Cook, Fannie

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COOK, Fannie

Born 4 October 1893, St. Charles, Missouri; died 25 August 1949, St. Louis, Missouri

Daughter of Julius and Jennie Frank; married Jerome E.Cook, 1915

Fannie Cook grew up and attended school in St. Louis. She received her B.A. from the University of Missouri in 1914, and her M.A. from Washington University in 1916. Though Cook published widely and was a painter of some distinction, she is largely remembered for her novel, Mrs. Palmer's Honey (1946), which was judged the most important literary contribution "to the importance of the Negro's place in American life." Cook was dedicated to defining and improving the Negro's "place" and that of other oppressed groups. She was a member of the Mayor's Committee on Race Relations, an adviser to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the 1940 chairperson of the Missouri Committee for Rehabilitation of Sharecroppers.

Cook resigned her position as instructor of English at Washington University and began to write articles, short stories, and novels. Her first literary success came in 1935 when she won first prize in a Reader's Digest contest for new writers. Most of her works are regional but they are also timely and universal, reflecting the plight of the dispossessed and oppressed. Though her landscape is usually confined to Missouri, the colonized situations there mirror those of oppressed people everywhere. Her characters, however, are never the do-nothing kind who sorrowfully accept their lot. Rather, they struggle to make America live up to its promise of democracy, freedom, and equality for all. Through their struggles, they come of age as individuals, thereby attaining a new selfhood through which they can look at the light of day and not be ashamed. Cook's characters rise above their miseries to demand what is rightfully theirs.

Cook's short works, published between 1940 and 1946, reflect her conviction that unions are the only solution for the ailments of struggling people. In "Killer's Knife Ain't Holy," Ambor, the preacher-protagonist, is asked to choose between the church and the union. He chooses both, aiming to serve his people in every way possible. Whereas he had once preached that black men would achieve their kingdom after death, now that he has joined the union and understood what unionization made possible, he preaches the possibility of kingdom on Earth. One must " organize fer Jesus." Cook's theme in all her novels is basically the same: the coming of age of the individual and, often by extension, of the group to which he or she belongs. Boot-Heel Doctor (1941) and Mrs. Palmer's Honey (1946) best illustrate this point.

In Mrs. Palmer's Honey the blacks in the Ville have dreams of breaking out of their stifling, overcrowded confines into a place where they can with dignity "move about as full citizens." "The Ville exists, a real place within a real city." It is the CIO—the brotherhood of men and women groping toward a common goal—that makes some of these things possible, though none occurs without a long, heart-and-body-rending fight.

This novel has been criticized for its labor propaganda. One reviewer for the New Yorker said that what started as a "quietly perceptive study of a very lovable Negro girl" abruptly shifts to "a sort of labor tract with characters are not so important as people as they are as espousers of the cause for democracy, unionization, justice for all. Though Cook, by making the reader privy to Honey's thoughts, suggests Honey's potential as an individual, she never allows her fully to realize that potential. Rather, Honey, like the other characters in the novel, remains just beyond the grasp of the reader, fathomable, but subjugated to the wishes of the author.

Though the master-servant relationship is clearly upheld and therefore seemingly sanctioned in Cook's works, it should be pointed out that the black maids, or their male counterparts working in the factories and the fields, somehow appear to be more capable than their white "charges." They are always "looking after" their white employers as though they needed "tending to" as much as the cooking and cleaning. In fact, it is to Cook's credit that she endows her maids, whether they are serving blacks or whites, with so much dignity that, like them, we too pity those who must be cared for and we become convinced that the white world would be in dire straits without the input of blacks.

Cook always renders reality as she sees it, but manages to suggest that reality can be changed, that it must be improved upon. She writes simply, lovingly, using regional dialects and regional prejudices and shortcomings to convey verisimilitude. Her main characters are "big people spiritually who are lesser people in society." They are always neighborly, always engaging, gently nudging themselves, even when not fully developed as characters, into the reader's life for keeps.

Other Works:

The Hill Grows Steeper (1938). Storm Against the Wall (1948). The Long Bridge (1949).


Reference Works:

American Novelists of Today (1951). CB (1946, 1949).

Other reference:

NYT (26 Aug. 1949). PW (23 Feb. 1946, 17 Sept. 1949). WLB (10 Oct. 1949).