Praisesong for the Widow Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

Paule Marshall

Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

In her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Marshall felt compelled to make a spiritual return to her sources, a return she believes is necessary for all African Americans. At the end of the book, the heroine, Selina Boyce, leaves the United States in order to return to the Caribbean. In her second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Merle Kinbona completes the voyage to the Caribbean only to depart for Africa at the end of the novel. Those two novels, together with Praisesong for the Widow, in which Avey Johnson also makes the mythic return to the Caribbean, form a trilogy.

In a note to a reprinting of her 1967 story “To Da-duh, In Memoriam,” Marshall explains that Da-duh is an ancestral figure who appears in various forms throughout her work—from the character Mrs. Thompson in Brown Girl, Brownstones to Cuney in Praisesong for the Widow. Like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, Marshall believes in the significance of ancestors and celebrates them in her fiction; they are the ground upon which she stands.

In focusing on such an unlikely heroine as Avey Johnson, Marshall once again charted new territory in the area of African American women’s literature. Older women, such as Eva in Toni Morrison’s Sula (1974) or Miss Hazel in Toni Cade Bambara’s story “My Man Bovanne” (1978), had been represented in fiction. In the 1980’s, moreover, African American women writers—for example, Toni Morrison in Tar Baby (1981) and Gloria Naylor in Linden Hills (1985)—had increasingly approached the question of class schisms in contemporary African American society. Yet no writer had fashioned a “praisesong” for a character such as Avey Johnson, whose life journey explores issues of age and class in relation to the racial, cultural, and political issues of her society.