I believe I know the only cure [for nervous disorders] which is to make one’s center of life inside one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity – to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same in the hours when one is inevitably alone.
~ Edith Wharton to Mary Berenson (1918)

In her reply to Harper & Row’s acceptance of the Bronzeville manuscript Brooks makes mention of her current project, American Family Brown, which consisted of the embryonic stages of Maud Martha.[1]   Initially, Brooks conceived the collection as a series of twenty-five poems documenting the life of an African American family.  The following year, in 1946, she sent along a synopsis and ten chapters of the project to her editor.  Several months later Brooks received a rejection letter from Harper’s that inaugurated a struggle over both the form and content of what eventuated in her 1953 novella Maud Martha.  Brooks had intended American Family Brown to take the form of a “verse novel.”  In the fall of 1952 Brooks submitted The Maud Martha Story; after a few revisions, the manuscript was accepted and went out to print.[2]  Published in February 1953 the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s fictional debut received reviews by the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Daily News, the New York Times, and by Langston Hughes in the Chicago Defender.  In a later interview with George Stavros Brooks commented on the work’s origins: “I had first written a few tiny stories and I felt that they would mesh, and I centered them and the others around one character.  If there is a form I would say it was imposed at least in the beginning when I started with those segments or vignettes.”[3]  She offered another assessment of the novella to Claudia Tate: “Maud Martha is a lovely little novel about a lovely little person, wrestling with the threads of her milieu.  Of course this ‘lovely little person’ was the essence of myself, or aspects of myself tied with as neat a ribbon as my innocence could manage.”[4]  Brooks’s identification with her heroine offers readers a point of entry into the author’s life.  At the same time, her tentative yet associative declaration also reveals the impossibility of full disclosure that is compromised by its formal containment in bounded literary space.

Entering the House of Fiction: Brooks’s Projection of Narrative Space

The front cover of the novella’s first edition features a house set against a cityscape; the first Third World Press edition, published in 1975, also features a house, but in this edition the house has been pushed to the front of the image with no trace of the urban in the scene.[5]  Brooks’s choice of a house to serve as the entryway to her novella offers a striking point of contrast to James’s cover image for Portrait.  The cover of Maud Martha is dominated by the background, a brownish-golden hue.  In the center stands a modest house located in front of a series of buildings of varying heights.  The buildings are outlined in black rather than filled in, registering their function as background elements for the image placed before them – a small turquoise house bearing a bay window in the front, two more windows atop one another on the side, and a shingle roof.  The scene also includes a turquoise sun, or moon, and a tree with turquoise leaves.  Stenciled fire escapes punctuate the buildings, all of which are pressed up against one another, appearing as a collection of associated spaces rather than as distinct entities.  The house is positioned in the center of the cityscape, framed and, if not for the difference in color, somewhat dwarfed by the tall buildings behind it.  It is situated on a separate pictorial plane however, distinguishing the scene’s central image spatially from that which surrounds it.

The fluidity of relation between the private residence and the apartment buildings conveys an intimacy and overlap that departs entirely from the visual effect of Portrait’s Georgian country house.  James instructed the artist Alvin Langdon Coburn to “allow each frontispiece to exist in its own space and frame without a text.”[6]  Coburn achieved this effect on a number of levels – pictorially, symbolically, and spatially.  The cover image bears an imposing long distance vista of the country house, situated centrally within the frame, preceded and surrounded by greenery.  The residence is singular, and although framed by nature, is also clearly set off from it, even imposed upon it.  Thus, in pictorial space, the house commands the authoritative position within the scene.  Symbolically, the social and architectural history of the country house discussed in Chapter One underscores its cultural authority and monumental disposition.[7]  The residence’s isolation parallels that of the novel’s heroine, Isabel, as conceived by James in the novel’s Preface and as visited upon her in the narrative.[8]  James distinguishes the house spatially from the text by allotting the frontispiece its own page, absent of any textual intrusion.  The separation of word and image bears larger significance regarding the pertinent discussion of the relation between material object, or representative image, and language, or meaning.

The use of a house to invoke Maud Martha’s initial presence extends the reader an invitation to enter into the protagonist’s interior world.[9]  Its fusion with the cityscape that frames it establishes a clear dialogic relation between the two structures.  Rather than appearing as separate and disconnected entities or images, the buildings and the home appear to be mutually reinforcing, the one emerging organically from the other.  Whereas James’s country house derives its very identity and nomination from its removal from the urban setting, Brooks’s cottage reflects a continuity between the private and the public, or urban space.  The different resonances of the two houses, the country home and the cottage, represent the two authors’ divergent interpretations of the individual’s place within the community.  Isabel and Maud Martha share between them a fraught relation with the world, with both the social forces that condition their outer environment and the private relations that determine their significance.  Isabel’s situation within this web is determined primarily by external constraints, by the social limitations that accrue with her gender, and the textual machinations executed by Madame Merle, Osmond, and Ralph that together structure her fate.  Maud Martha exercises a far greater degree of control over her life course, despite the super-added constraints imposed by her racial and class identity.  At all times, the reader is cognizant of the leading role Maud Martha performs in shaping her life – both as she experiences it and as it is represented in textual space.  Instead of focusing our attention on the protagonist’s perceptual or interpretive limitations, as does James, Brooks directs us towards the limitations of the other characters, and of their fraught linguistic communion.  Maud Martha’s consciousness remains a separate space independent of the manipulation of her environment and those that populate it.  Isabel’s, on the other hand, dissolves into an indistinct space as it is usurped by James and her husband.

