I first read about Zora Neale Hurston while indulging in one of my favourite pastimes: browsing through the online catalogue of the Library of America, a state-affiliated non-profit publisher which is one of the few things the USA does better than other countries. (Probably because literature is enjoyed by rich people – like opera, visual arts, ballet etc – so thus is eligible for government funding.)
Hurston was an African-American writer born in 1891 who came to prominence in her late thirties, on the tail end of (or just after, depending on sources) the Harlem Renaissance. Having read a little about her (and conscious of how much I’d enjoyed the Black American writers of that period I’ve encountered before (for example Jean Toomer, Richard Wright and – many years ago now – Ralph Ellison), I kept my eyes peeled for Hurston in the bookstores and “little free libraries” (or as I call them, “little free bookstores” haha) of Toronto, eventually stumbling on this pair of books in the bookshop directly over the road from my workplace. Unintentionally, I had acquired two of Hurston’s seminal works, both of which had titles that seemed far more familiar than I had expected.
And Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
This is a really interesting novel, from a literary historical perspective, though I don’t know if I would necessarily consider it “good”, though I don’t know how much my post-reading opinions of this are influenced by the inexplicably negative Maya Angelou foreword included at the start of Dust Tracks On A Road, which I began reading between finishing the novel and typing this blog (which I’m doing as I travel across the city on the morning of July 19th to go and have a 90 minute medical to see if I’m eligible for permanent residency in Canada and tho (other than the post-COVID, pre-reopened gyms, weight gain) I’m in reasonable physical health, if they reject me because of my pisspoor mental health then I’ll be able to get some material out of being “too crazy for Canada”, which would be good for my writing, so too would be the unexpected revelation of a physical problem (e.g. no lungs): narrative, baybe!!!).
The narrative of Hurston’s novel is set a little before its time of publication, tho not by much. It is post the emancipation proclamation, but most characters two generations senior to the protagonist have solid memories of slavery, and the absence of parental figures seems to be either a literal or symbolic reference to the freedom granted in childhood to that generation of Black Americans: born into slavery but almost immediately released from that, the country open to them, in theory, but obviously governmental and other structures were introduced to prevent any real “freedom”. The protagonist, Janie, is raised by her grandmother because her parents felt the promise of freedom and ran away from where their ancestors had been enslaved; the grandmother remains as her ties to place are too ingrained. Too often, too many of us, remain where we have been abused.
And Their Eyes Were Watching God explores several key relationships in Janie’s life. The first is her relationship with her grandmother, who is socially/financially ambitious (though unimaginative) and arranges a marriage for teenage Janie with a local smallholder much older than her. It doesn’t last, and Janie is charmed away by Joe, a man still older than her but younger than her first husband, with similar social and financial ambitions to her grandmother but an imagination to match.
Joe has cash in his pockets from two decades of hard work and harder saving, and they travel to the town of Eatonville, Florida, which is the real town where Hurston grew up, one of the first legally incorporated all Black towns in the USA. Joe buys land, sets up a store, but as his affluence and political sway (he becomes the mayor) continue to grow, he becomes increasingly socially conservative and thus abusive towards Janie. Eventually he dies, leaving her an affluent widow still comfortably under 40, and the town is scandalised when she hooks up with a charming 20-something known as Tea-Cake, who she marries (leaving her cash in the bank) and joins him as a farm labourer until he dies of rabies, whereby she returns home and tells of her life to a neighbour.
I know it’s crass for me to just summarises books on here (I don’t have much to say oh no), but what was very striking about this novel was its use of rabies as a serious, rather than comical or clichéd, disease. Hurston’s novel is sad and moving and very emotional as Tea-Cake succumbs to first hydrophobia and eventual violent madness: the fact that rabies remains both a) treatable if caught fast and b) completely deadly if not, is something we rarely talk about.
Coincidentally (or not, you judge) a few days ago I was speaking with my lover’s mother about the time she was bitten by a bat (in the house I was at that moment inside down in Windsor, Ontario) and had to have a full course of rabies shots, because the cure, the medical technique, hasn’t changed in a hundred years.
My lover’s mother survived unharmed but for a few quickly-healed puncture marks, but had she not been treated and the bat was rabid (which her doctors presumed it was – why else would it have flown into a house and been unable to leave?) then rabies would have progressed through her the way it did with Tea-Cake. We are often so much closer to death than we would like to admit. Something we’ve all been forced to remember in this plague year.
All dialogue is written phonetically, which tho I understand is probably a somewhat accurate representation of the accents, vocabulary, grammar and vocal tics of Black people from that part of the USA at that time, as someone who has read inarguably racist books by white people (e.g. Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die), I found the similarities a little discomforting.
Maybe that’s my internalised racism showing? Why am I expecting sanitised, middle class-ised, language and sentence structures? Maybe the difference between Hurston’s dialogue and Fleming’s dialogue is so extreme that I’m being repulsive to even compare the two? It’s probably the latter tbh, so maybe my response to And Their Eyes Were Watching God should be considered within the context of these simple facts: it wasn’t written by a person like me and it wasn’t written about people like me. Is this dialogue catering to the prejudices of a presumed-white readership, or is it an accurate evocation of a mode of speech?
I don’t know, but I should take my whiny whitey liberal handwringing and fuck off. Fuck off to this immigration medical examination.
Dust Tracks On A Road (1942)
It is now about two weeks later. I finished reading Hurston’s autobiography the day after my medical.
Because I have a [common law] spousal visa sponsorship, the doctor – after speaking at length about the then-recent defeat of the English football team in the erroneously-named Euro 2020 final – told me that I wouldn’t have to complete a psych test. “But I’ve been diagnosed with a personality disorder, are you sure that’s ok?” I pleaded, begging for the chance to be bureaucratically-judged for my terrible mental health, but “You’re working, right?” I said yes, “and you seem ok to me, I don’t need to flag this,” he said.
All I had to do was have my chest x-rayed to test for tuberculosis and my blood and urine drained to test for syphilis, and if I pass both of those tests, I’ll be given permission to permanently reside, probably.
Later that week, I also had to go and have my fingerprints and cornea scanned for the Canadian government’s database, so they have everything they need, in theory, to give me permission to apply for the test and the “pledge allegiance to the flag” type thing that will let me buy a Canadian passport lol. Will I do that? Will I be here on this side of the Atlantic for long enough for that to happen?
Will I write any more books? Will I read any excellent books ever again? (This one was very disappointing tbh, but definitely part of my reaction stemmed from the takedown included at the start). The book feels like half an autobiography and half a collection of autobiographical essays, and all the best ones are included in the appendix of excised chapters.
Hurston – and this comes across even more in her deleted words than in the ones included in the text proper – was v right wing, v pro America, v much against the Civil Rights movement and, essentially, a reactionary republican Tory bore.
It’s not a surprise that she dropped out of fashion as she aged (in the autobiography she lies about her age by a decade and thus avoids the chance to write about her genuinely interesting journey from poor menial labourer to professional anthropologist), because she comes off as a snob.
It’s disappointing, it’s inconsistent, it’s often boring and it trades a lot on white prejudices and stereotypes of black people at that time. It’s an interesting read, I suppose, from a literary historical perspective (that phrase again, hey), but as a read in itself, it’s not exciting.
I need to read something properly great..
Spoiler alert: it won’t happen in the next post either.