Gloria Naylor Essay - Naylor, Gloria (Vol. 156)

Naylor, Gloria (Vol. 156)

Introduction

Gloria Naylor 1950-

American novelist, editor, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Naylor's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28 and 52.

Naylor is recognized for her moving stories of African-American women, particularly in her novel The Women of Brewster Place (1982). Known for her lyrical prose and her skillful infusion of the mythical and magical in her novels, Naylor realistically portrays the varied lives of African Americans, particularly her examinations of the dual pressures of being a minority and a woman in a Caucasian, male-oriented society. Naylor also is adept at using classics of European literature and transforming them to fit the African-American experience. For example, she has used Dante's Inferno in Linden Hills (1985), Shakespeare's The Tempest in Mama Day (1988), and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in Bailey's Cafe (1992). Naylor also draws on African-American literary and creative traditions in her novels.

Biographical Information

Naylor's parents, Roosevelt and Alberta, were sharecroppers in Robinson, Mississippi. They moved to New York City one month before Naylor was born on January 25, 1950. Naylor's mother insisted that none of her children would be born in the South because she wanted them to have access to libraries and an education. Naylor attended Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, New York. Upon graduation she became a Jehovah's Witness missionary for seven years, and later returned to New York in 1975 to pursue a degree in nursing at Medgar Evers College. When Naylor recognized her strong interest in literature, she transferred to Brooklyn College to study English. While studying at Brooklyn College, Naylor published her first short story, “A Life on Beekman Place,” in Essence. She later expanded the story into her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which won the American Book Award for best new novel in 1983. She received her B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1981 and her M.A. in African-American studies from Yale in 1983. In 1983 she also received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In addition to her writing, Naylor has taught literature and lectured at several American universities, including New York University, George Washington University, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Cornell University, and the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

Major Works

One of the recurring themes explored in Naylor's work is the special bond that can exist between women, whether out of common experience or of shared history. In The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor chronicles the aspirations and disappointments of seven female residents of Brewster Place, a dilapidated ghetto housing project located in an unidentified northern city. Naylor devotes individual chapters to the lives of each of her characters, detailing the circumstances that brought the women to the neighborhood, their relationships with each other, and the devastating events that heighten the difficulty of leaving Brewster Place. As the women cope with living in a racially polarized and sexist society, they also encounter abuse and indifference from their fathers, husbands, lovers, and children. To alleviate these conditions, Naylor advocates female solidarity and nurturing. In Linden Hills Naylor abandons the gritty realism of her first novel for an allegorical commentary on the fallacies of upward mobility and material success. Linden Hills, an exclusive suburb located near Brewster Place, is run by the malevolent Luther Nedeed. A real estate tycoon and mortician, Nedeed is a descendant of a man who founded the community during the 1830s by selling his wife and six children into slavery. While his ancestors developed Linden Hills into an affluent suburb, intending to showcase the economic and educational achievements of African Americans, Nedeed has turned his forefather's aspirations into a perverse legacy in which prospective residents must forfeit their heritage and sell their humanity to obtain a home. The novel is an indictment of the African-American middle class that sacrifices their racial identity for material success. One of the things lost in the Linden Hills neighborhood is a feeling of community, especially of sisterhood among the women. The only bond felt between women is the suffering that Luther's wife, Willa, discovers she shares with the Nedeed women who preceded her. Mama Day is set in Willow Springs, an all-black island community located off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, which is legally independent from both states. Willow Springs was founded by Sapphira Wade, an African slave and sorceress who married and later murdered her owner after forcing him to bequeath his land to his slaves and their offspring. The novel centers on two of Sapphira's descendents—Mama Day, the elderly leader of Willow Springs, who possesses mystical healing powers, and Cocoa, Mama Day's strong-willed grandniece, who lives in New York City but returns to Willow Springs every summer. The novel's chapters alternate between a summation by Cocoa and her husband, George, of their stormy courtship and marriage and the narration of an unnamed island resident who relates the story of Willow Springs and its two legendary matriarchs. The elements of sisterhood in this novel rely on shared history, family, and a connection to folk tradition. Bailey's Cafe centers on a magical diner that people are drawn to when they are in trouble and nearly hopeless. Next to Bailey's Cafe is Eve's Place, a boardinghouse of women run by the mother-figure Eve, who helps to heal the residents of their wounds, typically inflicted by the men in their lives. Naylor combines first- and third-person narration to depict the desperate patrons of the Brooklyn diner in the years following World War II. Through their stories of loss and survival, Naylor movingly captures African American life in New York City during the late 1940s. The novel owes much of its structure and style to the influence of blues music. With The Men of Brewster Place Naylor returned to the setting of her first novel, but focuses instead on the men in the Brewster community. Their stories include a sharecropper who allowed his wife to sell his daughter for more land, a gang member who is pressured into murder, an adoptive father disenchanted when his hopes fail to materialize, and a minister who betrays his spiritual beliefs for political office and power.

