Zora Neale Hurston: Writing Their Eyes Were Watching God
By 1934, Hurston's freelance career was flourishing, with essays and short stories appearing frequently in journals. With the help of a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation she began studying for a doctorate at Columbia University (she never finished it). She also published her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine. The novel was based loosely on the lives of her parents, John and Lucy Potts Hurston. She followed that up a year later with Mules and Men, an acclaimed collection of black folklore compiled during her research expeditions in the Caribbean. The book highlighted both the fruits of Hurston's research and the unorthodox methods she used to obtain them. "Lying was for her both an art form and a methodology," a reviewer wrote years later. "When her shiny, late-model car made her suspect among the poor country folk she hoped to interview, she pretended to be a bootlegger on the lam in order to further her fieldwork—or so Hurston claims in 'Mules and Men.'"9
In 1936, Hurston received a Guggenheim Foundation grant to travel to the West Indies to study obeah and voodoo, local folk practices of sorcery. She traveled first to Jamaica, and then in typical Hurston fashion managed to talk the Guggenheim folks into extending her fellowship for another year so that she could continue her research in Haiti. While she was in Haiti, she wrote in just seven weeks the manuscript for a novel entitled Their Eyes Were Watching God. It told the story of Janie, an African-American woman in her forties (Hurston's actual age) and her discovery of love and identity. The novel was semi-autobiographical—like her protagonist, Hurston was at the time involved with a younger man (Albert Price). The novel was published 18 September 1937, just after Hurston returned to the United States.
While many readers were drawn to the story of Janie's desire and self-awakening, black critics slammed the book as offensive to their community. Her use of the vernacular, they argued, pandered to a white public's expectations of how black people talked. Native Son author Richard Wright, who had also been a fixture in Harlem's literary scene, wrote a scathing review claiming that the book was "not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy."10 Hurston was deeply wounded by the attacks, but refused to renounce her work. "I do not attempt to solve any problems [in my novels]," she wrote in a letter to the novelist Fannie Hurst. "I know I cannot straighten out with a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it—not as the sociologists imagine it."11 As an anthropologist herself, Hurston understood the sharp differences between an outsider's expectation of a culture and the culture as it is actually lived. She refused to allow her own experience as an African-American to be pigeon-holed. Her views on race would cost her, keeping her out of the pantheon of great black writers during her lifetime.
Despite the painful reaction to Their Eyes Were Watching God and the collapse of her doomed, months-long marriage to Albert Price in 1939, the next few years of Hurston's life proved to be professionally rewarding. She published Tell My Horse, another well-received volume of black folklore collected on her research trips. In 1939 she went to work for the Federal Writers' Project in Florida, collecting important cultural notes about the black communities in Eatonville and other places. She published her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, as well as an acclaimed memoir of growing up in Eatonville called Dust Tracks on a Road. In 1947 she moved to Honduras to research the black experience there, and wrote and published a novel entitled Seraph on the Swanee.