Paule Marshall 1929–
Black American novelist and short story writer.
Although her fiction was long neglected in scholarly literary circles, Marshall is now considered an important writer in contemporary black literature. Her work depicts the emotional growth and newly found independence of black women who have discovered and accepted their heritage. Although some may be tempted to label Marshall a feminist writer, critics feel that her work, in a general sense, depicts the individual's search for a secure identity in an uncertain world.
Marshall's parents immigrated to New York City from Barbados in the 1920s. This West Indian influence is prevalent throughout her work. Her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), tells of a young Barbadian immigrant girl whose parents are caught in the conflict between ethnic autonomy and assimilation. The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) is a symbolic novel about the inhabitants of a small, underdeveloped Caribbean island and their refusal to accept modernization. Her recent work, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), is the story of an unhappy, affluent American woman who experiences a spiritual rebirth while vacationing in the West Indies.
Marshall's novels are praised for their rich characterization and descriptive power. Many critics agree that her strength as a writer lies in her usage of West Indian idioms and dialect. It has also been said that Marshall is the first contemporary novelist to fully explore the psyche of black American women. The author herself defines her works as an attempt to "trace history," because "as a people we have not as yet really engaged our past."
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Rarely has a first novel come to hand which has the poignant appeal and the fresh, fierce emotion of "Brown Girl, Brownstones."…
Racial conflict and the anger and frustration it nurtures are part of this tale, but equally, if not more, important are the personal conflicts of men and women making roots in a new land, of men and women caught in duels of love and hate, of ambition, envy and failure.
While Selina is the heroine of this novel, it is her parents who give it and her its depth and color. Through them, through their passions, their clashes, their hopes, the girl assumes shape and meaning.
To Silla, gaunt and strong, the brownstone house in Brooklyn which she leased represented a giant step from the slavish toil she had known in Barbados. To own the once elegant building, to cut up its enormous chambers, to have a houseful of well-paying roomers was her dream. Other "Bajuns" were doing it, making money, getting ahead in the new world. With a little help from her husband she could swing it, she knew, but Deighton was no man to depend on….
He was handsome; he loved good clothes; he had ambitions for getting on in the world but they were woven of the stuff of dreams. Starting correspondence courses, he saw himself successful as a radio mechanic, an accountant, a trumpeter in a jazz band and then, realizing his limitations, he dropped them. How he willfully and wantonly...
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The New Yorker
When Mrs. Marshall writes about those she truly loves, she cannot be resisted. Her singularly talented first novel ["Brown Girl, Brownstones"] describes the childhood and adolescence of a Brooklyn girl whose parents, both Barbadian immigrants, share an unhappy marriage and a memory of their native island…. To Selina's mother, Silla, the island represents poverty, oppression, and a poetry and beauty that she misses and despises. To her father, Deighton, the island is his heart's desire, and he longs to return to it. When an unexpected legacy gives Deighton two acres of island land, he begins to make plans to return home and build a house. Although he has never succeeded at any of the various trades he has taken up in his efforts to raise himself in life, he believes he can make the money to go home and claim a splendid place for himself in his own country…. [Silla] covets her husband's two acres not for themselves but for the price they will bring, and she schemes to get his inheritance away from him and sell it. The climax of the novel, when the struggle between Deighton and his wife reaches its peak, marks a turning point in the great creative impulse that carries Mrs. Marshall so triumphantly through the first half of her work. From this scene on, although her writing continues to be interesting, it loses in emotion, and therefore, because she is an intensely emotional writer, it loses in power. Selina, who is ten years old when we first meet her,...
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Vernon Hall, Jr.
["Soul Clap Hands and Sing"] is something of a renaissance in authentic feeling for real men, women and life. Named for its geographic setting—Barbados, Brooklyn, British Guiana and Brazil—each story describes in terms of natural action and reaction how an aging and dying man attempts to face up to the decline of his virile powers. Each man portrayed is conceived in terms of his relationship with a woman; in fact, Mrs. Marshall—herself the mother of a male child to whom this volume is dedicated—is saying that a man is truly a man when he commits himself to a genuine, creative love, and that a woman realizes her womanliness through her man. And she etches character and setting with descriptive power and insight….
Paule Marshall's art is serious, wholesome and strong.
Vernon Hall, Jr., "A Stellar Performance," in New York Herald Tribune (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), September 17, 1961, p. 6.
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Paule Marshall, who is something of a cuisinière, specializing in Barbadian dishes, has concocted a novel of West Indian life that will greatly enhance her reputation. Not to mince words, "The Chosen Place, the Timeless People," in my opinion, is the best novel to be written by an American black woman, one of the two important black novels of the 1960's (the other being William Demby's "The Catacombs"), and one of the four or five most impressive novels ever written by a black American. (p. 4)
"The Chosen Place, the Timeless People" is a parable of Western civilization and its relations with the undeveloped world. The setting of the novel is a Caribbean island—and, more precisely, its most "backward" and unassimilable region, called Bournehills. Bourne Island, as the name implies, forms a symbolic boundary between the cultures of Europe and Africa, between the forces of progress and tradition, between town man and countryman, rich and poor, white and black.
