Their Eyes Were Watching God was Zora Neale Hurston’s 2nd novel written in 1936 and published in 1937. Although it was often associated with the Harlem Renaissance and was criticized by many Harlem Renaissance writers, Their Eyes technically came after the movement which spanned from WWI through the 20s and ended in the 30s. As she notes in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston wrote Their Eyes in Haiti during the short span of 7 weeks under a great deal of “internal pressure”. Their Eyes follows the growth of a woman named Janie Crawford as she navigates through life and love in the south during the early 20th Century (Awkward).
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was originally released, it wasn’t particularly popular amongst the African American community. Much of the little attention the novel initially received was negative criticism made primarily by male writers of the Harlem Renaissance period. What may be the most the most significant, and certainly the harshest, of these criticisms came from author Richard Wright who wrote a review of the novel in New Masses an American Marxist Magazine. Wright claimed that the problem wasn’t that Hurston couldn’t write, but rather that she intentionally chose to oversimplify and distort the character of African Americans in a way which he thought pandered to racist white audiences. Alain Locke, Hurston’s mentor, contributed a briefer 1938 review that acknowledged Hurston’s talent for writing but still criticized her supposed oversimplification of African American characters. However, not all immediate criticisms of Their Eyes from the African American community were entirely bad. In 1937 Otis Ferguson, despite claiming that the novel “deserved to be better” and the use of Hurston’s dialect was sloppy, asserted that the novel captured the life of African Americans beautifully and with a great deal grace (Cronin). The general consensus from such critics seemed to be that by not outwardly opposing discrimination against blacks and presenting whites as the enemy, Hurston inherently perpetuated black stereotypes that were created by whites (Lester). Interestingly enough, outside of the African American community, Their Eyes Were Watching God was actually pretty well received, getting rave reviews from mainstream platforms such as The New York Times (Public Reaction).
Their Eyes Were Watching had little success during Hurston’s lifetime, selling fewer than 5,000 copies before going out of print in the late 60s, about 30 years after its initial release. A great deal of this failure may have been due to the initially negative reviews from Harlem Renaissance writers which overshadowed the mainstream reviews and tainted general perceptions of the novel. In 1971 Their Eyes was put back into print briefly before it went out of print again in 1975 (Lester).
In 1973 Alice Walker, American writer and activist, went on a journey to Florida to find Zora Neale Hurston’s unmarked grave. In the process she recovered a lot of Hurston’s work, including Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1975 Walker submitted an essay to Ms. Magazine, a liberal feminist publication, titled “Looking for Zora”. Here, she denounced the initial criticism of Their Eyes for being overly dismissive and doing a disservice to the establishment of African American literature by “throwing a genius -Zora Neale Hurston- away”. Following this recovery of the novel, Robert Hemenway wrote Hurston’s biography in 1977. The power of these measures contributed to propelling Their Eyes Were Watching God back into the scope of mainstream literature. The novel was put back into print in 1978 and sold over 200,000 copies in the following 10 years (Carby).
Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God’s influence is widespread as it is known to be Zora Neale Hurston’s most popular work. Despite its initially poor reception from the African American community, Their Eyes has come to be recognized as an incredibly dynamic and complex piece that stands as an integral part of the American literary canon.
Awkward, Michael. New essays on their eyes were watching god. Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Carby, Hazel. “The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk: Zora Neale Hurston.” Bloom’s Interpretations – Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Edited by Harrold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008, p. 23.
Cronin, Gloria L. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Hall [u.a., 1998. Print.
Lester, Neal A. Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their eyes were watching God: a student casebook to issues, sources, and historical documents. Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.
Public Reaction to Their Eyes Were Watching God. Perf. Alice Walker. Gab.pbs. PBS, 2008. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.