Maud Martha’s critical reception reflects the dominating position of African American men within the contemporaneous process of black literature’s canonization.  In her illuminating essay on the novella Barbara Christian comments on the broader neglect of black women writers in the 1940s and 1950s: “Maud Martha,” she writes, “Gwendolyn Brooks’s only novel, appeared in 1953, the same year that Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin’s first novel, was published.  By that time, Brooks had already published two books of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.  But although she was an established poet, Brooks’s novel quietly went out of print while Baldwin’s first publication was hailed as the emergence of a significant new African American voice.  Brooks’s novel, like Baldwin’s, presents the development of a young urban black into an adult, albeit Brooks’s major character is female and Baldwin’s is male.”[10]  Maud Martha’s development proceeds on a “quieter” scale than does the protagonist of Baldwin’s novel.  That scale is tailored perfectly to the contours of Maud Martha’s character.  The narrative’s episodic style, consisting of fragmented and brief chapters composed of laconic sentences, and terse vignettes, chronologically arranged but not necessarily continuous, reflects Brooks’s tendency to evoke rather than to contain the experiences of her narrative subjects.[11]  The work is comprised of a language of economy and precision – even Brooks’s choice of metaphors is concrete rather than abstract.  Brooks, and Maud Martha, in turn, seize their metaphors from the material world, from the scene of the character’s physical immersion, and from her own sensory impressions, rather than an abstracted landscape of poetic representation.  This strategy comports with Brooks’s adoption of the novella form to render her literary subject.  One critic avers that “the novella allows the narrator to express poetic subjectivity in objective form.”[12]  The novella’s core consists of a unifying consciousness; in this instance it is Maud Martha that functions as the central and unifying consciousness.[13]

The Novella as Frame Tale

The genre’s drama is generated by the drama of the inner life, as the central consciousness is disclosed bit by bit, apportioned and revealed incrementally.  The novella possesses a long history as a form of framing narrative material.  Brooks’s employment of a framing device in the form of the novella revisits the images of enclosure evoked in her earlier work, and that are rendered as thematic concerns in the content of Maud Martha.[14]  The novella might well be conceived as a portrait frame.  Barbara Christian’s appraisal of Brooks’s technique and its effect situate the novella form as a direct byproduct of Brooks’s writerly intentions.  Just as a frame adorns and protects its picture, so too, the novella functions both to isolate and embrace the figure contained within it.  Christian writes, “Properly speaking, it [Maud Martha] should be called a novella, not only because of its length but more importantly, because of its intention.  Brooks is not interested in recreating the broad sweep of a society, a totality of social interaction, but rather in painting a portrait in fine but indelible strokes of a Maud Martha.”[15]  Brooks’s style of portraiture differs markedly from that of James.  Brooks utilizes the framing device as a means of setting her heroine apart from her environment, but maintains an open structure – one that allows interaction and interconnection across its synthetic divide – between characters, between characters and author, between characters and reader.  Ironically, one of James’s own insights draws out the significance of this technique.  He avers,

I had had, for any confidence, to make it out to myself that my little [character]…was related with a certain intensity to the world about her; so that her case might lose itself promptly enough in a complexus of larger and stranger cases…What if she were the silver key, tiny in itself, that would unlock a treasure? – the treasure of a whole view of manners and morals, a whole range of American social aspects.” “Thus the central figure is not interesting to James unless her experiences are suggestive, starting several chains of inference in the reader’s mind that are replete with social observations and criticisms…Perhaps that is what he means when he makes the cryptic statement that in writing a nouvelle, one follows the situation ‘from its centre outward…Whatever he meant in that passage, he keeps insisting that in effect the nouvelle can reveal a whole view of society on the scale usually associated with the three-decker Victorian novel without the huge casts of characters, cumbersome multiple plots, and extended passages of description and authorial analysis.[16]

Hortense Spillers argues persuasively for a feminist reading of Maud Martha.  She maintains that “By forcing the reader, or inducing her, to confront Maud Martha as the primary and central consciousness of the work, its subject and object of gazing, speaking through the redoubled enunciations of her own stream-of-thought and a translation of it, the poet reclaims the territorial rights of an internal self and strikes for our mutual benefit a figure of autonomy.  Despite her ‘blackness’, her ‘femaleness’, her poverty-line income, and perhaps because of these unalterable ‘facts’ of mensuration, Maud Martha is allowed access to her own ‘moment of being’, and the narrative renders its record.”[17]  We can trace this critique to Brooks’s comments regarding the work’s autobiographical currents.  Brooks, the poet-woman.  Maud Martha, the poet-becoming woman.

