Marshall, Paule 1929–
Paule Marshall 1929–
Novelist, essayist, educator
In her autobiographical essay, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” novelist Paule Marshall describes the aesthetic roots of her fiction. “The group of women around the table long ago. They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art, “she recalls. “Theytrained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as a testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.” This “legacy of language and culture” forms the matrix of Marshall’s major works of fiction, for, as Barbara Christian observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, her novels “present a black woman’s search for personhood within the context of a specific black community rather than in reaction to a hostile white society. As such, they acknowledge the existence of a rich black culture.”
Marshall’s positioning of her characters within the context of their culture led critics to see her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, as a pivotal work in twentieth-century black American women’s literary history. The 1959 novel formed a bridge between the novels of earlier writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and writers who emerged in the seventies, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. But, more than an interesting historical link between two generations of writers, the novels Marshall has written over a 30-year period deserve careful examination as powerful narratives on the complexity of the power of black women.
Marshall was bom Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, at the start of the Depression. Her parents, Ada and Samuel Burke, had immigrated to New York from Barbados, West Indies, only ten years earlier. When Marshall was nine years old, she paid an extended visit to Barbados, capturing her impressions of her cultural roots in a series of poems and, later, in such autobiographical short stories as “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” and her novel, Daughters.
“To Da-duh, in Memoriam” is considered one of Marshall’s most acclaimed short stories. Written in 1966, it clearly conveys her experiences on that first trip to Barbados. As Eugenia Collier explained in Black Women Writers, “We see a little girl discovering that her New York world is not her only world, that her roots in Barbados, which she is visiting for the first time, also define her and influence her in a way which she cannot see clearly and
Born Valenza Pauline Burke, April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Samuel and Ada (Clement) Burke; married Kenneth E. Marshall, 1957 (divorced, 1963); married Nourry Menard, 1970; children: (first marriage) Eran-Kelth. Education: Attended Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), 1948 and 1955; Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A. (cum laude), 1953.
Researcher and staff writer, Our World magazine; first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, published, 1959; lecturer on creative writing, Yale University, 1970—; lecturer on black literature at colleges and universities, including Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, lake Forrest College, and Cornell University.
Member: Phi Beta Kappa, Association of Artists for Freedom.
Awards: Guggenheim fellow, I960; Rosenthal Foundation award. National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1962, for Soul Clap Hands and Sing ; Ford Foundation grant, 1964-65; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1967-68; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, 1984, for Praisesong for the Widow.
Addresses: Home —407 Central Park West, New York, NY 10025.
also cannot escape.” Marshall uses contrasts between the little girl’s two worids as a way to image the child’s growing experience. For instance, Da-duh reveals her secret pine tree, which the girl contrasts to the Empire State Building. Both structures function as meaningful symbols of the two worlds the little girl now experiences and learns to integrate.
Dorothy Denniston noted in Callaloo that Marshall’s “artistic vision evolves in a clear progression as she moves, through her creations, from an American to an African-American/African-Caribbean and, finally, a Pan-African sensibility. Indeed, the chronological order of her publications suggests an underlying design to follow the ’middle passage’ in reverse. That is, she examines the experience of blacks not in transit from Africa to the New World, but from the New World toward Africa…. Throughout her fiction, Marshall is preoccupied with black cultural history, and she insists that African peoples take a ’journey back’ through time to understand the political, social, and economic structures upon which contemporary societies are based.”
Brown Girl, Brownstones sets the stage for Marshall’s preoccupation with the “journey back.” The novel is set in the Brooklyn Bajun community of Marshall’s own childhood, among immigrants like her parents and their friends who work hard, often cleaning houses, scrimping, and saving their money to “buy house” as a way to become fully adjusted to their adopted country. But the roots of the culture they create and perpetuate in the United States are firmly rooted in the Caribbean rituals and traditions that they left behind. The title of the novel represents the major conflict: “Brownstones” signifies the overriding desire of the community of her parents’ generation to assimilate into the white culture, while the “Brown Girl” is the young woman protagonist, Selena Boyce, who learns one of life’s first lessons, the integration of the self and community.
Selena’s parents represent two opposite responses to life in the New World. Her mother, Silla, is industrious, works hard in the Barbadian Association of her community, and yearns to own the brownstone that is the ultimate fulfillment of her dreams for herself and her family. In contrast, Selena’s father, Deighton, dreams of the tropical paradise of his youth. He stands outside the tightly-knit family and community group and is eventually alienated forever.
Selena learns many lessons throughout the course of the novel, among them her face-to-face confrontation with racism at the home of one of her white high school friends. At the novel’s conclusion, she understands what Collier believed to be one of the novel’s most important messages: “She is one with all the Black people of her world.” With this understanding, she can now leave her community and begin her travels, which will bring self-knowledge of another kind. Collier remarked that the novel’s final scene, which depicts Selena wandering through her neighborhood for the last time, allows the young woman to sense “physically the presence of all the people whose selves were a part of the creation of her self. She leaves something of her self behind and takes something of the place forever with her.”
Marshall was 30 years old when she finished writing Brown Girl, Brownstones. She had been attending Hunter College, married her first husband, Kenneth Marshall, and was a journalist for Our World, a small black periodical. She wrote the book during the evenings when she returned home from work. Marshall considered writing her first novel her “most exhilarating writing experience,” according to Collier, and understood herself as now “having to be a writer of fiction.”
The novel received positive reviews: Carol Field described it in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review as “unforgettable” and the “work of a highly gifted writer.” However, the book did not sell well. Christian believed it was because “publishing houses, journals, the literary establishment [were unable to see] the Bildungsroman of a black woman as havig as much human and literary value as, say, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers or James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Marshall’s travels to the Caribbean and South America as a journalist for Ou r World provided the setting for her next significant work, a collection of novellas called Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Taking its title from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” the collection is divided into four novellas: “Barbados,” “Brooklyn,” “British Guiana,” and “Brazil.” Each of the settings allows Marshall to examine “the complexities of race, nationality, and gender relationships,” noted Christian, “and in so doing traces the complexity of black cultures as they reshape themselves from North to South America.” Christian described the West Indies setting “as the pivotal landscape [Marshall] would use in her [future] work.”
Marshall published Soul Clap Hands and Sing in 1961. During this decade she divorced her first husband, noting, according to Essence contributor Alexis De Veaux, that he objected to her hiring a baby-sitter so that she could go and write in a friend’s apartment every day—even though he was proud of her writing. Christian believed that Marshall’s persistence in writing, “despite strains on her familial relationships… indicates her strong determination to be her own woman and to do what she needed to do.”
While raising her son, Marshall spent the 1960s writing three important short stories, 1962’s “Reena,” “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” published two years later, and “Some Get Wasted,” which she published in 1968. In addition, she drafted her second novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, which was published in 1969. Support from a Rosenthal Foundation award, a Ford Foundation grant, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship enabled Marshall to spend a good bit of time on her writing during the decade.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People was originally entitled “Ceremonies in the Guest House.” The work focuses on “one of the most pervasive problems of the contemporary world, neocolonialism, and about the reverberation of past actions in the present,” according to Christian. “It carefully explores the ways in which people’s relationships are critical to historical process,” the interaction between society and human choices.
Merle Kinbona, the novel’s protagonist, is considered one of Marshall’s most beloved characters. Having left her native Boumehills—a fictional Caribbean island—to study in London, marry an African, and bear a child, she gives up everything to return to Boumehills. In confronting her community’s history, Merle is able to make sense of her own personal history. The New York Times Book Review called The Chosen Place, The Timeless People “one of the four or five most impressive novels ever written by a black American.”
During the 1970s, MarshaD married Nourry Menard, a Haitian businessman, and alternated her time between the United States and the Caribbean. She has referred to her second marriage as “open and innovative.” Because of the scarcity of grants and fellowships during the 1970s, Marshall began teaching at various universities in the United States, including Columbia and Yale. She didn’t publish another novel in the seventies, but her earlier work began to generate interest in the academic community, causing the Feminist Press to reissue Brown Girl in 1981, release a paperback version of The Chosen Place in 1982, and publish her anthology Reena, and Other Short Stories in 1983.
Praisesong for the Widow, winner of the 1984 Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, has been called Marshall’s “most widely reviewed work.” Like Brown Girl, Brownstones, Praisesong charts a black woman’s search for self-identity. The main character, Avatar “Avey” Johnson, has achieved the American dream, but as Anne Tyler commented in the New York Times Book Review, “secure in her middle class life, her civil service job, her house full of crystal and silver, Avey has become sealed away from her true self.”
On a luxury cruise through the West Indies, however, Avey’s dreams recall a long-forgotten childhood memory and she journeys back to the island of her ancestors where she “undergoes a spiritual rebirth.” Christian viewed the journey back in “response to the call of her elders” as “an antidote, as a source of healing for the disease of materialism so rampant in this modem world.”
Marshall told interviewer Sylvia Baer in the Women’s Review of Books that the emotional center of her 1991 novel Daughters is a father-daughter relationship that resembles the relationship she had with her own father. “The father figure in Daughters is physically different from my father, or the work he does, or the places he lives. Yet in terms of his relationship with his daughter, that whole emotional nexus reflects feelings and emotions that I have had.” In Daughters, the central character, Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, has a traditional Marshall beginning—living in New York City, far removed from her childhood on the Caribbean island of Triunion, absorbed in typical American middle-class problems: education, career, a love affair. She dreads returning to Triunion for an obligatory visit, but does, and her visit, like that of so many of Marshall’s characters who “journey back,” disrupts the very fiber of her life and spirit.
Daughters derives its name from the four women who revolve around the powerful father-figure known as P.M. (Primus Mackenzie): Estelle Harrison, his wife and Ursa’s mother; Celestine, P.M. and Ursa’s Creole “nanny”; Astral Ford, his long-time mistress and manager of his resort; and Ursa herself. Sherley Anne Williams pointed out in Belles Lettres that the names of the four women “have to do with the heavens.” This is intentional, she believed, because the father, Primus, is the “’polestar’ around whom they all gravitate—the lover and father so large that his shoulders, in their eyes, blot out the sun.”
Many significant themes resound throughout the novel, including Marshall’s use of an abortion as a symbol of the need to “cut away those dependencies that can be so crippling.” Also, the theme of “daughters” itself is crucial, as it is in all of Marshall’s works. As Marshall told Baer, “The characters are all daughters who are in some way connected with the other, back to the slave woman who figures as a symbol in the novel.” The statues of slave woman Congo Jane and her lover, Will Cudjoe, are among Ursa’s earliest memories. Their recurrence throughout the novel links the immediate history of Ursa, her father, and the other women who nurture him back to a larger history of shared struggle and resistance.
Ultimately, the novel questions and probes the roles that black men and women play in each other’s lives. Marshall’s message is clear, claimed Carol Ascher in Women ’s Review of Books: “Although Daughters promises to be about the connections between generations of females, it strikes one more strongly as being about the variety of ties between African American men and women—between lovers, husband and wife, and even father and daughter.” When Ursa shows her best friend Viney the statues of Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe, she speaks the message that Marshall wishes to convey, the necessity to remember a time “when black men and women had it together, were together, stood together.” Susan Fromberg Schaeffer added in the New York Times Book Review that the moral imperative of the novel is “that to be human, one must be of use.”
“I realize that it is fashionable now to dismiss the traditional novel as something of an anachronism,” Marshall explained to De Veaux in Essence, “but to me it is still a vital form. Not only does it allow for the kind of full-blown, richly detailed writing that I love (I want the reader to see the people and places about which I am writing), but it permits me to operate on many levels and to explore both the inner state of my characters as well as the worlds beyond them.” Christian believed “it is this aesthetic that permeates the work of Paule Marshall…. At the heart of her work is the love of people, their speech, gestures, and thought which she expresses in her skillful and often tender characterizations. Underlying her aesthetic is a faith in the ability of human beings to transcend themselves, to change their condition, that is at the core of much Afro-American literature. Paule Marshall’s contribution to that tradition is not only her ability to render complex women characters within the context of equally complex societies but also her creation of worlds in which the necessity of actively confronting one’s personal and historical past is the foundation for a genuine revolutionary process.”
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Random House, 1959, The Feminist Press, 1981.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (novellas), Atheneum, 1961.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Harcourt, 1969.
Reena, and Other Short Stories, The Feminist Press, 1983, reprinted as Merle: A Novella, and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1985.
Praisesong for the Widow, Putnam, 1983.
Daughters, Atheneum, 1991.
Contributor to numerous periodicals and to anthologies, including The Woman That I Am: The Literature and Culture of Contemporary Women of Color, edited by D. Soyini Madison, St. Martin’s, 1994.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 2nd edition, 1994.
Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, edited by Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, Macmillan, 1972.
Busia, Abena P. A., “What Is Your Nation?: Reconnecting Africa and Her Diaspora through Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow,” in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 196–211.
Byerman, Keith E., “Gender, Culture, and Identity in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones,” in Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women’s Fiction: An Essay Collection, edited by Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall, Garland, 1991, pp. 135–47.
Christian, Barbara, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976, Greenwood, 1980.
Christian, Barbara, “Paule Marshall,” in African American Writers, edited by Valerie Smith, Scribner’s, 1991, pp. 289–304.
Christian, Barbara, “Paule Marshall: A Literary Biography (1982),” in Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 103–117.
Christian, Barbara, “Ritualistic Process and the Structure of Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983),” in Black Feminist Criticism, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 149–158.
Christian, Barbara, “Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women’s Fiction,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 233–248.
Collier, Eugenia, “The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 295–315.
