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Harper Perennial Modern Classics

7 Things You Might Not Know About Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was not initially well-received. In an era when “black literature” was expected to be optimistic and uplifting, Hurston’s story of a woman sifting through the ashes of her love life was stark in its depiction of a woman’s independence and sexual freedom. It wasn’t until the 1970s that readers embraced God wholeheartedly, inspiring a generation of provocative artists from Maya Angelou to Beyonce. Take a look at some things you might not know about this seminal novel.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN IN JUST SEVEN WEEKS.

Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns in the U.S. to establish its own local government, and where her family was prominent in the community. After attending Barnard College for anthropology, Hurston became steeped in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and set her sights on writing, publishing several short stories and one novel by 1935. Her 1937 follow-up, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in seven weeks, an incredibly short period of time for a book. Hurston said that she felt commanded by a "force somewhere in space,” finishing the novel in Haiti while researching another book on Caribbean culture.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY HER OWN LIFE.

God is the story of Janie Crawford, an independent spirit who recalls her relationships to a friend while visiting her home town. Hurston said that the novel was inspired in part by her own complicated personal entanglements. In her 40s, she dated a man in his 20s whom she perceived as the great love of her life. But the boyfriend—Percival McGuire Punter, a graduate student at Columbia University—began to implore Hurston to give up her career in favor of a more traditional domestic role. One evening, their inflamed feelings turned violent, and a physical scuffle ensued: To distance herself from what had become an emotionally draining relationship, she left for Jamaica and Haiti on the research trip.

In God, Janie falls for Tea Cake, a man much younger than she. The two also endure a hurricane, a natural disaster that Hurston patterned after a 1928 storm in Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

3. IT HAS AN INCREDIBLE OPENING SENTENCE.

You’ve probably seen many internet lists that catalogue memorable opening lines from classic novels. Hurston’s first sentence in God is a staple: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Hurston's entire paragraph (which continues, “That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget…”) has been interpreted as the author's view of how men and women approach their desires differently.

4. THE BOOK GOT EARLY CRITICAL REVIEWS.

Upon its publication in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God was celebrated by many high-profile outlets for being a well-written meditation on what it meant to be a woman of color and independence in the 20th century. Simultaneously, some African-American critics were unimpressed, taking Hurston to task for not conforming to the underlying message among black authors to challenge racism. Fellow novelist Richard Wright spoke about his disappointment in Hurston not addressing the issue of equality; Hurston and her supporters argued that hers was a story about love, and that not every novel by a black author needed to touch on racial tension in order to be celebrated.

5. IT WAS REDISCOVERED IN THE 1970S.

The criticism lobbed at Hurston for presenting a strong feminist character grew more distant as the years went on. By the 1970s, the feminist movement and an increasing number of women's studies and black studies programs led to a fresh perspective on God. Authors Maya Angelou and Alice Walker credit Hurston with inspiring their own works. When the book was reissued in 1978, it sold 75,000 copies in one month.

6. SPIKE LEE WAS INSPIRED BY THE NARRATIVE.

In his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, filmmaker Spike Lee begins by quoting Hurston’s famous opening passage and then unspools a narrative about a woman trying to negotiate three complex romantic relationships, much like the Janie character of the novel.

7. IT WAS TURNED INTO A RADIO PLAY.

Although God has been adapted into film—notably by Oprah Winfrey for a 2005 TV movie—the book was also the basis for a radio drama. To celebrate the book’s 75th anniversary in 2012, the Greene Space produced an audio play that was broadcast nationally that September. Phylicia Rashad narrated the work, while actress Roslyn Ruff portrayed Janie.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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literature
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said. He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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