Phrases and Questions

I’ll be fairly brief as I consider this week’s batch of chapters of Their Eyes Were Watching God. This is partially because I’m pushed for time and partially because, while I found much to like in chapters 10 – 16 (how nice to see Janie living and loving!), I haven’t come up with much to say that isn’t beating the same drum I beat last week. So for starters, I’ll just note a few phrases (some downright aphoristic) I’ve found really delightful and in so doing let the book speak for itself:

  • Several people in the book say they’d rather be “shot with tacks” than perform some action they fear they might be expected to perform.
  • Early in their courtship, Tea Cake says to Janie, “Look lak we done run our conversation from grass roots tuh pine trees.”
  • When Pheoby has resolved to speak to Janie about Tea Cake, she knows she can’t just walk straight over to Janie’s house, so she meanders down the street stopping at several porches and “going straight by walking crooked.”
  • Pheoby, assuring Janie that she won’t spread gossip: “Ah jus lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.”
  • Tea Cake’s letter summoning Janie to Jacksonville asks her to “hurry up and come because he was about to turn into pure sugar thinking about her.”
  • After waiting all night for Tea Cake to return from his gambling: “Daylight was creeping around the cracks of the world.”

It strikes me that many of the colloquial phrases I find so appealing are very concrete, even metaphoric insofar as they turn abstract things into observable phenomena. I wonder what, if any, relationship this may have to the notion I’ve expressed previously of a newborn culture following the available templates. Such phrases surely seem to be happy innovations, if they stick at all close to any template.

And now a few questions, things I took note of but haven’t really thought through yet. Maybe something here will spark some conversation (maybe not). I promise these aren’t supposed to be self-consciously coy leading questions that I think there are necessarily good answers to. They’re just things that popped into my head.

  • Is there any comparison to be made between the relationship between Tea Cake and Janie and that of Logan and a Young Janie? That is, the terms of the age gap have been swapped; Janie is now the December of the relationship rather than the May. Are there ways in which age and experience play a role in the ways the relationships work? Is there room for comparison somehow of Janie to Logan Killicks (probably not)?
  • Late in chapter 12, we have a meditation by Janie on marriage and in particular on how black women born in slavery viewed sitting up on a high chair like white women (which Joe forced Janie into). What would marriage have meant to recently freed slaves and to their grandchildren? It’s another white institution, something they had been told they had to do or go to Hell, I suppose. I feel like there must be some nuance here, some mingling of the old traditions with the white traditions, some meaning to it all external to the play-acting of performing the ceremony itself. Would marriage have been a sign of freedom?
  • I wonder what a close comparison of the Widow Tyler’s return to Maitland to that of Janie’s as the book opens would turn up.
  • As Tea Cake and Janie settle down in the muck, their house becomes the center of their community’s activity. Does this set up something of an equivalence between Tea Cake and Joe, vibrant men around whom industry and community culture centered? If so, can we take solace in the distinction that where Joe applied a sort of brute force to accomplish such a centering, it springs up naturally around the easy-going and likable Tea Cake?
  • Are the longer paragraphs that close chapter 16 out of line with the tone of the rest of the book so far? They registered with me as more preachy, had more the feel of the narrator intruding editorially and directly than what we’ve read so far.

Escaping the Iron Collar

Chapters five through nine of Their Eyes Were Watching God seem to me to be chapters concerned with filling certain expected roles. In chapter five, Tony Taylor stands to make a speech to welcome Starks to town and honor him for taking charge and working to improve the place. Poor Tony flubs the speech, and his audience ridicules him for his efforts. They call him out for failing to follow a sort of formula. He has in effect failed to read his lines correctly. Of course, one must consider where the formula originated. I imagine most formal speeches black folk of the day heard would have been sermons, and the criticism of Taylor’s speech because he fails to include appropriate Biblical references would seem to support my notion. When Africans were brought to America, they had no Bible and no sermon; any religious rites and speech patterns they learned would have been learned from white people or from elders who had learned them from white people. So to insist that Taylor follow the standard formula is to insist that he in a way parrot the speech of white men.

Shortly after Taylor’s abortive speech, the townspeople call for Janie to say a few words. Joe Starks steps up instead and says she has no cause to make speeches; her allotted role is that of wife, and she belongs in the home.

Later, we witness a funeral for the mule that Starks bought from Matt Bonner. Joe forbids Janie to attend, of course, such lowness hardly befitting her role as the mayor’s wife. But he himself gives a stylized, mocking eulogy for the mule. This too must surely be informed by the churching that Joe received courtesy of the white men whose forebears may have owned his forebears. The women in attendance feign religious ecstasy and pretend to faint. It’s a jolly affair, perhaps something of a minstrel show. Hurston follows up with a funeral scene in which vultures play the parts of mourners and parson.

