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GREAT BOOKS 11: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, with Deborah Plant

"It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding.”

This line from Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, captures what is at the heart of all great literature: the irrepressible urge to speak, to be heard and understood. I spoke with Professor Deborah Plant, a scholar of African-American literature and culture, an expert on Hurston, and the editor of Hurston’s posthumously published Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo". When I asked Deborah about this sentence, how Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God could fear misunderstanding more than death, she gently corrected me. Janie no longer feared death even before this pivotal scene, Deborah explained. Deborah also corrected me, again gently but firmly, when I misspoke and suggested that Hurston had been largely forgotten between 1937, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published and she was still a celebrated figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and the book’s renewed popularity starting in the mid-1970s. "Their Eyes Were Watching God was never really forgotten in my community," Deborah explained. Hurston's work re-shuffles the tradition of American literature so productively that public success may be the wrong measure.

Professor Plant also explained how Hurston’s training as an anthropologist with Franz Boas at Barnard College shaped her writing. She helped us see African-American language and culture as the greatest cultural treasure of our nation. Professor Plant explained how best to understand this magisterial book in light of Hurston’s other work. “I had things clawing inside of me that must be said,” Hurston added in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, to explain her decision to leave a man she truly loved. But it’s not specific facts and experiences that need to be heard; it is the human voice. This, of course, is what great literature is: the need for one's voice and vision to be accepted on their terms.