Critical Reception

Many critics have compared Naylor's work to that of other African-American female writers, including Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Critics have viewed Naylor's work as a part of a female African-American writing movement of the 1980s. Reviewers have praised Naylor's ability to portray the lives of African-American women without reducing them to stereotypes or claiming to have represented “the” African-American experience. Roz Kaveney stated, “In her first three novels, Gloria Naylor described urban African-American life with a graceful vigor that transcended, but did not discard polemic; she found ways of portraying the lives of individuals, and in particular of women, who were damaged and scarred, but not overwhelmed, by racial and sexual oppression.” Many reviewers have discussed Naylor's work in terms of her reliance on and subversion of traditional literary works. For example, critics have noted the similarities between the nine rings of the neighborhood in Linden Hills and the nine circles of hell in Dante's Inferno. Reviewers have also found a rich influence of African-American fiction and other creative forms, including jazz and blues music in Naylor's work. Several reviewers, however, were not as impressed with Bailey's Cafe as they had been with Naylor's previous three novels, arguing that the work's episodic structure lacked a unifying element and that the magical elements were too improbable. In her review of Bailey's Cafe Donna Rifkind explained, “Naylor's is a commanding fictional voice: sonorous, graceful, sometimes piercing, often spellbinding. At its best, it's the kind of voice that moves you along as if you were dreaming. But it runs the risk, at its worst, of overpowering the voices of her own carefully imagined characters.” Critics have pointed out that Naylor has carefully created a canon of related novels with elements and characters that reoccur from book to book. Paula Barnes noted the common elements found in Naylor's first four novels: “a scathing yet quiet criticism of American racism, allegorical commentary, fusion of the epic and natural, and suspension of reality.” Many critics have commented that Naylor has created an important place for herself in the canon of American literature by demonstrating her ability to bring to life a segment of the population which has often been ignored in literature.

Principal Works

The Women of Brewster Place (novel) 1982

Linden Hills (novel) 1985

Mama Day (novel) 1988

Bailey's Cafe (novel) 1992

Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present [editor] (short stories) 1995

The Men of Brewster Place (novel) 1998

Criticism

Larry R. Andrews (essay date September 1989)

SOURCE: Andrews, Larry R. “Black Sisterhood in Gloria Naylor's Novels.” CLA Journal XXXIII, no. 1 (September 1989): 1–25.

[In the following essay, Andrews discusses the concept of black sisterhood, as portrayed in Naylor's early novels, and how it promotes “a sense of identity, purpose, and strength for survival.”]

In the conclusion of her study of twelve novels by black women over the last four decades (No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Sex in Black Women's Fiction), Gloria Wade-Gayles, speaking about the female characters, says:

[E]ven when the women understand that they share a sisterhood of oppression, they...

(The entire section is 8303 words.)

Jill L. Matus (essay date spring 1990)

SOURCE: Matus, Jill L. “Dream, Deferral, and Closure in The Women of Brewster Place.Black American Literature Forum 24, no. 1 (spring 1990): 49–64.

[In the following essay, Matus discusses the role of dreams in The Women of Brewster Place and considers why Naylor chose to end the novel with a dream.]

After presenting a loose community of six stories [in The Women of Brewster Place] each focusing on a particular character, Gloria Naylor constructs a seventh, ostensibly designed to draw discrete elements together, to “round off” the collection. As its name suggests, “The Block Party” is a vision of community effort, everyone's story....

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Grace E. Collins (essay date March 1991)

SOURCE: Collins, Grace E. “Narrative Structure in Linden Hills.CLA Journal 34, no. 3 (March 1991): 290–300.

[In the following essay, Collins discusses how the parallel narratives of Willa and Willie in Linden Hills raise questions about how African Americans can live the American Dream without losing their racial identity.]

