Book Review: Maud Martha – Gwendolyn Brooks


Posted 2 months ago in Book Review

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Maud Martha

Gwendolyn Brooks

Faber

“Maud Martha celebrates the beauty, and reveals the transforming potential, of an ordinary woman’s ordinary life.”

Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel of Black life in Chicago, has intrigued scholars since its 1953 publication. Now re-issued as a Faber Edition as part of a  series aimed at drawing our attention to ‘radical’ literature of the past which has been overlooked, the reappearance of this neglected gem is timely and welcome. But if Brooks challenges today’s reader, it is not because her work is abstract or obscure. Her radicalism – and her difficulty – is of a different kind. In 34 short chapters Maud Martha celebrates the beauty, and reveals the transforming potential, of an ordinary woman’s ordinary life.

Brooks was born in Topeka in 1917 but spent much of her youth and adulthood in Chicago. She is best known as a poet (Maud Martha is her only novel), and she became the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize for her 1949 collection Annie Allen. Brooks’s work is motivated by a deep affection for place: she is rightly remembered as an eloquent witness to Chicago’s Black communities. In her debut collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), she describes the kitchenette buildings of her neighbourhood, asking, ‘could a dream send up through onion fumes’? Maud Martha is imbued with the same yearning, which seeks to illuminate (rather than transcend) the quotidian.

Brooks’s novel shadows Maud Martha Brown, a native of Chicago’s South Side. We learn immediately of the everyday things that fill the child with wonder: ‘candy buttons, and books, and painted music… and dandelions’. She likes dandelions because they are both ‘ordinary’ and beautiful, and she imagines her classmates as the dandelion’s seeds blowing in the wind, ‘carried by jerky little stems of brown or yellow or brown-black’, blowing past the ‘cramp, inhibition, choke’ of adult lives. As Maud Martha matures, she is increasingly confronted by these limitations: racism overt and veiled, colourism, her husband’s expectations, poverty.

Growing up in the 1940s, Maud Martha is caught between the Jim Crow era and the coming upheavals of the Civil Rights movement. Brooks reveals the uneasily tender feelings attached to this period. She is particularly adept at describing the acts that we would now call microaggressions – hesitations, glances, condescensions. In this, and its flickering narrative style, Maud Martha may remind contemporary readers of Claudia Rankine’s work. In the quietly devastating penultimate vignette ‘tree leaves leaving trees’, Maud Martha’s daughter Paulette goes to the department store to meet Santa Claus. She has her own list, so reminiscent of the young Maud Martha’s, at the ready: ‘a wagon, a doll, a bear, a big ball, and a tricycle with a horn’. But Santa Claus ignores her, ‘unable to see either mother or child’. Paulette is hurt. Maud Martha worries that the excuses she makes for Santa are unconvincing. She ‘could neither resolve nor dismiss’ what happened. She has to bear witness.

In her foreword to the new edition, Margo Jefferson writes: ‘Maud Martha doesn’t deny racism’s power, but she denies its power to rule her life’. Brooks’s muted radicalism is revealed, finally, in allowing Maud Martha the simple dignity of living: life’s joys, life’s disappointments.

Words: Eve Hawksworth

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