Denniston, Dorothy, “Paule Marshall,” in Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume 2, edited by Paul Lauter and others, Heath, 1990, pp. 1969–71.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Gale, 1984.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn, “Paule Marshall’s Witness to History,” in Claiming the Heritage: African American Women Novelists and History, University Press of Mississippi, 1991, pp. 68–89.
McCluskey, John, Jr., “And Called Every Generation Blessed: Theme, Setting, and Ritual in the Works of Paule Marshall,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 316–334.
Russell, Sandi, Render Me My Song: African American Women Writers From Slavery to the Present, St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Spillers, Hortense J., “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 151–175.
Willis, Susan, “Describing Arcs of Recovery: Paule Marshall’s Relationship to Afro-American Culture,” in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 53–82.
Belles Lettres, winter 1991–92, pp. 2–4.
Black World, August 1974, pp. 10–18.
Callaloo, spring/summer 1983, pp. 31–45, 57–67, 74–84.
CLA Journal, September 1972, pp. 49–71.
Essence, May 1979, p. 70; May 1980, pp. 123–34.
Journal of Black Studies, December 1970, pp. 225–38.
Negro American Literature Forum, fall 1975, pp. 67–76.
New American Literature Forum, fall 1975, pp. 67–70.
New Letters, autumn 1973, pp. 116–31.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 16, 1959, p. 5.
New York Post, December 6, 1969.
New York Times Book Review, October 1, 1961; November 30, 1969, p. 24; January 9, 1983, p. 3; February 20, 1983, p. 7; October 27, 1991, p. 3.
Novel: A Forum on Fiction, winter 1974, pp. 159–67.
Obsidian: Black Literature in Review, summer/winter 1982, pp. 57–67.
Obsidian II: Black Literature in Review, winter 1986, pp. 119–29.
Tribune Books (Chicago), October 6, 1991, p. 3.
Village Voice, October 8, 1970, pp. 6–8.
Women’s Review of Books, July 1991, pp. 24–25; November 1991, p. 7.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
Marshall, Paule 1929–
Paule Marshall 1929-
(Born Valenza Pauline Burke) American novelist and short story writer.
For additional information on Marshall's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
Regarded as a major voice in contemporary American literature, Marshall is recognized as one of the first authors to explore the psychological trials and concerns of black American women. Drawing upon her experiences as a black woman of Barbadian heritage, she embodies the cultural dichotomy that provides the major tensions in her fiction. Although her writing deals primarily with black and feminist issues, critics note that the power and importance of her work transcends color and sexual barriers and speaks to all individuals.
Marshall was born in 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, to Barbadian parents. As a young girl, she was profoundly influenced by the conversations she overheard between her mother and the other women of Brooklyn's Barbadian community. The power these women wielded with their words, their sharp character analyses, and the poetic rhythms of their Barbadian dialect instilled in Marshall a desire to capture some of this "magic" on paper. However, it was only after reading a volume of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar that Marshall realized that a literary forum existed which, in her own words, "validated the black experience"; she then began to seek out the work of such African American writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ralph Ellison. After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1953, Marshall began working as a researcher for a small magazine, Our World. She was soon promoted to staff writer and sent to Brazil and the Caribbean on assignments; she would later draw upon these experiences in her fiction. In 1959 Marshall embarked upon her career as a novelist with the publication of Brown Girl, Brownstones, a work that was commercially unviable, but proved to be a critical success. Her subsequent books earned her a larger reading audience. She has received several awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a McArthur Fellowship in 1992. In addition, Marshall has taught creative writing courses at Yale University, Columbia University, the University of Iowa, and the University of California at Berkeley. She resides alternately in the United States and in Africa.
Marshall's first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, is a frank depiction of a young black girl's search for identity and of her increasing sexual awareness. Autobiographical in tone, the story is about Brooklyn-born Selina, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants Silla and Deighton. When Selina's charming father, Deighton, inherits some island land, he wants to return there and build a home; her ambitious mother, Silla, however, wants to sell the land and use the money to purchase the family's rented brownstone. The marital conflict that follows forces Selina to reassess her own identity and consider her own future. Although critics often dis- cuss Brown Girl, Brownstones as a female bildungsroman detailing Selina's physical and emotional growth, the novel also chronicles Silla's confrontations with her spendthrift husband as she tries to become assimilated to American culture and, as the owner of a brownstone house, a participant in the American dream.
Comprised of explorations of psychological struggle and enlightenment, the stories in Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), Marshall's next work, deal with aging men who are forced to come to terms with their emotional and spiritual decline. In her second novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), Marshall explored issues of group and individual identity. Saul Amron, a Jewish American anthropologist, becomes embroiled in the political struggles of a primitive agricultural community on the West Indian island of Bournehills. Critics have noted that Saul's position is ironic because although he is a representative of the white patriarchy, he is also, as a Jew, a member of a group that historically has been the victim of prejudice. Often considered Marshall's most political novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People has been praised for examining the problems facing many Third World countries in their struggle to establish a national identity. In Reena and Other Stories (1983), republished as Merle (1984), Marshall again focused on women's attempts to overcome sexual and racial discrimination and on the difficulties women face in personal relationships.
Marshall's best-known novel, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), treats themes of acculturation and identity. Avatar (Avey) Johnson is a successful widow who has lost touch with her West Indian-African American roots. While on her annual luxury cruise through the West Indies, Avey has disturbing dreams and decides to leave the cruise and fly home. While stranded and waiting for a flight, she meets a local shopkeeper on the island of Grenada and begins a life-changing spiritual journey. Praisesong for the Widow was a commercial and critical success and garnered an American Book Award in 1984. Written from a female perspective, Marshall's novel Daughters (1991) chronicles a daughter's struggle to address her ambivalent feelings about her domineering father. When Ursa-Bea MacKenzie, a West Indian native living in New York City, returns home to participate in her father's reelection campaign for prime minister, she realizes the depths of his machinations and sabotages his campaign. Marshall's 2000 novel, The Fisher King, also explores issues of family, heritage, displacement, and identity. The narrative follows the multigenerational story of two American families torn apart by conflict. After Sonny-Rett and Cherisse marry and abandon their classical music careers to become jazz musicians in Paris, their families blame each other. Only when Sonny-Rett and Cherisse's grandson, Sonny, comes back to Brooklyn years later does the rift begin to heal.
Marshall is regarded as one of the leading American authors writing about the African diasporic experience. Reviewers praise her artistry, particularly her complex characters, fluid narrative style, and sense of humor and irony. They also commend her finely crafted language and skillful rendering of West Indian dialect. Exploring themes of assimilation, alienation, displacement, family and cultural ties, and collective and individual identity, Marshall is viewed by commentators as an authentic voice that concentrates on the struggle of women to deal with gender, family, and cultural roles and maintain a healthy sense of self in a demanding and confusing world. Critics point out the diversity of female characters in her work and laud her ability to create a wide canvas of compelling and complex women in her fiction. Autobiographical aspects of her work are also a recurring topic for commentators, with many noting that her own recognition and celebration of her West Indian heritage and resultant spiritual journey parallels the stories of several of her characters. Critics concur that her insightful explorations of the complexities and challenges of the diasporic experience provide a valuable contribution to American literature.
Brown Girl, Brownstones (novel) 1959
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (short stories) 1961
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (novel) 1969
Praisesong for the Widow (novel) 1983
Reena and Other Stories (short stories) 1983; also published as Merle: A Novella and Other Stories, 1984
Daughters (novel) 1991
Language Is the Only Homeland: Bajan Poets Abroad (nonfiction) 1995
The Fisher King (novel) 2000
Joyce Pettis (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Pettis, Joyce. Introduction to Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction, pp. 1-8. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
[In the following essay, Pettis notes that the idea of a journey is a unifying motif in Marshall's literary oeuvre, contending that "the most significant travel establishescultural connections among people of the African diaspora and advances the traveler from spiritual morbundity to spiritual reclamation."]
Progression, momentum, and culmination form the concept of a journey and are useful in thinking about Paule Marshall's fiction. Journeys are significant for many characters in Brown Girl, Brownstones ; Soul Clap Hands and Sing ; The Chosen Place, the Timeless People ; Praisesong for the Widow ; and Daughters. The most significant travel establishes cultural connections among people of the African diaspora and advances the traveler from spiritual moribundity to spiritual reclamation. Through multidimensional characters and situations in the United States and the Caribbean, each work reproduces patterns of race, gender, and class along with other forces that fracture the psyche. Marshall uses the journey motif to communicate the necessity of movement away from the debilitation caused by fracturing. Her characters travel, literally and metaphorically, but only one of them reaches the desired destination at the novel's end. In Praisesong, Avatara Johnson, an elderly widow, finally reaches the goal toward which Marshall's fiction has journeyed for twenty-four years. It is a small island named Carriacou, where remnants of West Africa are remembered and form an active part of the islanders' customs. It is where spiritual reintegration occurs. This book [Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction] will examine Marshall's canon as her provocative passage to culmination, where psychic transformation becomes possible.
Daughters confirms that the spiritual journey of Avatara Johnson in Praisesong brings closure to a particular vision that has animated Marshall's work. Although fragmented characters exist in this novel, its focus shifts away from their spiritual recovery. Its psychically centered characters are not limited to those spiritually whole ancestors who appear in earlier novels. Daughters is nonetheless a significant part of this work because it continues to explore the consequences of colonialism in the Caribbean, the intersections of race, gender, and class, and the behavior of psychically whole characters as positive agents of community.
The fractured psyche, defined and discussed in chapter 1 [of Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction], identifies a motif that, like the journey, has constituted a primary concept in Marshall's work. The presence of the fractured psyche has increased the richness and multidimensionality of the experiences she chronicles and has helped to anchor her work historically. Her inclusive fiction incorporates subjects such as men and women in urban and rural labor forces, the individual and the community, immigrants and assimilation in adopted countries, and conflicts between illusion and reality. Her work offers insight into personal relations, including those between husbands and wives, same-sex friends, mothers and daughters, and fathers and daughters.1 These relationships are complicated by fracturing, particularly in the areas of individual and cultural identity, individual and cultural alienation, and spiritual moribundity.
The journey motif complements and enhances the geographic sweep of Marshall's fiction and becomes crucial in the reciprocity between her texts and the cultures represented in them.2 The West Indians in Brown Girl are immigrants from Barbados; an American research team in The Chosen Place relocates to the fictional island of Bourne; the Afro-Caribbean protagonist Merle Kinbona immigrates to London for her college education and many years later plans to travel to East Africa; the Connecticut-born Estelle establishes her life on the Caribbean island of Triunion and sends her Triunion-born daughter to Connecticut during her adolescence; Avatara's vacation cruise from New York places her in Grenada and Carriacou. The novellas of Soul Clap Hands and Sing are set in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. This geographic sweep is central to Marshall's fiction in emphasizing the widespread nature of fracturing that originated with a displaced West African population during the slave trade.3
The Chosen Place expands in scope to include an exploration of the fates of the white descendants of traders. Are these people, whose economic and class position was secured through the purchase and sale of Africans and related import and export industries, ignorant about or unscarred by that history? How might they redeem themselves, although they had no direct role in the accretion of their wealth and inherited power? Through Harriet Amron, a WASP from New England whose inheritance originated with profits from the trade, Marshall depicts an angle that is often underrepresented. As a member of the research team traveling to Bourne Island, Harriet personally journeys back, but she arrives at an impasse between the personal and historical.
Marshall stated that in designing The Chosen Place, she wanted "to have a kind of vehicle that looked at the relationship of the West to the rest of us. So I hoped that the novel would not solely be seen as a novel about the West Indies, even though it's set there, but a novel that reflects what is happening to all of us in the Diaspora in our encounter with these metropolitan powers, the power of Europe and the power of America."4 Using character, ritual, and symbols of technology, Bourne Island becomes one of many places in Marshall's canon where she dissects intricate relationships that produce fracturing. The diversity of this topo- graphic representation underscores Marshall's commitment to education about the African diaspora and her acknowledgment of a worldwide black community of African descendants.5 Although she does not situate characters in West Africa, its presence hovers as the origin of cultural identity.
This book is structured to follow Marshall's movement toward spiritual wholeness. Fragmentation is located in the historical experiences of black people of the African diaspora, and the fractured psyche is defined as the rending and mutilation of human spirit, a process that represents an unavoidable consequence of traumatic cultural displacement. The continuing presence of the fractured psyche indicates progressive alienation in a culture hostile to African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. This perpetual conflict originates in the difference between European cosmological systems and African systems. The social reality for descendants of West Africans in the United States and the Caribbean, defined by European cosmology, privileges qualities that are alien to an African cultural orientation.
Evidence of fracturing and alienation that can be linked to opposition between Eurocentric culture and African-derived culture is supported by the research of numerous psychologists who work from an Afrocentric perspective. The work of Na'im Akbar and Joseph A. Baldwin underpins cultural analysis of Marshall's fractured men and women in conflict with their social reality. Akbar's and Baldwin's research, discussed in chapter 1, also verifies the consequences of these problems. This volume also cites the work of Gerald Gregory Jackson, who links evidence of fracturing with cultural differences between Africans and Europeans. Robert Blauner's study of differences between immigrants and colonized people lends credibility to the discussion of the sociocultural results of displacement and bondage.
Several words describe the ideal postfractured state—spiritual wholeness, regeneration, reintegration, and reclamation. All of these terms speak to the restoration of wholeness, which means that the spirit is gathered up, healed, and revealed unto itself (see chapters 1 and 4). Marshall's trilogy—Brown Girl, The Chosen Place, and Praisesong —is discrete not only in its trajectory toward this ideal but also in its location of the healing within the black cultural and communal matrix. The emphasis on Marshall's progressive thematic vision is substantiated by the female protagonists in her trilogy. The journey is instrumental to all of them, but in the first two books the protagonists only stand poised for their most significant travel at the conclusion of the text. Not until Avatara Johnson's extensive literal and metaphorical travels in Praisesong does Marshall culminate journeying with embracing one's cultural origins and healing a fractured psyche. Spiritual wholeness is finally attained.