The composition of a portrait requires a number of sittings in which the artist and model exchange silent and voiced intimacies.  The artist regards her model, and as she does so, explores the way in which the figure occupies space, i.e. the space the model inhabits in relation to the space around her.  A continuing method of observation and documentation reveals a multi-layered individual whose every contour and angle bequeaths a clue to her essence or shape.  The artist paints, and subsequently paints over what she creates on the canvas, constantly seeing and re-seeing the figure before her.  Maud Martha’s form parallels this episodic structure – the chapters compare to a subject’s individual sittings, in which different features of the subject’s interior and exterior materialize for the spectator.  The artist, in her regard, transfers these insights onto the representational space of the portrait.[18]  Thus, the portrait contains its own range of surfaces and interiors, revelations and disclosures.  Through the duration of its composition the portrait acquires its own center of meaning and dynamic tension as the individual and the portrait work out their relation to one another through an accretive process.[19]  Barbara Christian’s insights link Maud Martha to this interpretive framework:  “In a sense,” she argues, “the conflict of the novella is contained in its subject – that such a person as Maud Martha is seldom seen as imbued with importance.  Thus, the question that permeates the entire novella is based not so much on the usual ‘character in conflict’ motif, but in the gradual unraveling of the life that is in Maud Martha, this ordinary, unheroic girl.”[20]  Her statement recalls James’s remark concerning his choice of subject matter for Portrait.  Whereas James professed distaste coupled with prurient curiosity about the “extravagant” airs of importance accorded to such “small female fry,” Brooks preferred to focus on the exceptional qualities bequeathed by the socially attributed status of the “ordinary.”

Through a series of shadings and revisions, the portrait comes to life in and as its own form – not as a substitute for the actual subject, but rather as an independent work of art that suggests rather than subsumes the figure upon which it is modeled.  This is the relationship, I argue, which Brooks maintains with all of her literary subjects, and, especially, with Maud Martha.  This compositional technique invites constant and varying levels of appraisal on the part of both artist and observer.  Seen in this regard, the portrait, a representation, will always be incomplete, gesturing toward a life which cannot be contained within the bounds of its form.  A portrait cannot represent consciousness, and it is consciousness that contains the essence of individual identity.  Brooks highlights this principle as the starting point of our exploration of her heroine’s psychological interior before we have even entered her narrative world.  The novella’s epigraph declares:

“MM was born in 1917.

She is still alive.”

Here, the reader learns that Maud Martha’s life, having begun in 1917, prior to the narrative’s time frame, continues beyond the space of the book.  Indeed, her life may even be conceived as an open book, as her self lies beyond and outside of the text, not confined by its literary representational space.  Subsequently, her character cannot be determined by the machinations or plotting of an author, a reader, or, as the book reveals, the characters that comprise the narrative’s world alongside her.  It is Maud Martha’s consciousness that articulates the boundaries of its own expression, as evidenced in two of the narrative’s central “events”: the encounter between Miss Ingram and Sonia Johnson and Maud Martha’s visit to see Santa Claus with Paulette.  In both of these instances, the narrative seems to reach for Maud Martha’s reaction, but fails resolutely to access it.  Maud Martha prefers to keep her revelations to and within herself.  I discuss these scenes in further detail in a later section of this chapter.

As with Brooks’s election of the sonnet to shape A Street’s literary material, the form she adopts for her narrative material permits a fair amount of insight into the Maud Martha’s larger significance.  The novella emerged from the tradition of medieval and didactic literature, and its origins can be traced to “moralizing anecdotes and folk wisdom included in popular sermons, fabliaux, and parables.”[21]  From its inception the novella served as a practical and “useful” form, and stemmed from a specific and localized social and economic context.[22]  Frequently compared to oral storytelling, the novella’s most important legacy resides in its evolution as a popular form.  It is celebrated primarily “for its acute sense of observation with regard to human activities and contemporary social reality,” the novella form supported the psychological examination of a variety of different types of characters.[23]  With regard to a consideration of Maud Martha’s relation to the novella tradition, several aspects of its evolution merit special attention.  Many anthologies of the novella feature what is known as a “frame tale,” a narrative that consists of a group of characters who exchange stories with one another.  Thus, within the bounds of its form, the novella allowed and presented different, even competing voices, which spoke in and through the same medium.  In addition, the term novella derives from the verb novellare, meaning “to narrate, recount, tell stories,” and from the noun form, indicating “novelty.”

