For her epic 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston turned to home, inspired by Eatonville’s beauty, flaws, characters and spirit.
Now the small Central Florida town is giving back, celebrating its most famous daughter and the 75th anniversary of the book’s publication.
The Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community is hosting a two-day Their Eyes Were Watching God Conference Thursday and Friday in the town just outside Orlando, the setting for the empowering story of Janie Crawford’s journey to find and make peace with herself.
“This is for people who love books, for people who love Zora,’’ says N.Y. Nathiri, director of multidisciplinary programs for the association, which also hosts the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities each January. “It’s an intimate conference to celebrate Zora.’’
The gathering runs along two tracks: presentations by Hurston scholars Ruthe T. Sheffey, Cheryl Wall and Valerie Boyd, and a community “immersion,” with garden and historic home tours in Eatonville, one of the nation’s oldest incorporated African-American municipalities.
“We are encouraging everyone to come out wearing 1930s clothing,’’ Nathiri said. “We are going to offer a full Eatonville experience as a town and literary setting.’’
Hurston, born in 1891, arrived in Eatonville — then a self-sufficient hamlet with its own school, general store and gas station — as a toddler, the daughter of John Hurston, a tenant farmer and Baptist preacher who would later become its mayor. She lived there until she was sent to school in Jacksonville as a 13-year-old after her mother’s death, but returned occasionally.
Hurston spent much of the 1920s in New York helping to define the Harlem Renaissance, but Eatonville stayed with her, its rural Southern ways, dusty tracks and lying porches coming alive in her writing. Her body of work includes four novels, two folklore books, an autobiography and several short stories and plays.
Their Eyes, which Hurston wrote while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Haiti, is regarded as a seminal work in American literature, and was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 Best English-language novels written from 1923 to 2005.
Hurston, who was also a folklorist and anthropologist, died penniless in 1960 in Fort Pierce. Her unmarked grave was discovered by author Alice Walker 13 years later, reviving interest in Hurston.
Their Eyes, which had been out of print for decades, was re-issued in 1978. Its 75th anniversary is being marked in cultural circles across the nation by performances, panel discussions and a radio adaptation of the novel that can be heard and downloaded at thegreenespace.org.
“When you hear people talk about Their Eyes, they talk about the universal desire to find yourself, know yourself and be true to yourself,’’ says Nathiri.
“You are talking about Janie, an illiterate African American woman with no real presence or standing in mainstream society, but her quest is epic. It is a story that resonates, that touches something inside all of us.’’