Spiritual wholeness, reintegration, reclamation, and spirituality are used interchangeably in this discussion to designate the desirable end of a splintered psyche. The term spirituality is employed in its West African cultural sense as an embodiment of dynamic energy separate from the physical body but essential to its well-being, both physically and emotionally. Spirituality is acknowledged by psychologists and others who study traditional African culture. In chapter 1 [of Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction], the research of Linda James Myers and Dominique Zahan confirms intellectually that spirituality is a dynamic entity in the experience of descendants of Africans. Margaret Washington Creel links spirituality with the African worldview, writing that it "affected one's whole system of being, embracing the consciousness, social interactions, and attitudes, fears and dispositions of the community at large" (72). The significance of the term spiritual wholeness within this context justifies its appropriation as the desired goal in the journeys undertaken in Marshall's fiction.
Several theoretical perspectives shape my reading of the novels discussed here. I am primarily indebted to black feminist practice and feminist literary theory. The historical and cultural resources that invigorate my readings of Marshall's fiction—my contextual focus, in other words—reflects Deborah McDowell's idea that a study of black women's literature should "expose the conditions under which literature is produced, published, and reviewed." This procedure is "not only useful but necessary to Black feminist critics" ("New Directions," 192). Establishing the cultural context and identifying the forces that shape the existence of black men and women is an essential step in their representation in criticism. Paula Giddings's When and Where I Enter, Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought, Jacqueline Jones's Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Deborah K. King's "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness," and Bonnie Thornton Dill's essays all prove vital in sustaining a black feminist perspective and in incorporating historical and sociological findings to inform literary analysis. Just as important, these studies were instrumental in furthering the identification of race, gender, and class inequities. Because significant parts of this book emphasize black workers as exploited and therefore fractured, Marxist feminist criticism also offers viable ways of interpreting the relationship between labor and exploitation and of drawing conclusions about the state of the psyche in that connection. Josephine Donovan's Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism provides useful insights into Marxist feminist ideology.
Marshall's status in American literature constitutes an underlying motivation for this book. Scholars of African-American and Afro-Caribbean literature, avid readers of these works, and many contemporary American novelists consider her among the premier American writers. Her work is taught internationally. Nevertheless, significant numbers of Americans knowledgeable about literature remain ignorant of Marshall. Consequently, this volume seeks to increase her much-deserved visibility to a multicultural audience. In the afterword to Brown Girl, Brownstones, Mary Helen Washington wrote that "just now—in the 1980s—[Marshall is] being discovered," although by that time she had authored three major books (323). Since 1981, Marshall has published two more substantial novels, and black women's fiction has received increased critical attention, some of which has been directed at Marshall's sustained and serious work. Based on her inclusion in theses and dissertations and in chapters in book-length critical studies, particularly those whose terrain includes the diaspora, interest in her work is accelerating. Daughters has perhaps introduced her to another audience, both through television appearances—where Marshall talked about her work—and through its publication during a period of lively interest in fiction by black women. Most significantly, receiving the prestigious MacArthur Award in 1992 has certainly enhanced her status in American letters.
Marshall's membership in both the Afro-Caribbean and African-American communities appreciably widens her audience. Carol Davies, Daryl Dance, and Edward Brathwaite, all cited in chapter 1, are among those who claim her cross-culturally. Brathwaite, in fact, cites The Chosen Place as "a significant contribution to the literature of the West Indies" and praises its scope and value ("Rehabilitations," 126).
One means of evaluating Marshall's status in the tradition of African-American letters is to view her fiction in relation to her fellow writers. Therefore, this book will juxtapose Marshall's work with the fiction of other women writers and discuss its articulation within a women's literary tradition. The authors with whom she is compared include Pauline Hopkins, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston (representing an early tradition in black women's fiction) and Ann Petry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kristin Hunter, Sarah Wright, and Toni Morrison (evoking later style). Although several themes, images, and situations in the fiction of these writers mesh with Marshall's work, her distinction among them is established through the unity of her measured tread toward psychic reintegration and through her inclusion of the African diaspora. This comparative assessment is essential to a claim for enhancing Marshall's status in American and African-American letters.
Although Marshall's vision of spiritual wholeness serves as the unifying entity of her work, her fiction is neither parochial nor myopic. Thus, this book deliberately avoids analyzing her fiction chronologically and follows instead a topical approach.
Chapter 1 establishes the perspective for an investigation of the fractured psyche in Marshall's fiction, notes the phenomenon's presence in the work of other writers, and points out Marshall's distinctiveness in her development of it. Relevant biographical and literary connections are established because they underscore pertinent diasporic connections in the novels. Her position among women writers in African-American literary tradition is also discussed.
Chapter 2 has its basis in the initial disruption of African communities. Community as a vital entity in the experiences of black people is equally important in Marshall's fiction. Where people group themselves, how they identify with the land in Third World settings, and how they manage their survival in merciless urban cities is connected with the well-being of the psyche. Marshall's characters identify certain spaces as psychological havens; that is, the seclusion and psychocultural safety of the setting outweighs its physicality. The chapter also examines configurations of ritual, legacy, history, and survival in the community in The Chosen Place and explores the relationship among geography, cultural dislocation, and survival by juxtaposing First and Third World communities in Daughters.
Gender, race, and class comprise a dynamic that is often underestimated in its power to perpetuate psychic fracturing. Chapter 3 analyzes the workings of these forces in Marshall's fiction. The alienated men in Soul Clap Hands and Sing function as early examples of different kinds of fracturing and the subsequent failure of survival. One section identifies selected images of capitalism and discusses the threat posed to the psyche in the world of work. Merle Kinbona's psychic stabilization through the culturally rich practice of talk, an art in black communities, revealingly counters the failed men of Soul Clap Hands. Situating Merle's recovery in a community-based behavior is an important precursor to the role of community and heritage in achieving spiritual wholeness.
Chapter 4 explores the attaining of spiritual wholeness in Praisesong, the culmination of a particular vision that compelled Marshall's fiction beginning in the mid-1950s. The first section compares her development of materialism and labor with that of other black women writers who have depicted the destructiveness of materialism and of race, gender, and class but have not envisioned a means of salvaging the fractured psyche. The chapter also analyzes the role of elders or ancestors—Aunt Cuney and Lebert Joseph in Praisesong, Miss Thompson in Brown Girl, and Leesy in The Chosen Place —exponents of psychic wholeness in Marshall's fiction. Spiritual wholeness may replace fracturing when the character reclaims self from the killing impulses of capitalism-materialism and consciously participates in redefining them; when suspicion and misplaced ethnocentrism among displaced people of African descent are replaced by the acknowledgment of cultural connectedness, regardless of physical domicile; and when myth and ritual become privileged rather than suspect.
The last chapter focuses on Marshall's most recent novel, Daughters. This chapter continues a discussion begun in chapter 2 in which black male and female partnership is posited as essential to salvaging and preserving the community. Sons of the community are tractable in Caribbean neocolonialist and American postslavery games of political domination. Daughters are more likely to have attained spirituality and are also more likely to return their service to the community. Several female characters in Daughters demonstrate characteristics of wholeness and thus move beyond its quest. This chapter analyzes their involvement in community and their personal lives in light of that accomplishment.
1. See, for example, Leela Kapai, "Dominant Themes and Techniques in Paule Marshall's Fiction," CLA Journal 26 (1972): 49-59; Marcia Keizs, "Themes and Styles in the Works of Paule Marshall," Negro American Literature Forum 9 (1975): 67, 71-75; and Kimberly W. Benston, "Architectural Imagery and Unity in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones," Negro American Literature Forum 9 (1975): 67-70.
2. In the section on Marshall in Black Women Novelists, Barbara Christian subordinates the characters of The Chosen Place to the culture of Bournehills. She further equates the concept of time, both fluid and static, with the people and their culture, all rhythmically bound together (104-8).
3. In There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (New York: Vintage, 1983), Vincent Harding points out the euphemistic employment of the term "the Trade" to encapsulate the business of flesh stealing and selling in specific ports "from the Guinea coast to Barbados and Jamaica, to Charleston and Norfolk" (8).
4. Pettis, 123-24. Although Jean Carey Bond's review of The Chosen Place praises several features of the novel, it ignores the convergence of diaspora communities as one of the novel's primary components. Marshall's studied attention to communities of African descendants and her references to other displaced and exploited people connected by history and legacy are strangely omitted among a generally favorable review. See "Allegorical Novel by Talented Storyteller," Freedomways 10 (1970): 76-78.
5. See Joseph E. Holloway, ed., Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990). Margaret Washington Creel's essay, "Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death" offers particularly pertinent information concerning community and spirituality that is reflected in Marshall's fiction and is useful for a conceptual analysis of Praisesong and The Chosen People.
Brathwaite, Edward. "Rehabilitations: West Indian History and Society in the Art of Paule Marshall's Novel." Caribbean Studies 10 (1970): 125-34.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980.
Creel, Margaret Washington. "Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death." In Africanisms in American Culture, ed. Joseph E. Holloway, 69-97. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990.
McDowell, Deborah. "New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism." In Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter, 186-99. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Pettis, Joyce. "A MELUS Interview: Paule Marshall." MELUS 17 (1992): 117-30.
Washington, Mary Helen. Afterword to Brown Girl, Brownstones, by Paule Marshall. 1959; New York: Feminist Press, 1981.
Adele S. Newson-Horst (review date summer/autumn 2001)
SOURCE: Newson-Horst, Adele S. Review of The Fisher King, by Paule Marshall. World Literature Today 75, no. 3/4 (summer/autumn 2001): 148.
[In the review that follows, Newson-Horst offers a laudatory assessment of The Fisher King.]
Paule Marshall's fifth novel is a wonderful rendering of the African diaspora (from Brooklyn to Paris) in its many complexities. Set against the backdrop of a triangular relationship, The Fisher King at once celebrates and delineates the nuances of diaspora interactions—a reality perhaps best captured by the musical form of jazz. The work exceeds the scope of the novel of development, the novel of exile, as well as the novel of the émigrée to reach a new height in diaspora writings. Sketching both petty warfare and cultural innovations, it tells the story of a man who is able to capture the soul of his listeners with his new music.
Hattie Carmichael, a city girl, placed in foster care in a central Brooklyn neighborhood, proves to be the base of the triangle that holds together the lives and later the memories of Everett Carlyle Payne (a.k.a. Sonny-Rett Payne) and Cherisse McCullum Payne for a now-interested world. Described as the "motherfathersisterbrother" of the grandson of the couple, in the present (early spring 1984), Hattie raises Sonny (named for his grandfather) in Paris, where African vendors do not accost her, having dubbed her "une Américaine noire. A non-believer."
Lured back to America to attend a concert which commemorates the fifteenth anniversary of Sonny-Rett's death and celebrates his music, Hattie takes the eight-year-old Sonny to Brooklyn for a two-week visit. An African American-West Indian feud is personified in the form of the maternal and paternal grandmothers. Both live on Macon Street, the venue of grand brownstones, many of which are currently being renovated by Edgar DeC Payne and his Three R's Housing Group of Central Brooklyn (Reclamation, Restoration, Rebirth). Sonny's brother Edgar is the architect of the concert and, significantly, a man who recognizes "Nothing's pure. Nothing's wholly selfless"; his success is, in part, an understanding that "sometimes shaking hands with the right folks" and a plastered smile "can make a big difference in this life."
From the first of the seventeen chapters, the petty feud between the American family of Cherisse McCullum and the West Indian family of Everett Payne is foregrounded, a dilemma of the diaspora person. Florence Varina McCullum-Jones comes from a Southern family which at the time of Reconstruction could boast landownership in Varina, Georgia and economic success. Compelled to leave due to racist threats, her father relocated his family and the seed of a magnolia tree to Brooklyn. Hers, then, is a genteel, rooted American family. Yet her disdain of her neighbors, the West Indian families, is disturbing.
Ulene Agatha Cummings is an emigrant from a village in the West Indies. She travels to America after the first "white people war finish" and prides herself on her ability to "cut and contrive," something she perceives the other American grandmother is unable to do. The mother of both Edgar and Sonny-Rett, she raises the latter to be a concert pianist who would one day play at Carnegie Hall. When he makes his foray into jazz and marries Florence Varina's daughter (Cherisse), then moves to Paris never to return, her heart is both broken and hardened.
The child wishes to alienate neither of his proud and willful great-grandmothers. Ulene is the emigrant; Florence Varina is the migrant, and the child the personification of the diaspora element which might effect the healing. He too, like his grandfather, is an artist in his own right. His sketches of castles in which he situates himself as a guard posted on the outside to protect his grandfather on the inside are quite compelling.
In his youth, Sonny (the grandfather) was persecuted for his inclinations and preoccupations concerning jazz. Ulene applied the whip regularly, yet he "never uttered a word, never cried, never begged her to stop." He found understanding in Hattie, who at the time was an employee at a local record store. She kept him informed of the latest trends in music, and later she became the perfect audience and trusted critic. The author's account of how Sonny-Rett won both his name and the beginning of his fame is reminiscent of James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues":
Everett Payne took his time paying his respects to the tune as written, and once that was done, he hunched closer to the piano, angled his head sharply to the left, completely closed the curtain of his gaze, and with his hands commanding the length and breadth of the keyboard he unleashed a dazzling pyrotechnic of chords (you could almost see their colors), polyrhythms, seemingly unrelated harmonies, and ideas—fresh, brash, outrageous ideas. It was an outpouring of ideas and feelings informed by his own brand of lyricism and lit from time to time by flashes of the recognizable melody. He continued to acknowledge the little simpleminded tune, while at the same time furiously recasting and reinventing it in an image all his own.
