Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. So begins Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and so begins our readalong of Chapters 1-6.  Remember, next Monday (December 13) we’ll discuss Chapters 7-13. And if you participate in today’s readalong, I’ll put you in a drawing for a $25 Barnes & Noble gift card! I’ll announce the winner next week.

For now, let me dive into the story of Janie. Somehow I forgot it was her own story of her life. If you’re anything like me, you were immediately plunged into a vibrant world of language and imagery with the first pages of the book. Here’s a bit of background as we get going: 

The Author

Zora is commonly grouped as a Harlem Renaissance author…in fact, she was the only African-American student at Barnard College at Columbia University in Harlem during her studies there. She went to college late, graduating at age 36. Hurston was a self-made woman…after growing up in Eatonville, FL, the first all-Black town in the United States, she was abandoned by her parents while at boarding school. She reinvented herself once she was expelled, pursuing an academic life and eventually collaborating with the likes of Langston Hughes. What do these first chapters tell you about the book’s author?

The Book

Zora wrote Their Eyes when she was 46 years old. She wrote the book in just a few weeks while on a folkloric expedition to Haiti. At the time of its release, the book was widely scorned by Hurston’s Black colleagues…Richard Wright memorably called it a “minstrel-show turn that makes the white folks laugh.” Do you agree with this criticism thus far? How would you characterize the book?

The Language

Zora Neale Hurston in Florida in 1935, two years before she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and folklorist who studied African-American traditions in the Deep South, and you can hear her experiences in every word of TEWWG. Her use of dialect in the book was extremely controversial at the time of the book’s publication and she was condemned for her use of “stereotypical” language even though her own decision to use dialect came from her finely-honed folklorist’s ear.  I find nothing but richness in her words and turns of phrase…pugnacious breasts; a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time; a handle to wind up the tongue with. What phrases strike you? What are your thoughts on dialect in this book? How does the dialect enhance or take away from Hurston’s straight narrative?

Women and Men

“They passed nations in their mouth. They sat in judgment.” The book is controversial and daring in its exploration of male and female relationships.  How does Hurston characterize men and women?

Let’s Discuss

The questions above are just a guideline…I want to know what you think of this strange and wonderful book! Let’s discuss below…and be sure to check back next Monday for some fun extras and discussion of Chapters 7-13.