Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, the only novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First published in the US in 1953, this exquisitely-written novella has recently been released in the UK for the first time, making it available to a much wider audience of readers than before.
Maud Martha comprises a sequence of around thirty short vignettes, each one an evocative prose poem presenting a snapshot of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. As the writer Margo Jefferson points out in her excellent introduction, Brooks – an African American woman from the working classes – drew on her own life to create Maud Martha, tweaking various elements, dialling them up or down to portray the story.
Like Gwendolyn Brooks herself, Maud Martha Brown was born in 1917 to a relatively poor African American family from Chicago. As such, the novella’s early chapters offer glimpses of Maud’s childhood in the city’s South Side, a tough, uncompromising environment punctuated by flashes of beauty in the day-to-day. Dandelions glitter like ‘yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress’ of the Browns’ back yard, while the beginning of class is heralded by the peal of a bell, ‘a quickening of steps’ and the ‘fluttering of brief cases.’ Right from the very start, the reader is struck by the author’s use of imagery to convey a glorious sense of wonder in the routine and mundane.
Over the course of the novel, we follow Maud Martha through childhood, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. The girl is bright, virtuous and imaginative – not as pretty or dainty as her older sister, Helen, but virtuous nonetheless. She dreams of a life in New York with all its attendant glamour and culture – alluring but unobtainable, for the moment at least.
When Maud Martha meets Paul, her body sings beside him – this man who craves the pleasurable things in life, ‘spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class’. Marriage swiftly ensues, with the couple settling for a tiny kitchenette and a shared bathroom despite their aspirations for something more spacious. But, while there are moments of brightness – occasional trips to the cinema and other small pleasures – life is hard for the newly-married Maud, whose skin is darker than her husband’s, something of a barrier to maintaining his affections.
What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping. (p. 56)
Brooks’ vignettes range from depictions of commonplace, quotidian activities (sparing a mouse; gutting a chicken; shopping for a hat) to more notable occasions (first beau; giving birth; her grandmother’s death). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most affecting snapshots illustrate how Maud Martha navigates the casual prejudices and racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis. The telling looks, the unguarded remarks, and the more blatant, explicit injustices are all captured so carefully and subtly through Brooks’ poetic prose. For instance, in one early vignette, a trip to an uptown cinema – a place where people of colour are rarely seen – proves somewhat uncomfortable for Maud Martha and Paul, despite the beautiful setting.
When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. (pp. 49–50)
When Maud Martha takes a job as a domestic ‘help’ in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, she realises just what Paul has to put up with in his service job – especially when her exacting employer, the insensitive Mrs Burns-Cooper, proceeds to rattle off a litany of boasts. Nevertheless, there is an admirable degree of dignity in how Brooks’ protagonist deals with this put-down and other similar incidents, a quiet seam of resilience in the face of hurtful slights.
Shall I mention, considered Maud Martha, my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras? She decided against it. She went on listening, in silence, to the confidences until the arrival of the lady’s mother-in-law (large-eyed, strong, with hair of a mighty white, and with an eloquent, angry bosom.) (p. 103)
Perhaps the most affecting example of racism occurs when Maud Martha takes her daughter, Paulette, to visit Santa at the local department store. While Santa welcomes the white children with smiles and open arms, Paulette is roundly ignored – to the point where her mother has to intervene. For the most part, Maud Martha is mindful of keeping the occasional ‘scraps of baffled hate’ hidden inside her, unvoiced and constrained, but in this instance, she can barely hold back the tears. It’s a deeply moving vignette, poignantly evoked through Brooks’ expressive prose.
But despite the myriad of challenges for a young, black, working-class woman like Maud Martha, there is something wonderfully uplifting about this book, just like its protagonist’s attitude to life itself. The vignettes glow with evocative imagery – like jewels that shimmer as their facets catch the light.
The Ball stirred her. The Beauties, in their gorgeous gowns, bustling, supercilious; the young men, who at other times most unpleasantly blew their noses, and darted surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves, and sweated and swore at their jobs, and scratched their more intimate parts, now smiling, smooth, overgallant, the drowsy lights; the smells of food and flowers, the smell of Murray’s pomade, the body perfumes, natural and superimposed… (pp. 53–54)
As we leave Maud Martha – pregnant with her second child, her brother, Harry, freshly returned from the Second World War – there’s a glorious sense of optimism in the air. Here is a woman with a world of possibilities ahead of her. ‘What, what, am I to do with all of this life?’, she muses, fearless and ready for anything, despite unsettling news of racially-motivated lynchings elsewhere.
In crafting Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today.
Maud Martha is published by Faber & Faber. My thanks to Andy Miller, whose rave on a recent episode of Backlisted pushed it up the reading pile – spot on again!