Marshall's novel is a national treasure as much as the musical form it employs to tell the story of the diaspora. Like Florence Varina's assessment of her great-grandson, the novel has "some of all of us in [it]." The epigraph at the start of each chapter brilliantly provides the marker for character, diaspora character types, and a larger sense of the neighborhood, "the timeless, familiar vocabulary of around the block." The novel functions as a metaphor for a larger African hyphenated community in which people are measured by how neighborly they can actually be and families aren't always a function of direct blood lines.
Beverly A. Johnson (lecture date November 2001)
SOURCE: Johnson, Beverly A. "Revolutionary Solutions: Challenging Colonialist Attitudes in the Works of Paule Marshall." CLA Journal 45, no. 4 (June 2002): 460-76.
[In the essay below, originally presented as a lecture in November 2001, Johnson investigates how charactersin Marshall's literary works challenge colonialist attitudes and work to solve conflicts.]
Paule Marshall is an author who is adept at understanding and illustrating the complexities of life in particular for young and older female characters within novels such as Brown Girl, Brownstones ; The Chosen Place, The Timeless People ; and Daughters. 1 Many of her characters are confronted with the challenge of resisting gender-, ethnic-, and immigrant-based categories that restrict or limit ways in which they can define and redefine their lives. Scholarly attention certainly has been given to her characters' sense of historical awareness and internal development of self that attempt at the very least to resist colonialist patterns of being. More recent scholarly attention has focused on Marshall's female protagonists from the standpoint of exposing the concerns of identity from individualist and group perspectives while reemphasizing a spiritually oriented past as a guide of understanding and progressing in the future.2 However, several critics also point out that Marshall's works are effective in exposing relevant conflicts that exist in efforts to merge themes of identity and ethnicity. Yet critics are keen on emphasizing that the attempt to merge both themes tend to remain unresolved. Martin Japtok, for example, asserts in his study of Marshall's first novel how protagonist Selina Boyce's journey to self-discovery is hindered by a need to merge both her individual and group identity.3 In addition, a critical essay by Gavin Jones acknowledges Marshall's use of sea imagery as a "constantly shifting quality" that can aid in understanding Selina Boyce's ambivalence in her search for wholeness and self-discovery.4 Scholar Moira Ferguson's analysis of Marshall's novel Daughters provides one of the most striking discussions in identity in that it positions Marshall's female protagonist and main female characters ultimately as leaders with ancestral "star" powers.5 The characters' journeys, according to Ferguson, lead them to better paths of exploring awareness of self through political and social resistance to discrimination and inequality.6 Ferguson's assertion that Ursa Mackenzie (by the novel's conclusion) takes on a similar role as Congo Jane and thus becomes a leader in her own right is a message that can be applicable to some extent to Marshall's protagonists Selina Boyce and Merle Kinbona.7 With these critical perspectives in mind, I believe that an analysis of how select works of Marshall not only address but also challenge colonialist attitudes with revolutionary solutions is quite relevant to the contribution of scholarly materials that currently exist. This essay therefore explores how select protagonists are effective in conveying strategies to move toward solving rather than simply exposing existing conflicts.
One similar idea present in Marshall's works Brown Girl, Brownstones ; The Chosen Place, The Timeless People ; and Daughters is that the actions of each protagonist can be understood from a global rather than a national context. The protagonists in these novels are therefore equipped with methods to resist colonialist mentalities that are designed to stifle rather than promote self-awareness in both Caribbean and American societies. Yet protagonists such as Selina Boyce, Merle Kinbona, and Ursa Mackenzie face many conflicts throughout their present journeys, confront their pasts intentionally, and create better opportunities for themselves before the novels' conclusions in spite of the colonialist attitudes that on the surface tend to be dominant forces in their lives. One of the most resourceful methods of understanding how these protagonists ultimately create these better opportunities for themselves—by resisting a colonialist mentality—is through an appropriate ideology that establishes three essential steps designed to challenge the core belief systems of individuals or groups. Thus, political critic Stephen Carter's essay "The Insufficiency of Honesty" provides a rather insightful approach to viewing integrity rather than honesty as a more valued weapon of resistance based on the following standpoints: (1) being able to determine what is right and wrong, (2) acting on what one discerns even at personal cost, and (3) admitting openly that one is acting on his or her understanding of right and wrong.8 In using Carter's approach as a framework,9 we can see that Marshall's female protagonists promote revolutionary solutions on three distinct levels. First, Marshall advocates through her protagonists a sense of morality that emphasizes the need to have and to act with integrity rather than simple honesty. Second, Marshall's protagonists target solutions that will allow them to claim or reclaim a stronger sense of self-identity. Third, the actions of these protagonists indicate that people can reject or, at the very least, control their desire for power that in most cases provides only a false sense of temporary gratification. Selina Boyce, Merle Kinbona, and Ursa Mackenzie represent women of color who choose to discover revolutionary solutions not just to survive but to gain some measure of contentment out of the awareness of controlling their lives in spite of colonialist efforts designed to deny them the opportunities to do so in their environments.
Since Marshall's novels are keen on emphasizing one's values and belief systems rather than a simplistic view of external behaviors and actions, I believe it is necessary to discuss each protagonist through an examination of the ways each one incorporates integrity in her life rather than assert simple honesty, particularly while she is in the midst of major conflicts. The utilization of Carter's steps are viable in efforts to understand how these three protagonists move toward revolutionary solutions in their resistance to colonialist attitudes presented during the course of their personal development within Marshall's works.
Selina Boyce (Brown Girl, Brownstones)
Selina Boyce is the youngest of Marshall's protagonists whose personal growth and experiences provide readers with a keen vision of revolutionary solutions that challenge colonialist mentalities. Her solutions are twofold in conveying that one must have integrity rather than honesty in order to validate any choice or decision, and redefining power on one's own accord can allow her inner spirit to control and shape her external life: one that is easily exposed to colonialist values. One dominant way to view how Selina Boyce incorporates Carter's approach in moving from fake honesty to a strong sense of integrity is through exploring the relationship she has with her mother, Silla Boyce.10 For it is through this conflicting relationship that Selina not only develops integrity on levels to resist colonialist mentalities but also makes the effort to move Silla in this direction as well. Gavin Jones highlights the fact that much of the criticism of Selina's character is categorized as a personal development story or one that highlights the conflicts of the black experience from a Bajan immigrant's familial perspective. Yet while Jones goes much further in his analysis to emphasize the real challenge of defining oneself with "frequently conflicting definitions," his perspectives can be expanded to reveal not only an exposure of the problems but also to include the solutions to colonialist attitudes indicative of Selina Boyce's internal spirit and external choices.11
In a general sense, Marshall's first novel begins with her protagonist understanding on a very basic level that her parents' ideals and identities for their children are vastly different. Deighton Boyce's ideal family environment is on the island of Barbados while Silla Boyce wants to achieve some measure of the American Dream by "buying [a] house" in Brooklyn. Yet at the novel's beginning young Selina is not afraid to voice her opinions based on her sense of right and wrong. She believes at this time that her father has a right to at least imagine a different life for his family while also strongly believing that her mother's memories, which detailed a life of suffering, deserve a respectful audience (Marshall, Brown Girl 45-46). Thus, in Book One, a-ten-year-old Selina honestly states to her mother that she has taken the father's position in being pleased with having land in Barbados. After Silla describes her poignant struggles in life as a young child and teenager growing up in Birmshire, she expects Selina to change her perspective about the place, yet Selina reasserts, "I still think I'd like it" (46). This is one of the initial signs that Selina is moving forward in gaining a sense of integrity that will enable her to resist colonialist attitudes. Equally significant is the mother's response at the end of Book One that foreshadows Selina's move toward integrity in contrast to the mother's lack of integrity during the course of the novel. Silla's comment, "Look how I has gone and brought something into this world to whip me" (47), can be interpreted not so much as to show the distance between Silla and Selina but to suggest that Silla as a mother can learn as much from her daughter's honesty as her daughter can learn from her mother's honest intentions.
In Books Two and Three—entitled "Pastorale" and "The War," respectively—Selina slowly understands that honesty cannot substitute for integrity based on the outcome of the dominant familial conflict. Viewing her mother as morally wrong for wanting to take Deighton's land, Selina decides to tell everyone who she believes can help stop the mother's act. Although her actions are to some degree in vain, she has attempted what Carter suggests are the three steps needed to establish integrity.12 First, she clearly discerns who is right and wrong by believing the mother has no right to sell her husband's property (94). Secondly, she voices and acts on her beliefs even at personal cost by disregarding Miss Thompson's warning that her parents' issues do not concern her (94). Thirdly, she verbally confronts her mother at the factory site (95-101). During this time, Marshall positions the protagonist to challenge the mother's materialism through their brief debate about money and love. Although skeptically and in opposition to her mother, Selina establishes an early belief that the internal values of love and freedom are more important than industrialized, materialistic values of mainstream society that Silla tries to instill in her (103-04). These values for Selina become more sustainable by the novel's conclusion.
By the end of "The War" Selina and her sister Ina observe a mother who develops what Carter deems a fake honesty, for although she reveals to Deighton the plan and her reasons for selling his land (113-14) and is even blatantly honest in wanting him deported, she does not offer her children a strong example of a mother who has integrity. Unlike Selina, Silla never took the time to seriously contemplate whether what she believed was "good, right or true."13 Silla's desire for revenge and to fit into a Barbadian community intent on assimilating into mainstream society at the expense of her daughters keeps the conflicts between Selina and the mother an essential part of the plot. This point is relevant because it shows Selina in a growth process of modeling herself through those traits of her mother that she resists rather than focusing only on the ones that the mother accepts for herself.
Even though it should be acknowledged that Selina temporarily becomes deceptive about her relationship with Clive Springer and her intent to join the Barbadian Association, it is clear that she ultimately moves beyond a shallow sense of honesty and regains a stronger sense of integrity based on three dominant decisions: ending her relationship with Springer, refusing to accept the Barbadian Association's scholarship money, and deciding to chart her own path towards Barbados instead of following the career plans that her mother wants for her in America. These three decisions suggest that with integrity one can become a revolutionary in her or his own right and for the right reasons. For Selina, it is critical to recognize that her mother has adopted to some extent a colonialist mind-set in light of what she wants for her family. Selina's actions in openly telling her mother what she believes, even at the cost of jeopardizing their relationship, highlights the fact that one must always consider resisting or challenging people they may be closest to. Selina decides to base her decision to leave Clive Springer not so much on the mother's rejection of him, but rather on her own realization that she had outgrown him.
Selina continues to articulate these ideas when she confronts her peers with a negative view of their organization, which debates the inclusion of all people of color. She condemns them because of her belief that their organization promotes rather than resists any form of colonialist attitudes; she asserts, "[I]t's the result of living by the most shameful codes possible—dog eat dog, exploitation, the strong over the weak, the end justifies the means—the whole kit and caboodle" (227). Similarly, by the novel's end Selina's integrity allows her to speak with courage to the Barbadian association and to tell her mother that knowing what one does not want for oneself is a key step to discovering a more authentic self-identity. At age seventeen, a more reflective and courageous Selina asserts:
"Now that I'm less of a child I'm beginning to understand…. But still I can't accept the award." … "Oh, not only because I don't deserve it, but because it also means something I don't want for myself…. "
Although Selina's future may be uncertain, her acts of resistance—in claiming her own voice based on integrity and on her ability to redefine true power on her own terms—suggest viable revolutionary solutions to colonialist attitudes prevalent in both mainstream society and in the ethnic communities. In addition, Selina's expression of self is in a manner that is based more on integrity than on blatant honesty, and this type of self-expression promotes real empowerment for her rather than a false and temporary sense of gratification.
Merle Kinbona (The Chosen Place, The Timeless People)
Marshall's most effective effort toward creating characters that promote revolutionary solutions is most evident in her development of protagonist Merle Kinbona. Numerous publications, including one by scholar Jane Olmstead, focus on the protagonist's ability to communicate resistance on various levels, such as body language, speech, and ties to the Bournehills community (252).14 My interest similarly focuses on Kinbona's progression in articulating the detrimental nature of colonialist attitudes and on offering revolutionary solutions from two parallel standpoints: her mental lapses and her role as a community activist. For with each mental lapse the protagonist endures, she gains the strength to become more resistant to people and ideas that threaten her integrity and that of the Bournehills community.
At the beginning of the novel, Marshall sets an interesting tone with Merle's physical description that suggests to some extent that the dominant character will have to measure her self-worth based on her resistance to colonialist attitudes that challenge her integrity with respect to her own life and her community (Marshall, Timeless 5). Initially, readers learn about Merle through the characters Leesy Walkes and Allen Fuso. Their comments about her allow the reader to know that the community sees Merle as one whom they trust and as a character who fights for what she believes in. For instance, in Book One Leesy Walkes reveals that Merle has suffered from a psychological ailment brought on by her refusal to teach her students only about the English and their history (32). Merle's decision to incorporate in her classes the history of Cuffee Ned and the Bournehills island resulted in her being fired from her teaching position (33). With this early form of resistance defining her character to some extent, Leesy's depiction of Merle's first mental lapse provides further context for Merle's growth as one with integrity. For each time Merle is characterized as acting or behaving in an insane manner, she progresses with hope and determination to make some major change in her life.
