaking 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is among my favorites. It is also the novel that destroyed Hurston’s writing career.
I read Virginia Woolf’s 1929 extended essay A Room of One’s Own my junior year of college, and since then, I can’t stop thinking about unsung women writers. In her essay, Woolf raises concerns about the obscurity and anonymity of women writers. Nearly fifty years later, in her 1974 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker picks up the threads of those themes, amplifies them, and weaves in the intersectionality that was missing from Woolf’s piece. Walker writes about the absence of tradition for women writers, which she emphasizes is far more glaring for Black women because their family legacy is one of enslavement and their bodies were owned.
We have Walker to thank for returning Zora Neale Hurston to us. Hurston was a widely published Harlem Renaissance writer in the 1930s. But if it hadn’t been for Walker’s work, I would never have had the privilege of reading her. By the time Alice Walker stumbled upon Hurston’s writing, Hurston had passed away in poverty in 1960. Hurston’s name had been largely forgotten, and her body of work had gone out of print.
Walker discovered Hurston’s writing after Langston Hughes included stories by both Walker and Hurston in an anthology he published in 1967, The Best Short Stories by Black Writers. Several years later, a friend loaned Walker a copy of Hurston’s then out-of-print novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Walker embarked on a mission to find Hurston’s grave and place a marker there. She wrote an essay for Ms. magazine in 1975, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” recounting the experience. Walker’s essay and her efforts were instrumental in getting Hurston’s publishers to reissue all her works in 1991. When Walker embarked on her mission, not even the students in the town where Hurston was born and raised had read her stories. Today, Hurston’s work is taught in schools all over the world.
Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a relatively modern young Black woman trying to find her place in a world fraught with racism and gender discrimination. In Elizabeth Mehren’s 1991 article for the Los Angeles Times, “The Rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston,” preservationist and Hurston scholar N.Y. Nathiri is quoted as saying that, in the character of Janie, Hurston “established the archetype of the woman who wants to be recognized as her own person.” Hurston writes about a woman coming into her own and does not shy away from sensuality and the sexuality of women.
In one of the loveliest and most sensual passages in the novel, sixteen-year-old Janie experiences an awakening:
“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.”
Janie is married three times during the course of the novel, first to a man her grandmother pressures her into marrying; next to Jody, a man she loves, but who does not allow Janie her independence; and finally, to Tea Cake, a younger man she loves passionately. Janie has a hard time articulating her feelings in the first half of the novel, even to herself. She first links her unhappiness to the fact that she is not in love with her first husband. But when her second husband, for whom she does care, tells her how to wear her hair, prevents her from joining in conversations on the porch, and will not allow her to go to a funeral the whole town is attending, she begins to see there is more to it.
Hurston gives readers Janie’s interiority at the moment she loses respect for her second husband, after he slaps her. Janie does not realize what she’s feeling at first, but then slowly begins to understand, and Hurston lets the reader see this lightbulb moment as it is happening: “Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered.” Again, Hurston uses metaphor to movingly describe Janie’s feelings as a woman who was being oppressed: “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.”
Perhaps the most powerful use of metaphor and dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God is when Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, describes the lasting effects of being born into slavery: “‘You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots.’” Nanny then reminds Janie of her old age and hard life to persuade Janie to marry a man of means so that she doesn’t have the same fate. Hurston combines vernacular language, dialect, and metaphor to describe Nanny’s feelings of being a damaged and fragile woman into a few simple and succinct words: “‘Ah’m a cracked plate,” Nanny tells Janie.
Hurston wrote in African American dialect about the African American experience, and she wrote about free Black women making their way in the world against a tide of racism and misogyny. When Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, it was set in the relatively contemporary southern United States. The novel was one of the biggest reason’s Hurston’s popularity began to wane. In a 1997 essay for The New Yorker, “A Society of One: Zora Neale Hurston, American contrarian,” Claudia Roth Pierpoint writes: “Against the tide of racial anger, [Zora Neale Hurston] wrote about sex and talk and work and music and life’s unpoisoned pleasures, suggesting that these things existed even for people of color, even in America.”
Hurston was also criticized by her own peers in the 1930s for writing in Black dialect, language which they rejected as mocking and as an attack on the dignity of African Americans. Thanks to the resurrection of Hurston’s work, however, she has been able to influence a long line of literary daughters who were inspired to write in dialect, including Walker and Toni Morrison. In an excellent 2018 essay for Electric Literature, “Black Language Shouldn’t Have to Be Muted for White Readers,” author Arriel Vinson explains why writing in African-American Vernacular English is important to her and why it doesn’t matter whether white readers understand:
“I write about blackness. I write about blackness all the time. I write about blackness all the time because that’s the only way I experience this world, inside of my black, female body. Because of this, most of my characters speak African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) — a variety of English with its own unique grammar. When my characters speak this way, I don’t explain the slang or colloquial phrases to my readers because I know the people I write for will understand.”
Hurston became a literary mother to Black women writers, and her work is a masterclass for all writers. In addition to her use of dialect and her innovations in the form and content of literature, Hurston’s skillful use of literary devices like metaphor, simile, and personification to describe, characterize, and establish setting are inspiring and instructive. Not only has Hurston’s work impacted today’s writers, who continue to build upon her innovations to form and content, but her influence will be felt in the writing of the future, in perpetuity.
Imagine if Alice Walker hadn’t gone in search of Zora Neale Hurston? I shudder to think of it. Not only would we have missed out on Hurston’s work, but on all the work she has influenced and will continue to influence.