The novella never really fell into disfavor so much as it faded from the literary mainstream.  The form reemerged, however, at the same time as the novel came into vogue.  Although the novel remained the dominant genre of literary expression, practitioners of the novella form staked a claim in the culture of letters alongside, and at times in contradistinction to its more long-winded relative.  Concurrently, partially in response to the rise of newspapers and magazines, many novelists experimented with short fiction.  Henry James visited all of these forms throughout his career in his quest to find the proper shape for his fictional material.[24]  His reflections on the novella form’s especial properties illuminate several aspects of its legacy.  James writes,

I was invited, and all urgently, to contribute to the first number, and was regaled with the golden truth that my composition might absolutely assume, might shamelessly parade in, its own organic form.  It was disclosed to me, wonderfully, that…any projected contribution might conform, not only unchallenged but by this circumstance itself the more esteemed, to its true intelligible nature.  For any idea I might wish to express I might have space, in other words, elegantly to express it…my friend’s emphasised indifference to the arbitrary limit of length struck me, I remember, as the fruit of the finest artistic intelligence…Among forms, moreover, we had had, on the dimensional ground – for length and breadth – our ideal, the beautiful and blest nouvelle; the generous, the enlightened hour for which appeared thus at last to shine…It had taken the blank misery of our Anglo-Saxon sense of such matters to organise…the general indifference to this fine type of composition.  In that dull view a ‘short story’ was a ‘short story,’ and that was the end of it.  Shades and differences, varieties and styles, the value above all of the idea happily developed, languished, to extinction, under the hard-and-fast rule of the ‘from six to eight thousand words’ – when, for one’s benefit, the rigour was a little relaxed.  For myself, I delighted in the shapely nouvelle.[25]

James locates the novella’s supreme value in its fluidity and mutability – in its receptiveness to the needs of that which composes its substance.  Still, the realist novel dominated Western literary culture in the nineteenth century, as embodied in the work of Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola.  Short fiction retained a secondary position in this literary climate.  In the Anglo-American context, literary criticism focused either on the novel or on the short story, neglecting the “intermediate form” of the novella.  The novel was still regarded as the form most conducive to express the ironies and complexities of the modern age; the novella, for its part, was not regarded as sufficiently dense to fulfill the appointed task.

Brooks’s adoption of the novella form comports to the shape of her “material,” and relates to her use of the sonnet form.  Like the sonnet, the novella was regarded as a medium through which to communicate larger truths about society through a process of miniaturization.[26]  Reducing the scale of the work, magnifying the specific circumstance, the form enabled a more honest reflection of narrative truth and a more complete vision of the totality – while not purporting to contain the totality itself.  James remarked that “a marked example of the possible scope, at once, and the possible neatness of the nouvelle, it takes its place for me in a series of which the main merit and sign is the effort to do the complicated thing with a strong brevity and lucidity – to arrive, on behalf of the multiplicity, at a certain science of control.”[27]  That science of control dictates great restraint and precision on the part of the author.  As in the sonnet and the poem, the novella is also defined by its limitations and by the level of restraint it imposes upon its creator.  Some critics refer to the novella as “poetic realism,” as a “compromise between the poeticization of the world and the stark reflection of things as things.”[28]  Thus, I understand the novella as a form uniquely capable of containing within a singular frame the tension and the compromise between romantic inclinations on the one hand and the magnetism of the real on the other.  At the same time, through its formal unity, compression, and narrative economy, the novella achieves a unity of effect which expands the scope of its significance and expression.

In affording a glimpse of the infinite through the finite, the novella recalls the sonnet’s evocation of the universal applicability through the specific circumstance. This achievement may be attributed to what some critics regard as the novella’s “doubling effect.”  The novella’s “generically distinct effect” is one of intensity and expansion.  “By comparison,” H.J.E. Paine writes, “the ‘overall aesthetic effect’ or narrative purpose of the novel is elaboration, that of the short story is limitation.  The novella’s ‘double effect’ “achieves an interrelation of a closely associated cluster of themes which permits an intensive and constant focus on the subject.  At the same time, since the implications of each motif are suggested but not explicitly developed, the novella is eminently a narrative of suggestion.  This outward expansion from a limited focus is the effect of the typical plot construction of the novella.  The action in a novella gives the effect…of a limited area being explored intensively.”[29]  As a medium that favors impression rather than indelibility, the novella offered Brooks the ideal form for her narrative ambitions.

In his examination of the novella Howard Nemerov claims that themes of identity and its accompanying motif, the double, dominate the novella form.  We can see this in Maud Martha insofar as Brooks allows her protagonist to contain the complexities of multiple selves within a single personality.  Rather than inaugurating a struggle with Maud Martha over the subject’s evolution, as represented by the dynamic between Isabel Archer and James, Brooks retains the “science of control” that shapes the novella; but she also agrees with Stavros’s assessment that “the unity of the novel is simply the central point of view of Maud Martha herself as she grows up.”[30]  Again, Spillers’s feminist reading of Maud Martha offers additional insight: “But reading counter to the current,” she contends, “we would claim for Maud Martha a subject’s singularity that contains ‘division’, in fact, generates it, through a female body, who, among social bodies, is the only one who can reproduce sameness and difference at once.”[31]  This division is not equivalent to psychic fragmentation, however.  Spillers continues, “In psychological terms, we might say that Maud Martha symbolizes a far more successfully ‘integrated’ character than Paul, and this fluency of response is primarily captivated by narrative strategies that blend the advantages and benefits of stream-of-consciousness and concealed narration in bringing to light a character whom we know in the interstices of her thought.  The stage of action in Maud Martha is embedded in none other than the landscape of its central consciousness, and from this focal point – replete with particular biases and allegiances – we come to know the ‘world’ of the narrative.”[32]  Thus, the narrative world is offered to the reader through the lens of Maud Martha’s consciousness rather than through that of her creator.  The landscape that the reader is invited to inhabit is, essentially, the landscape of Maud Martha’s consciousness, as she chooses to present it the reader.