Merle's dear friend Allen Fuso further describes her to Saul Amron as a woman with a troubled past that includes the loss of her husband and daughter, yet he asserts, "She hasn't gone under, she's still Merle; herself and kind of special" (17). By describing Merle as also being symbolic in understanding the island, Allen indirectly highlights the attributes of a woman who ultimately replaces honesty with a consistent measure of integrity in order to not simply remain alive but to live with a sense of clarity and vision, which she uses to reclaim herself. At the core of her existence is the resis- tance to colonialist mentalities through a clear understanding that basing one's actions on a consistent integrity is one of the best ways to achieve real progress for Bournehills. Thus in Books Three and Four, entitled "Carnival and Whitsun," Kinbona's empowerment of self becomes more tangible for the reader based on three major events: the Carnival, the closing of Cane Vale, and Merle's confrontation with Harriet Amron.15
During the first two events of the Carnival and the closing of Cane Vale, Merle is not only in the process of helping herself but of also helping Saul Amron realize that his mission in helping others cannot be fulfilled as he would like until he gains a stronger sense of integrity. Even before the Carnival event, Merle aids Saul in exploring how he is clearly representative of the colonialist system despite his efforts to support the Bournehills people (226-27). Thus, through observing Merle's active commitment to celebrating the past struggles of her people during the Carnival, Saul realizes even more that the understanding of one's history will lead to solving problems rather than creating them (315). Based on their honest relationship with one another, both characters are able to come to terms with the most painful parts of their past in order to effectively remedy the problems facing the Bournehills community. Thus Merle's tirade during the temporary closing of Cane Vale makes the truth even clearer for him. She exclaims, "You know what your trouble is? Do you know? … You can't see for looking, that's what. Or maybe deep down you don't want to see" (389-90). Merle's further criticism of Saul highlights what she perceives to be the colonialist attitudes that have kept her community from progressing as a people. Yet the most significant solution she offers to Saul during her tirade is the integrity that is not built on monetary quick fixes but on an examination of the psychological devastation of colonialist attitudes. She yells at him:
"Well, open your eyes damn you and look. It's there for a blind man to see. Look at those poor people standing out there like they've turned to stone, afraid to set foot inside the gate when they should be overrunning this place and burning it the hell down, or better yet, taking it over and running it themselves. Talk about change? That's the kind we need down here bo."
Even though Merle's verbal confrontation with Saul leads to her final mental lapse, she becomes stronger by the novel's conclusion as a result of applying the three key steps of integrity, as Carter prescribes, in fighting her inner battle of being separated from her child, one of the most painful parts of her past. She is able, therefore, to defeat Harriet Amron with the following revelation:
I can't be bought or bribed…. And I don't accept handouts. Not anymore at least. I use to. You might have [doubts] about that, but I did. And for the longest time. And because of it I lost two people who meant life itself to me. I've grown wise in my old age…. Poor as the devil, but proud.
Merle is indirectly admitting in her anger to Harriet that her sexual relationship with Saul was not in anyone's best interest, yet it was a viable lesson to her because she learned that being intimate with him was more an attempt on her part to recover or to reclaim a part of her past that she realized she could not find in the arms of another woman's husband but rather in bold resistance to the core source of colonialist power embodied in both the Englishwoman and Harriet Amron. In contrast to Harriet, Merle is able to progress as a dimensional character by not suppressing or fearing her past and present, but through an honest, reflective analysis of it.
In a broader and more extensive context than that of Selina Boyce, Merle offers two key solutions in her efforts to resist colonialist attitudes, from both a personal and universal perspective. First, one must be an active teacher in exposing truths and facts rather than illusions of them. Second, self-purification is necessary to make change and can be achieved more appropriately with integrity than without it. Merle is able to see her future more clearly by the novel's end as an activist who is intent on making a difference in her home environment (468). She tells Saul:
But I'll be coming back to Bournehills. This is home. Whatever little I can do that will matter for something must be done here. A person can run for years but sooner or later he has to take a stand in the place for better or worse, he calls home, do what he can to change things there.
Merle's progress as an individual and as a community leader who tries and succeeds ultimately at not only being honest about her past but also valuing her sense of morality in order to find peace enables her to map out a better existence for her future and the future of her community. In a similar fashion as Merle Kinbona, Ursa Mackenzie is another protagonist who reiterates the same message.
Ursa Mackenzie (Daughters)
In his critique of Washington's policies in Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. Du Bois asserts, "The hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing."16 It is this message that evolves as a collective stance for the major female characters in Marshall's 1991 novel entitled Daughters. 17 The novel promotes feminist forms of activism and revolutionary solutions that support rather than impede the progress of poor and lower-class people on the island of Triunion. Based primarily on the lives of protagonist Ursa Mackenzie, her mother, Estelle Mackenzie, and Ursa's best friend, Vincereta (Viney) Daniels, the novel shows how women can reaf-firm for one another a collective vision of empowerment through a keen determination to improve the quality of their lives. Estelle and Viney are instrumental, therefore, in Ursa's development of an inner spirit that ultimately comes to shape her external life and allows her to reclaim her voice.
Most of the first three chapters that focus on the protagonist highlight a young woman who is uncertain about her future from economic and educational perspectives. In addition, Ursa is unable to admit that her dependency on her father at times clouds her honest criticism of him as a political figure. Yet in efforts to take control over her own life, she develops a favorable approach that suggests she is a person of integrity. For example, she does not regard money as more important than people when she turns down a lucrative job as the Associate Director of Research at the National Consumer Research Corporation (Daughters 46-48). She goes even further to externally reject white mainstream values by selling her apartment, car, furniture, and "NCRC" suits, and she also braids her hair in a style that reflects her Caribbean upbringing (48). However, when targeting her relationships with boyfriend Lowell Carruthers and father Primus Mackenzie, Ursa is quite hesitant to make permanent changes that are needed to promote favorable self-development. Ironically, Lowell Carruthers' blatant honesty in his negative assessment of Ursa and her father's relationship is exactly what helps Ursa obtain the integrity needed to critically view her father's political aims and to bring closure eventually to her relationship with Carruthers (45-46). Ursa poignantly exposes Lowell's indictment of Primus' ineffective leadership in his district when she decides to begin a new job conducting a follow-up study of the Midland City mayoral race (274-76). Her two separate visits with Mayor Lawson and his former campaign manager, Mae Ryland, exposes Ursa to the reality that Lawson simply caters to the interests of white politicians and businessmen rather than the needs of the black people who voted him into office (296). Ursa realizes also that the forces that perpetuate the impoverished areas of Midland City, New Jersey, are quite identical to the forces that leave the Morland District of Triunion overcrowded and economically crippled (332-33). Although reluctant at first, she returns to the island, and with her mother as a guiding force, she delivers the resort-scheme prospectus to her father's political rival, Justin Beaufils, who uses it against Primus and thus wins the election (390-91).
Ursa does not silence the criticism of an honest opponent to her father, for she comes to understand that Primus' opponent is not just his political rival Justin Beaufils; his true opponents, from a familial and community standpoint, are his wife and daughter. This is important because Ursa's decision to aid Beaufils shows that she recognizes, as Selina Boyce does, that being critical of loved ones is sometimes necessary when resisting colonial attitudes and behaviors. Thus it is significant to point out also that although Estelle's overall impact upon Ursa's life is subtle, it is more effective than Primus's influences by the novel's conclusion because Estelle has more integrity than her husband. She is most successful in teaching her daughter (in the spirit of ancient leaders Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe) that having integrity and the moral reflectiveness to maintain it when faced with difficult decisions will be essential in challenging colonialist attitudes and systems (362-64). Thus Ursa is ultimately able to see clearly her dependent ties to her father and to see him as a political figure and a father who has flaws that should be corrected, whether he wants them to be or not. Ursa and Estelle reclaim their voices indirectly in a familial context and believe that their actions are based on a commitment to the community and themselves rather than on any false sense of political power.
In a fashion similar to Estelle, Ursa's best friend Viney plays a critical role in shaping Ursa's outlook on her relationship with Lowell and her parents. The strong bond of these two women enables Viney, in particular, to push Ursa to critically examine her relationship with Lowell (102-03). Viney simply asks Ursa whether Lowell is useful (102-03), because she is skeptical of his commitment to Ursa, his community, and his culture. In short, Viney wants Ursa to have favorable relationships with a man who has integrity (111-12). She tells Ursa:
"You remind me of a cat with a string of tin cans and some bones from a graveyard tied to its tail when it comes to your folks…. All that stuff about them and that island stays on your mind…. The cans and bones keep up such a racket that you can't hear yourself, your own voice trying to tell you which way to go, and what to do with your life. You can't hear Ursa. You know what you're gonna have to do with all that stuff, don't you?"
Ursa's return to Triunion is indicative of her attempt to bury the "cans and bones" that have perpetuated instability for her. With Viney's help, Ursa sees her family and Triunion society from a new perspective. She is able to validate, eventually, her actions and choices based on her own beliefs rather than through efforts to please others—especially her father. She understands that her father, Primus, has never taken the time to reflect on his values in a manner that would create a clearer, more objective progression for his people. Ursa, Estelle, and Viney suggest through their relationships that collectivism is key in any form of revolutionary solutions that are long-term.18 They have also learned that one may find the answer to resistance not so much in waging battle with the traditional colonialists but with one's relatives or even one's self: a lesson that each of Marshall's protagonists discover throughout their experiences.
Marshall's novels Brown Girl, Brownstones, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, and Daughters are quite instrumental in conveying revolutionary solutions to colonialist attitudes based on the final positions of the protagonists in her works. Each protagonist (Selina, Merle, and Ursa) is able to create better opportunities for herself in spite of the colonialist attitudes that are prevalent in their lives. With integrity rather than honesty as a core foundation of their inner being, these characters find revolutionary solutions in claiming their voice and rejecting power that is based on a false sense of external gratification. For these three protagonists, this is where the real power of truth exists.
Author's note: This paper was presented at the International Conference on Caribbean Literature in Trois Ilets, Martinique (Nov. 7-9, 2001).
1. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (New York: Feminist Press, 1981); Daughters (New York: Plume, 1991); and The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (New York: Vintage, 1992). Hereafter, each novel is cited parenthetically in the text.
2. See Dorothy Denniston, The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender (Knoxville, U of Tennessee P, 1995) and Joyce Pettis, Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995).
3. Martin Japtok, "Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism," African American Review 32:4 (1998): 306-15.
4. Gavin Jones, "The Sea Ain't Got No Back Door: The Problem with Black Consciousness in Paul Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones," African American Review 32:4 (1998): 599.
5. Moira Ferguson, "Of Bears and Bearings: Paule Marshall's Diverse Daughters," MELUS 24:1 (1999): 177-93.
6. Ferguson 178-79.
7. Ferguson 190. Ferguson offers an optimistic view for Ursa's Mackenzie's future because of her resistance to colonial powers and adherence to her maternal ancestral forces. Similar to Mackenzie, Selina Boyce and Merle Kinbona are protagonists whose futures are favorable in light of their methods of resistance to colonialist attitudes.
8. Stephen Carter, "The Insufficiency of Honesty," The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Essays, ed. Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan (Boston: Bedford, 2000) 328.
9. Carter's assertion that honesty is a "poor substitute for integrity" makes his steps of defining integrity applicable to those protagonists intent on exploring solutions to their past conflicts steeped in colonialist mentalities.
10. In her afterword to the novel, Mary Helen Washington discusses Silla as a dominant guide for Selina, yet reveals her development as a dominant character through Selina's eyes (afterword, Brown Girl, Brownstones [New York: Feminist Press, 1981] 315).
11. Jones, 601ff.
12. Carter 329.
13. Carter 329. Silla's revenge-based actions are not necessarily preceded by a clear moral judgment. Even though she is honest about her intentions, her course of action is dictated much more by self-interest and image than by integrity.
14. See Jane Olmstead, "The Pull of Memory and the Language of Place in Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People and Praisesong for the Widow," African American Review 31:2 (1997): 252. In addition to Olmstead's work, see Joseph Skerrett, "Paule Marshall and the Crisis of Middle Years: The Chosen Place, The Timeless People," Callaloo 6 (1983); Sascha Talmor, "Merle of Bournehills," Durham University Journal 80 December (1987); and Missy Dehn Kubitschek, "Paule Marshall's Women on a Quest," Black American Literature Forum 21 (1987).
15. Although these events highlight a progressive relationship of honesty and trust between Merle Kinbona and Saul Amron, my focal point is not only to establish how they aid each other but also to suggest that each event is key in positioning Merle Kinbona as coming closer to dealing with her past, which she has left unresolved for many years.
16. W. E. B. Du Bois, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," from The Souls of Black Folk, in TheNorton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Nellie McKay (New York: Norton, 1997) 635.
17. Du Bois's criticism of Washington is relevant in a discussion of these characters because it reminds us that internal criticism within groups, families, and communities can be more favorable than detrimental to relevant political and social causes intent on promoting progress rather than hindering it.
18. See Ferguson 177-93.
Benjamin, Shanna Greene. "Weaving the Web of Reintegration: Locating Aunt Nancy in Praisesong for the Widow." MELUS 30, no. 1 (spring 2005): 49-67.
Contends that Marshall's use of West African myth in Praisesong for the Widow gives the author the opportunity "to reach beyond the material reality of race, class, and gender oppression and delve into the psychological and spiritual desires of black women."
DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998, 198 p.
Critical study of Marshall's short stories and novels, focusing specifically on the interconnectedness of power, memory, and speech in her works.
Japtok, Martin. "Sugarcane as History in Paule Marshall's 'To Da-Duh, in Memoriam." African American Review 34, no. 3 (fall 2000): 475-82.
