Reading Across America or Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here at ye ol’e Public Liberry we try and put on programs that enlighten, entertain and generally raise the level of discourse among the unwashed masses. As such, we participated this year in the NEA’s Big Read Program. Being clever little librarians, we picked Zora Neale Hurston’s Thier Eyes Were Watching God and scored a twofer with Black History Month.

Since I am the Adult Services Librarian1 around here, I was tasked2 with leading the book discussion. Having not read the book since college, and having no intention of re-reading this fine novel, I felt pretty confident in my ability to carry out this task. To wit – a conversation between me and the Bossman:

Bossman: “Hey, this audio introduction from the NEA is pretty good. If you listened to that you probably wouldn’t have to re-read the book before you lead the discussion.”

Yours Truly: “I was an English major – I don’t need to have read the book in the first place to lead the discussion!”

Nonetheless I diligently prepared myself so as not to seem uneducated. I read biographical sketches, author interviews and criticism. I listened to the aforementioned audio introduction3. I even re-read sections from the book. The result? Three white ladies from our regular adult book club4 came for the discussion. We talked just as much about foreign exchange students reading Shakespeare as we did about the novel in question. On balance I’d say we really brought the community together on that one. And celebrated the heck out of Black History Month to boot!

So – having gone to all that trouble preparing, I share with you some impressionistic musings on Their Eyes Were Watching God. If you’re looking for something to read, go to your local liberry, check it out and celebrate Black History Month while Reading Across America!

  • On balance I liked such Harlem Renaissance novels as Cane and to a lesser extent Invisible Man better than this one. Maybe because I’m male and this was largely a woman’s coming of age story.
  • There’s no denying that the novel is well written, and Hurston’s background in anthropology shines through in her treatment of the work’s dialogue5.
  • It sometimes feels like think Hurston over romanticizes the plight of the black working poor, but it’s hard to criticize an author who died anonymously and almost had her entire remaining possessions lost in a bonfire behind her house. Certainly she’d know better than I do about the plight of the black working poor…
  • Reading Hurston really reminds me of what I’ve read by Toni Morrison. Earlier stuff like Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Would be interested to do a comparison of those two authors to trace Hurston’s influence on Morrison.
  • The passage that gives the novel it’s title evokes the end of Job for me. Appropriate in some ways, but somewhat incongrous in a work that doesn’t seem overly concerned with religion.

    The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time.  They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (p. 236, U of Illinois Press ed., 1978)

    And the Lord said to Job:
    2‘Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond.’

    3Then Job answered the Lord:
    4‘See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
    I lay my hand on my mouth.
    5I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
    twice, but will proceed no further.’

    6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
    7‘Gird up your loins like a man;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.
    8Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
    9Have you an arm like God,
    and can you thunder with a voice like his?
    (Job 40:2-9; NRSV)

That’s probably enough for the moment. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments. Yes, even if you’re a white lady who occasionally participates in a local book club.

1 Whatever that means…
2 Read: Stuck with
3 Very good – as advertised
4 Yup – we couldn’t even get the whole book club to attend
5 One of the ladies who came to the discussion didn’t even read the book – “Ah’ve nevah been able to read negro dialect. Haven’t been able to since childhood…” Nice.

3 Responses to “Reading Across America or Their Eyes Were Watching God”

  1. Walter Says:

    Hey!@! I bathe at _least_ twice a week and often as much as five or six times!

  2. Walter Says:

    And thank you for the Job plug. He haunts me still. The difference here (I have not read Their eyes… nor any other Hurston) being that the god force in the end of the novel does not interact with the people, but extinguishes their light and remains at a cool, unreachable distance. Job is able to interact, however strangely and incomprehensibly, with his whirlwind.

  3. Walter Says:

    Holy crap! She actually said, “I’ve never been able to read negro dialect”? Oh, that I could have been in attendance! You fail to include in your notes your no doubt professional handling of the situation– I envision the normally loquacious and quite pleasant Conan caught, in the briefest moment, by Terror and Anger and Pity and Fear, but mostly angst. If only you could have retorted with, “I’ve never fully comprehended hate speech.” But alas, we applaud you, adult services librarian, for attempting to contribute to the greater social good, and for not slappin’ that old bitty across the face.

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