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Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice

D. H. Melhem
Copyright Date: 1987
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Gwendolyn Brooks
    Book Description:

    Gwendolyn Brooks is one of the major American poets of this century and the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1950). Yet far less critical attention has focused on her work than on that of her peers.

    In this comprehensive biocritical study, Melhem -- herself a poet and critic -- traces the development of Brooks's poetry over four decades, from such early works asA Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, andThe Bean Eaters, to the more recentIn the Mecca, Riot,andTo Disembark.

    In addition to analyzing the poetic devices used, Melhem examines the biographical, historical, and literary contexts of Brooks's poetry: her upbringing and education, her political involvement in the struggle for civil rights, her efforts on behalf of young black poets, her role as a teacher, and her influence on black letters. Among the many sources examined are such revealing documents as Brooks's correspondence with her editor of twenty years and with other writers and critics.

    From Melhem's illuminating study emerges a picture of the poet as prophet. Brooks's work, she shows, is consciously charged with the quest for emancipation and leadership, for black unity and pride. At the same time, Brooks is seen as one of the preeminent American poets of this century, influencing both African American letters and American literature generally. This important book is an indispensable guide to the work of a consummate poet.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4858-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Gwendolyn Brooks is a major figure in American literature. She has produced a body of work that extends over four decades. Yet, despite honors and esteem, it is mainly black scholars and critics who have accorded her poetry its due. This study will, in effect, examine Brooks’s status and rank as one of the preeminent American writers of our time.

    What shall the criteria be? Our academies generally accept T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens as major American poets. Why? Foremost on levels of craft and technique, modifications of form and language, scope or breadth of...

  6. 1 Biographical
    (pp. 5-15)

    “Until 1967 my own blackness did not confront me with a spelling of itself . . . Yet, although almost secretly, I had felt that to be black was good” (RPO,83-84). Thus Gwendolyn Brooks expresses early self-acceptance and offers perhaps greatest tribute to her parents. A psychological commonplace holds that firm ego-strength is built early and nurtured by a environment.

    Brooks’s parents gave her constant affection and respected intellectual gifts. In the creative atmosphere, her father, a with “rich Artistic Abilities” (RPO,39), sang, told stories, acknowledged charitably the poverty and misfortune of others.“His religion was kindness,” she observes.¹...

  7. 2 A Street in Bronzeville
    (pp. 16-50)

    On July 18, 1944, Gwendolyn Brooks submitted her first collectionA Street in Bronzeville,¹ to Harper and Brothers.² His interest immediately stirred, senior editor Edward C. Aswell sent the manuscript to Richard Wright for an evaluation. Wright responded enthusiastically to the work and its accurate portrayal of Negro life, although he judged the manuscript too slight for a volume. He took exception to only one poem, “the mother,” because of its subject matter, abortion. Wright felt that the poet’s strength lay in ballads and blues and the glimpses of lost people in an urban black society. The title seemed esoteric;...

  8. 3 Annie Allen
    (pp. 51-79)

    During the postwar period, afterBronzeville,Brooks worked concurrently on two projects: theAnnie Allen¹ manuscript novel,American Family Brown, which becameMaud Martha. One should note the dynamic interaction between the two poetry and prose, through which the poet was broadening range. In fact, the bulk of correspondence between poet editor from the publication ofBronzevilleto the publicationAnnie Allendeals with the novel until, in October 1947, it rejected.

    Annie Allencorrespondence began on March 24, 1948, Brooks submitted the work to Lawrence under the title “Allen.” Its major piece, “The Anniad,” was then called “Hesteriad.” Editorial...

  9. 4 Maud Martha, Bronzeville Boys and Girls
    (pp. 80-99)

    American Family Brown,the source of Maud Martha,¹ was as a series of twenty-five poems about an American Negro family (GB/EL, Sept. 28, 1944). In her letter of acceptanceBronzeville,Lawrence had inquired about a prose project encouraged one as artistically feasible. The poetic conception, never completely abandoned, infuses both the lyric passages the narrative. The first published section appeared inPortfolio(Summer 1945). With minor changes, it is chapter 18 ofMaud Martha,“we’re the only colored people here.” Lawrence mildly faulted the use of italics, but admired the universal quality of work.