In her second novel, Linden Hills, Gloria Naylor dramatizes the possible negative consequences of achieving the American Dream, an achievement which has eluded most African-Americans for over a century. At a time when education as a means of social mobility is being touted as a savior for African-Americans, Naylor raises...

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Gloria Naylor and Angels Carabi (interview date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Naylor, Gloria, and Angels Carabi. “Interview with Gloria Naylor.” Belles Lettres 7, no. 3 (spring 1992): 36–42.

[In the following interview, Naylor talks about her background, the role of community in her work, and her relationship to her characters.]

[Carabi:] Toni Morrison told me that, despite growing up in the North, she was surrounded by grandmothers and aunts who told stories from the South. Did you have a similar experience?

[Naylor:] Exactly. I listened to stories about fishing and going to the woods and picking berries. I heard about working in the cotton fields and about the different characters who were in...

(The entire section is 4846 words.)

Roz Kaveney (review date 17 July 1992)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “At the Magic Diner.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4659 (17 July 1992): 20.

[In the following mixed review, Kaveney praises Naylor as a gifted writer, but complains that Bailey's Cafe contains serious structural flaws.]

In her first three novels, Gloria Naylor described urban African-American life with a graceful vigour that transcended, but did not discard, polemic; she found ways of portraying the lives of individuals, and in particular of women, who were damaged and scarred, but not overwhelmed, by racial and sexual oppression. Her fiction made small victories heroic, small defeats not dishonourable.

Naylor's new...

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Maxine L. Montgomery (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Maxine L. “The Fathomless Dream: Gloria Naylor's Use of the Descent Motif in The Women of Brewster Place.CLA Journal 36, no. 1 (September 1992): 1–11.

[In the following essay, Montgomery discusses Naylor's use of the descent motif in The Women of Brewster Place.]

The Women of Brewster Place is an experimental novel that functions as a rare, incisive work of social criticism. Gloria Naylor's clever choice of Langston Hughes' poem “Harlem” as an epigraph directs the reader's focus of attention to the lives of those for whom the American dream, whether it entails socioeconomic advancement or stability and fulfillment in the...

(The entire section is 3419 words.)

Karen Joy Fowler (review date 4 October 1992)

SOURCE: Fowler, Karen Joy. “Serving Lost Souls.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 October 1992): 6.

[In the following review of Bailey's Cafe, Fowler argues that the beauty of Naylor's prose prevents the emotional pain of the characters from becoming overwhelming.]

Geographically, Bailey's Cafe is everywhere. It can be entered from the real world at any point; its address is despair.

In Bailey's Cafe, the audacious and mesmerizing new novel from Gloria Naylor (The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills and Mama Day), the author tells us the stories of some of the people who find the...

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Donna Rifkind (review date 11 October 1992)

SOURCE: Rifkind, Donna. “Eatery at the Edge of the World.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 41 (11 October 1992): 5.

[In the following review, Rifkind offers a mixed assessment of Bailey's Cafe.]

Gloria Naylor's is a commanding fictional voice: sonorous, graceful, sometimes piercing, often spellbinding. At its best, it's the kind of voice that moves you along as if you were dreaming. But it runs the risk, at its worst, of overpowering the voices of her own carefully imagined characters.

Naylor offers characteristic highs and lows in her fourth book, Bailey's Cafe. Like the author's 1983 prize-winning novel, The Women of Brewster...

(The entire section is 921 words.)

Gay Wilentz (review date February 1993)

SOURCE: Wilentz, Gay. “Healing the Wounds of Time.” Women's Review of Books 10, no. 5 (February 1993): 15–16.

[In the following excerpt, Wilentz praises Bailey's Cafe for addressing a “broad spectrum” of the female African-American experience.]

Gloria Naylor, in Bailey's Cafe, addresses female circumcision in Africa (in this case, Ethiopia) as part of a larger examination of the sexual mutilations inflicted on women in contemporary society. Like Alice Walker's Tashi, Naylor's characters are based on archetypes—mostly from the Bible—but, unlike Tashi, they are not universalized. The novel takes place in a blues cafe down a dead-end street at...

(The entire section is 875 words.)

Paula Barnes (review date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Barnes, Paula. “Blues Symphony.” Belles Lettres 8, no. 3 (spring 1993): 56.

