BOOK EXCERPT: Dancing in the Dark
The final selected passage from author Morris Dickstein's cultural history of the Great Depression.
The final selected passage from author Morris Dickstein's cultural history of the Great Depression.
“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”: Zora Unbound
If that was Wright’s message, the book missed its mark. As a wake-up call describing how blacks lived in the North and how they really felt about whites, Native Son had tremendous impact, which continues to reverberate today. Bigger’s graphic murders—and the bottled-up violence that pushes him close to the edge even before he kills—were frightening; his fear and flight, with which we cannot help identifying, felt overpoweringly real. But Wright’s symbolic treatment of rape and murder as steps toward Bigger’s full humanity touched a nerve more in existentialist Paris than in segregated, race-conscious America. Wright’s literary progeny were both tough and tender: urban naturalists like Chester Himes and Willard Motley but also restive protégés like Ralph Ellison and Baldwin, who were drawn to his courageous truth telling and keen psychological penetration before rebelling against his angry example. But since the 1970s his most important rival—and now the most widely taught black writer in America—has been the one he most sharply attacked, Zora Neale Hurston. She responded to the young Wright’s dismissive review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in The New Masses with a damning piece on Uncle Tom’s Children in a more mainstream publication, the Saturday Review. Though there is surely room for more than one vision of the black experience in America, their differences have come to seem archetypal. As Hazel Rowley wrote in her biography of Wright in 2001, “the Hurston-Wright controversy continues to this day.”12
Hurston’s work was almost completely forgotten between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, when it was rediscovered by feminists. But as she exchanged salvos with Wright she was already a celebrated figure, one of the best-known black writers. Born in Alabama in 1891, a date she kept buried all her life, she grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville in central Florida; her father, a preacher, served three terms as the town’s mayor. She dealt with her parents’ courtship, her father’s troubled ministry, his infidelities, and her mother’s early death in her lyrical first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), but her central subject, in both her fiction and her anthropological work, was the inimitable language, lore, humor, and folkways of the Eatonville Negroes among whom she had grown up.
Hurston had an amazing ear, as she noted that Wright did not—he tended to write dialogue in standard English and “correct” it later into colloquial speech—and the oral quality of her work tilts toward the poetic, not the naturalistic. Even as a child she dazzled visitors and townspeople with her ingratiating cleverness, polishing her talent for mimicry and storytelling. The same gifts helped make her perhaps the most colorful figure in the Harlem Renaissance; she was widely seen as a born performer, irresistible to white patrons but too impatient, too undisciplined ever to write very much.13 Hurston’s early admirers and patrons were legion. They included Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, where Hurston was the only black student in the late 1920s; Alain Locke, who published an early story of hers (“Spunk”) in the landmark anthology The New Negro (1925); Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote a play, Mule Bone, before they fell out bitterly; Fanny Hurst, the popular novelist who befriended her and hired her as an assistant, though her clerical skills were minimal; Franz Boas, who encouraged her anthropological work and wrote a preface to her Mules and Men; Charlotte Osgood Mason, the wealthy and proprietary Park Avenue “Godmother” who supported Hurston, Locke, Hughes, and other Harlem Renaissance writers; Nancy Cunard, who published her work in her massive Negro: An Anthology (1934); Henry Allan Moe, head of the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave her fellowship support for ethnographic research; and many others, who were all charmed by her quick intelligence and vast command of southern Negro folklore and dialect.