To the island comes a team of social scientists from an American research-and-development foundation…. As the characters acquire symbolic resonance, we see that Allen represents an effete civilization that has pledged its soul to the gods of technology. Harriet embodies the suicidal impulse of the Western psyche: its unyielding racism and will to dominate, despite a superficial liberalism. Saul represents the possibility of transformation and renewal,...
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Paule Marshall has written a monumental book. [The Chosen Place, the Timeless People] is by no means an unqualified success, but it has the virtues of its length of story and depth of commitment: complexity, the evocation of a people, characters whose lives we can follow long enough to see them through major decisions and major life-changes.
Set on a fictional Caribbean island, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People concerns the lives of blacks there who would like to move beyond the old strictures of birth and caste, and of whites who accept the conditions—and the conditioning—and of those who do not. Among those who do not is an expedition of social scientists from the United States—Saul, his patrician wife Harriet, and his assistant Allen. Dominating them all once they have settled in to begin studying the island's problems—dominating the novel, for that matter—is Merle…. Merle attracts Saul to a serious commitment to Bournehills. She leads the poor of the district in a near-revolt when their cane factory is closed down. She is, in her sensitivity and her violence, the poor of the district, and against her Harriet finally throws all her WASP force and is destroyed.
At the same time, Merle is the reason why Mrs. Marshall's novel does not entirely succeed: The whole book, though written in the third person, judges its characters as if from Merle's point of view. Saul is too plastic to...
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Paule Marshall is, I think, one of the best novelists writing in the United States. She has form, style and immense mastery of words. She writes with all her senses as well as with her acute and probing mind. Sometimes I feel she is almost too gifted—or rather, that this plethora of riches is a bit too much on display and needs a sharper restraint….
In "The Chosen Place, the Timeless People" she is writing about an island in the Caribbean which is a piece of land but also a state of mind. To the demographer, the anthropologist, the sociologist, who have come to carry out a research development project, the island is a challenge to their best technical training, to their enlightened expertise, and to their humaneness which is very much engaged in action.
But there is an element here which the whites from the United States can only attempt to understand with their heads, and that is what the past has done, what being black has meant…. In fact the past is barely mentioned, though it lives in the gnomic recollections of a slave rebellion. These timeless people in this chosen place survived because they understood through a deep reflex that they could only prove their humanhood by survival. What happens to them now, in the present, is another thing. The Americans talk about the developed countries helping the undeveloped, of the fusion of tradition and progress. But these are words and attitudes which have not been...
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I would have made more space for Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People if the author herself had made less. This is a depth-study of a remote Caribbean village, 'chosen' by a benevolent American organisation for a rehabilitation scheme. The inhabitants of Bournehills are timeless in the fierce pride with which they hold to their customs and their history, but also because the time for their way of life is running out. Paule Marshall's great strength is characterisation, and she gives us dozens of telling portraits, catching the haggard unease of the Jewish social scientist with as much accuracy as the headlong chatter of the black hotel matron, the stiff pseudo-Englishness of the local grandees. Unfortunately these characters are so numerous, and their confrontations developed at such length, that the significance of their story is partly lost. This is an impressive fat book with a superb thin book inside trying to get out.
Janet Burroway, "Golden Pulp," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 80, No. 2063, October 2, 1970, p. 426.∗
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Bell Gale Chevigny
A novel that harbors an intelligent revolutionary politics and a compassionate, penetrating humanism is an event in any time. If the time is now, if the revolution is black, if the compassion transcends race, it is a freak or a miracle, depending on whether or not you trust it. I trust "The Chosen Place, the Timeless People." I think it is an important and moving book. And Paule Marshall seems to me as wise as she is bold, for in compromising neither her politics nor her understanding of people, she makes better sense of both….
I was surprised at the quiet of this novel's reception until I discovered how difficult it is to write about. In many ways that matter to me, it is not extraordinary, but in two months I haven't stopped recommending it and—daily—thinking about it. Its form is in no way original, but the old bottle is blown wider to hold more kinds of wine: through the consciousness of its major characters the Jewish novel and the black novel meet, and the WASP gets almost equal time. I know of no serious contemporary novel attempting this synthesis—it almost constitutes a new form. The prose is workmanlike and rarely soars, but marvelously evokes West Indian place and speech and provides an unusually haunting experience. And although it does not forge a new black sensibility, neither is it a white folks' story…. It deals with all of us, in all our kinds, where we are now and how we stand with each other. It sums up. It...