[In the following review, Barnes discusses the suspension of disbelief and the use of blues music in Bailey's Cafe.]

Gloria Naylor in her fourth novel continues the traditions she has established in her earlier works: a scathing yet quiet criticism of American racism, allegorical commentary, fusion of the epic and natural, and suspension of reality. Yet in Bailey's Cafe, Naylor adds a new dimension to her work, using African American music as a unifying motif. To read this book is to listen to the blues. The epigraph tells us: “Look and you can hear the blues open a place...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Peter Erickson (review date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Erickson, Peter. Review of Bailey's Cafe, by Gloria Naylor. Kenyon Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1993): 197–207.

[In the following excerpt, Erickson discusses Naylor's humor in Bailey's Cafe and comments on Naylor's views regarding cooperation among different racial and ethnic groups.]

Bailey's Cafe is the fourth in a sequence of novels that Gloria Naylor has conceived as a quartet. Hitherto she has used two devices to create a sense of linkage from one novel to the next. The first is to develop a character or situation referred to in a previous novel; the second is to continue a pattern of allusions to Shakespeare.1 In this final...

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Charles P. Toombs (essay date September 1993)

SOURCE: Toombs, Charles P. “The Confluence of Food and Identity in Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills: ‘What We Eat Is Who We Is.’” CLA Journal 37, no. 1 (September 1993): 1–18.

[In the following essay, Toombs argues that the foods that the characters eat in Linden Hills shows their connection, or lack thereof, with their African-American cultural heritage.]

Yet the people went on living and reproducing in spite of the bad food. Most of the children had straight bones, strong teeth. But it couldn't go on like that. Even the strongest heritage would one day run out.

—Ann Petry, The...

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Celeste Fraser Delgado (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Delgado, Celeste Fraser. “Stealing B(l)ack Voices: The Myth of the Black Matriarchy and The Women of Brewster Place.” In Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah, pp. 90–105. New York: Amistad, 1993.

[In the following essay, Delgado discusses the voice of the women in The Women of Brewster Place which subverts white misconceptions regarding African Americans.]

It would appear that books, like genetic parents, beget books and the sheer proliferation of the work, if nothing else, inscribes an impression point at which the makers and patrons the traditional canon...

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Kathleen M. Puhr (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Puhr, Kathleen M. “Healers in Gloria Naylor's Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 4 (winter 1994): 518–27.

[In the following essay, Puhr examines the healing power of love and the role of healers in Naylor's fiction.]

During a 1993 talk in St. Louis, poet Nikki Giovanni asserted, “Black love is Black wealth.” Almost nowhere has Black love, manifesting itself in care of others, been better presented than in the novels of Gloria Naylor. Less familiar than the triumvirate of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, Naylor won a National Book Award in 1983 for best first novel and has published three others. Her works—The Women of...

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Missy Dehn Kubitschek (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “Toward a New Order: Shakespeare, Morrison, and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day.MELUS 19, no. 3 (fall 1994): 75–91.

[In the following essay, Kubitschek explores the connections between Naylor's Mama Day and the works of Toni Morrison and William Shakespeare.]

In 1987, Barbara Christian asserted that important African-American literature is suffering critical neglect by an academy preoccupied with developing literary theory; her specific examples included the works of Frances Harper, Alice Walker (with the exception of The Color Purple), and Gloria Naylor. Since then, Hazel Carby's excellent The Reconstruction of...

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Maxine Lavon Montgomery (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. “Authority, Multivocality, and the New World Order in Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe.African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 27–33.

[In the following essay, Montgomery discusses the biblical allusions in Bailey's Cafe and asserts that the work is a culmination of Naylor's three previous novels.]

Bailey's Cafe, Gloria Naylor's latest and most ambitious novel to date, is a hauntingly lyrical text steeped in biblical allusion. With this fourth novel, which completes a series including The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, and Mama Day, Naylor acquired the self-confidence...

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Gary Storhoff (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Storhoff, Gary. “The Only Voice Is Your Own: Gloria Naylor's Revision of The Tempest.African American Review 29, no. 1 (spring 1995): 35–45.

[In the following essay, Storhoff analyzes how Naylor reinterprets William Shakespeare's The Tempest in her novel Mama Day.]