The novella’s persistent return to the domain of Maud Martha’s consciousness constitutes the work’s unique ability to advance a feminist reading without overt didacticism.  Maud Martha’s perspective, albeit as limited as that of all individuals, achieves validation and expression through Brooks’s respect for the integrity of her character’s subjective orientation and expression.  Brooks’s preservation of Maud Martha’s private space reflects her consistent respect for the complexity of all of her poetic subjects, and implicates the work in, if not necessarily a feminist agenda, then certainly an egalitarian one.[33]  One of the most explicit examples of this strategy emerges in the narrator’s intervention: “What she [Maud Martha] wanted to dream, and dreamed was her own affair” (MM, 51).  The statement reflects accurately Maud Martha’s resilient individuality.  At the same time, the admission also conveys a certain amount of irony, for our dream life is precisely that world of reflection and fancy that takes shape without our conscious manipulation.  The landscape of our dreams is the realm that is the least controlled by rational thought or logical direction.  So, although Maud Martha can exert her will on the narrative expression of those dreams, she is, as are all individuals, composed of and shaped by forces and figments that are situated beyond the realm of human consciousness.

Navigating Bronzeville’s Structures of Entrapment and Division

In the previous chapter I argue that A Street in Bronzeville is permeated, and its text structured by, images and aspects of entrapment.  In Maud Martha Brooks revisits these themes, but extends the discussion to an analysis of structures of division that function as confining and framing devices in urban and literary space.  The gaps which society enacts and which we sustain are those artificially constructed divisions revolving around race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.  These artificial divisions become concrete, literally built into the physical environment, and, through the process of socialization, become so integrated with human consciousness that we cannot even detect their synthetic nature.  Brooks examines the divided selves and spaces that are produced linguistically and manifested physically in the built environment.  The heroine of her narrative, Maud Martha, struggles variously with the isolating effects of human consciousness, of domestic life, and of racial prejudice as she navigates the labyrinthine paths of her own interior.

The novella’s opening chapter, entitled simply “description of Maud Martha,” draws the reader directly into the sensory world of our heroine.  The narrator claims that, “what she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions” (MM, 1).[34]  The phrase contains a range of inferences, and introduces the heroine’s affinity for both the fantastic — candy buttons, painted music, and the prosaic — dandelions.  The second clause situates Maud Martha “on the steps of the back porch” where she gazes outward at the natural world around her.[35]  Several themes surface within this opening sentence: the variations on the color gray that abound throughout the book; and Maud Martha’s connection to the beauty of the ordinary and everyday, her acute attention to her immediate environment, and, more importantly, to her situation within it.[36]  The second paragraph switches abruptly to the conditional tense to express those desires that Martha cannot satiate readily.  Whereas the first paragraph situates Martha within, yet on the outer boundaries of, a domestic space – the back porch – the second paragraph transports her to a natural setting.  “Because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms…rapturously,” Maud Martha revels in the transporting power of language.  In doing so, she draws the reader into the world of the book – the world of words – a world which she will navigate along with the reader.  The heroine is characterized by a reaching, as her body extends outward into an unbounded natural space.[37]  The sense of wonder and freedom Maud Martha finds in nature is epitomized by the image of the meadow.  The meadow, an unadorned and unbounded space of openness and green, symbolic of new life, fertility, and harmony, invites Maud Martha into a space free of artificial boundaries or restrictions.[38]

