I just read Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time since high school, and I cannot stop thinking about it.
It is so easy to get swept up in the excitement of new releases. I’ve just started dabbling more seriously in the bookish internet, and it can get overwhelming. There are so many great reviews to read, so many new books to read, so many forthcoming books to get excited about (and sometimes read before they’re out!), etc. etc. I’m often so focused on now that I forget that then also exists.
Their Eyes Were Watching God reminded me just how much then still matters. It’s a masterpiece of a novel for any time, but it also part of a long legacy of women’s brilliance. Women have been being brilliant since the dawn of time–often in the face of outright hostility, violence, and contempt–whether or not anyone was there to record it. We have always been here: writing, creating, nurturing, planting, rebelling, teaching, fighting, singing, surviving, thriving.
The world in which Zora Neale Hurston lived and wrote was cruel and unjust. The world in which we now live is cruel and unjust. In some ways, we have made so much progress. In other ways, we have not. Some injustices are gone; some have simply taken different shapes; some are altogether new. Perhaps the ultimate contradiction of humans on this planet is that we are capable of both unconscionable terror and soaring acts of wonder and beauty.
What gives me hope is that, through every age of this world, people have been writing, conversing, and raising up their voices. I hold no delusions that art will heal the ills of the world. But I do believe in taking strength from the courage of those who came before, in the power of words to shift perspectives, and in the importance of honoring the voices of the past.
After finishing Their Eyes Were Watching God, I decided to make reading more books written by women before 1950 a priority. I know these books have something to say to me, and I am eager to listen.
The following is a list of ten books I’m adding to my TBR, all written by women and published between 1924-1948. This is the result of one afternoon of research. It includes some classics I probably should have read before, and some lesser-known works that I’d never heard of until I went looking for them. Descriptions are from Goodreads.
So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)
“Winner of the 1924 Pulitzer Prize, So Big is widely regarded as Edna Ferber’s crowning achievement. A rollicking panorama of Chicago’s high and low life, this stunning novel follows the travails of gambler’s daughter Selina Peake DeJong as she struggles to maintain her dignity, her family, and her sanity in the face of monumental challenges. This is the stunning and unforgettable “novel to read and to remember” by an author who “critics of the 1920s and 1930s did not hesitate to call the greatest American woman novelist of her day” (New York Times).”
Passing by Nella Larson (1929)
“First published to critical acclaim in 1929, Passing firmly established Nella Larsen’s prominence among women writers of the Harlem Renaissance.
Irene Redfield, the novel’s protagonist, is a woman with an enviable life. She and her husband, Brian, a prominent physician, share a comfortable Harlem town house with their sons. Her work arranging charity balls that gather Harlem’s elite creates a sense of purpose and respectability for Irene. But her hold on this world begins to slip the day she encounters Clare Kendry, a childhood friend with whom she had lost touch. Clare—light-skinned, beautiful, and charming—tells Irene how, after her father’s death, she left behind the black neighborhood of her adolescence and began passing for white, hiding her true identity from everyone, including her racist husband.”
The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (1931)
“This tells the poignant tale of a Chinese farmer and his family in old agrarian China. The humble Wang Lung glories in the soil he works, nurturing the land as it nurtures him and his family. Nearby, the nobles of the House of Hwang consider themselves above the land and its workers; but they will soon meet their own downfall.”
The Waves by Virigina Woolf (1931)
“The Waves is often regarded as Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, standing with those few works of twentieth-century literature that have created unique forms of their own. In deeply poetic prose, Woolf traces the lives of six children from infancy to death who fleetingly unite around the unseen figure of a seventh child, Percival. Allusive and mysterious, The Waves yields new treasures upon each reading.”
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936)
“Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ strange and sinuous tour de force, “belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch” (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes’ novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe’s great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous.”
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
“The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)
“The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.”
A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
“Gwendolyn Brooks was one of the most accomplished and acclaimed poets of the last century, the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the forerunner of the U.S. Poet Laureate. Here, in an exclusive Library of America E-Book Classic edition, is her groundbreaking first book of poems, a searing portrait of Chicago’s South Side. “I wrote about what I saw and heard in the street,” she later said.”
The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
“The Street tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.”
The Living is Easy by Dorothy West (1948)
“One of only a handful of novels published by black women during the forties, the story of ambitious Cleo Judson is a long-time cult classic. “The Living Is Easy” is delightfully wry and ironic humor–even bitchiness–of the novel coexists with a challenging moral and social complexity.”
Have you read any of these books? Do you have other favorite books by women published before 1950? I’d love to hear about them in the comments. I get excited about a lot of reading projects and don’t always follow through, but I really want to try and read at least some of these books this year.
I’m going to start with Passing by Nella Larson. The audiobook is narrated by Robin Miles, who is basically a goodness. I will listen to anything she cares to read.