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.