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Paule Marshall is the author of Brown Girl, Brownstones; Soul Clap Hands and Sing; The Chosen Place, The Timeless People; and a few short stories and articles. With a remarkable maturity in her work, she displays a subtle understanding of human problems and a mastery of the art of fiction. Some of the major themes in her works concern the identity crisis, the race problem, the importance of tradition for the black American, and the need for sharing to achieve meaningful relationships. In her technique she blends judiciously the best of the past tradition with the innovations of recent years. (p. 49)
Quest for identity is a perennial theme in literature. There is no age when a sensitive soul has not been troubled by questions about the meaning of his very own existence and his relation to the world around. The identity crisis assumes even more gravity for the minority groups who were either brought to this land or who came of their own accord in search of greener pastures. Lost in a new cultural environment, such people need more than ordinary effort to recognize and keep their identity alive. However, such self-questionings are not the prerogative of only the members of a particular group based on race, sex, or age; therefore, Miss Marshall concerns herself with people of all ages, of all races, and of all strata.
Miss Marshall's first book, Brown Girl …, is a Bildungsroman, in which the trials...
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Lloyd W. Brown
Apart from the usual review notices in the usual periodicals, there has been no noteworthy discussion of Paule Marshall's major works…. This neglect is unfortunate, because Paule Marshall's major themes are both significant and timely. Her West Indian background (Barbadian parentage) enables Paule Marshall to invest her North American materials with a Caribbean perspective, and in the process she invokes that Pan-African sensibility which has become so important in contemporary definitions of Black identity. Secondly, her treatment of the Black woman links her ethnic themes with the current feminist revolt. Finally, the ethnic and sexual themes are integrated with the novelist's interest in the subject of power. This interest is the logical outcome of her preoccupation with groups—women and Blacks—whose roles have been defined by powerlessness. But her treatment of this subject is complex and innovative because she analyses power not only as the political goal of ethnic and feminist movements, but also as social and psychological phenomena which simultaneously affect racial and sexual roles, shape cultural traditions, and mould the individual psyche.
Indeed, Paule Marshall's style invariably includes images of power-as-experience. She is a good example, in this regard, of those novelists in whom the recurrence of major themes imposes a distinctive iconography on their narrative forms. We can trace throughout her fiction rhythms...
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William Bradley Hooper
Praisesong for the Widow, Marshall's third novel, is uncomplicated yet resonant. The main character, Avey Johnson, a late-middle-aged black woman, widowed but secure in a civil-service job in New York, decides to cut short a Caribbean cruise and return home as speedily as possible. Avey is suffering from some "odd discomfort," more psychological than physical; it seems she has lost a firm grasp on the meaning of her past. But rather than going directly back to New York, she is convinced by an old man she meets after disembarking the cruise ship to take a side excursion to an out-of-the-way island. There, she achieves a renewal of her sense of place and significance—as a black, as a woman. There is no limit to the kind of readership to which this novel will appeal; with deft exploration of character, Marshall speaks to anyone interested in thoughtful fiction.
William Bradley Hooper, in a review of "Praisesong for the Widow," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1982 by the American Library Association), Vol. 79, No. 7, December 1, 1982, p. 466.
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["Praisesong for the Widow"] rings with the same music and some of the same lilting Barbadian speech [as "Brown Girl, Brownstones"], but it is a firmer book, obviously the product of a more experienced writer. It lacks the soft spots of the earlier work. From the first paragraph, it moves purposefully and knowledgeably toward its final realization.
The widow of the title is Avey Johnson, black and middle aged, decorous to a fault in her tasteful dress, her long-line girdle and her underarm shields. The praisesong is performed by a group of dancing natives on the tiny island of Carriacou, and how Avey Johnson comes to be there—how she leaves her luxurious cruise ship and her two staid women friends—is a story that's both convincing and eerily dreamlike….
The reader knows before Avey what her trouble is. Secure in her middle class life, her civil service job, her house full of crystal and silver, Avey has become sealed away from her true self. Her dreamy intimations of something gone wrong will have to become near nightmares—with Avey stumbling disheveled down a burning stretch of sand, then succumbing to a mortifying siege of illness in front of strangers—before she fully comprehends.
There are times when her ordeal makes us slightly uneasy. She seems consciously set up for some of her embarrassment, uncharacteristically willing to prolong it, as, for instance, when she submits to a sponge...
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Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose. While they lose friends, lovers, husbands, homes, or jobs, they always find themselves. The precocious heroine of Brown Girl, Brownstones … comes of age and rejects the class aspirations of her tightly knit Barbadian community in Brooklyn. The willful teacher of The Chosen Place, The Timeless People … is middle-aged and heading toward a sharp turn in her rocky road, one that will take her into battle with developers on her Caribbean island, and then to the unknown in Africa. The well-heeled woman approaching old age in Praisesong for the Widow finds spiritual renewal on a remote island in the Caribbean.
In exploring the stages of black women's lives, Marshall insists that the woman with enough nerve can win even when the deck is stacked and the other players are hostile. Nerve, here, means making radical choices, and though the liberating destinies Marshall gives to her heroines are often unconvincing, the attraction of her work lies in a deep saturation in the consciousness of her characters and the ability to evoke the urban or tropical settings in which they toil. (p. 26)
The journey into the past, moving closer to one's cultural background, is a recurring theme in Paule Marshall's fiction. Discovering the Caribbean or Africa has, for her, the properties of psychic healing. In her latest novel, Praisesong for the Widow,...
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