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New Essays on 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'

As the Critical Interpretations series of the 1960s aged with the advent of literary theory and increased attention to race, gender, class, and sexuality, several contenders for its replacement as undergraduate guides/graduate introductions emerged. Some of these series grew beyond their senior editors' bounds of literary enjoyment--hence Harold Bloom's curious half-disclaimer regarding the worth of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God in his introduction to the Modern Critical Interpretations collection on that novel and the somewhat peculiar selection of reprinted "representative" essays. Michael Awkward's American Novel Series volume, though it seeks to introduce students to the main shifts in critical paradigms surrounding Their Eyes, does not reprint articles but instead presents new essays by scholars well known for their work on African American literature, or more specifically on Hurston: Awkward himself, Robert Hemenway, Nellie Y. McKay, Hazel V. Carby, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis. These critics discuss Their Eyes in larger contexts, often referring to Hurston's autobiography (Dust Tracks on the Road) and her essays. Awkward, Hemenway, and Carby address the history of the novel's reception by critics and the academy; McKay delineates the novel's relationship to traditions of autobiography; and DuPlessis explores the work's implications for feminist cultural studies. The theses of the essays are often explicitly identified, and although all present engaged, complicated analyses, their clarity and minimal jargon will make the volume particularly accessible to its principal audience.

Awkward's exemplary introduction delineates the critical premises that ignored or damned Their Eyes: the demand that black writers produce protest fiction, and the perception that Hurston was, in the Langston Hughes's phrase, "a perfect 'darkie.'" With admirable brevity, Awkward has denoted the dual foci of artistic purpose and personality that have guided the reaction to Hurston's productions. His presentation of what replaced or at least competed with these premises beginning in the 1970s is equally succinct: "the establishment of feminist literary criticism ... and the emergence of culturally specific forms of evaluation of Afro-American texts grounded in the black American oral storytelling traditions and discursive practices, or what I call throughout this introduction 'Afrocentric criticism'" (7). Awkward's directness and his graceful definitions of vexed terms like Afrocentric make this essay a very good case study for undergraduates of how literary criticism has functioned in the last fifty years. Particularly strong in avoiding oversimplification, the article scrupulously distinugishes between trends and individual proclivities; thus, the personal animus of Langston Hughes's response is differentiated from the equally critical stances of Alain Locke and Richard Wright. Finally, Awkward's essay introduces the reader to the issues that have dominated analyses that accept the novel as an important work: its feminist content and its presentation of Afro-American orality, particularly in storytelling. Even without the book's final bibliography, the endnotes to Awkward's introduction list most of the paradigm-shaping critical works.

The Hemenway and Carby articles illustrate that the controversies delineated in the introduction are ongoing rather than purely historical. As the dean of Hurston biography, Hemenway gamely examines the part of his generation of literary scholars in obscuring Hurston's worth. He critiques in particular the pigeonholing of Hurston as a Harlem Renaissance writer (most of her publications came long after the period) and the popularly accepted view of her relationship with white patrons. Hemenway traces the history of the ugly portait of Hurston as a sycophant who didn't mind functioning as a kind of superior pet for white folks, then delineates the real extent of the finances involved (which have been much exaggerated in popular understanding), and its costs: He maintains that Hurston "could not write creatively under the influence of personal patronage" (35). His essay also contains the electrifying information that the Library of Congress has a tape, recorded by Alan Lomax, of Hurston singing folksongs, and uses Hurston's recorded statement about an African crow dance to reinterpret the famous buzzard scene in Their Eyes. Throughout, Hemenway assumes the preeminence of Hurston as a writer and the excellence of Their Eyes.

These assumptions remain questionable in Carby's "Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk," an interesting exploration of "the tensions arising from Hurston's position as writer in relation to the folk as community that she produces in her writing" (82). Whereas most critics have seen Hurston as a simultaneous participant in and preserver of black American folklore, Carby accents her distance from the folk, arguing that "the discourse of the folk is irrevocably displaced in the figuration of a discourse of individualized autonomy existing only for the pleasure of the self" (88). Carby's materialist perspective is evident in her foregrounding of class in her analysis; consider, for example, her perceptive remark that "critics often forget that Janie is a protagonist whose subject position is defined through class, that she can speak on a porch because she owns it" (86). This perspective is also present in Carby's characterization of the Wright/Hurston disagreement: "The antagonism between them reveals Wright to be a modernist and leaves Hurston embedded in the politics of Negro identity" (79). The partisanship here extends throughout the essay's evaluation of Hurston and her current place in the academy.