Explores the symbolism of sugarcane in the short story "To Da-Duh, in Memoriam."
Additional coverage of Marshall's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 11; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 25, 73, 129; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 27, 72; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 33, 157, 227; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:2; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st Century Writers (eBook), 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 15; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3.
Marshall, Paule 1929–
Marshall, Paule 1929–
PERSONAL: Born Valenza Pauline Burke, April 9, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Samuel and Ada (Clement) Burke; married Kenneth E. Marshall, 1950 (divorced, 1963); married Nourry Menard, July 30, 1970; children (first marriage): Evan. Education: Brooklyn College (now of the City University of New York), B.A. (cum laude), 1953; attended Hunter College (now of the City University of New York), 1955.
CAREER: Freelance writer and educator. New York University, currently professor of English, distinguished chair in creative writing. Worked as librarian in New York Public Libraries; Our World magazine, New York City, staff writer, 1953–56; lecturer on creative writing at Yale University, 1970–; Helen Gould Sheppard Professor in Literature and Culture, New York University, 1997–; lecturer on black literature at colleges and universities including Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, Lake Forrest College, and Cornell University. Teacher of creative writing at universities such as Columbia University, University of Iowa, and University of California, Berkeley.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1960; Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1962, for Soul Clap Hands and Sing; Ford Foundation grant, 1964–65; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1967–68 and 1977; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1974; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1984, for Praisesong for the Widow; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 1992, for Daughters; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1992; Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award, 2001, for The Fisher King; Dos Passos Prize for Literature.
Brown Girl, Brownstones (novel), Random House, 1959, with an afterword by Mary Helen Washington, Feminist Press (Old Westbury, NY), 1981.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (short stories; includes "British Guiana"), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1961.
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1969.
Praisesong for the Widow (novel), Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
Reena, and Other Stories (includes novella Merle, and short stories "The Valley Between," "Brooklyn," "Barbados," and "To Da-duh, in Memoriam"), with commentary by the author, Feminist Press (Old Westbury, NY), 1983, reprinted as Merle: A Novella and Other Stories, Virago Press, 1985.
Daughters (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1991.
Language Is the Only Homeland: Bajan Poets Abroad (nonfiction), [Bridgetown, Barbados], 1995.
The Fisher King, Scribner (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of short stories to periodicals and to anthologies such as Afro-American Writing 2, edited by Richard Long and Eugenia Collier, New York University Press (New York, NY), 1972.
SIDELIGHTS: "My work asks that you become involved, that you think," writer Paule Marshall once commented in the Los Angeles Times. "On the other hand,… I'm first trying to tell a story, because I'm always about telling a good story." In her works, "history and community, shapers of the past and the present, are vital subtexts in the lives of Marshall's characters," wrote Joyce Pettis in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Just as important," Pettis continued, "Marshall explores the notion of cultural continuity through identification with African heritage and culture as a means of healing the psychic fragmentation that has resulted from colonization and segregation. Her fiction is noted for its artistry—for finely crafted structures, fluid narrative, for language that conveys the nuances of the spoken word, and for characters that are especially complex and rich."
Marshall received her first training in storytelling from her mother, a native of Barbados, and her mother's West Indian friends, all of whom gathered for daily talks in Marshall's home after a hard day of "scrubbing floor." Marshall pays tribute to these "poets in the kitchen" in a New York Times Book Review essay where she describes the women's gatherings as a form of inexpensive therapy and an outlet for their enormous creative energy. She writes: "They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen."
The standard of excellence set by these women has served Marshall well in her career as a writer. Her novels and stories have been lauded for their skillful rendering of West Indian-Afro-American dialogue and colorful Barbadian expressions. Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Barbara T. Christian believes that Marshall's works "form a unique contribution to Afro-American literature because they capture in a lyrical, powerful language a culturally distinct and expansive world." This pursuit of excellence makes writing a time-consuming effort, according to Marshall. "One of the reasons it takes me such a long time to get a book done," she explained in the Los Angeles Times, "is that I'm not only struggling with my sense of reality, but I'm also struggling to find the style, the language, the tone that is in keeping with the material. It's in the process of writing that things get illuminated."
Marshall indicates, however, that her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, was written at a faster pace. "I was so caught up in the need to get down on paper before it was lost the whole sense of a special kind of community, what I call Bajan (Barbadian) Brooklyn, because even as a child I sensed there was something special and powerful about it," she stated in the Los Angeles Times. When the novel was published in 1959 it was deemed an impressive literary debut, but because of the novel's frank depiction of a young black girl's search for identity and increasing sexual awareness, Brown Girl, Brownstones was largely ignored by readers. The novel was reprinted in 1981, and is now considered a classic in the female bildungsroman genre, along with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha.
The story has autobiographical overtones, for it concerns a young black Brooklyn girl, Selina, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants Silla and Deighton. Silla, her ambitious mother, desires most of all to save enough money to purchase the family's rented brownstone. Her father, Deighton, on the other hand, is a charming spendthrift who'd like nothing better than to return to his homeland. When Deighton unexpectedly inherits some island land, he makes plans to return there and build a home. Silla meanwhile schemes to sell his inheritance and fulfill her own dream.
Selina is deeply affected by this material conflict, but "emerges from it self-assured, in spite of her scars," wrote Susan McHenry in Ms. Selina eventually leaves Brooklyn to attend college. Later, realizing her need to become acquainted with her parents' homeland, she resolves to go to Barbados. McHenry observed: "Brown Girl, Brownstones is meticulously crafted and peopled with an array of characters, and the writing combines authority with grace…. Marshall … should be more widely read and celebrated." Carol Field commented in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review: "[Brown Girl, Brownstones] is an unforgettable novel written with pride and anger, with rebellion and tears. Rich in content and in cadences of the King's and 'Bajan' English, it is the work of a highly gifted writer."
Marshall's most widely reviewed work to date is Praise-song for the Widow, winner of the American Book Award. The novel is thematically similar to Brown Girl, Brownstones in that it also involves a black woman's search for identity. This book, though, concerns an affluent widow in her sixties, Avatara (Avey) Johnson, who has lost touch with her West Indian-Afro-American roots. In the process of struggling to make their way in the white-dominated world, Avey and her husband, Jerome (Jay), lost all of the qualities that made them unique. Novelist Anne Tyler remarked in the New York Times Book Review, "Secure in her middle-class life, her civil service job, her house full of crystal and silver, Avey has become sealed away from her true self."
While on her annual luxury cruise through the West Indies, however, Avey has several disturbing dreams about her father's great aunt, whom she visited every summer on a South Carolina island. She remembers the spot on the island where the Ibo slaves, upon landing in America, supposedly took one look around at their new life and walked across the water back to Africa. Avey decides to try to escape the uneasiness by flying back to the security of her home. While in her hotel on Grenada awaiting the next flight to New York, Avey reminisces about the early years of her and Jay's marriage, when they used to dance to jazz records in their living room, and on Sundays listen to gospel music and recite poetry. Gradually, though, in their drive for success they lost "the little private rituals and pleasures, the playfulness and wit of those early years, the host of feelings and passions that had defined them in a special way back then, and the music which had been their nourishment," writes Marshall in the novel.
In the morning, Avey becomes acquainted with a shopkeeper who urges her to accompany him and the other islanders on their annual excursion to Carriacou, the island of their ancestors. Still confused from the past day's events, she agrees. During the island celebration, Avey undergoes a spiritual rebirth and resolves to keep in close contact with the island and its people and to tell others about her experience.
Reviewers question if Avey's resolution is truly enough to compensate for all that she and Jay have lost, if "the changes she envisions in the flush of conversion are commensurate with the awesome message of the resisting Ibos," to use Voice Literary Supplement reviewer Carol Ascher's words. "Her search for roots seems in a way the modern, acceptable equivalent of the straightened hair and white ways she is renouncing," wrote Times Literary Supplement contributor Mary Kathleen Benet, who added: "On the other hand there is not much else she can do, just as there was not much else Jerome Johnson could do. Paule Marshall respects herself enough as a writer to keep from overplaying her hand; her strength is that she raises questions that have no answers."
Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Sharon Dirlam offered this view: "[Avey] has learned to stay her anger and to swallow her grief, making her day of reckoning all the more poignant. She has already missed the chance to apply what she belatedly learns, except for the most important lesson: What matters is today and tomorrow, and, oh yes, yesterday-life, at age thirty, age sixty, the lesson is to live." Jonathan Yardley concluded in the Washington Post Book World: "Praise-song for the Widow … is a work of quiet passion—a book all the more powerful precisely because it is so quiet. It is also a work of exceptional wisdom, maturity and generosity, one in which the palpable humanity of its characters transcends any considerations of race or sex; that Avey Johnson is black and a woman is certainly important, but Paule Marshall understands that what really counts is the universality of her predicament."
Reena, and Other Stories, although a collection of short stories, contains the title story, "Reena" and the novella Merle, adapted from the novel The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. The title is based on a protagonist of the novel. "Reena" is frequently anthologized, particularly in collections of writings by African-American women writers. In her introductory comments to a reissued version of Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories by and about Black Women, Mary Helen Washington refers to its theme of cultural identity and the role of the African-American female. Dr. Washington's commentary and analysis bolster Paule Marshall's accompanying sketch for "Reena." "Reena" is autobiographical and is a continuation of Brown Girl, Brownstones. Marshall describes Reena as like herself "from a West Indian-American background who had attended the free New York City colleges during the forties and fifties. The theme would be our efforts to realize whatever talents we had and to be our own persons in the face of the triple-headed hydra of racism, sexism, and class bias we confronted each day."
Daughters, Marshall's 1991 novel, has been widely acclaimed. According to the author, the novel explores significant personal themes. "Ursa is a young urban woman trying to come to terms with the two worlds that shaped her…. Her mother is American, her father West Indian. [I] wanted to write something that was symbolic of the two wings of the black diaspora in this part of the world." Defining the role of the female—upwardly mobile, well-educated—in the black diaspora is the cog around which Daughters turns. In the New York Times Book Review, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer saw that the key for Ursa is in what she learns from those most important in her life. Ursa learns that "to be human one must be of use. To be of use, men and women must work together—and that the relationship between the sexes is far more complicated than Ursa has ever imagined." Working together involves a struggle—sometimes erupting in conflict between men and women. Ursa discovers by novel's end that she must not evade struggle/conflict toward a common goal. She learns to stop allowing love for another to becloud her judgment, as in the case of ignoring the corruption that her father, Primus, confused with success. Ursa learns that she is "hobbled by love of her father … and so complete is his possession of her that she needs to 'abort' him." Ursa must break free to define herself, continue to be "useful," continue to love all humans, yet not be bogged down by that love and get off course. "Marshall shows us how … women can—and perhaps should—find themselves becoming men's consciences."
Marshall's novel, The Fisher King, published in 2000, is a multigenerational story that serves as a "wonderful rendering of the African diaspora (from Brooklyn to Paris) in its many complexities," observed Adele S. Newson-Horst in World Literature Today. "Set against the backdrop of a triangular relationship, The Fisher King at once celebrates and delineates the nuances of diaspora interactions—a reality perhaps best captured by the musical form of jazz," Newson-Horst observed. In the 1940s, widow Ulene Payne struggles to make a living, but makes whatever sacrifices are necessary to provide classical piano lessons for her talented son, Everett (also known as Sonny-Rett). Her neighbor, Florence McCullum, lives in elegance and has little trouble providing for her daughter, Cherisse, who is blessed with a wonderful singing voice and has great promise as a singer. But Sonny-Rett soon discovers that classical piano is not to his liking, and begins to play in jazz clubs, where his reputation is made and strengthened. Cherisse, too, abandons her formal singing career and accompanies Sonny to his gigs, along with her best friend, Hattie Carmichael. Soon, Sonny-Rett and Cherisse are married, and Hattie becomes manager of their business affairs. Rather than embracing their children's success in the jazz field (which was then considered a scandalous form of music), Ulene and Florence are mortified and bitterly disappointed that Sonny-Rett and Cherisse did not follow the path provided to them. To escape their parents' resentment—as well as deepening racism throughout America—Cherisse, Sonny-Rett, and Hattie move to Paris and sever ties with family and friends in the United States. Each family blames the other for the problem, and a generations-long feud begins to smolder.
At the novel's opening, it is forty years since the trio left for Europe. Sonny-Rett and Cherisse are dead, and Hattie is the parent, friend, and guardian of their grandson, who is also called Sonny. When Sonny-Rett's brother, Edgar, a successful developer, seeks to inaugurate his neighborhood music hall with a concert honoring the memory and music of his brother, he finds Hattie and Sonny in Paris and flies them in for the event. Hattie chafes at returning, but goes for Sonny's sake. Florence and Ulene find a common interest in great-grandson Sonny, who tries in his own way to reunite the fractured families. "Jazz gives the novel its pulse, but finally this is a family drama, and Marshall beauti-fully evokes the myriad ways that families are torn asunder when love and power intermingle," commented Bill Ott in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that "Marshall writes with verve, clarity, and humor, capturing the cadences of black speech while deftly portraying the complexity of family relationships and the social issues that beset black Americans." Similarly, Maxine E. Thompson, writing on the BookReporter Web site, noted that "the writing itself is subtle and quiet but exciting. Marshall has an ear for dialect, and her plots are well thought out." New York Times reviewer Lori Leibovich remarked that the "prose is full of expert dialogue, mellifluous rhythms, and sharply drawn portraits of Sonny-Rett's loved ones." Newson-Horst called The Fisher King "a national treasure as much as the musical form it employs to tell the story of the diaspora."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Black Literature Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Bruck, Peter, and Wolfgang Karrer, editors, The Afro-American Novel since 1960, B.R. Gruener, 1982.
