"Look at dat great big ole scoundrel-beast up dere at Hall's fillin' station" -- Chapter 6
[from "Between Laughter and Tears," the review Richard Wright wrote of Their Eyes Were Watching God for New Masses, 5 October 1937:]"Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Zora Neale Hurston's Janie . . .
Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.
. . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.
[from review by Alain Locke, Opportunity, 1 June 1938:]
And now, Zora Neale Hurston and her magical title: Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie's story should not be re-told; it must be read. But as always thus far with this talented writer, setting and surprising flashes of contemporary folk lore are the main point. Her gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor keep her flashing on the surface of her community and her characters and from diving down deep either to the inner psychology of characterization or to sharp analysis of the social background. It is folklore fiction at its best, which we gratefully accept as an overdue replacement for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes. But when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly -- which is Miss Hurston's cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction? Progressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weap over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over oversimplication!
[from Alice Walker's Hurston anthology, I Love Myself When I Am Laughing, (Old Westbury: The Feminist Press, 1979]
In a sense, everything Zora Neale Hurston wrote came out of Eatonville, a town she left for good--except for visits and research--when she was a teenager. And everything she experienced in Eatonville she eventually put into her books. Indeed, one gets the feeling that she tried over and over again with the same material until she felt she had gotten it right. She got it perfectly right in Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937. The novelist, the folklorist, and the teenager combine to present the indelible story of one woman, Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods, seeking freedom to be herself--heroic, beautiful, full of feeling and needful of love, in the prime of life.