“But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.  Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her backyard” as she looked at the world around her.  Maud Martha literally cloaks herself in nature and greenness.  “She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself.”  Maud Martha’s elevation of dandelions to “yellow jewels” alongside her identification of aspects of her self within this beautiful weed compresses several important insights within the space of three terse sentences.  Dandelions, prosaic and abundant, are, nonetheless, beautiful.  There are several other characteristics that mark dandelions as a significant choice for Maud Martha’s admiration and identification.  Dandelions thrive in landscapes that nurture few other forms of life, flourishing despite the harshest of conditions.  The flowers themselves possess no integrity, no permanent shape or state; they are, by their very nature, “made” to transform.  Although they appear as yellow flowers when in bloom, dandelions soon lose their petals, changing into an indistinct gray mass of fuzz.  That gray fuzz, in turn, is subject to a variety of weather conditions; rain and heavy winds strip even the fuzz from the weed, and transform them into mere stalks upon which new buds will form to open in the spring.  Because they are amenable to different shapes, colors, and significations, and because of their prosaic and abundant status, they present a variety of angles from which to interpret Maud Martha’s identification with them.  In her relation to dandelions, Maud Martha sees a picture of herself.  She literally objectifies herself, and in attaching herself to a natural object, represents herself and her image, both self-image and outer appearance, with banality, simplicity and modesty.  In particular, Maud Martha’s ability to objectify and then to portray her self grants her an independence and integrity that inserts her directly into the narrative.  She shares the role of narrator; the reader’s impressions are filtered through her own.  From the outset, the text reveals the shared role of protagonist and narrator in its revelation.  Permitted to drift in and out of literary space, and to insert herself within it as she sees fit, Maud Martha’s command of her narrative is remarkable, particularly in relation to that of Isabel Archer.  Whereas James maintains a firm grip on his heroine’s capacity for expression, consistently enacting a contentious relation between the author and his literary creation, Brooks invites a relational role in narrative construction.

The second chapter, “spring landscape: detail” invites obvious comparisons with painting.  The title infers the revelation of a tranquil and natural scene.  Instead, the chapter begins with the image of a stone-faced school building: “The school looked solid.  Brownish-red brick, dirty, cream stone trim.  Massive chimney, candid, serious.”  Decidedly not a conventional spring landscape, the image does, however, conjure youthful, “green” sentiments and scenes of childhood.  The gloomy tone relents a bit in the following phrase: “The sky was gray, but the sun was making little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting” (4).  Although grayness dominates the landscape, the shimmers of silver that peek through inspire the hope of a more uplifting scene to come.  The color silver stands out from the mundane background, implying surface shine, sparkle, and showiness, but nonetheless, it remains a variant of gray.  Its properties are inappropriate to reflect this “more than rather bleak” environment.  The children coming down the street, jostled about by the force of the wind, bring life and vividness with them which tempers the “unhandsome gray and decay of the double-apartment-building, past the little plots of dirt and scanty grass.”[39]  The narrator pauses before the building, and reflects, “There were lives in the buildings.  Past the tiny lives the children blew.  Cramp, inhibition, choke…”  The phrase “There were lives in the buildings” conveys a double meaning.  The lives contained within the building, similar to the residents of Brooks’s poem, “kitchenette building,” are so constricted and undistinguished that their slimness renders them almost imperceptible.  Brooks’s poetic phrasing also recalls the linguistic space of “kitchenette building.”  The words on the page are jumbled together – “cramp, inhibition, choke” – stifling and pressed up against one another, the words, as the inhabitants, are contained collectively within the building’s walls.  In addition, the phrase evokes the power of place – the role of physical environment in the formation of identity and experience; here, it is the buildings that possess life.  The narrator alights casually on Maud Martha’s figure within the group of children, relating “They spoke – or at least Maud Martha spoke – of the sweet potato pie that would be served at home” (5).  Maud Martha has a voice, and the curious interjection that qualifies the phrase reveals that she has the power to determine where and when she uses it – making all the more potent the silences that punctuate the text.

The relationship between Maud Martha and the reader is one of measured intimacy coupled with enforced distance.  The heroine’s disclosures and narrative interventions generate a dialogic relation between reader and protagonist, such that the reader’s interpretation is consistently qualified by Maud Martha’s interjections and silences.  For example, the phrase, “How strange, thought MM,” interrupts the narrative sequence that preceded and follows it.  The intervention commands the reader’s attention and refocuses it not on the scene but on Maud Martha’s experience and editorialization of it.  In another instance, the reader’s identification with Maud Martha is fostered by the relation of her grandmother’s death.  The chapter’s title, “death of grandmother” invokes memoir and intimacy.  It is not “Maud Martha’s grandmother,” or “the grandmother,” that is referenced; simply grandmother, conveying a shared sense of loss between Maud Martha and the reader.  The phrasing mimics that of a personal memoir, and we feel that it is Maud Martha’s voice that names each chapter, rather than that of an abstracted narrator.  Chapter Twenty, “a birth”, proceeds from the opposite direction.  The generic title reveals no connection to Maud Martha, and refers the reader back to the protagonist’s identification with the ordinary and unexceptional.  Maud Martha’s mother’s remark in the scene reaffirms the situation’s impersonal and distancing effect: “There’s nothing to make a fuss about.  you’re just going to have a baby, like millions of other women.  Why should I make a fuss” (95, emphasis original)?  Even Maud Martha’s own mother groups her daughter and her granddaughter-to-be into an undifferentiated collective inhabiting an indifferent world.