Shortly after the funeral passages, Hurston gives us what she calls “acting-out courtship,” a sort of flirtation among young men and women of the town. The prettiest belle of them all turns out to be Miss Daisy Blunt, whose hair is “negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor.” Daisy pretends to miss the ruckus being made about her presence, and the boys act out a rivalry. Everyone says what feel like lines (some good ones), and there’s laughter from the audience on the porch. There’s something very artificial about all of this, and everyone’s complicit. It’s essentially a play, and though similar courtship rituals of one-upmanship must exist in all cultures (all species of animal, for that matter), some of the particulars of this one — Daisy’s sashay and clothing and hair, for example — are distinctly more European than African.

What I see in these chapters are several instances of the characters using templates of ritual and behavior that they’ve learned from the white people either directly or through ancestors who learned by observing the white people who bought and sold them like dry goods. Having had the roots of their own culture whipped and bled and churched out of them, slaves and their children had little choice over time but to adopt some of the behaviors of their oppressors. The people of this little black town, just a generation or two out of slavery, are essentially figuring out how to live as people rather than as chattel.

Even Joe Starks, for all his apparent knowledge of how to get on in the world, has trouble escaping the templates white owners have ingrained in black people. “Who tells y’all what to do?” he asks upon learning that the town has no mayor yet. And he’s something of a slave driver himself. While digging a ditch, the men of the town “murmured hotly about slavery being over, but every man filled his assignment.” Joe, of course, has figured out how to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Still, the template is a familiar one. He’s playing the role of Massa. He paints his house in the manner of white men and even spits his tobacco juice in the manner of a white man he used to work for.

Joe Starks illustrates another important shift, from voiceless underling to voiced master. Hurston writes of voice in a number of ways. She first draws for us a picture of Janie under the pear tree drinking in the “inaudible voice” of nature around her. Janie craves self-revelation and fulfillment. Almost immediately, her grandmother puts a bullet in that craving by linking her with Logan, to whom Janie is essentially a voiceless farm hand and maid. Janie then moves on to be with Joe, who treats her essentially the same as Logan had, although perhaps with more outward dignity. Joe speaks of wanting to be a big voice, and he fulfills that wish. As Janie runs off with him, we get a sense that she may desire a voice of her own: “From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them.”

How contrary her experience proves to be when set up next to her expectation and the promise that Joe’s brief courtship seems to offer. She’s hardly better off than she was with Logan, having merely traded cutting seed potatoes for minding the general store. Janie does finally find her voice, though, on Joe’s death bed. Joe’s life might have been a lot happier — and his end much later — if he had for once listened to somebody else, she tells him. “Ah ain’t gointuh hush,” she tells him. And: “Too busy listening tuh yo’ own big voice.” And finally, after he dies: “She thought back and forth about what had happened in the making of a voice out of a man. Then she thought about herself.”

It seems to me that Joe’s quest for a big voice is driven by a desire to command others (which in a way, it occurs to me, sort of makes the master a slave to the will and whim of those he seeks to command), while Janie seeks a more sympathetic type of voice, one in which she can understand and express the self she first began to discover as a girl. Hers is a voice of self-validation and empowerment, where his had been one of enslavement.

The notions of behavior templates and of the quest for voice converge, I think, somewhere outside the story of Janie Starks. Hurston wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, when many black authors were finding a voice. Yet many of them did so by using European diction, essentially copying the templates that white writers had created for them. Hurston, an anthropologist specializing in black folklore, thought that the language and stories of people like those she writes about in Their Eyes Were Watching God was plenty interesting without being dolled up in proper, fancy prose. Linguist John McWhorter puts it better than I can in an essay entitled “Thus Spake Zora“:

But [Richard] Wright and [Alain] Locke were thinkers of their era, viewing Eyes’s opening, which depicts men on a porch trading colorful tall tales, as hee-yucking ‘local color.’ Americans had not yet learned that the indigenous was compatible with sophistication. Wright and Locke’s dismissiveness resulted from a misunderstanding of how distinct Hurston’s project was from theirs. They wanted to show what black people could be: rebels against injustice or equals to white achievement. Hurston thought what black people already were was splendid enough.

McWhorter also provides a telling Hurston quotation: “Spend an eternity standing awe-struck. Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something on his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.”

