Friday, July 23, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 41 (Zora Neale Hurston)

Hurston, Zora Neale
Their Eyes Were Watching God

I am pretty sure this came from the now mythical shelf of highschool reading materials my brother left at my parents' home when he went away to school, and which I later requisitioned.

I love the cover of this particular edition. The more recent cover was very obviously dreamt up in the haze of some focus group:

You can see that the new cover is designed to reflect an idea the target audience might like to have of itself -- that of the soulful, introspective woman feeling the depths of her soulfulness. In other words, it's designed to be sold to the Oprah book club. Which is fine, I guess.

But this older version, from the eighties, I think, with its striking colors and contrasts and its inscrutable young woman staring up at the heavens while, perhaps, fondling her breast, tells a more interesting story. It at least attempts to connect to the title -- actually, it does this quite literally.

And that gesture, to my mind, points to something crucial to the book -- a woman's sexual desire. This cover lets in the messiness and confusion and mystery of all that, while the newer one keeps it all bottled up in a soulful look. One expresses sexual desire, the other suppresses it. Even if one wants to sanitize the earlier one by saying she's not touching herself, she's just scratching an itch, well, need I go on?

Or maybe I am just being sentimental because this was the original cover I saw and I like it best because it was first. Nah.

from Their Eyes Were Watching God

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. 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. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive, Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.


Jessica Smith said...


I read this book in high school, junior year, the year our focus was american lit. our focus for the second semester was 20thC southern american lit. and this was one of the picks.

i remember liking it, but not *loving* it, but then again it was in competition with what was to become one of my favorite books, the one I wrote my research paper on that semester, faulkner's the sound and the fury. my passion for s&f almost led me to boston university, where i liked the faulkner scholar, but i ended up going to UB (where I liked the poets) b/c it was cheaper.

i re-encountered hurston at UVA when I was making my orals lists and made one on 20thC lit. the novel portion of the show was basically my high school reading list. instead of rereading these books, I got them on CD to listen to while driving out of Charlottesville, which I did as often as possible because Charlottesville is tiny and ultimately not my speed.

it was about a year after Katrina that I first listened to TEWWG. Growing up in Birmingham, which is about as far from NO as BUffalo is from NYC, we went to NO a lot. watching the news reports on katrina was hard. a year later, NOLA was still a wreck, but the immediate trauma of watching a city one loves be destroyed unnecessarily had passed enough for me to enjoy the hurricane section of TEWWG, which is so similar to Katrina. if you haven't read TEWWG recently, it's time to read it now, in the (lasting) wake of katrina.

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

I hadn't thought about the connection, which is weird, because we did The Big Read featuring this book about a year after Katrina. I don't recall it coming up directly in any of the book discussions.