Zora Neale Hurston's their eyes were watching God: A casebook.
Oxford University Press has recently published another in its casebook series, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook, edited by renowned African Americanist literary scholar Cheryl A. Wall. The series' primary aim--to offer a set of pedagogical tools for books such as Beloved and The Woman Warrior--is laudable and certainly invaluable. Two of the series other stated aims--reprinting "representative critical essays" and providing "a fuller understanding of these contemporary masterpieces"--merit further analysis. The very notions of representation and masterpiece constitute part of the canonical politics that African Americanist and feminist scholars (among others) have long sought to challenge by means of the very works the Oxford series now elevates. It's worth paying close attention, then, to the selection process both of "primary" and "secondary" texts by the series editors; these selections will help shape creative and critical canons, along with the tone and content of countless c lassroom discussions, for some time to come. Of course, no one could reasonably challenge either the series' most recent selection--or the canonical status--of Zora Neale Hurston's best known and most often taught work.
Cheryl Wall's impressive Casebook on Their Eyes Were Watching Cod represents, then, an ideal choice. In fact, the novel's frequently noted, although also often critiqued, status as canonical in a number of literary specialties and even non-literary disciplines, as well as Wall's own identification of Their Eyes as a "touchstone" for the redefinition of a classic, make its inclusion necessary in a series that "assembles key documents and criticism" on canonical "multicultural works of modem literary fiction." Their Eyes became part of a black feminist literary canon as early as the mid-1970s; its migration from there to the women's studies canon, to the American literature canon, to the poststructuralist canon, to today's quasi-"old historical" critical canon (what Alice Gambrill has called "rigorous historicization") effectively traces the often contentious history of literary-academic politics during the last thirty years.
Wall is clearly alert to this history and offers a wonderful selection of essays that will teach readers as much about recent critical trends as about the novel itself. Indeed, of the three existing collections of essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (Wall's in 2000, Michael Awkward's in 1990, and Harold Bloom's in 1987), Wall's assembles the broadest and most useful range of essays. Some of the selections were obvious, indeed inevitable. Sherley Anne Williams's famous "Foreword" to the 1978 edition of Their Eyes, "Encountering Zora Neale Hurston," remains essential reading on the novel. Williams's declaration that, upon reading the book, she "became Zora Neale's for life" still has the power to move (perhaps all the more so now that we have lost Williams's voice). Mary Helen Washington's 1987 essay "I Love the Way Janie Crawford Left Her Husbands" offers an important early and utterly persuasive qualification of the novel's often-vaunted positive feminist portraiture of protagonist Janie Crawford.
Just as Washington's "Foreword" to the 1990 edition of the novel (not included in the Casebook) notes, Their Eyes has become a "shared text," shared certainly among many black feminist scholars, but increasingly from the mid1980s to today shared among others as well. Barbara Johnson's 1984 "Metaphor, Metonymy, and Voice" marks the novel's adoption by deconstructionists; this unquestionably canonical essay (along with Johnson's equally powerful 1985 essay "Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Zora Neale Hurston," not included in the Casebook) offers an exhilarating deconstructionist tour through the novel, showing deconstruction at its best, by both opening a text and challenging its readers. The Casebook also includes Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s "Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text," a chapter from The Signifying Monkey (1988); it productively extends the potstructuralist treatment of Their Eyes and offers what Wall rightly describes as "one of the finest close readings of Hurston's novel tha t we have." However, Gates's chapter might have been excerpted rather than printed in its entirety; as is, the essay takes up nearly a third of the book, and it has been reprinted elsewhere.
This of course brings us to what's missing from the volume. The Casebook would have been stronger still with more acknowledgment of the contentiousness that has often accompanied scholarship on Their Eyes. Certainly, Wall's inclusion of Hazel Carby's insightful "The Politics of Fiction, Anthropology, and the Folk" (1990) goes a long way toward foregrounding the novel's not-universally-embraced canonicity. But Michele Wallace's "Who Owns Zora Neale Hurston" and bell hooks's "A Subversive Reading" might have offered further explorations of the critical and canonical politics that are so effectively, and so often, thrown into relief by Hurston's work.
Other Hurston scholars whose work has deepened and enlivened our understanding of the novel are also inevitably, but unfortunately, missing from the Casebook Nellie McKay, Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Priscilla Wald, Deborah Plant, Dolan Hubbard, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Karla Holloway, Molly Hite, and Cheryl Wall herself, to name just a few. Several of these scholars have written on a frequent aspect of Hurston criticism, and one under-represented in the collection--namely, her influence on other writers. Also missing is an extended representation of Hurston's own voice. Although "Zora Neale Hurston on Zora Neale Hurston" (1942) offers an effective sampling of Hurston's evasive autobiographical voice, readers might have benefitted still more from the inclusion of one of her essays, several of which could contribute significantly to an understanding of Their Eyes (perhaps "The Characteristics of Negro Expression" or "What White Publishers Won't Print").
But these are relatively minor absences in a collection so full of striking critical presences. The collection's two most recent essays, Carla Kaplan's "The Erotics of Talk" (1995) and Daphne Lamothe's "Voudou Imagery, African American Tradition and Cultural Transformation" (1999), represent an expansive moment in Hurston criticism--and perhaps in literary criticism as a whole. Hurston's fiction is now being considered from a wide range of perspectives: representations of the body, African diasporic and Caribbean thematics and cultural practices, cultural imperialism, the Federal Writers' Project, eugenics, the Blues, and Hurston's politics as well as her anthropological and other intellectual pursuits.
To quote the novel itself, as readers and critics of Their Eyes Were Watching God," 'we' uh mingled people.'" Cheryl Wall's Casebook on the novel does an admirable job of representing us.
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|Author:||English, Daylanne K.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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