Chapter thirteen, “low yellow,” begins “I know what he is thinking, thought Maud Martha…I am still, definitely, not what he can call pretty if he remains true to what his idea of pretty has always been …He wonders, as we walk in the street, about the thoughts of the people who look at us” (53).  The phrasing contains no modification.  The narrator seems to have vacated the narrative world entirely.  Maud Martha has usurped that role to relate her own thoughts.  More significantly, in this instance Maud Martha relays the thoughts of another character, and in so doing examines the contents of a consciousness that does not, properly speaking, belong to her.  In other instances, Maud Martha and the narrator appear to be situated on the same narrative plane.  Their identities – that of the narrator and Maud Martha – are composed relationally, and constructed through dialogue, or shared narration between the two, as  the transfer of narratorial control switches consistently from one to the other.[40]

[1] The first published section of American Family Brown appeared in Portfolio in summer 1945, and was subsequently republished eight years later as Chapter Eighteen in Maud Martha.

[2] One of the most interesting revisions took place in the chapter “young couple at home” in which Maud Martha and her husband Paul lie in bed beside one another indulging in separate literary diversions.  Initially, Brooks had selected a work of Henry James to serve as Maud Martha’s reading material in the scene.  Her choice was rejected as improbable, and the book became W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.  Paul’s choice, which should come as no surprise to readers, is Sex in the Married Life. 

[3] George Stavros, “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Gloria Wade Gayles, ed., Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2003), 39.

[4] Claudia Tate, “Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Gayles, ed., 114.

[5] The cover of the first Harpers & Row edition was designed by Leo Manso; the Third World Press cover was designed by Craig Taylor.

[6] Henry James, quoted in Ira B. Nadel, “Visual Culture: the Photo Frontispieces to the New York Edition,” in Henry James’s New York Edition: The Construction of Authorship, David McWirther, ed. (Stanford, Stanford UP, 1995), 103.

[7] See pages 40-45 of the dissertation for relevant discussion.

[8] James introduces his heroine to the reader in the novel’s Preface as “The girl hovers, inextinguishable, as a charming creature” and relates his novel as such: “It came to be a square and spacious house…it had to be put up round my young woman while she stood there in perfect isolation” (Preface, 11;8).  Thus Isabel’s textual isolation precedes the solidification of her narrative isolation within the house she shares with her husband, rendered poignantly in the following passage: “She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end.  Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward into realms of restriction and depression…She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling.  Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life.  It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation” (Portrait, 360).

[9] Ironically, Maud Martha takes place on the corner of 34th Street and Cottage Grove, a corner that now forms part of the lawn surrounding the Lake Meadows public housing complex.

[10] Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism: “Nuance and the Novella: A Study of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha,” Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers (Vermont: Teacher’s College Press, 1985), 127-141.  Quote taken from 127.

[11] Brooks’s strategy replicates Maud Martha’s tendency to “love moments for themselves,” to be able to appreciate and dwell in the finite and the fleeting, at the same time as one lives in the immediate and the experiential.  In addition, Brooks implies that if one looks closely enough one can find in these moments the revelation of larger truths about the world.

[12] J.H.E. Paine, Theory and Criticism of the Novella (Bonn: Bouvier, 1979), 29.

[13] D.H. Melhem suggests that Maud “functions as a unifying consciousness; fine, central intelligence.”  D.H. Melhem, Gwendolyn Brooks, Poetry, and the Heroic Voice (Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1987), 84.  His assessment recalls the situation of Isabel Archer at the center of James’s novel, and James’s tendency in his later work to structure and organize the entire narrative around a  – similar to central consciousness, as in The Ambassadors in the character of Lambert Strether.

[14] In reference to Maud Martha Brooks’s biographer D.H. Melhem contends that Brooks’s style serves to “lattice the personal narrative within the social frame”, Melhem, 94.  The reference to lattice is also instructive in that lattice functions as a decorative artifact, intended to conceal the house’s foundation.

[15] Christian, 13.

[16] The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, 2nd ed., Richard Blackmur, ed. (New York, Scribner’s, 1962), 263-64.

[17] Hortense Spillers, Hortense Spillers, “An Order of Constancy”: Notes on Brooks and the Feminine, Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ed.  (New York: Meridian, 1990), 263.

[18] Barbara Christian contends, “Not only does each vignette evoke the essence of a specific mood, emotion, thought, or event, it contributes to a composition that suggests the essence of Maud Martha’s character and the pattern that is her life,” Christian, 137.

[19] James distinguished the short story from the novella thusly: “He describes the origin of a short story as lying in the ‘idea anecdotal,’ which is to be followed, ‘as much as possible from its outer edge in, rather than from its center outward,’ which is the case with the ‘idea developmental’ that gives rise to the nouvelle.”  James, Preface to “The Lesson of the Master,” Henry James, Literary Criticism: French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Editions, Leon Edel and Mark Wilson, eds. (New York: Literary Classics, 1984), 1227.

[20] Christian, 135.

[21] Gloria Allaire, ed.  The Italian Novella: a Book of Essays (New York: Routledge, 2003), 1.