Carby is probably incapable of producing bad criticism by thesismongering; her points about critics ignoring Hurston's reactionary politics in Tell My Horse, for example, are unquestionably correct. Certainly her essay belongs in this collection, which aims at discussion rather than canonization. Still, her analysis replays some familiar dissing tunes:

In Dust Tracks on a Road ... Hurston ignores her earlier attempts to represent the complexity of the relationship between public and private constructions of the self. She continues, however, to displace the discourse of a racist social order and maintains the exclusion of the black subject from history. This is the gesture that eventually wins her the recognition and admiration of the dominant culture in the form of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the contribution of Dust Tracks on a Road to the field of race relations.

We need to return to the question why, at this particular moment in our society, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become such a privileged text. Why is there a shared assumption that we should read the novel as a positive, holistic, celebration of black life? Why is it considered necessary that the novel produce cultural meanings of authenticity, and how does cultural authenticity come to be situated so exclusively in the rural folk?

I would like to suggest that, as cultural critics, we could begin to acknowledge the complexity of our own discursive displacement of contemporary conflict and cultural transformation in the search for black cultural authenticity. The privileging of Hurston at a moment of intense urban crisis and conflict is, perhaps, a sign of that displacement: Large parts of black urban America under siege; the number of black males in jail in the 1980s doubled; the news media have recently confirmed what has been obvious to many of us for some time--that one in four young black males are in prison, on probation, on parole, or awaiting trial; and young black children face the prospect of little, inadequate, or no health care. Has Their Eyes Were Watching God become the most frequently taught black novel because it acts as a mode of assurance that, really, the black folk are happy and healthy? (89-90)

Strangely, in this summary of black America in crisis, black women do not appear. I do not mean to shed doubt on Carby's feminism, much less call it into question; at a 1991 conference, she publicly called for the inclusion of statistics about African American women when exactly these kinds of figures were raised. The point is that Carby's class analysis in this essay largely overlooks the novel's exploration of black women's gender oppression, just as her summary of present conditions occludes them.

It's true that the last part of this quotation ostensibly attacks the academy's presentation of the novel rather than the novel itself. But the argument has segued from one white group's approval of Dust Tracks directly to the use of Their Eyes as a coverup of the conditions of post-industrial, inner-city life. In fact, Carby here restates in contemporary terms Wright's accusation of "minstrelsy" and Hughes's portrait of the white folks' "darkie." A sell-out then, a sell-out now. One might consider, however, that if Hurston sold out, she did a remarkably poor job of it. Native Son, not Their Eyes, was a Book of the Month Club selection. Wright earned his living with his writing and died in Paris, if not comfortable, at least self-supporting; Hurston scrambled through many jobs, including domestic work, and died in a poorhouse. Materialist criticism could critique the exclusive academic focus on Their Eyes even among Hurston's work, and the overly narrow interpretations that derive from it, without reiterating the old dismissive riffs. Still, Carby reminds us that honoring the ancestors does not mean adoring them, but rather engaging with all their complexities.

Whereas Carby presents Hurston's novel as an anomaly popular for its ability to displace real racial issues, McKay's" 'Crayon Enlargements of Life'" argues for Their Eyes as "a representative text in the Afro-American cultural tradition, but one that claims a central place for black women" (55). McKay discusses both issues limited to the protagonist--Janie's developing psychology and values--and issues involving the novel's place in literary traditions of Afro-American and female autobiographies. An extended contrast with The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man establishes and explores the presence of racial self-acceptance in Their Eyes. To me, McKay's most interesting observations concern the place of the journey in black women's traditions and the novel's relationship to nineteenth-century slave narratives. Though brief, the section on the journey suggests several salient themes and lists travel books by African American women--perhaps McKay or another scholar will further develop this promising topic. The longer discussion of Their Eyes and the slave narrative delineates the similarity in structure, the as-told-to, and then explores Hurston's replacement of the oral/written hierarchy inscribed in the nineteenth-century tradition with a narrative collaboration between Janie, Pheoby, and Hurston. The difference between Carby's and McKay's visions clearly emerges in McKay's last statement that Hurston "found a safe place to embalm the tenderness and passion of her feelings in the autobiographical voice of Janie Crawford, whose life she made into a very fine crayon enlargement of life" (69).

