You don’t even understand how long Lindsay has been waiting to work in a hyperlink to that Kevin Spacey video.
In my years studying literature in high school and college, I had an unofficial tally going of which works I’d been assigned the most. Judging by the demographic breakdown of Those Who Write Great Literature, I’m sure you have some guesses as to what occupied the top spot. Perhaps such a timeless examination of white dudeliness as The Great Gatsby? Or Hamlet? Or the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet? To which I reply, “Wrong, wrong and wrong.” It was a tie, actually, between Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Really. You see, I studied literature in the (post-)post-structuralist epoch, a time when attacks on the tyranny of the traditional literary canon were pervasive to the extent of being wired into our thinking, and when implicit in nearly every reference to Harold Bloom was the acknowledgment that he was a bloated dinosaur. Revisionism was all the rage, and academics had recently scooted things around to make room for people who were excluded from the literary canon in the first place. Problem solved, yeah?
Their Eyes Were Watching God has a great canonization fable built right into its extratextual story. The novel, which was originally published in 1937, was out of print and obscure at the time of Hurston’s death in 1960. Alice Walker sought out Hurston’s unmarked grave and put a marker on it that said “Zora Neale Hurston/’A Genius of the South’/Novelist/Folklorist/Anthropologist/1901-1960”; a more literal tale of revisionist literary history I know not. With Walker’s influential backing, interest in Hurston’s work and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular swelled, and pretty soon it was being fiercely debated in literary journals and discussed in classrooms all over the place. All of which was vital and great. In the beginning.
Then people began to hang too much on this novel — placing it on a pedestal and glorifying it as the essential expression of the black female experience, as though such a thing actually existed. Zadie Smith, in a wonderful essay about Zora Neale Hurston entitled “What Does Soulful Mean?”, writes of the unfortunate aftermath of all the revisionist Hurston zeal: “[W]e have nurtured, in the past thirty years, a new fetishization. Black female protagonists are now unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid.” The canon that had once excluded Hurston had, in a flurry of confetti and streamers, now welcomed her in — but at what cost?
After having been silenced for so long, the black female literary tradition in recent years has become, in Smith’s words, “beyond reproach,” and has hinged too heavily upon a just a few voices — and, also, in my experience, the same “iconic” book of theirs, trumpeted over and over again. When it was first assigned to me, I reacted to Their Eyes Were Watching God as you do in high school when something comes at you with its greatness and lofty and predetermined: I fell asleep during the lesson. Seeing Their Eyes Were Watching God or Beloved included on yet another syllabus, it became all to easy to grow cynical about all of this. Were all the problems history now that Hurston and Morrison were “canonized”? Or did it simply do them a different disservice — did it limit both the framework in which we could figure “the black female experience” through literature and the vigor of the criticism against these writers?
These paragraphs all end with questions because this all points to a problem we’re grappling with here at Canonball — and it’s why I sort of prickle at the notion of an “alternate canon” project in the first place. Are we truly doing any good by creating an alternative, feminist-approved canon, or are we just reinforcing the inherently limiting and kind-of-stupid concept of canonicity? I think there’s truth to both sides, and I think my reluctant love of Their Eyes Were Watching God serves as an example of what’s both gained and lost by such an approach.
Because the tragedy of all this is that it has taken me this long to cut through the surrounding context and tell you that this book is gorgeous, powerful, lyrical, and the source of some of the most precise articulations of feminist issues that I’ve ever come across. But it also took me a long time to see through that context and realize this. It was not until my third assigned reading, during my junior year of college, that the genius of this book slapped me across the face. I was, you could say, “going through some Janie Starks shit of my own,” and this was the particular passage that pulled me completely, irrevocably, in:
“[Janie] stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over” (72).
Janie is a great, compelling (feminist!) protagonist not because she’s “unerringly strong and soulful” — but, actually, because she isn’t. Not all black women are “soulful” all the time and not all feminist women are “strong” all the time, and Janie is not simply an “icon” of blackness or femininity because she reflects this — she oscilates, she evolves, she meditates, she hedges, and she is very often tested by people’s unfair expectations of her. Her character — and the book in which she appears — is not so much an assertion of anything as it is the site of a lot of provocative and complex questions that continue to evade simple answers.
Their Eyes Were Watching God contains one of my favorite phrases in the English language, and before beginning this post I flipped through my worn-out old copy in search of it. And though I know its surrounding sentence by heart, and though my eyes went directly to the familiar place on the page I expected it to be, I was still kind of startled to find how aggressively I’d underlined it on that breakthrough reading, a vigorous pen mark nearly cutting through the page. “He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love.” That phrase looks different to me each time I read it, like an object changing color in different lights. Being that heterosexual love is one of the most challenging concepts to talk about in a feminist framework, I can never tell if Hurston sees the “self-crushing love” of a woman for a man as something tragic, or something beautiful, or something somewhere in between the two. I am just glad that, after all this time, a book whose reputation was presented to me with such authority and assurance can leave me suspended in a state of such blissful uncertainty — and that Hurston trusts me to figure my own way out of it.