[22] The novella’s vernacular roots derive from “the commercial enterprises of the new merchant culture demanded intelligent skills such as the ability to read and write in the local vernacular…The increase of pragmatic literacy paved the way for a new mode of non-profit lay reading….as literature grew, so did the demand for literary works written in the contemporary vernacular” (Allaire, ed., 2).

[23] Allaire, ed., 1.

[24] “The formal techniques of the nouvelle caught his attention just at the time when he was finding the traditional realistic techniques of writing novels particularly unsatisfying.  When he returned to writing novels, his approach was considerably different, of course, benefiting from his experimentation in short fiction and drama” (Paine, 33).  The genre has always been somewhat amorphous, the terms used to describe the form of writing both varied and ambiguous.  James, for example, welcomed the “shapely novella as a means for his material to ‘assume its own organic form’” (James, Preface to “The Lesson of the Master,” in Edel and Wilson, eds., 1227).

[25] Henry James, Preface to “The Lesson of the Master,” 1227-1228.

[26] One literary critic assesses the novella’s ability to “compress the material while at the same time expanding its implications,” claiming that its “supreme attribute” is its “effect of smallness and fullness” (Paine, 106; 120).

[27] James, Preface to “The Lesson of the Master”

[28] Paine, 24.

[29] Paine, 106.

[30] George Stavros, “An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks” in Gayles, ed., 46.

[31] Spillers, 268, emphasis mine.

[32] Spillers, 258.  Drawing out the feminist implications of her reading Spillers writes, “The demonstration, I believe, of woman-freedom is the text itself that has no centrality, no force, no sticking point other than the imaginative nuances of the subject’s consciousness.  Maud Martha’s drama remains internal, and that interiority engenders the crucial aesthetic address of the work” (Spillers, 263).

[33] The editors of the collection Herspace maintain that “The notion of women and solitude, women living alone and liking it, is askew with the feminist values of connectedness, relationality, and collaboration.  Beginning with Nancy Chodorow’s work, the self-in-relation model of feminine personality has been used to understand gender differences and to analyze women’s texts.  Carol Gilligan’s work also describes women in webs of relationship and connection.  For this image of the web to make sense for me, I visualize my placement in a social web, but the web is once-removed; there is a neutral, peaceful space between the web and me…The collected essays share an intention to explore and expose the “struggle to learn how to make lives of their own amid cultural forces that coerce women into partnerships, marriages, institutions of enclosure, and dependency.”  Jo Malin and Victoria Boynton, eds., Herspace: Women, Writing, and Solitude (New York: Haworth Press, 2003) 5; 11.

[34] The space of the porch merits its own analysis, as it is evoked multiple times throughout the book.  The porch essentially represents a boundary – a point between two worlds that encompasses both inner and outer.  In her biography Brooks declares, “I dreamed freely, often on the top step of the back porch” (Brooks, Report, 37).  Chapter eight, entitled simply “home” offers another porch scene where Maud Martha  recalls a moment of gentle conversation in a domestic space that incorporates nature and the exterior world.  On the porch sits a “magnificent Michigan fern”, but the location provides an unavoidable view of a boundary – the “emphatic iron of the fence” (MM, 28).   Later on, Maud Martha sits alongside Paul on the porch swing, suggesting a continuity of motion, but one that is both regulated and contained, disciplined, ritualized and bounded.

[35] Spillers relates this impression of Maud Martha: “We imagine not so much a structure of physical and physiological traits called ‘Maud Martha’ as we do a profoundly active poetic sensibility, happily unbound in a world of marvelous color, of infinite allure” (Spillers, 259).

[36] Even new life is subsumed by the grayness and smothering atmosphere into which it has been born.  At the scene of Paulette’s birth “Paul looked at the new human being.  It appeared gray and greasy.  Life was hard, he thought” (MM, 97).  The reader is left to wonder whether the baby is still-born – inanimate even as it enters life.  Paul wonders, “What had he done to deserve a stillborn child?  But there it was, lying dead.”  The reader has no choice but to take Paul’s word for it at this point, although his powers of observation and analysis have thus far proven woefully inadequate, if evidenced at all.

[37] The scene recalls the final line of the untitled second poem in Annie Allen, “But reaching was his rule” (Brooks, Blacks, 120).

[38] When her parents express the desire to move to South Park Maud Martha renders her disapproval by citing the “mechanical birds” that populate the area.  See MM, 31.

[39] The image of scanty grass and plots of dirt contrasts sharply with Portrait’s opening scene where the reclining figures sit within the vastness of Gardencourt’s lush front yard.  The scene calls attention to the excess of space afforded the upper classes, as opposed to the impoverished landscape of the apartment building.

[40] Spillers contends that “Maud Martha is herself as much an observer of her own scene as she is a participant in it, a maker of it.  Alongside her dreamwork, she maintains the prerogatives of detachment so that at no point in the narrative – even when Maud Martha thinks the most harshly truthful things about herself and those around her – does the reader ‘feel sorry’ for her (Spillers, 254).

© Rachel Rosekind, PhD, MLIS