One of Hurston’s charges against Wright was that he was so obsessed with how black people’s lives were dominated by whites, so determined to expose their core of hatred, fear, and powerlessness, that he paid little attention to how they lived among themselves, how they had evolved a rich, nurturing folk culture of their own, and, above all, how they actually spoke. Hurston blamed this on Wright’s adherence to the Communist Party line on southern racism, but of course it was deeply ingrained in the fears he imbibed in his own upbringing. She begins her review by complaining that “this is a book about hatreds” and, after praising some of the writing, ends with the hope “that Mr. Wright will find in Negro life a vehicle for his talents.” The gender difference is also one of the keys to their enduring rivalry. “There is lavish killing here,” she writes, “perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers.” For her, Wright’s parables of violent oppression and revenge scanted not only the internal culture of black people—their relations with each other—but their responsibility for their own lives (“state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing, not even feeding one’s self,” she wrote).14 Baldwin made the same charge more than a decade later, claiming that because Wright in Native Son had turned Bigger into a “social symbol,” a prophecy of impending disaster, “a necessary dimension has been cut away, . . . the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.”15
That “way of life” is what we call a culture; exploring it, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, was the whole raison d’être of Hurston’s fiction and ethnographic work. In an astonishing 1928 essay called “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”—a title that, but for its insouciant tone, its bubbling egotism, could have been plastered across Wright’s collected works—Hurston claims she scarcely knew she was colored until her thirteenth year, when she was sent away from her all-black town after her mother’s death to live with a brother in Jacksonville. But even when the presence of whites reminds her that she is black, and is treated differently, she insists, “I am not tragically colored.” It is no source of sorrow, or protest, or any sense of inferiority; the deep sources of life, she feels, are within—she echoes Emerson here—and the only loss comes from being forced to feel any confining sense of race at all, something many black people do to themselves. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”16
These lines are typical of the exuberant, mischievous Zora of the Harlem Renaissance, the performing self who seemed larger than life. Hurston did not imagine that her brimming self-confidence, her buoyant American optimism and individualism, would solve all our social problems. But she did feel that blacks, especially blacks “farthest down,” had cultural resources that gave them surprising strength and vitality. Hurston and Wright could agree that black people lived behind a mask—behind a “veil,” as Du Bois put it. She felt that poor people in general “are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.”17 But where Wright saw hatred, fear, and rage behind the polite front, Hurston heard the intonations of a tremendous oral culture—competitive storytelling, resourceful folk knowledge, delicious gossip, outrageous boasting, silver-tongued preaching. The “culture of poverty,” as Hurston saw it, was not a set of social pathologies but an organic body of common wisdom, a poetics of everyday life.
Wright’s criticism of Their Eyes Were Watching God brings its differences with his own work into sharp relief. “Miss Hurston can write,” he says, “but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley.” Though Native Son, especially in its uncensored version, is daringly explicit about black male sexuality, even at the risk of confirming a racist stereotype, there was a deeply puritanical streak in Wright. Like many attracted to the Communist Party, including those who were drawn to its freewheeling sexual milieu, Wright saw sex and pleasure as political liabilities; like the consolations of religion, they siphoned off discontent and kept the masses docile. For whites the vicarious projection of black sexual freedom was at once a naughty diversion and a hideously condescending form of primitivism; blacks represented the savage state from which they themselves were barred by middle-class inhibition.
In the 1920s many whites were indeed drawn to the Harlem Renaissance writers, as they were enamored of jazz, for its “primitive” qualities: raw energy, physical vitality, unguarded emotion, erotic freedom. (The French adored jazz—and made a sensational cult of Josephine Baker—for the same reason. Indeed, they saw American culture in general as an escape from their own overrefined civilization, which smothered them in moral hypocrisy.) It’s also true that many black writers and performers played to this appeal, as Hurston did in her vast and amusing repertoire of Eatonville stories.
As a creature propelled by her own remarkable gifts, Hurston really did feel free, but she did not feel in the least primitive. Stories of rural black life were in vogue—by 1935 DuBose Heyward’s Porgy had gone in quick succession from a novel to a successful Broadway play to a Gershwin folk opera—and among the Harlem writers she had the deepest roots in southern life and lore. To the politically committed Wright this was little more than a minstrel show, a blackface entertainment. “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition that was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston had thrilled to her own powers, her performance, whatever the cost had been: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the grand-daughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. . . . Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. . . . No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. . . . It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep” (827). Wright throws this back at her from the point of view of an angry new generation: “Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.”18
Wright’s criticism of Hurston was prefigured by his attack on the Harlem Renaissance writers in his 1936 manifesto “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” a classic example of how the committed writers of the 1930s mocked the aesthetic values of their predecessors. These writers had tried to elevate the race and gain respect by showing that Negroes too could produce poems, novels, and plays—in short, a high culture. Wright depicts them as “prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America. . . . [D]ressed in the knee-pants of servility, curtsying to show that the Negro was not inferior, that he was human, that he had a life comparable to that of other people.”19 But once Wright gets beyond ridiculing this appeal to whites, which he sees as shameful and humiliating, his essay takes a curious turn. Negro writing, at its best, he says, has rarely been “addressed to the Negro himself, his needs, his sufferings, his aspirations.” Blacks have a culture of their own stemming mainly from “the Negro church” and “the folklore of the Negro people.” He wonders why Negro writers, taking the high road of genteel art, have not exploited and tried to deepen this folk tradition, with its oral culture, which “embodies the memories and hopes of his struggle for freedom” and “the collective sense of Negro life in America” (198). Instead of this communal work through which they might have achieved “artistic communication between them and their people,” they had “the illusion that they could escape through individual achievement the harsh lot of their race.”