Christian, Barbara, Black Women Novelists, Greenwood Press, 1980.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
DeLamotte, Eugenia G., Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1998.
Denniston, Dorothy Haner, The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender, University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 157: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Third Series, 1995, Volume 227: American Novelists since World War II, Sixth Series, 2000.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers, 1950–1980, Anchor Press, 1984.
Hathaway, Heather, Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1999.
Herdeck, Donald E., editor, Caribbean Writers, Volume 1: Anglophone Literature from the Caribbean, Three Continents Press, 1979.
Hine, Darlene Clark, editor, Black Women in America, Carlson Publishing (Brooklyn, NY), 1993.
Magill, Frank N., editor, Great Women Writers, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.
Mainiero, Lina, editor, American Women Writers, Frederick Ungar Publishing (New York, NY), 1979–1982.
Melchior, Bernhard, "Re/Visioning" the Self away from Home: Autobiographical and Cross-cultural Dimensions in the Works of Paule Marshall, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1998.
Morgan, Janice T., and Colette T. Hall and Carol L. Snyder, editors, Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection, Garland, 1991, pp. 135-147.
Pettis, Joyce Owens, Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction, University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Shaw, Harry B., editor, Perspectives of Black Popular Culture, Popular Press, 1990, pp. 93-100.
Smith, Valerie, Lea Baechler, and A. Walton Litz, editors, African American Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Sorkin, Adam J., editor, Politics and the Muse: Studies in the Politics of Recent American Literature, Popular Press, 1989, pp. 179-205.
Spradling, Mary Mace, editor, In Black and White, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Wall, Cheryl A., editor, Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, Rutgers University Press, 1989, pp. 196-211.
Washington, Mary Helen, editor, Black-Eyed Susans/Midnight Birds: Stories by and about Black Women, Anchor Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Black American Literature Forum, winter, 1986; spring-summer, 1987.
Booklist, July, 2000, Bill Ott, review of The Fisher King, p. 2008; November 1, 2001, Nancy Spillman, review of The Fisher King, p. 513.
Callaloo, spring-summer, 1983; winter, 1987, pp. 79-90; winter, 1997, pp. 127-141; winter, 1999, review of Praisesong for the Widow, p. 208.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 15, 1983.
Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 1970; March 23, 1984.
CLA Journal, March, 1961; September, 1972.
College Language Association Journal, September, 1995, pp. 49-61.
Critical Arts, Volume 9, number 1, 1995, pp. 21-29.
Critical Quarterly, summer, 1971.
Essence, May, 1980.
Journal of American Culture, winter, 1989, pp. 53-58.
Journal of Black Studies, December, 1970.
Journal of Caribbean Studies, winter, 1989–spring, 1990, pp. 189-199.
London Review of Books, March 7, 1985.
Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 27, 1983.
MELUS, fall, 1995, pp. 99-120.
Ms., November, 1981.
Nation, April 2, 1983.
Negro American Literature Forum, fall, 1975.
Negro Digest, January, 1970.
New Letters, autumn, 1973.
New Yorker, September 19, 1959.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 16, 1959.
New York Review of Books, April 28, 1983.
New York Times, November 8, 1969; February 1, 1983; November 26, 2000, Lori Leibovich, "Books in Brief: Fiction; Sounds Good, Feels Bad," review of The Fisher King, p. 21.
New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1969; January 9, 1983; February 20, 1983.
Novel, winter, 1974.
Obsidian II, winter, 1990, pp. 1-21.
Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1984, pp. 90-91; August 7, 2000, review of The Fisher King, p. 71.
Religion and Literature, spring, 1995, pp. 49-61.
Saturday Review, September 16, 1961.
Southern Review, winter, 1992, pp. 1-20.
Times Literary Supplement, September 16, 1983; April 5, 1985.
Village Voice, October 8, 1970; March 22, 1983; May 15, 1984.
Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1982.
Washington Post, February 17, 1984.
Washington Post Book World, January 30, 1983.
World Literature Today, summer-autumn, 2001, Adele S. Newson-Horst, review of The Fisher King, p. 148.
World Literature Written in English, autumn, 1985, pp. 285-298.
Bella Stander Home Page, http://www.bellastander.com/ (February/March, 2001), interview with Marshall.
BookReporter, http://www.bookreporter.com/ (May 28, 2003), Maxine E. Thompson, review of The Fisher King.
Caribbean Hall of Fame Web site, http://www.sie.edu/∼carib/ (May 29, 2003), "Paule Marshall."
Emory University Web site, http://www.emory.edu/ (May 28, 2003), "Paule Marshall."
New York University Web site, http://www.nyu.edu/ (May 29, 2003).
Voices from the Gaps, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (May 28, 2003), "Paule Marshall."
Writer Online, http://www.writermag.com/ (September, 2002), "Established Writers Share Their Writing Practices."
Nationality: American. Born: Paule Burke, Brooklyn, New York, 9 April 1929. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A. (cum laude) 1953 (Phi Beta Kappa); Hunter College, New York, 1955. Family: Married 1) Kenneth E. Marshall in 1950 (divorced 1963), one son; 2) Nourry Menard in 1970. Career: Librarian, New York Public Library; staff writer, Our World, New York, 1953-56; taught creative writing at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, Columbia University, New York, University of Iowa, Iowa City, and University of California, Berkeley, 1984. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1961; Rosenthal award, 1962; Ford grant, for drama, 1964; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1977; Creative Artists Public Service fellowship, 1974; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1984. Address: Virginia Commonwealth University, 910 West Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A. 23284-9004.
Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York, Random House, 1959; London, W.H. Allen, 1960.
The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1969; London, Longman, 1970.
Praisesong for the Widow. New York, Putnam, and London, Virago Press, 1983.
Daughters. New York, Atheneum, 1991; London, Serpent's Tail, 1992.
The Fisher King. New York, Scribner, 2000.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing. New York, Atheneum, 1961; London, W.H. Allen, 1962.
Reena and Other Stories. Old Westbury, New York, Feminist Press, 1983; as Merle and Other Stories, London, Virago Press, 1985.
Uncollected Short Stories
"To Da-duh, in Memoriam," in Afro-American Writing 2, edited by Richard Long and Eugenia Collier. New York, New York University Press, 1972.
Language Is the Only Homeland: Bajan Poets Abroad. Bridgetown, Central Bank of Barbados, 1995.*
Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994; The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender by Dorothy Hamer Denniston, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1995; Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall by Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998; "Re/Visioning" the Self Away from Home: Autobiographical and Cross-cultural Dimensions in the Works of Paule Marshall by Bernhard Melchior, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and New York, P. Lang, 1998; Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall by Heather Hathaway, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999.* * *
In "From the Poets in the Kitchen," her contribution to "The Making of a Writer" series in the New York Times Book Review (9 January 1983), Paule Marshall declares the sources of her art to be the expressive talk she heard as a young girl among her mother's friends as they sat around a table in the basement kitchen of her Brooklyn brownstone home. For these immigrants from Barbados, language was therapy for the tribulations they endured as invisible citizens of a new land—invisible because black, female, and foreign. But talk was more than that, too, for the West Indian dialect, syntactically unique and metaphorically inventive, sustained these women whom Marshall characterizes, in the words of James Weldon Johnson's famous poem, as "unknown bards" in the nurturing culture of home while in exile. In their native everyday speech Marshall's forebears, mothers, and kin in Marshall's mind and imagination, affirmed themselves in the world through spontaneously creative use of the idiom, which bears in its forms and sound the conception of life, the philosophy, that embodies an Afro-Caribbean heritage. Finding the means for later generations to emulate the kitchen poets she knew in her childhood is the burden of Marshall's fiction.
Marshall's "unknown bards" of reminiscence experienced their place in an affirmative culture naturally, because after all one hardly needs to reflect upon the significance involved in the intimate possession of language, but the protagonists of her fiction must struggle with necessities that either sever their connection to an affirmative culture or encourage them to find identity in the values of individualism. Her first published story, "The Valley Between" (1954), relates the contest between a wife's wish to return to school to prepare for a career and her husband's resentment of the apparent departure from a conventional woman's role. The conflict encodes Marshall's own experience in an early marriage while also restricting its significance through the fact that the fictional characters are white. Brown Girl, Brownstones, her first novel, can also be read as partly autobiographical, but in this case the author's story is inserted into a typified set of circumstances. The book traces the maturation of young Selina Boyce beyond a loving father, whose incapacity for the get-ahead life of New York City issues in romantic dreams of a big-paying job or self-sufficiency on two acres of inherited land home in Barbados, and beyond, as well, the equally deadening illusions of her mother who sacrifices her being to the successful Bajan's goal of property ownership. Selina's autonomy is welcome, except that Marshall's pleasing rendition of Barbados English and folk-say, definitely a version of the kitchen talk of the instinctive poets she knew in her childhood, makes it clear that Selina's necessary sacrifice of community tragically likens her to the mass of other rootless Americans.
Each of the four stories in Soul Clap Hands and Sing, Marshall's second published volume of fiction, shows the ways individual animation is replaced in modern life by a protective but deadening routine. Whether in "Barbados," "Brooklyn," "British Guiana," or "Brazil" an aged man discovers that in seeking ease he has in fact lost the surety of selfhood. Yet, despite these protagonists it is not entirely correct to present the accomplishment of Soul Clap Hands and Sing as solely the tales of wasted men, since in the construction of the plot for each narrative Marshall sets up a relationship with a woman more vital than the man to develop the point of the Yeatsian epigraph, that the older man has become "a paltry thing." Thus the geographic breadth given to the condition of modern rootlessness by the range of settings is accompanied in each story by evidence of Marshall's continuing interest in the distinctive roles women can assume in society. A later story, "Reena" (1962), returns the theme of the unique concerns of female identity to the center of the narrative, where it remains for all of Marshall's later work. "Reena" investigates the matrimonial and political choices made by an educated black woman, using the occasion of a wake for Reena's aunt as opportunity to frame the matter of self-definition within consideration of the continuities and differences between two generations of women. "Reena" together with "To Da-duh, in Memoriam," the story of a nine-year-old girl exchanging boasts about the size and energy of New York City for an introduction to the flora and fauna of Barbados from her grandmother, establish the focus for Marshall's mature fiction: the importance of lineage in the lives of women on the cusp of historical change.
Her first major novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, reveals that focus to be profoundly political as well as intensely personal. The book records the encounter of an American research team with the "backward" people inhabiting Bournehills, the wasted corner of an island resembling perhaps Barbados but signifying the entire Caribbean. Marshall sympathetically portrays both aliens and natives in terms of the motives of guilt and frustration by which they characterize their own lives. As Merle Kinbona, a woman of Bournehills whose residence in England included schooling in painfully exploitive relationships along with professional training, assumes predominance in the narrative personal drama is translated into general social meaning. A native of the island despite her "modernization," Merle shares the timelessness of the people to whom the experience of slavery and particularly the momentary success of the rebellion of Cuffee Ned remain palpably present. On a level as deep as culture and as unavailable to measurement as the subconscious, they know that technological change is nothing compared to the redemption presaged in Cuffee's rebellion, and in their integrity they will settle for nothing less. The politics of the novel are conservative in a way that is unknown in parliaments or organized parties. This conservative politics grows from knowledge that the configurations of character and the complex relationships of love or resentment gain their shape from historical cultures.
With Praisesong for the Widow Marshall tentatively completes the exploration of black women's relationship to their history. Having begun with Selina Boyce, a young adult intent on gaining personal independence before all else, and then continuing with the narrative of Merle Kinbona, who seeks a viable cause beyond herself in middle age, Marshall carries her study forward with Avey Johnson, the sixty-four-year-old widow who leaves her friends on a cruise ship for reasons she cannot articulate though they are as compelling as a subconscious drive. Juxtaposing memory of the past with present setting, the narrative recalls Avey's relationship to her great aunt who brought alive the tale of slaves who had left Ibo Landing, South Carolina, to walk home across the sea to Africa, and traces the course of Avey's marriage to Jay, who with respectability assumed the proper name of Jerome and the distant manner of a man mistaking status for integrity. Avey understood the value of middle-class security, but the loss of joy and spontaneity subsequent to its attainment has left her bereft in age. The sense of loss originates as an individual's trouble, its remedy lies in regaining a sense of collectivity; therefore, the later sections of the novel are structured around the symbolic rituals of a journey to Carriacou and the ceremonies of the blacks who annually return to the island to "beg pardon" of their ancestors and to dance the "nation dances" that survive from their African origins. By these means Praisesong for the Widow leads Avey through her crisis of integrity so that she can re-experience the connection to collective history she once felt as a child, reclaim her original name of Avatara (for which Avey is the diminutive), and join the movements of traditional dance that link her in body and spirit to her heritage.
Unquestionably more deliberate in its aesthetic form than the talk of the West Indian women in her childhood kitchen, Paule Marshall's stories share qualities with that speech while also distinguishing itself as markedly literary. Full of rich detail, the best of her writing brings character and incident alive in the vivid manner of popular tale telling. Informed, however, by a reflexivity that is absent from the creations of "unknown bards," the tales Marshall makes into novels reach beyond simulation of folk art, beyond the surface realism, nostalgia, or elementary denunciations of modernization that would constitute the easy and simple responses to historical transformation of traditional culture. Instead Marshall makes complex literature of the proposition that every woman needs to gain the power to speak the language of her elder kinswomen.
