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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflections on why Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print

A few thoughts on completing reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, including the foreword by Mary Helen Washington and the afterword by Henry  Louis Gates. What everyone focuses on is the mystery - how could this great novel have gone out of print for about 20 years, and this established and accomplished author die in poverty and be buried in an unmarked grave? Both Gates and Washington note that ZNH was out of the mainstream of black literature at the time she was writing (30s and 40s) and criticized for her lack of social realism - note how different her style is from the two other leading black writers of her time, Ellison and Wright. The literary world didn't know how to place her lyrical writing and her interest in folklore and anthropology. in fact, black readers criticized her for her portrayal of the black rural culture in Florida, for creating comical types to amuse a white readership - think of the difference between Tea Cake and bigger Thomas or Ellison's invisible man. Then, once ZNH was re-discovered and her books brought back into print, thanks largely to Alice Walker, there was a new round of debate about Their Eyes Were Watching God (which Washington details): readers and scholars questioned Janie's silence and passivity, especially at the end of the novel (Walker responded that her silence was a way to state that women would speak when they were ready to do so, not when they were called upon to do so by white authority figures), why Janie retreats back to Eatonville at the end (Washington points out the significance of the frame story - Janie telling the narrative to Phoeby, and it will be Phoeby's role to share the tale w/ the world), the acceptance of significant violence against women, among other critiques - but all this set against a portrayal of an independent black community, a powerful female protagonist, a strong and honest love story, a revival of black folklore. Their Eyes Were Watching God didn't take on black politics and racism in the direct way that Ellison, Wright, even Baldwin did but in her way ZNH was by far more open and honest about black culture in her time and more imaginative and daring in establishing an entirely unexpected narrative setting. She opened a door through which hundreds - Walker, Naylor, McMillan, others - have passed.

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