Jubilee Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Margaret Walker

Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

Before the publication of Jubilee, there had been many novels about the antebellum South and the Civil War written by white authors and expressing the point of view of white people. Augusta Evans Wilson’s Macaria: Or, Altars of Sacrifice (1864) argued the justice of the Southern cause so skillfully that Union soldiers were forbidden to read it. In the twentieth century, works about this period included Stark Young’s So Red the Rose (1934), Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), and William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished (1938). However sympathetically these novelists viewed the plight of slaves in the South, they were writing as outsiders. Jubilee is of immense historical importance, then, as the first realistic novel about slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction written by an African American, who, like most of the white Southern writers, could draw on family history for her fictional details.

During the 1960’s, Jubilee fell out of favor because, unlike her militant poetry, Margaret Walker’s novel was considered too moderate in tone. More recently, however, Jubilee has again become popular. The fact that Walker depicts her slaveowners and even the overseer Ed Grimes as human beings, rather than as monsters, is seen as one of the book’s virtues, supporting its reputation for honesty and realism. Moreover, in times of increased racial tension, Vyry can serve as a role model for white and black people alike. In this portrait of her heroic ancestor, Walker is clearly paying tribute to all the strong black women who, throughout the centuries, have endured hardships, preserved the traditions of their people, and enabled their children and their culture to survive.