Gwendolyn Brooks Brooks, Gwendolyn (Vol. 125) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–

American poet, novelist, children's writer, editor, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents an overview of Brooks's career through 1996. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 15.

A powerful voice of black consciousness and social protest in mid-century America, Gwendolyn Brooks is among the most distinguished African-American poets of the twentieth century. With the publication of her second volume of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), she became the first black American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. Noted for her mastery of traditional forms and poignant evocation of urban black experience, Brooks emerged as a leading black literary figure during the 1950s and 1960s. Drawing upon both European models and African-American folk tradition, her lyrical poetry addresses racial injustice, poverty, and the private struggles of young black women with exceptional precision, psychological depth, and authenticity. In addition to Annie Allen, Brooks is best known for A Street in Bronzeville (1945), The Bean Eaters (1960), In the Mecca (1968), and her only novel, Maud Martha (1953). During the late 1960s, Brooks embraced the Black Power and Black Arts movements, marking a dramatic shift in her poetry toward increasingly polemical declarations of black pride and African cultural nationalism.

Biographical Information

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks was raised in the poor South Side section of Chicago by devoted parents; her mother abandoned teaching for marriage and motherhood and her father, the son of a runaway slave who fought in the Civil War, gave up his ambition to attend medical school to work as a janitor. Out of the loving security of her home, Brooks early experienced racial prejudice in grade school, where other black students ridiculed her for her dark skin and lack of social or athletic abilities. Brooks found solace in reading and writing, which her parents enthusiastically encouraged; after reading her seven-year-old daughter's precocious poetry, Brooks's mother proclaimed to her, "You are going to be a poet." Brooks published her first poem at age thirteen in American Childhood magazine. At age sixteen she met Langston Hughes, who read her poems and offered encouragement after a poetry reading. Brooks's early poetry reflects her interest in William Wordsworth, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, and Percy Bysshe Shelly. After graduating from an integrated high school in 1934, Brooks continued to devote herself to writing and even corresponded with Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson, who commented favorably on her poetry and suggested that she read modern poets. Brooks was a regular poetry contributor to the Chicago Defender beginning in 1934. After graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936, she briefly worked as a maid and as a secretary for a spiritual charlatan who managed a massive slum tenement known as the Mecca. Brooks later recalled both of these painfully degrading job experiences in her poetry. In 1938 Brooks joined the NAACP Youth Council, where she met her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely II, whom she married the next year; their son was born in 1940, and daughter in 1951. From 1941 to 1942 Brooks attended a poetry workshop with Inez Cunningham Stark, who helped hone her technical skills. Brooks won the Midwestern Writers Conference prize in 1944 with the "Gay Chaps at the Bar," and again in 1945 with "the progress." Both poems appeared in her first volume of poetry A Street in Bronzeville. Brooks was named one of the ten most outstanding women of the year by Mademoiselle magazine in 1945 and received several prestigious honors, including a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1946, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1946, and Guggenheim fellowships in 1946 and 1947. Brooks's next volume of poetry, Annie Allen, won a Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine in 1949 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. During the 1950s, Brooks published her only novel, Maud Martha, and a book of children's verse, Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956). Her third volume of poetry, The Bean Eaters, heralded Brooks's growing social and racial consciousness at the height of the civil rights movement. Her Selected Poems (1963) received a Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award and Thormod Monsen Literature Award in 1964. In 1967 Brooks attended the Second Fisk Writers Conference, where she was captivated by younger black writers such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and Don L. Jones (Haki Madhubuti), whose message of black solidarity Brooks embraced as her own, marking a decisive turning point in her career. Brooks hosted poetry workshops for members of the Chicago gang the Blackstone Rangers, traveled to Africa twice in the early 1970s, and supported black publishing ventures by having her subsequent work published by Broadside Press in Detroit and Third World Press in Chicago. She also served as editor of several Broadside Press anthologies. In 1968 Brooks received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca and succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of Illinois. In 1971 she received the Black Academy of Arts and Letters Award. During the 1970s and 1980s Brooks published additional small volumes of poetry, her autobiography Report from Part One (1972), children's verse in The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves (1974), and the writing manuals Young Poet's Primer (1980), A Capsule Course in Black Poetry Writing (1975), and Very Young Poets (1983). A noted teacher and mentor for young poets, Brooks has sponsored numerous poetry contests and workshops, often financed at her own expense, and taught at many colleges and universities since the early 1960s. In 1985 Brooks was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. She has received numerous additional honors, including the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, and a National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement in 1994.