In Gloria Naylor's novel Mama Day, Reema's boy comes from the university to conduct anthropological studies in Willow Springs, the novel's mysterious setting. Attempting to preserve “cultural identities” against “hostile social and political parameters,” he frustrates Willow Springs's residents, for he does not “listen” to the stories they have to tell him....

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Paula Gallant Eckard (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Eckard, Paula Gallant. “The Prismatic Past in Oral History and Mama Day.MELUS 20, no. 3 (fall 1995): 121–35.

[In the following essay, Eckard examines how Naylor's Mama Day and Lee Smith's Oral History both demonstrate ways in which re-examining one's past can lead to a better understanding of the future.]

The past exerts a distinct and powerful influence in most of southern fiction. This is no less true in the works of contemporary women writers who are southern themselves or whose works fall in the realm of southern fiction. In the hands of Lee Smith and Gloria Naylor, the past becomes a multi-dimensional, prismatic entity...

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Philip Page (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: Page, Philip. “Living with the Abyss in Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe.CLA Journal 40, no. 1 (September 1996): 21–45.

[In the following essay, Page examines the metaphorical image of the abyss in Bailey's Cafe.]

In Toni Morrison's Jazz, the imagery of wells is significant. Because Violet Trace's mother committed suicide by jumping into a well, Violet's severe depression and near suicide are centered on her fears of wells: “the well sucked her sleep,”1 she is “scare[d]” by “deep holes” (223), and she is lured by the “limitless beckoning from the well” (101) and by “the pull of a narrow well” (104). The well is...

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Jackie Thomas (review date 10 December 1998)

SOURCE: Thomas, Jackie. “A Compassionate Portrait of Black Men.” Black Issues in Higher Education 15, no. 21 (10 December 1998): 31.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a positive assessment of The Men of Brewster Place.]

Gloria Naylor's The Men of Brewster Place is a profound work that explores the other side of the gender issue. It is a continuation of Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place and depicts the men who played only minor roles in that book.

The men of Brewster Place are presented as rational Black men who are able to think for themselves and who realize that they have problems they must solve. Naylor's positive...

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Amy K. Levin (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Levin, Amy K. “Metaphor and Maternity in Mama Day.” In Gloria Naylor's Early Novels, edited by Margot Anne Kelley, pp. 70–88. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

[In the following essay, Levin discusses Naylor's pairing of motherhood and the mystical in her novels and how these elements signify a connection to African models of female leadership.]

The title of Gloria Naylor's third book, Mama Day, suggests that the novel will concern maternity. Yet Miranda Day, the title character, is not a biological mother. She has never married or borne a child. Instead, as the ruling matriarch of the Day family and the island community...

(The entire section is 8119 words.)

Dorothy Perry Thompson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Thompson, Dorothy Perry. “Africana Womanist Revision in Gloria Naylor's Mama Day and Bailey's Cafe.” In Gloria Naylor's Early Novels, edited by Margot Anne Kelley, pp. 89–111. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Naylor's focus on race and gender in Mama Day and Bailey's Cafe.]

In their attempts to analyze the texts in Gloria Naylor's complicated tetralogy—The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, Mama Day, and Bailey's Cafe—critics have often appropriated Eurocentric approaches that run the gamut from finding Chaucerian and Shakespearean analogues...

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Margaret Earley Whitt (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Whitt, Margaret Earley. “Understanding Gloria Naylor.” In Understanding Gloria Naylor, edited by Margaret Earley Whitt, pp. 1–9. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Whitt provides an overview of Naylor's life and career.]

CAREER

Gloria Naylor's first four novels—The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), and Bailey's Cafe (1992)—constitute her quartet of novels, the books she planned as the foundation of her career.1 Each of the novels in turn connects with the one to follow; mention of a character or a place in one...

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Maxine Lavon Montgomery (review date spring 2000)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. Review of The Men of Brewster Place, by Gloria Naylor. African American Review 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 176.

[In the following mixed review, Montgomery asserts the importance of Naylor's exploration of African-American manhood in The Men of Brewster Place, but notes several serious flaws in the novel.]

In The Men of Brewster Place Gloria Naylor not only revisits the dilapidated urban environs of her award-winning first novel, she breathes new life into the male residents who once wreaked havoc in the lives of African American women. Brewster Place's men, once mere shadows hardly deserving of the marginal space lent...

(The entire section is 1409 words.)