There was evil climatological talk on the radio this morning. In referring to areas north of us, where the same public ratio station is broadcast, the word “snow” was mentioned as a possible forecast. Maybe just flurries. Maybe not sticking. And OK, north of us. But still, goddamnit.
The sky was gray all day, though it wasn’t actually very cold. Nevertheless, we clearly see that we are into late fall, as the ground is now bestrewn with brown crackling leaves, as twilight creeps over us sooner and sooner, the hills are now painted in dark rusty colors, and more and more trees thrust themselves naked into silhouette. It’s beautiful still, in a contemplative way. Such beauty is more subtle, almost sweet and sad at the same time for its ability to continue to exist, like an underlayer to melancholy.
No more picnics for a while. It is increasingly time to be inside, thinking of root vegetables and sweaters and curling up on the couch to read or write blogs or whatever you do for Übercoziness. Within the last couple of weeks I discovered a writer who has been in front of me for years, who I never paid attention to, even though I was aware of her. At the urging of a friend, I started reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston, and after I had read no more than five pages I thought, “This woman is one of my people.”
There may be a hint here and there in my blog entries that I am partial to language as a source of beauty and intellectual engagement. Whatever other virtues Their Eyes Were Watching God has, it is the language of the book that leaves me completely enthralled, wanting to hug Hurston for all those moments when I softly exclaimed out loud, thinking My God, look at that. Of course I don’t refer merely to her ability to choose vocabulary, but rather to her use of language as an expression of ideas in a striking way. Take the title. It refers to people sitting in the dark, terrified by a storm. Ostensibly they were only looking at darkness, but their eyes were watching God.
In praising the language, I necessarily invoke an aspect of the book that was very controversial when it was published in 1937, and might still be for some people. Hurston grew up in Florida, where the book takes place, and she wrote it in a way to imitate the dialect of the black people who she knew in the small town of Eatonville (a completely black town at that time). Part of her reason for doing this may have been simply her desire as a writer to imitate reality, but she had also done graduate work in folklore at Columbia University, and she published books on folklore, so Hurston may also have wanted as a specialist to capture something of the culture she was describing. As you can imagine, black dialect then—just like now—was regarded as a profoundly ignorant way of speaking, rather than simply different. Many black intellectuals of the time, including male writers, condemned Hurston’s use of dialect as doing nothing to help get blacks out from under the bootheels of white oppressors.
If you read without a prejudice, however, it’s clear that Hurston does not portray her characters as linguistically inept. In fact, their speech is rich and poetic, at times even sublimely beautiful. We might disagree over which lines in particular attain those heights, but I’ll cite a couple. Referring to neighborhood gossips sitting on the porch, Janie says, “Well Ah see Mouth-Almighty is still sittin’ in de same place.” Another character, declaring her ability to keep a secret, says, “Ah just lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.”
As you can see from these quotes, this language can be difficult to read, which makes the book go slower than it might otherwise. In a later blog entry I intend to comment on the idea of using dialect in writing. For now, I’ll just say that Hurston took a big chance writing this way, and her willingness to do so indicates a bravery and commitment to the truth of her writing that I admire. When characters are not speaking, then the book is written in standard educated English, but still with a glorious poetry in the writing, as when Janie is watching the seasons pass: “So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things.”
In addition to being a book full of poetry, Their Eyes Were Watching God is well plotted both in terms of external flow of events, creating increasingly dramatic movement toward the end, and in terms of psychological changes in Janie, the main character. This is largely a book about Janie’s growth as a character who discovers herself, who becomes stronger, and who reaches out to take a handful of the world that might otherwise pass her by. The book can thus also be considered a feminist novel from the 30s.
And it is a love story between Janie and a man named Tea Cake. I heard that there are people who dispute the validity of the love between these two people, critics who want to diminish the truth of the relationship that so much of the book centers around.
Maybe people should try being in love before they dismiss it in a novel.