Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas Analysis

Maya Angelou

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Maya Angelou’s Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas is a twenty-nine-chapter autobiography that sketches the author’s early traumatic youth growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, where she was raped at the age of seven and then stopped talking for several years. Because detailed information about her childhood and young adulthood is covered in her earlier autobiographies, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and Gather Together in My Name (1974), the focus of Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas is from the late 1940’s to the mid-1950’s. During these years, Angelou concentrated on the singing and acting aspects of her career—as a sales clerk at a San Francisco record store, a showgirl imitating Cleopatra at the Garden of Allah, and a nightclub singer calling herself “Rita—The Cuban Bombshell.” These humble beginnings led to employment at the Mars Club in Paris and a chorus part in the Broadway musical Porgy and Bess. Angelou chronicles her travels throughout Canada and Europe, describing her tour with this company.

Although the book is divided into chapters, Angelou arranges her material much like a series of diary entries. She often presents characters and situations that are abandoned until much later in the book, if they are returned to at all. Through her ability to laugh at herself and the world around her, she is a reliable narrator, yet her anger...

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Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry like Christmas

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The third volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography continues many of the themes and the exuberant writing found in the first two, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and Gather Together in My Name (1974). So remarkable is her tale and so arrestingly is it presented that Angelou has actually become more famous since writing her autobiography—unlike those celebrities (especially sports or entertainment figures) whose already-achieved fame prompts them to engage in life-writing. Actress, dancer, producer, Angelou was little known to the white establishment until in 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings showed her to be an important new writer. Since that time she has published two more volumes of her autobiography and two books of poetry, written several plays, adapted several more, and worked in television as well as in opera and on Broadway. She recently appeared in the production of Roots for television and has been an interviewer on the public television series, Assignment America.

But it is her prose reminiscences of her early life that have established her place in American life and letters: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has become a classic of the “development genre” of the adolescent’s education and search for identity, in the great tradition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Huckleberry Finn, Black Boy, and The Catcher in the Rye. The work tells of its protagonist’s childhood and adolescence in rural Stamps, Arkansas; St. Louis; and San Francisco, in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Reared successively by an awesomely religious grandmother (on her father’s side) and then by her strong, beautiful mother, Angelou resonantly describes the black rural South during the Depression, the wealthier black sections of St. Louis, and the ghettos of San Francisco during World War II, as well as her own education (which included being raped by her stepfather at age eight). The book ends with the birth of her illegitimate son when she is sixteen. Gather Together in My Name continues the saga as Maya and Clyde eke out an existence; Maya works variously as a cook, a prostitute, and a madam, and learns about the horrors of heroin in the black community.

Running through the first two volumes of her autobiography are two parallel but sometimes contrasting themes of Angelou’s life: the black gospel tradition instilled by her upbringing in the CME Church and personified by her grandmother (“Momma”); and the black blues or urban street tradition derived from the city eduation she gains in the Midwest and West and personified by her mother. These motifs recur in Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas. Although Angelou’s grandmother does not appear in person in this volume and dies while Angelou is hospitalized for appendicitis, her memory and influence are pervasive. When her young son Clyde is embarrassed at the ranting of a street preacher, Angelou realizes guiltily that the black religious tradition so important in her own early years is not being carried on. She begins teaching Clyde Bible stories and later assuages her own longing by attending a black charismatic church in San Francisco.

These details suggest the tension between the religious motif and the blues motif, which occupies more space in this volume. It is this urban street tradition that Angelou usually turns to in continuing to work out her own identity. She cultivates the kind of special savvy that makes her suspicious of a job offer from a white woman in the record store; that ultimately causes the breakup of her marriage to Tosh the Greek; that makes her deal honestly with customers while the only black B-girl in a North Beach, San Francisco, strip joint; that lends poignancy to her adventures with black American exiles in Paris....

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Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXIII, September 15, 1976, p. 107.

Kirkus Reviews. XLIV, August 1, 1976, p. 864.

Library Journal. CI, September 1, 1976, p. 1763.

National Observer. XV, October 2, 1976, p. 21.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCX, August 9, 1976, p. 74.

Saturday Review. IV, October 30, 1976, p. 46.