When a critic meditates on what a particular set of premises obligates a reader to do while simultaneously discussing a novel, the novel often becomes subordinated to the philosophy. Rachel Blau DuPlessis focuses on the text of Their Eyes, however, as the larger force that makes obligatory those premises that will reveal rather than obscure its richness. The last piece in New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God, DuPlessis's discussion demonstrates that close reading reveals new insights about even a much-discussed source. DuPlessis adopts the cultural studies postulate that race, gender, and class must be seen "multifocally, conflictually, and over time" (99); such a stance necessarily involves constant flux, and in humorously acknowledging its difficulties, she oxymoronically refers to giving Tea Cake "the final, ambiguous word" (118). This essay presumes more critical background--an understanding of "gynocriticism," for instance--than the others.

DuPlessis begins by considering Hurston's complicated, inconsistent attitudes toward race in her other literary productions, and then examines race in Their Eyes. DuPlessis's analysis frequently offers new connections: "Tea Cake overhears [Mrs. Turner]; his comment, 'Ah been heah uh long time listenin' to dat heifer run me down tuh de dawgs ...' is a prophetic image literalized in the flood scene in which a confused cow and a vicious dog in combination are the proximate cause of Tea Cake's irrevocable wound. A rabid dog sitting on a burdened, bewildered beast seems to be Hurston's deep allegorical comment on the system of race-inflected social stratification" (115). DuPlessis extends our understanding of race in Their Eyes by pointing out that Janie and Tea Cake not only accept the white judgment of probable danger in not preparing for the hurricane, but they do so because of an explicit prejudice against the Seminole who warn otherwise.

The article's major discussion integrates class with this analysis, though in a different way from Carby's presentation. In examining what is not present in the text, "undepicted speech" such as Janie's trial testimony, DuPlessis borrows a phrase from Dust Tracks to argue that Their Eyes reserves judgment for the "black community, or whomever might be construed as 'the Negro farthest down'" (101). DuPlessis casts the entire novel as a series of trials, "one by white people's rules, another by black men's rules, a third by the rule of 'Mouth Almighty'--[Janie's] black working-class community" (106). Finally, Janie conducts her own trial in the suitable venue of her own front porch, with a sympathetic black woman, Pheoby, as judge. To follow the complex and sometimes inconsistent presentations of race and power in Their Eyes, DuPlessis explores the appearances and various meanings of the title and its constitutent parts. Her essay offers the only persuasive, extended analysis of the title that I have ever seen, and the issue of the title arises in most undergraduate classes considering the novel.

The Critical Interpretation series, which the American Novel Series succeeds, consisted mostly of Formalist readings, with the occasional historical or Marxist article. The diverse pieces in New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God unite in their interrogation of what the novel means and has meant in particular contexts, accenting the connections of this work with our varied selves and with both historical and current social institutions. Carby points to the academy, DuPlessis toward Hurston's other works, and McKay toward earlier literary traditions. For Hemenway and DuPlessis, such exploration requires analysis of their position as white critics; thus, their articles include personal information simply defined as irrelevant in the '60s. Sometimes the reader wants more. For example, Hemenway's title is "The Personal Dimension," and he says that he wants to suggest that his "generation of interpreters, in confronting literary theory and being made self-conscious about the act of interpretation, has experienced something like what Zora Neale Hurston went through in her struggle to dramatize folklore as a sign of cultural difference, a boundary demarcating race" (31). However, the construction of this analogy is, like the proofs in the old geometry books, mostly left to the reader. Perhaps the old academic habit of equating self-revelation--which Hurston calls the "oldest of human longings"--with self-indulgence dies hard.

If none of the collection's articles initiates a complete shift of interpretive paradigm, all of them cogently offer both the seasoned professional and the undergraduate reader new information. Taken as a whole, they demonstrate how shifts of critical premise highlight different aspects of the same literary work. New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God offers its readers diversity that's clear on its reasons for divergence.
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Author:Kubitschek, Missy Dehn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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