—John M. Reilly
Born 9 April 1929, Brooklyn, New York
Daughter of Samuel and Ada Burke; married Kenneth E. Marshall, 1957 (divorced); Nourry Menard, 1970; children: Evan
A first-generation American born of Barbadian parents, Paule Marshall spent her childhood in Brooklyn. At the age of nine, she visited the native land of her parents and discovered for herself the quality of life peculiar to this tropical island. After writing a series of poems reflecting her impressions, Marshall began a long period of reading. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Brooklyn College (1953) and attended Hunter College (1955) for postgraduate study.
Marshall has worked in libraries, as a staff writer for Our World magazine, and has traveled on assignment to Brazil and the West Indies. She has lectured at several colleges and universities within the U.S. and abroad and has contributed short stories and articles to various magazines and anthologies. She has been the recipient of several awards and grants, including a Guggenheim fellowship (1960), the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), a Ford Foundation grant (1964-65), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1967-68), and the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Praisesong for the Widow (1984). In 1990 Marshall was an honoree of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and in 1992 she was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship.
In her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959, dramatized by CBS Television Workshop 1960), Marshall explores the coming of age of Selina Boyce and the struggle for survival of a black immigrant family and community. Divided into four sections, the novel functions on several imaginative levels and devotes some attention to the ramifications of power as experienced by the dawning political consciousness of a small black community.
The plot revolves around Selina's growth and awareness as she watches her parents and others devise plans to acquire property. Conflicting attitudes and personalities change the central question of where to live to the more penetrating question of how to live. We are hurled into a world of violence, turmoil, mechanization, and sameness. As the tensions are resolved, the young heroine travels to the homeland of her parents, searching for a more humanistically oriented way of life. Her "return" symbolizes a rehabilitation of her spirit and psyche, and represents the acknowledgment of historical roots essential to her identity.
Marshall's consistent use of imagery and symbolism, and her concise, rhythmic, and passionate style dramatically define and technically underscore themes of rebirth and self-definition. The end result is a picture of a world not blurred by racial bitterness, but sharply focused in its unabashed honesty and deliberate confrontation of Western cultural values.
Her language is strikingly beautiful and powerfully effective, capturing the essence of black language as a weapon of survival and revealing how spoken communication can itself be a form of art. Marshall adopts and adapts the West Indian dialect, fusing it with biblical and literary allusions to create a language that compels imaginative associations and entertains with the sheer delight of sound.
Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a collection of short stories, borrows its title from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium." Thematic connections are obvious as we read the accounts of four men of different national origins experiencing the inevitable decline of age. Caught up in the Western credo of amassing wealth and prestige, the characters have developed a hardened exterior impervious to meaningful human relationships. When the submerged need for love and acceptance emerges, they can only respond by reaching out to the young. That itself remains a selfish motivation, and the implications of their wasted lives are recognized too late. Unable to translate harsh reality into lyrical song, their dying moments sound the notes of lamentation and doom, as Marcia Keiz observes in Negro American Literature Forum.
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) is a massive epic novel recapitulating and expanding upon themes developed in earlier works. The primary storyline concerns a small group of Americans who travel to the Caribbean island of Bournehills. Sponsored by a philanthropic foundation, they intend to design a project to assist an "underdeveloped" but curiously unified people. Juxtapositions and correspondences give the novel its texture, but the cohesive element is achieved through the paradoxical characterization of the native woman Merle Kinbona. With her, we explore the political, sociological, and psychological dimensions of power not only as it influences racial and sexual roles, but also as it shapes cultural patterns and assumptions. Never sacrificing art to propaganda, Marshall sustains full human portraiture within a racially turgid atmosphere and concludes with the vision of a world not solely defined by territorial boundaries or even by cultural distinctions.
Marshall's exceptional talent is born of solid scholarship and careful craftsmanship. By choosing to depict West Indian-American culture, she makes a valuable contribution toward helping contemporary society understand the multidimensional aspects of the black experience. All of Marshall's major fiction reveals the author's preoccupation with the history of blacks dispersed throughout the Western hemisphere, a history of struggle and resistance to oppression but also a history of independence and self-determination. Marshall firmly believes her task as a writer is to "reinvent" the images that define African peoples. To this end, she builds upon African myth in her fiction to illustrate the relevance of history to the modern world. In The Chosen Place, the Timeless People she centers the theme of the novel around the legend of Cuffee Ned. In Praisesong for the Widow (1983) she includes the "unwritten" history of the Ibo people.
Praisesong takes on surreal, ethereal qualities emanating from dreams and memories. Those dramatically overlap opposing time frames and conflicting modes of thought. Having forgotten the "nurturing ground from which she sprang," the widow embarks on a journey. Her destination is not as intended, however; she arrives instead at her symbolic cultural home. Marshall describes in this novel a common history of separation and loss among peoples of African descent. Despite this physical separation, the heroine learns it is possible to sustain spiritual (mental) ties. This, in part, is the message of the Ibos.
Reena and Other Short Stories, also published in 1983, is a collection of some of Marshall's early short fiction. It includes commentary by the author and her seminal essay, "The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen." This important essay describes Marshall's indebtedness to her mother and other Barbadian women who taught her the power of the spoken word as both a tool of communication and as a weapon of survival. Two selections from Soul Clap Hands and Sing make up a part of the volume as well as a new novella, entitled "Merle." Many will recognize that story as an adaptation and condensation of the story of the pivotal character in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. In some respects, the short selections in Reena introduce the reader to themes Marshall develops more fully in her novels. They certainly indicate her early exploration of the ways in which women, especially, define themselves and actively engage in battling the double forces of racism and sexism.
In Daughters (1991) Marshall returns to the complex, changing parameters of a female persona living and growing in the two worlds that have formed her: the Caribbean and the United States. The novel, while contemporary in focus, also moves backward and forward in time to underscore enduring relationships between women. The novel is about black female-male relationships as well—particularly a young woman's struggle to sever emotional ties with her overpowering father. Once again Marshall turns to myth to insinuate the dominant motif. The story of Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe teaches that despite overwhelming odds, men and women can work together in mutual support. Through a series of subplots that involve intimate human relationships and corrupt political practices, Marshall shows how exacting this ideal may be. Yet for the common good, the ideal must become the standard.
Marshall offers no easy solutions in her fiction, but she does suggest models for change and possibility. Because she develops those possibilities through the characterization of black women, she celebrates female agency and empowerment. Indeed, black women become representative of the larger black struggle for individual autonomy and communal wholeness.
Marshall discussed her writing in the Los Angeles Times, "My work asks that you become involved, that you think. On the other hand…I'm first trying to tell a story, because I'm always about telling a good story." Continuing, she notes, "One of the reasons it takes me such a long time to get a book done, is that I'm not only struggling with my sense of reality, but I'm also struggling to find the style, the language, the tone that is in keeping with the material. It's in the process of writing that things get illuminated.' Critic Barbara T. Christian explained the author's niche in literature in Black Women Novelists, "[Marshall's works] form a unique contribution to Afro-American literature because they capture a lyrical, powerful language in a culturally distinct and expansive world."
Marshall has lectured on black literature at colleges and universities including Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, Lake Forrest College, and Cornell University. She holds a distinguished chair in Creative Writing at New York University and regularly contributes articles and short stories to periodicals.
Braxton, J., and A. McLaughlin, Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance (1990). Evans, M. ed., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984). O'Banner, B. M., "A Study of Black Heroines in Four Selected Novels (1929-1959) by Four Black American Women Novelists: Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Paule Marshall, Ann Lane Petry" (thesis, 1985). Pryse, M., and H. Spillers, Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition (1985). Shaw, H., ed., Perspectives of BlackPopular Culture (1990). Willis, S., Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (1987).
African-American Writers (1991). Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). Black Women Novelists (1980). CA (1999). CANR (1989). CLC (1984). CN (1976). DLB (1984). FC (1990).
Black American Literature Forum (Winter 1986). Callaloo (Winter 1987, Spring/Summer 1983, Spring-Summer 1986). CLAJ (1972). Encore American and Worldwide News (23 June 1975). Essence (May 1980). Freedomways (first quarter, 1970). Journal of Black Studies (1970). LAT (18 May 1983). Negro American Literature Forum (1975). SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women (Fall 1984). Trinidad Guardian (12 Sept. 1962). World Literature Written in English (Autumn 1985).
—DOROTHY L. DENNISTON,
UPDATED BY ALLISON A. JONES
April 9, 1929
Novelist Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Samuel and Ada (Clement) Burke, who had emigrated from Barbados shortly after World War I. Marshall lived in a richly ethnic "Bajan" neighborhood in Brooklyn and visited Barbados for the first time when she was nine years old. At twenty-one she married Kenneth Marshall, whom she divorced in 1963. She graduated from Brooklyn College, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in 1953. While attending New York's Hunter College in the mid-1950s, she began her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. Its publication in 1959 was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship (1960). Later awards include the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute for Arts and Letters (1962) for Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a Ford Foundation grant (1964–1965), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1967–1968), the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation for Praisesong for the Widow (1984), and a MacArthur Foundation Award (1992).
During the 1950s Marshall was a staff writer for a small magazine, Our World, which sent her on assignments to Brazil and the Caribbean. Since the publication of Brown Girl, Brownstones, she has been a full-time writer and a part-time teacher. She has taught African-American literature and creative writing at Yale, Columbia, Iowa, and Virginia Commonwealth universities. Since 1996 she has held the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at New York University.
Marshall's writing explores the interaction between the materialist and individualist values of white America and the spiritual and communal values of the African diaspora. With the exception of Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), a collection of four long stories about aging men, Marshall's work is focused on African-American and Caribbean women. Each of her novels presents a black woman in search of an identity that is threatened or compromised by modern society. Marshall's narratives locate that search within black communities that are still connected to ancient spiritual traditions, sharpening the contrast between Americanized Africans and various diasporic modes of Africanizing the New World.
In her essays and interviews Marshall explained the influence of the Bajan community of her childhood on her work. Listening to the "poets in the kitchen," as she called her mother's women friends and neighbors in a 1983 New York Times Book Review essay, she learned the basic skills that characterize her writing—trenchant imagery and idiom, relentless character analysis, and a strong sense of ritual. Her development of her poetic relationship to the community of storytelling Bajan women has made her an intensely ethnic writer, one whose themes and manner measure the difference between the homeland of the West Indies and Africa and the new land of the United States.
Marshall's fiction explores the divided immigrant or colonized self. In Brown Girl, Brownstones, the protagonist Selina Boyce is an adolescent girl torn between the assimilationist materialism of her mother, Silla, and the dreamy resistance to Americanization of her father, Deighton. As she matures Selina learns from both the Bajan community and the world at large how to be her own woman. Each of the four stories in Soul Clap Hands and Sing explores a man in old age who reaches out toward a woman in the hope of transforming a failed and empty life. The stories contrast men defeated by materialism, colonialism, and internal compromise with young women full of vitality and hope. Like the men in numerous stories by Henry James, Marshall's old men cannot connect, and the young women serve as the painful instruments of their self-realization.
Marshall's second novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), is her largest literary conception. The central figure is Merle Kinbona, a middle-aged West Indian woman educated in Britain and psychologically divided in a number of ways. The struggle to resolve the divided self is fully elaborated, here again seen as inextricably related to a community and its history. The rituals of recovery are more broadly drawn here, for they are more self-consciously communal in nature. Merle wants to be a leader in the development of her community, but she is almost literally catatonic with impotence until she comes to terms with her personal past and its relationship to the colonial order that is her communal past. As Merle is both the product and emblem of her divided community, her self-healing and newly found clarity of purpose prefigure the possibilities for the community as well.
Marshall's third novel, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), presents a middle-class black American woman who, like the old men of the four long stories, realizes the depth of her spiritual emptiness. Unlike the old men, Avatara is able, through dream and ritual, to recover her spiritual past. Daughters (1991) is the complex story of how Ursa McKenzie, the only child of a Caribbean politician father and an African-American mother, comes to grips with her ambivalent feelings about her father's emotional domination. Ursa's liberation involves every aspect of her life—her past in her island homeland, her professional life in New York City, her love life and friendships, and her understanding of political and economic relations between the United States and the island nations of the Caribbean.
After the broad canvas of Daughters, in The Fisher King (2000) Marshall produced a novel as compressed as a short story. The narrative focuses on Sonny, the Parisborn eight-year-old grandson of a famous African-American jazz pianist, who is brought home to Brooklyn by Hattie, his dead grandfather's childhood friend, manager, and lover, to visit his two great-grandmothers, one as yet unreconciled to the elder Sonny's choice of jazz over European classical music and the other still furious at his decision to flee to Europe with her daughter, young Sonny's grandmother. The boy's visits with his aged grandmothers and his great uncle and his family in the Brooklyn community of African Americans and West Indian immigrants subtly suggest movement from wounded anger and alienation toward reconciliation.
In all her works Marshall develops a rich psychological analysis, making use of powerful scenes of confrontation, revelation, and self-realization. Her style, while essentially realistic, is always capable of expressionist and surrealist scenes and descriptions, which are seamlessly integrated in the fabric of the narrative. Marshall's originality—her prototypical black feminism, her exploration of "the international theme" arising from the African diaspora, and her control of a wide range of narrative techniques—places her in the first rank of twentieth- and twenty-first-century African-American writers.
See also Literature of the United States
Christian, Barbara. "Paule Marshall: A Literary Biography." In Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
Collier, Eugenia. "The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction." In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984.
Marshall, Paule. "Shaping the World of My Art." New Letters 40 (1973): 97–112.
Marshall, Paule. "The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen." The New York Times Book Review (January 9, 1983): 3, 34–35.
McCluskey, John, Jr. "'And Called Every Generation Blessed': Theme, Setting and Ritual in the Works of Paule Marshall." In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. New York: Anchor, 1984.
Pettis, Joyce. Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995.
joseph t. skerrett jr. (1996)
Updated by author 2005