Hurston's political views in Their Eyes Were Watching God were met with resistance from several leading Harlem Renaissance authors.
Novelist and essayist Richard Wright condemned Their Eyes Were Watching God, writing in a review for New Masses (1935):
Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley... 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.
Ralph Ellison said the book contained a "blight of calculated burlesque."
Alain Locke writes in a review: "when will the Negro novelist of maturity, who knows how to tell a story convincingly—which is Miss Hurston's cradle gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?"
The New Republic 's Otis Ferguson wrote: "it isn't that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better". But he went on to praise the work for depicting "Negro life in its naturally creative and unselfconscious grace".
Not all African-American critics had negative things to say about Hurston's work. Carter G. Woodson, founder of The Journal of Negro History wrote, "Their Eyes Were Watching God is a gripping story... the author deserves great praise for the skill and effectiveness shown in the writing of this book." The critic noted Hurston's anthropological approach to writing, "She studied them until she thoroughly understood the working of their minds, learned to speak their language".
Meanwhile, reviews of Hurston's book in the mainstream white press were largely positive, although they did not translate into significant retail sales. Writing for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson states: "the normal life of Negroes in the South today—the life with its holdovers from slave times, its social difficulties, childish excitements, and endless exuberances... compared to this sort of story, the ordinary narratives of Negroes in Harlem or Birmingham seem ordinary indeed."
For the New York Herald Tribune, Sheila Hibben described Hurston as writing "with her head as with her heart" creating a "warm, vibrant touch". She praised Their Eyes Were Watching God as filled with "a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless sense of humor, and a wild, strange sadness".
New York Times critic Lucille Tompkins described Their Eyes Were Watching God: "It is about Negroes... but really it is about every one, or at least every one who isn't so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory."
As universities across the country developed Black Studies programs in the 1970s and 1980s, they created greater space for Black literature and academia. Several prominent academics, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Addison Gayle, Jr., established a new "Black Aesthetic" that "placed the sources of contemporary black literature and culture in the communal music and oral folk tradition". This new respect coupled with a growing Black feminism led by Mary Helen Washington, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and others would create the space for the rediscovery of Hurston.
Hurston first achieved a level of mainstream institutional support in the 1970s. Walker published an essay, "Looking for Zora," in Ms. magazine in 1975. In that work, she described how the Black community's general rejection of Hurston was like "throwing away a genius". The National Endowment for the Humanities went on to award Robert Hemenway two grants for his work to write Hurston's biography. The 1977 biography was followed in 1978 by the re-issue of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
In 1975, the Modern Language Association held a special seminar focusing on Hurston. In 1981 professor Ruth Sheffey of Baltimore's Morgan State University founded the Zora Neale Hurston Society. Hurston had attended the school, then known as Morgan Academy, in 1917.
In 1978, Harper and Row leased its rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God to the University of Illinois Press. However, the printing was so profitable that Harper and Row refused to renew the leasing contract and instead reprinted its own new edition. This new edition sold its total print of 75,000 in less than a month.
The New York Times 's Virginia Heffernan explains that the book's "narrative technique, which is heavy on free-indirect discourse, lent itself to poststructuralist analysis". With so many new disciplines especially open to the themes and content of Hurston's work, Their Eyes Were Watching God achieved growing prominence in the last several decades. It is now firmly established in the literary canon.