The Big Read Blog (Archive)

75 Years of "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

Photo of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress

When Their Eyes Were Watching God was published 75 years ago, it was far from successful---critically or otherwise. In fact, it was out of print for almost 30 years. But since its reissue in 1978, Zora Neale Hurston's masterwork has rightfully been recognized as one of the great American classics.

To celebrate the novel’s 75th anniversary, the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community is hosting a two-day Their Eyes Were Watching God Conference, which wraps up today. All events have been held in Eatonville, Florida, the novel’s main setting and one of the country's first incorporated African-American towns. With only a few hundred attendees, the conference will allow attendees to have what festival director N.Y. Nathiri calls an intimate, “high-touch” experience, complete with community tours, fish fries, and book discussions. The Big Read Blog spoke with Nathiri about the conference, and how it will immerse visitors in the book both physically and mentally.

NEA: How do you think studying the book in Eatonville will affect the way readers interpret or feel about the novel?

N.Y. NATHIRI: Coming to Eatonville, experiencing Eatonville, is going to allow a first-time reader or a person who has read the novel half a dozen times to get a kind of insight that one can only achieve through this experience. This community still has a cultural continuum that reflects what Zora Neale Hurston wrote about. This is a small community. This is still a place where people know each other or can account for each other. It’s in a way, still very much a village. In 2012, much of the essence of Eatonville---in terms of the human interaction, in terms of the cultural patterns---those still remain the same.

NEA: In your opinion, what about Their Eyes Were Watching God has made it so beloved by so many people throughout the world?

NATHIRI: I think that it is timely and timeless. Timely because all of us at some point are seeking ourselves. So there’s a universal feeling there that is applicable across so many descriptors. And then, because it is great literature, its appeal transcends certain time or generation. I think that the story is compelling, and that story can be viewed from multiple platforms. That is the reason why the scholarly interest is there, because there are so many ways to evaluate it or critique it. But I think for the lay person, for the reader, it’s the combination of strong story as well as that search for a self.

NEA: Do you think the significance of the novel has changed throughout the years?

NATHIRI: In some ways, perhaps. The basic quality, or essence, of the novel remains in place. A classic by definition has to resonate with different generations in order to hold that descriptor. It can’t be a classic if it doesn’t resonate in 1950, 2012, 2050. By definition, it has to speak to a variety of audiences in different time periods. In this era perhaps, because we are now all connected, the global society of readers…helps to keep this book in the public square. Not just for readers of English, but for readers of German, for readers of Japanese. So I think that in part, the technological advances help to advance the presence of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

NEA: What do you hope people take away from conference?

NATHIRI: A better appreciation for the novel and for the community in which it primarily takes place. People know Eatonville as a literary destination because of Zora Neale Hurston. They know it intellectually as a literary destination; we want them to know it viscerally.

NEA: Is there anything about Eatonville that visitors might be surprised to find?

NATHIRI: They might be surprised that they recognize so much of it, even though it’s 75 years later.

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