Hurston no doubt believed that she and her work were irreducibly individual. But the material she used was precisely what Wright recommends: Negro speech and the Negro church in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, which concludes somewhat abruptly with a magnificent sermon that she herself had once heard preached; Negro folklore and the mores of Eatonville in Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her best work reads like a response to Baldwin’s later complaint against Native Son and Wright’s own prescriptions for Negro writing. Wright himself did little with the folk culture he praises so eloquently, nor was his work primarily addressed to black people and their relations with each other. He too appealed mainly to white audiences, not to impress them but to throw down the gauntlet to them. The inner strengths of black life, the riches of its vernacular culture, largely pass him by. His “Blueprint” reads more like a manifesto for Hurston’s work, or Ralph Ellison’s, than for his own, since their books were enriched by the folkways of the black masses. Her subject was not the effects of racism but the inner life of the race, not the terrible lot of the rural black poor but the tang and flourish of their language and culture.
Wright was certainly on target in stressing the sensuality of Hurston’s novel, which she conveyed through lush imagery and a boldly romantic, iconoclastic story. As Hurston’s insightful biographer Robert Hemenway was one of the first to show, Their Eyes Were Watching God develops more along a symbol-laden axis of metaphor than through the linear thread of its plot. The basic narrative of the discontented woman locked in an unsatisfying marriage or simply looking for love and fulfillment was something Hurston inherited from works of the 1920s by Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Sinclair Lewis (Main Street), Willa Cather (A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy), Nella Larsen (Quicksand), and even Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, with its echoes of The Scarlet Letter. The women in these works were restive, thwarted, sexually unrealized. Underlying their stories was not only an implied feminism that saw marriage as a trap, even a form of servitude, but something deeper, a vitalism influenced by the vogue of Nietzsche, Freud, and D. H. Lawrence, a cultural fascination with the new psychoanalysis. It underscored every individual’s right to personal realization and looked to sex and love, to the overthrow of Victorian cant and repression, as the royal road to happiness. The blossoming pear tree that is the emblem of Janie Crawford’s sexual awakening becomes the grail she seeks in her search for a full life. It recurs as a leitmotif in each of her relationships with men.
Hurston’s introduction of this image echoes Keats and Lawrence in its breathtaking sensuality, yet it is daringly explicit and vivid in describing this sexual yearning from a woman’s point of view:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.20
At sixteen Janie, her senses now fully alive, feels a mingled sadness and longing, a hunger for life: “Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! . . . Where were the singing bees for her?” (25). Certainly not with the shiftless boy who plants the first kiss, or with the hardworking farmer whom her grandmother, frightened by her sexual awakening, presses her to marry. Born into slavery, the old woman has learned how the explosive chemistry of sex and male dominance leaves many women defenseless, including herself and Janie’s mother, who ran off after she was raped and bore a child. In her mind, the only protection against the caprice of passion and abandonment is not love but marriage, “a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land on de big road” (41). Otherwise, “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (29). “Dis love!” she says. “Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on” (41).
