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“Her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought”: Richard Wright on THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

I am going to keep posting these author-on-author critical smackdowns until one of the following happens a) I run out of them b) I start to feel guilty or c) I get struck by lightning and will take that as I sign that they should stop.

Anyway, Richard Wright delivers this gut-punch on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It appeared in The New Masses in October of 1937. (I don’t have a publicly accessible link, unfortunately). Here is the juiciest bit:

Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forcedupon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Wright and Hurston had a pretty serious rivalry back in the day. She thought him uptight and self-important, and as you can see, he thought her pandering and unserious. Turns out, they were both wrong.