Hurston wrote Their Eyes in 1937 in only seven weeks while doing anthropological research in Haiti. When Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937, it did not receive the accolades and recognition that it receives today. White readers were much less critical of the novel than black readers, who felt that Hurston had not been harsh enough in her critique of the white treatment of blacks in the South. They felt that she painted too rosy a picture of black life in the South, betraying blacks by not portraying the ill-treatment and demoralization that they had suffered. In fact, one of the most prominent black writers and intellectuals of the late thirties, Richard Wright, said that Their Eyes was themeless and meaningless; he thought that by portraying her people as quaint, Hurston had exploited them.
In the early 1970s, professors of African-American and women's literature rediscovered Hurston's novel and began teaching it to students. The book had been out of print for many years, but newfound zeal for Hurston's work caused the book to be brought back into print first in 1971 and then permanently in 1975. Alice Walker (the author of The Color Purple) was instrumental in bringing Their Eyes Were Watching God into the modern literary canon. She became Hurston's champion, searching the South for Hurston's unmarked grave, and inscribing on it: "Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South."
Walker's characterization of Hurston as a southern writer was well-founded. Although she was born in Alabama, Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first all-black city in America. The town was founded by a man named Joe Clarke (which has a similar ring to her novel's Joe Starks), who was eventually elected mayor. Just as the townsfolk sit on Joe Starks's store porch in Their Eyes were Watching God, people would sit outside of Joe Clarke's store porch and tell stories about their lives and jokes about their neighbors.