Nanny’s view, with its hard-won caution and cynicism, forms the prologue against which Janie’s fate is played out; the old woman speaks the bitter lessons of experience that must be understood and then unlearned. For Nanny marriage is a worthwhile bargain, a social and economic shield that puts the woman in a “high chair”; sex and love merely ensure that she will be used and eventually discarded. But Janie, without quite knowing it, wants happiness, not security, an inner ripening, not status. She waits patiently for love to blossom, but neither of her first two marriages satisfies the inner woman. The prospect of one of them seems to be “desecrating the pear tree” (28); she marries the second although “he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance” (50). Janie, like her ambitious creator, longs for the immediacy of true romance but also the more distant prospect of self-transformation. All this unfolds in Hurston’s wonderfully orchestrated images.
After being initially attentive to her, Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, treats her like the proverbial mule, a beast of burden. Her second husband, Joe Starks, who helps found Eatonville and becomes its mayor and principal storekeeper, puts her on a pedestal, which also keeps her in her place, though it’s an elevated one. He tries to control how she dresses, how and when she speaks. Repeatedly, he humiliates her in public, taunting her about her age and looks, until “the spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor.” Soon “the bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.” In short, “she wasn’t petal-open anymore with him” (111). When he dies, deeply bitter at her for challenging him, she plays the role of the bereaved widow but is inwardly unmoved. “Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. . . . She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world” (136–37). Only her third husband, the much younger Tea Cake, allows her to open up and bloom, kindling her sexuality into a fierce passion yet also treating her instinctively like an equal, a vital, independent human being.
Each of these motifs—the blossoming pear tree that represents her vital inner flame; the “high chair” that stands for protection and acquired social status (married to mayor Joe, Janie “slept with authority”); the mule, half beast, half legend, degraded but indestructible, the least common denominator of ordinary humanity; and the horizon, introduced in the book’s opening lines as the ultimate goal of a rich and complete existence—is developed musically as a set of themes and variations, sometimes in concert with each other. Nanny pushes Janie toward the “high chair” of security over the will-o’-the-wisp of sexuality embodied in the pear tree, with its seductive promise of natural fruition. “She was borned in slavery time,” as Janie later realizes, “when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. . . . Dat’s whut she wanted for me—don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere.” Janie achieves Nanny’s goal with her marriage to Joe, a “big voice” in his world, a man who radiated authority. “But Pheoby,” she tells her friend, “Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere” (172).
Hurston plays the same changes around the image of the horizon, which she had introduced at the outset as the locus of “every man’s wish” (9). Instead, by following her grandmother’s advice, she found herself in a series of traps, as if they were plots to remind her of human limitations. “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her” (138). The horizon, the pear tree, and the high chair are further linked by the inside/outside dichotomy. Instead of living the split between the socially sanctioned role—being the obedient granddaughter, the proper wife, the widowed woman who merely “sent her face to the funeral”—and her own feelings, Janie longs for a unity of seeming and being that eludes most people, whose tongues wag with envy when they see it. Instead of immuring herself in the show of widowhood, she feels that “mourning oughtn’t tuh last no longer’n grief” (143). She looks inward for the treasure buried or tarnished by her first two marriages. “She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait” (138). Nanny has turned her into a poor black version of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart, in The House of Mirth, a woman up for bids in the marriage market. Only with Tea Cake, working together down in the muck of the Everglades, can she “show her shine” (139).
Married to Tea Cake, Janie reenacts the social descent Hurston herself had mapped and lived out in her writing. Just as Hurston had gone back to Eatonville for her ethnographic research, then carried it over into fiction flush with folklore and dialect, Janie abjures the social status of the wealthy, respectable widow, first by taking up with a much younger man, then by basking in an erotic and romantic dream, and finally by descending physically to a life of difficult labor among ordinary people amid the mud of the swamp. Hurston based the novel on her own brief love affair with a younger man; the whole second half of the book is drenched in an older woman’s pride in her beauty, her personal freedom, and her inalienable right to grasp life by the horns, even in the face of social censure.
Working alongside her young husband and the seasonal workers picking beans in the Everglades, Janie finds happiness in the communal warmth and rich poetic speech that envelop her. When she first meets him, she sees that “he could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom,” but she remains wary. She knows stories of foolish widows exploited and abandoned by young lovers. She confronts him with their difference in age—she is forty, he no more than twenty-five—but his honied speech wins her over. “Ah done thought all about dat and tried tuh struggle aginst it,” he tells her, “but it don’t do me no good. De thought uh mah youngness don’t satisfy me lak yo’ presence do” (159–60). He comes to her in the morning so that she can know him not simply as a lover but as a person. “Ah see yuh needs tuh know mah daytime feelings. Ah can’t sense yuh intuh it at night.” (161) When Janie turns jealous about a much younger woman down on the muck, Tea Cake tells her, “Whut would Ah do wid dat lil chunk of a woman wid you around? . . . You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die” (206). His feeling for her is inescapable, an opening to life: “You got de keys to de kingdom” (165).
