I came across Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953-published novella, Maud Martha, on JacquiWine’s blog last year, and was confident it was a book for me – so I bought the e-Book version and read it slowly on my phone and iPad whenever I was out and about. This sort of reading doesn’t work for all books, but it did for Maud Martha because it is told in short vignettes (or “tiny stories” as Brooks’ called them) which cover the protagonist’s life from her childhood to motherhood. Her voice is so fresh, so honest, so real that I was completely captivated.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a new author for me, perhaps because she was primarily a poet. In fact, Maud Martha is her only novel. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) and the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976), but these are just two from an honours-filled career.
My edition of Maud Martha has an excellent introduction by the American critic and academic, Margo Jefferson. She ponders the novel’s disappearance from view, and posits that “it sank beneath the weighty canonical force of first novels by two of Brooks’s Black male peers”. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man appeared in 1952, and James Baldwin’s Go tell it on the mountain in 1953, the same year as Maud Martha. By comparison, Maud Martha “looks” slim but, in real weight, it is anything but. Jefferson quotes from Brooks’ memoir in which she discusses the autobiographical element of the novel: ‘It is true that much in the “story” was taken out of my own life, and twisted, highlighted, or dulled, dressed up or down.’ I read this as meaning that what she describes is “true” though not necessarily factual. It’s “a novel”, says Jefferson, “by a Black woman about working-class Black life in the twenties, thirties and forties”.
“But dandelions were what she chiefly saw”
The book opens with an exquisite description of seven-year-old Maud Martha. It introduces us to a young girl who has dreams but also has her feet on the ground:
She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies—yes, she would have liked meadow lilies, because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms, depending on who was by, rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky. But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.
And, she was happy with them, those “yellow jewels for everyday”:
She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished!
These opening paragraphs are telling: we learn a lot about Maud Martha – as you can see – and we are introduced to Brooks spare, poetic style. It is because of language like this that Brooks can tell Maud’s story from the early 1920s to the 1940s in barely 100 pages. Jefferson describes Brooks’ style as “like a sonnet sequence, each story delights in sensory and emotional details and each reveals another aspect of Maud Martha. Poets take liberties with prose notions of a story arc”.
So, through the stories Maud Martha grows up, questioning the real world while dreaming of New York, which is “a symbol” for her of “what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmly rushing! Straight up and down, yet graceful enough”. She knows it’s a dream, but she stands by her right to dream. And, anyhow, “who could safely swear that she would never be able to make her dream come true for herself? Not altogether, then!—but slightly?—in some part?” This is a young woman, in other words, still with her feet on the ground but with imagination as well.
Meanwhile, life goes on. She marries Paul who is fairer than she, enabling him to “pass” among whites or, at least, be more easily accepted by them. She knows her darkness pulls him back, “makes him mad”, but she’s not cowed. She knows who she is and what she can offer.
What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.
And so she soldiers on through the bright moments and the disappointments, like settling for a kitchenette with a shared toilet when she marries Paul. Moments like these are universal. Other moments, though, are less so, because, of course, she faces racism – again and again – at the movies, while shopping for a hat, at a beauty parlour. A particularly painful occasion occurs when Santa Claus treats her little daughter Paulette differently from the white girls – and Paulette notices.
Another occasion concerns Maud Martha’s taking work as household help, because Paul is out of work. However, the way her employer and employer’s mother-in-law assume her inferiority causes her to understand “for the first time … what Paul endured daily … as his boss looked at Paul, so these people looked at her. As though she were a child, a ridiculous one, and one that ought to be given a little shaking …”. She decides to leave the job. Her employer won’t understand, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s “a human being” too, and she will not be treated otherwise if she can help it.
What makes Maud Martha special then is her – to use a cliche – resilience. No, it’s more than that, it’s her level-headed sense of self and a willingness to call what she sees. What’s remarkable in Brooks’ telling is the humanity and, often humour, with which she does it. Take, for example, Maud Martha’s description of her first beau:
He was decorated inside and out. He did things, said things, with a flourish. That was what he was. He was a flourish.
She was desperate to have a boyfriend, but not that desperate.
Maud Martha is just delicious to read. It is deeply, distressingly insightful about Black American experience in all the horrific ordinariness of ingrained, oblivious, white superiority, but the combination of intelligence, dignity and humour with which Brooks tells her story takes your breath away.
London: Faber & Faber, 2022 (orig. pub. 1953)
ISBN: 9780571373260 (e-Book)