Hurston's and Angelou's Visual Art: The Distancing Vision and the Beckoning Gaze

By Tangum, Marion M.; Smelstor, Marjorie | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Hurston's and Angelou's Visual Art: The Distancing Vision and the Beckoning Gaze


Tangum, Marion M., Smelstor, Marjorie, The Southern Literary Journal


"Where is me? Ah don't see me."

-- Their Eyes Were Watching God

"What you lookin' at me for? I didn't come to stay...."

-- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Integrating another fine art into a literary text, so that one artistic medium comments upon and provides an infrastructure for the literary, is, of course, a valued technique of American literature, particularly of African American literature. Slaves like Frederick Douglass who wrote narratives, as well as W. E. B. DuBois and Richard Wright, have all contributed to a rich tradition of the appropriation of other genres to create literary texts, a tradition that is legacy for other twentieth century writers to call upon.

Two of those more recent writers, Zora Neale Hurston and Maya Angelou, have built upon this tradition in a way that is new, creating verbal art that is thoroughly visual in technique. In two works of Hurston and Angelou, respectively, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), each of which has defied classification to any single genre, the constructs of visual art become sometimes the text's subject, sometimes its strategy, in ways that significantly alter the reader's participation in the text. We may question, as Janie does in our epigraph from Their Eyes, "Where is me? Ah don't see me" (21). The answer lies at times in the interconnectedness of reader, narrator, and character, through the intimacy of a beckoning, almost mesmerizing, "gaze," but then it lies in the position we assume as viewer, as subjects become distant--for viewing only: as the narratives compel us to remember, "What you lookin' at me for? I didn't come to stay."(1)

The ebb and flow of intersubjectivity that is at the center of Their Eyes and Caged Bird is created in both by a tension between, respectively, their author's artistic vision and their personas or character's subjective "gaze." Through visual artistic techniques applied to language, Hurston and Angelou alternately hold the reader outside the text, offering a vision of aesthetics at work, and then, abruptly, through the starkly personal and riveting gaze of their characters or personae, compel the reader to enter--to experience personally--their works' reality.

This study's examination of the workings of the visual into the literary in both of these texts offers insights into how each author effects the reader's participation; and the comparison of the two furthers our understanding of the intertextuality of the two books, as we explore in the conclusion of this study.

Margaret Olin's argument that two distinct arts, documentary and photography, become not only blurred but merged in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) provides the impetus for this study. In the case of its authors, James Agee and Walker Evans, merged genres result in a text that is transformed into a new type of art defined not by any similarities between the genres but, instead, by their differences: "When one regards the book as art, its documentary nature impertinently demands attention; but when regarded as documentary, its artistry intrudes" (92). Olin shows that Agee and Evans thus achieve a text that illuminates the "formative contradiction" of modern literature: the attempt to make of ostensibly hermetic art the engine of social change. Through the collaboration of camera and pen, Evans and Agee illuminate the reader's schizophrenic roles: as participant with the subjects, and therefore subjects themselves and, as spectator, able to appreciate a work of art that "presupposes distance and autonomy" (94). Authors, subjects, and readers are enmeshed in a web of intersubjectivity and then torn apart. But the aesthetic vision of the artists abruptly unravels that web, riveting our attention on the artistic object that has been created. The result, according to Olin, is a text that "repeatedly protests, down to its last sentence, that it is only about to begin" (112). …

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