Radiating an attraction that would be hard to counterfeit, Tea Cake’s captivating language reassures Janie in just the way the novel’s rich dialect and lush imagery stroke and seduce the reader. “Listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk,” says Janie at the end, “is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat” (285). The dense underbrush of her dialogue, with its phonetic spelling, can initially be a barrier for some readers. (My students testify to this.) Once they yield to it, though, they enter a different world, at once rich and strange. The reader’s descent from the literary to the colloquial parallels Janie’s (and Hurston’s) reversion from the genteel to the “primitive.” Like so many modern classics, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a journey through the lower depths.
When Hurston wrote this book, the Harlem Renaissance was already defunct, done in by economic needs and the new social themes of the Depression, but the novel brilliantly redeems the fascination with the primitive, the dream of downward mobility, the nostalgie de la boue that marked the work of these and other twenties writers and artists. This vision, however, was grounded in an appeal to authenticity that could turn into a romantic dream of violence, a rejection of civilization. But Their Eyes Were Watching God is no crude idealization of the unspoiled state of nature or the sterling virtues of the simple and the poor. Just as Hurston ultimately broke off with her younger lover when he felt threatened by her career, Janie must kill Tea Cake, bitten by a rabid dog, when he loses his mind and turns on her. This has sometimes been seen as a hasty resolution of the plot, but it may be the novel’s most brilliant turn.
A fierce hurricane strikes the Everglades, as if to show that this idealized tropical paradise, like nature itself, has a dark and dangerous side entirely out of our control. In the course of the ensuing flood, Janie and Tea Cake must flee. A mad dog threatens Janie but actually bites Tea Cake when he bravely rescues her. His madness, though it was contracted in this loving, self-sacrificing way, indicates that he too has his dark side—jealous, irrational, violent. Tea Cake has taught Janie to shoot, and when he tries to kill her she shoots him. His friends, who made up such a supportive black folk community, turn on her crudely for this deed, but she is exonerated by a white court.
Hurston evokes this wild, ungovernable side of nature with the same eloquence with which she conjured up its potential for fruition and erotic transcendence. When the hurricane comes up, the poor blacks on the muck know they’re in the grip of a larger force, pitiless and impersonal. The storm creates a different kind of community, threatened and vulnerable, as those in its path try to read meaning into the assault of the elements:
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.
Outside, in a swirl of wind and water, fish and animals, God seems to be reenacting Noah’s flood, but arbitrarily, without any clear path to survival. People can only try to fathom it. Nature has overturned the human order, taken its revenge. “As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things. Water everywhere. Stray fish swimming in the yard” (236). Later, when Tea Cake is pressed into service to collect and bury corpses—caskets for whites, quicklime and mass burial for blacks—he finds the victims stunned by the inscrutable power that has overtaken them. “Some bodies with calm faces and satisfied hands. Some dead with fighting faces and eyes flung wide open in wonder. Death had found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing” (252).
This motif of “watching” is Hurston’s last and most resonant metaphor. She had introduced it in the opening sentence, with people watching distant ships on the horizon, vessels carrying all their human wishes. She complicates it repeatedly with a chorus of watchers who observe Janie disapprovingly all through the novel—when she first returns to town after Tea Cake’s death, when she joins him on the muck, when she sits in court accused of killing him. As Richard Wright complained about earlier black writers, Janie, like her creator, pursues her destiny as an individual, in the teeth of these faultfinding watchers, who make up a social consensus deformed by envy, timidity, and conformity. Hurston too, for all her generous patrons and her own devil-may-care persona, felt under the eye of these censorious watchers. Gossiping maliciously, taking pleasure enviously in her troubles, they sit in judgment over her, and the novel is her proud apologia.
