Posts Tagged ‘Zora Neale Hurston’

With thanks to Virago for the review copy

The new Zora Neale Hurston editions from Virago are utterly beautiful, stunning cover designs, that made me actually ‘oooh’ when I opened the envelope. I read Their Eyes were Watching God a few years ago, a fantastic depression era set novel, it’s the story of Janie and her great love for Tea-Cake. Dust Tracks on a Road is the autobiography of the woman who wrote that great modern classic, beautifully written, it is an extraordinarily intimate and revealing portrait with hundreds of quotable passages. There is such wisdom and inspiration in this book, better than that, I found I really liked Zora from the first page.

“I am not tragically coloured. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

Recounting her rise from a Southern childhood lived in poverty, to when she was taking her place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston is never less than entertaining and honest.

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

Born in Florida in the 1890s, she was the fifth of eight children. Reliving her childhood memories here, little Zora comes across as a bright, inquisitive child with lots of spirit. She fell foul of her father – a baptist preacher – early on, he favoured the boys and her sister Sarah, her mother frequently having to get between them. It’s clear that her upbringing was central to creating the woman she became. She writes wonderfully about the town of Eatonville where she grew up, describing the people and what it was like to grow up there, it’s a vivid picture of a unique black community, the first all-black town in America.  

Zora was only in her teens when her mother died, and life started to change. When her father re-marries, Zora’s stepmother is a woman keen to establish herself in her new home, she bullies her way into position, leaving Zora no choice but to leave. Zora travels, she works where she can, doing what she has to, including working for and travelling with an actress and her theatrical group – often meeting people who help and support her, recognising her great potential.

“I had hundreds of books under my skin already. Not selected reading, all of it. Some of it could be called trashy. I had been through Nick Carter, Horatio Alger, Bertha M. Clay and the whole slew of dime novelists in addition to some really constructive reading. I do not regret the trash. It has harmed me in no way. It was a help, because acquiring the reading habit early is the important thing. Taste and natural development will take care of the rest later on.”

Her dream is to continue her education, to go to college. It was the philanthropy of others that helped her on her way, and she put it to good use.

She studies anthropology – travelling around the US to research folklore and anthropology. Later chapters of the book read more like essays, and in these essays, Hurston discusses the lives of black people in America, religion and love. The chapter entitled ‘My People! My People’ is particularly powerful, in this chapter she discusses her race, and the experiences of black Americans in the period before the war. She is thoroughly thought provoking and wise, she has an acute understanding of people and society.

“It seems to me to be true that heavens are placed in the sky because it is the unreachable. The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seems divine–hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security.”

I loved Zora Neale Hurston’s spirit, her intelligence and her way of looking at all sorts of things. Strangely perhaps she discusses her writing quite lightly, it is of less focus than other things in the book, though it’s clear it was important to her. Zora Neale Hurston lived until 1960, and it is sad to remember she died in relative obscurity, her place of rest an unmarked grave until the 1970s.

I am now looking forward to reading Jacob’s Gourd Vine (1934), Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, the story of John Buddy Pearson, who discovers a talent for preaching. A novel which is also apparently highly autobiographical, based on the life of her father.

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There are novels that I feel myself unequal to reviewing properly, this is certainly one of those novels. An American classic that I suspect will improve even further with subsequent readings.

I bought this novel recently and then discovered that the classic club had chosen it as their sync read, well I was delighted to have an excuse to read it so soon. It is a deeply touching novel, lyrical and evocative and I suspect will prove to be very memorable. From the first line of this novel, the writing is sublime.

“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 same 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.”

Written in the late 1930’s in those still very difficult years for African-American people between slavery and the civil rights movement, Their Eyes were watching God is a novel about a young woman’s search for the freedom to be herself. Janie Crawford has been raised by her grandmother, a woman born into slavery, whose idea of freedom and security compels her to arrange a marriage between sixteen year old Janie and a middle-aged man with sixty acres. Janie is a light-skinned black woman, with long straight hair to her waist – her colour and appearance something for which Janie is judged for, and drooled over by both men and women throughout the novel. Janie is destined to be dictated to, decisions taken out of her hands first by her grandmother and then by the men in her life. It is Janie’s search for her own voice and independence that is at the heart of this wonderful novel. Janie finds her first marriage to be a disappointment – falling short of the ideas of love she had hoped for.

“Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”

When Joe Starks come walking down the road –with a story of a new town called Eatonville in Florida, a town just for black people, he turns Janie’s head and she goes off with him to start a new life.

he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance.”

Only Janie doesn’t find the freedom she thinks she will, tied to a man who likes the sound of his own voice and telling people what to do, Janie finds herself suffocated, working in the store and being criticised for what she does. It is only after this second marriage that Janie finally finds her true love, a man who seems far from perfect, going by the name of Tea-cake, he is twelve years younger than Janie, has no money and gambles, all he has to offer her is a packet of seeds. However when it comes to Tea-Cake Janie makes her own decision, ignoring the disapproval of the people of Eatonville Janie decides to take a chance on what she has always been looking for.
As the novel opens Janie – now around forty years old, returns to Eatonville after an absence of nearly two years. The last the town saw of Janie she had been leaving with Tea-cake – now she has returned alone. Did Tea-cake take all her money and run off with a younger woman? That is what the local gossips think, upon her return Janie tells her story to her friend Pheoby Watson, the story of her great love for Tea-Cake and how she has come to return on her own.
With its rich poetic language and vibrant authentic speech of depression era African-American people, “Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a deeply poignant novel about a woman’s struggle to find herself.


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