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

Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

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