Hemenway, Hurston’s biographer, usefully summarizes various criticisms of her anthropological work in Mules and Men for avoiding politics and racism, for idealizing the folk culture of Eatonville from her childhood but making no reference to contemporary atrocities perpetrated on blacks in the South. These included the sensational trial of the Scottsboro boys in 1931 and a well remembered 1920 riot and lynching not far from Eatonville itself. After criticizing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright sketched an unforgettable picture of these horrors in Uncle Tom’s Children. Even her former patron Alain Locke, in a brief notice that enraged her more than Wright’s review, urged her to take up “political and social document fiction,” something that never attracted her interest.
But Hurston’s work on folklore was anything but a carryover from the individualistic 1920s. Even before the cultural policy of the Popular Front was unveiled by the Left in 1935, ethnographers and musicologists like Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax were trawling the rural communities of the South for folk songs, legends, dialects, and other oral traditions. The dire economic conditions of the Depression led not only to a political concern for the poor and destitute but to a cultural interest in their lives and traditions. Both as novelist and as anthropologist, Hurston was in the vanguard of this populist turn, which was first frowned upon but later adopted by political intellectuals on the left. By 1941, with the text and photographs in 12 Million Black Voices, even Richard Wright belatedly contributed to this cultural shift, which he had actually praised five years earlier in his “Blueprint for Negro Writing.”
Wright’s focus on the bitter racial divide between blacks and whites would seem to make Native Son the antithesis of Their Eyes Were Watching God. But the arc of the two novels is similar enough to suggest that he may have been influenced, almost in spite of himself, by Hurston’s greatest book. Throughout Native Son Bigger is haunted by something denied to him, a sense of the fullness of life. He feels “a certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live.” This is the intimation that Janie receives from the blossoming pear tree. Early on, both characters are divided between what they feel and what is demanded of them, the social face they must put on. In both novels they move from alienation to agency, to a fuller, more undivided sense of identity, and both must kill along the way. For both of them, the way down is the way up: they achieve transcendence not through obedience or respectability but by way of a downward mobility, through scorned acts of violation or transgression.
Janie is not truly a killer like Bigger, but she can be ruthless in pursuit of the authentic life that eludes her. Like Bigger, she moves from confusion to determination, from other people’s plans for her to her own. She abandons her first husband without a qualm, humiliates her second husband by publicly exposing his loss of manhood, and cruelly forces him to face up to his impending death. In effect, in the name of a implacable honesty, she finishes him off just as she will later have to kill Tea Cake. We may recall that Hurston’s two great early stories, “Spunk” and “Sweat,” are both revenge fables ending in violent death. In one a hardworking wife turns the tables on her errant, abusive husband, killing him with the rattlesnake he hoped would make short work of her. In the other, the ghost of a betrayed husband takes gruesome revenge on the man who stole his wife and took his life. The buoyant atmosphere of these ersatz folktales takes on a defiant feminist coloring in Their Eyes Were Watching God. The sense of power, the fullness of being that Janie achieves, is not so different from the authentic humanity that Bigger feels for the first time after he kills and is publicly excoriated and condemned. Wright saw this breakthrough, as he had seen Bigger’s early misery, in psychological terms; Hurston saw it in naturalistic terms reflected in her images of blossoming and fruition. Her husband Joe is a “big voice” in his community but gradually turns empty inside. Janie finds happiness by being in tune with nature, even with the price it exacts and the terrors it brings.
“Live all you can—it’s a mistake not to,” says one of Henry James’s characters, delivering the message of The Ambassadors. Hurston’s novel concludes with the same do-it theme, a Lawrentian credo of living life fully, to the hilt. It flies in the face of all “political” responses to the Depression or to America’s racial divisions. It emphasizes the experiences of individuals, not the grievances of the group. It puts its faith in personal courage and adventure. “It’s uh known fact,” Janie tells her friend Pheoby, “you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” (285). Typically, Hurston realizes this by reprising the novel’s opening image. “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain’t so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo’ Tea Cake come along” (284). Having been to the mountaintop with Tea Cake, Janie can return home and live contentedly. On this lyrical note the novel ends:
Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see. (286)