    Brooks initially submittedAmerican Family Brown...

  10. 5 The Bean Eaters
    (pp. 100-131)

    “Bronzeville Men and Women,” soon to becomeThe Bean Eaters,¹ was submitted to Elizabeth Lawrence on December 1958, together with another partial manuscript, a novel, “In Mecca.” The editor immediately acknowledged the manuscripts and, six weeks later, conveyed the joint editorial decision (EL/GB, Feb. 9, 1959). She enthusiastically acceptedThe Bean Eatersfor publication. Among the poems, she singled out for special praise “A Bronzeville Mother. . .” and “The ChicagoDefenderSends a Man to Little Rock.” But there were reservations about “The Contemplation of Suicide,” which had been rejected Annie Allen, and “The Ghost at the Quincy Club.”...

  11. 6 Selected Poems
    (pp. 132-152)

    The year ofThe Bean Eatersbrought financial hardship to the Brooks/Blakely household. Henry Blakely was poorly enlployed and poorly paid most of the year.The Bean Eaterswas not reprinted and went out of print in 1963, as hadAnnie AllenandMaud Marthain 1954 andA Street in Bronzevillein 1957. The poet considered doing a verse biography of Phillis Wheatley, which did not materialize. A volume of selected poems, first proposed to Harper’s in January 1961, was then discouraged as premature. Brooks had been working onIn the Meccaas a novel; the editor’s response dissuaded...

  12. 7 In the Mecca
    (pp. 153-189)

    In the Mecca¹ was conceived about 1954 as a teen-age novel. It drew upon Brooks’s early, firsthand experience in the Mecca Building as secretary to a patent-medicine purveyor. On December 21,1958, the poet submitted parts of two books: verse from “Bronzeville Men and Women” (laterThe Bean Eaters), and a novel, “In the Mecca.” Lawrence didn’t care for “Mecca” as novel (EL/GB, Feb. 9). She felt Brooks’s discipline in poetry to be a handicap in the larger, freer area of prose. The poet accepted the criticism, noting that she wanted to try writing a verse novel with historical background. The...

  13. 8 Riot, Family Pictures, Aloneness
    (pp. 190-212)

    On first meeting Gwendolyn Brooks in 1966, Dudley Randall was impressed by her modesty and warmth.¹ That year, the Metropolitan Detroit English Club had invited her to read at Oakland University; Randall offered to organize hospitality for the visit. Brooks had read the publisher’s reviews inBlack World(thenNegro Digest) and thought him “fierce,” she told him later. But his “pleasant expression and mild manner” impressed her otherwise. Randall was to become the poet's editor, publisher, and best friend. Brooks dedicated her first book with Broadside Press,Riot,² to Randall, “a giant in our time,” and donated to the...

  14. 9 Later Works
    (pp. 213-235)

    WhileRiotandFamily Picturescrest the progressive mood of Civil Rights Movement, “In Montgomery”¹ describes something new. Ever “a Watchful Eye, a Tuned Ear, a Super-Reporter,” Brooks was commissioned byEbonymagazine in 1971 to report on black life in Montgomery, Alabama. Her startling prescience the new decade supports Pound's view that poets are “the antennae of the race.”

    The seventies retreated from the activist sixties. Revelations of government corruption, climaxed by the resignation of President Richard Nixon; the end of the Vietnam War; a weariness politics coupled with satisfaction by modest gains in civil rights; concentration upon daily...

  15. 10 A Major Poet
    (pp. 236-242)

    In contemporary poetry, the world of the poem is often conceived as a beleaguered fortress against the real world; to enter one is to depart from the other. This limits the material of reality for the work and requires a choice between the two as means or end. Whether weighted toward solipsism or manipulation, the tendency results in an exclusive poetry, usually offered with matching poetics and criticism. The art of Gwendolyn Brooks makes no such dichotomy. It includes the world, its poetic emblems, and us. We are not merely to be ranked and shaped with the raw data of...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 243-256)
  17. Bibliography of Works by Gwendolyn Brooks
    (pp. 257-260)
  18. Index
    (pp. 261-270)