As Taylor was ridiculed for getting his lines wrong when welcoming Starks to the community, we can gather that Hurston judged her contemporaries to be misfiring when copying the literary templates of the white authors they had read. If some of her black contemporaries thought her guilty of creating jiving characters and stooping to the use of local color (I can’t help but think about how people here in East Tennessee embrace the hillbilly stereotype), she may in turn have thought them guilty of a sort of Uncle Tomming. Better, I can imagine her thinking, to express yourself using that persistent, true voice from within yourself than to insist upon a voice you learned by watching your oppressors.

Genesis, Revelation, and Literary Fiction

I’m writing about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for my local library’s incarnation of the Big Read program. I thought I might as well cross-post here. Do chime in if you’re game. This is a quick four-week read of a very short book, and my first post follows.

In an essay entitled “What Does Soulful Mean?,” Zadie Smith writes about how, as a young reader, she read Their Eyes Were Watching God reluctantly, going on the assumption that her mother had given it to her because it was a book by a black woman, with whom Smith might have identified. But read it she did, and she loved it. Still, Smith writes that she felt uneasy about why exactly she loved the book. Was it because it was good literature — a standard to which the prodigy would like to have held any work she admired — or was it simply because she identified with Hurston and her characters as sisters?

I come to Hurston’s book from rather a different angle. A white man, I can claim kinship of neither gender nor race with Hurston and her characters. If the books’s merit lies in the ability to identify with the characters based on race or gender, I stand to fare poorly. Of course, seeing the view from inside somebody else’s head is a big part of what reading is about, I think, so I was glad to be given a nudge that sent me outside my usual perspective. This is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but might never have gotten around to if not for The Big Read.

Chapter one of the book is very much a chapter of the body. Hurston writes of the sun’s footprints in the sky and characterizes the people sitting on Pheoby’s porch as “tongueless, earless, eyeless” and refers to them as simply “skins.” She writes of girls so young they have no hairs yet and of Janie’s “firm buttocks.” She writes of “mouths hanging open and ears full of hope,” of men “saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.” Pheoby finds Janie scrubbing her feet (something Janie’s first husband declines to do to his own in this week’s reading). Janie says that the gossiping women “got me up in they mouth now” and goes on to say “An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.” We find a few more references to mouths, tongues, and skins in this chapter as well.

From this chapter laden with body parts, we move to chapter two, in which sensuality emerges as a sort of spirituality when Janie finds herself under a pear tree amid the pollen and the bees and the breeze of the fecund Spring. The “inaudible voice of it all” calls out to her, and she feels “summoned to behold a revelation.” We learned near the end of chapter one that it is such self-revelation that Janie so yearns for. Her self-revelation in the Edenic second chapter results in what amounts to her banishment from the bower and what must seem to her a sort of punishment. The vision of her crusty old future husband desecrates the pear tree at which her sensual awakening is both physically and metaphorically rooted. Hurston describes the home Logan takes Janie to as a stump, a Freudian visual that hardly needs elaborating on. It’s hard not to think of the Persephone myth and its concern with temptation and punishment, plenty and scarcity, as I read this chapter. Imagining Janie as a sort of Eve is inescapable as well.

Is it possible, I wonder, if her use of the particular word “revelation” in a chapter that calls to mind the book of Genesis, was intentional and loaded?

Although chapters three and four begin to propel the plot forward a bit, I don’t have much to say about them other than to bring up Hurston’s use of dialect. It makes me think back to reading Huck Finn in the ninth grade. My class read parts of the book aloud, with each student reading a few paragraphs at a time. Trying to read that dialect aloud was just terrible. As a grown-up, I’m more open to it, though I’m also not having to read it aloud to a bunch of my snickering friends. I suspect a lot of people aren’t fans of dialect.  Maybe it’s a little harder to read. Maybe it’s distracting. But try for a moment to imagine the book if Hurston had written all the dialogue in standard English. So much of the texture of the book would be missing. When I have to slow down a bit to process and pronounce the dialect, I think a little more carefully about the characters who are saying the words, and I work a little harder to distinguish one character’s speech patterns from those of the others. It makes them more real to me. (It turns out that Sara and I are on more or less the same page; she says more and better things about Hurston’s use of dialect here.)

Now, back to Zadie Smith’s problem. Is this book a work of literature or is it merely a nice piece of identity fiction? Having read about a quarter of the book now, I find myself thinking that it does stand up as literary fiction. Of course, it’s hard to pin down exactly what characteristics cause a work to be classified as literary fiction. Ask any two people and their definitions of the genre will differ. The signs that are flashing brightly to me are Hurston’s use of figurative, often downright poetic language, her concern with universal themes such as self-revelation and the search for love and happiness, and an awareness of and pleasing reference to the literature of the past. However we decide to pigeonhole the book (if it must be pigeonholed at all), I think it’s off to a great start. It’s hard not to read ahead.