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Delphine de Vigan

There is a definite amount of autobiography in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. For example, the setting of Eatonville in the novel is a real one. Hurston herself was born there in the all-black community. The town mayor was a man named Joe Clarke, after whom Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, is modeled. The porch of the store, owned by the mayor, is as it was in Hurston’s own time—and so too were the porch sitters.

But the similarities do not end there. The quasi-cosmic opening of the novel, with the philosophical speculations of the omniscient narrator may be said to be Hurston’s own speculations as she looked back on her life, having lived to be roughly the same age as her heroine Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like Janie, Zora had entered into adulthood virtually alone and without a guardian. In reality, it was Zora’s mother who died when Zora was just 13. In the novel, it is Janie’s grandmother who dies shortly after Janie’s wedding to Logan Killicks. But rather than move to Eatonville, as Janie does in the narrative, Zora left Eatonville at the time, and began her life of roaming, study, and adventure.

Like Janie, Zora’s first marriage did not last very long. She left her first husband Herbert Sheen after only a few months of marriage and moved to New York City to take part in the so-called Harlem Renaissance, a period of black creative output in the arts. Zora’s passion for recollection and story-telling was given voice during this time. She was an entertaining and vivid oral storyteller, and often captivated audiences with her humorous anecdotes. Her Eatonville Anthology (a series of vignettes) is essentially the literary equivalent of her oracular narratives, which she relayed to her audiences in New York City during the Renaissance. It is a work full of real-life characters complete in all their quirks and eccentricities. Hurston was first and foremost a describer of humanity—only incidentally, she liked to point out, was she black.

But Hurston had larger ambitions and was not content to be relegated to a particular time and place. The Harlem Renaissance was not a banner to which she desired to be forever attached. She wanted to explore the history of blacks in the Americas, and define them for herself and for future generations. She wanted to understand her own place in the cosmic world. She sought to express the spiritual principles that governed her and the characters she knew and had met in life.

Again, like Janie, the heroine of her most famous novel, Zora married in 1939 a man much younger than herself. This was Albert Price—and like her first marriage, it did not even last a year. By that time, Zora had already written Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and it was perhaps with a hopeful heart that Zora attempted to make into reality what she had created in dreams for her character Janie. Yet, just as dreams (even if they come true) do not last long for Janie in the novel, it appears that reality also asserted itself and compelled Zora to continue on her own independent path.

Zora Neale Hurston traveled extensively, cultivating her view of black life. Personal problems, however, plagued her in the end. Overweight and suffering from a stroke, she died in 1960. But she left behind her a body of work that would be revisited for generations to come.

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