Major Works

Brooks's poetry in A Street in Bronzeville reveals the formal accomplishment, colloquial rhythms, and social concerns that characterize most of her work. The first section of the volume presents a realistic montage of everyday episodes and scenes in Bronzeville, the poor Chicago neighborhood of her childhood and early marriage. Drawing upon a variety of poetic styles, including the sonnet, ballad, blank verse, and blues, Brooks relates the frustrated hopes, economic deprivation, violence, and racial prejudice experienced by ordinary Bronzeville men, women, and children. In "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie" the title character is jilted by her boyfriend for a light-skinned girl: "The Sundays of Satin Legs Smith" depicts one man's futile effort to escape poverty and racism through flamboyant dress and sex. The second section of the volume, consisting of the sonnet series "Gay Chaps at the Bar," deals with the unsung heroism of black soldiers during the Second World War. Brooks continued these social themes in Annie Allen, which focuses upon the maturation of its young, black female protagonist. Divided into several sections, including "Notes from the Childhood and Girlhood," "The Anniad," "Appendix to the Anniad," and "The Womanhood," Brooks chronicles Annie's home life, youthful innocence, growing self-awareness, and romantic relationships amid the same grim, poverty-stricken setting of A Street in Bronzeville. The centerpiece of the volume is "The Anniad," a long mock-heroic epic whose title alludes to Homer's The Iliad. This complex poem juxtaposes Annie's idealism with the stark reality of her limited circumstances as a black woman, wife, and mother. Brooks elaborated upon similar themes in Maud Martha, an autobiographic novel comprised of thirty-four vignettes that chronicles the childhood and emotional development of an unhappy, self-conscious black woman who struggles to find dignity and confidence despite poverty and racial discrimination from both blacks and whites. In The Bean Eaters Brooks moved away from personal subjects to address the mounting alienation and despair of African-Americans during the late 1950s. The title of the collection alludes to Vincent van Gogh's painting The Potato Eaters. Many of these poems relate the failed efforts of those in the black community to escape hopelessness through materialism, religion, racial integration, and reckless living. This volume includes Brooks's much anthologized poem "We So Cool," which mimics the self-defeating defiance of pool hall drop-outs. In another poem, "Ballad of Rudolph Reed," Brooks describes the tragic result of a black man's attempt to move his family into a white neighborhood. Brooks also linked the experiences of Chicagoans with national events in several poems, including "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," which deals with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed for allegedly whistling at a white girl. Brooks's Selected Poems contains several new poems which further evince her commitment to social causes. In one poem, "Riders to the Blood-Red Wrath," Brooks extols the activities of the Freedom Riders and others involved in the civil rights movement. In the Mecca marks a transition in Brooks's poetry, reflecting a turn away from the humor and irony of earlier volumes toward the overt political tone and subjects of her subsequent work. The long title poem, written in free verse and replete with literary and biblical allusions, is set in the dilapidated Mecca apartment complex of Brooks's earlier employment. The narrative revolves around Mrs. Sallie, a single mother of nine children, and her frantic search to locate her missing child, Pepita, within the sprawling residence. While searching for Pepita with the police, Mrs. Sallie encounters other inhabitants of the Mecca, most of whom are too preoccupied with their own obsessions to offer assistance or compassion. Pepita's body is eventually discovered under the roach infested cot of Jamaican Edward, who has raped and murdered the young girl. In the Mecca also contains an elegy for Malcolm X and slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The evolution of Brooks's political and racial consciousness is documented in Report from Part One, an assemblage of interviews, reviews, and autobiographic prose that recounts her visits to Africa and new black aesthetic. Brooks's poetry in Riot (1969), Family Pictures (1970), Aloneness (1971) and Beckonings (1975) reflects her revolutionary perspective and black pride. For example, "The Third Sermon of the Warpland" in Riot deals with Chicago street disturbances after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and "The Life of Lincoln West" in Family Pictures presents a white man's derisive view of dark-skinned blacks. Brooks collected and republished many of these poems in to disembark (1981).

Critical Reception

Brooks is highly regarded as a major contemporary American poet and preeminent African-American literary figure. Consistently praised for her technical skill and intimate portraits of black personalities and urban life, she has won both critical and popular admiration among her readers. As many critics note, Brooks possesses an uncanny ability to transmute commonplace subjects into the extraordinary, especially those seemingly insignificant events in the lives of the poor and dispossessed in her native Chicago. According to Cheryl Clarke, "Brooks's entire oeuvre has been studies of black subjectivity, of African-American oral and written traditions, sources of knowledge and faith systems; of the psychic and physical effects of racism on the lives of black and white people; and of the richness of the lyric." Critical analysis of Brooks's work is focused primarily upon her poetry in A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, The Bean Eaters, In the Mecca, and her novel Maud Martha, together considered her most accomplished works. Brooks's poetry after her 1967 racial awakening has received mixed reaction. While some critics disapprove of the ideology and polemical tone of her poetry from In the Mecca forward, others continue to appreciate the impressive force and universal appeal of her work. Brooks has also received both praise and criticism for the complexity and ambitious themes of her work. Despite her identity as a "New Black" poet during the late 1960s and 1970s, Brooks is recognized as a prescient commentator on race and female oppression for her work that predates the civil rights, Black Power, and women's movements. As Kathryne V. Lindberg writes, "Brooks has always addressed and continues to address difficult issues, including those often decorously silent intimate traumas of abortion, color caste, domestic abuse, alienation, and motherhood in poverty. Defiant in the face of a painful history of racist lies and false consciousness that refuses to yield a 'useable past,' she has actively fashioned models of personal and communal dignity as poetic blueprints for 'cultural survival.'"

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945
Annie Allen (poetry) 1949
Maud Martha (novel) 1953
Bronzeville Boys and Girls (juvenilia) 1956
The Bean Eaters (poetry) 1960
Selected Poems (poetry) 1963
In the Mecca (poetry) 1968
Riot (poetry) 1969
Family Pictures (poetry) 1970
Aloneness (poetry) 1971
A Broadside Treasury [editor] (poetry) 1971
Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1971
The World of Gwendolyn Brooks [includes A Street in Bronzeville, Annie Allen, Maud Martha, The Bean Eaters, and In the Mecca] (poetry and novel) 1971
Report from Part...

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William H. Hansell (essay date Fall 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poet-Militant and Foreshadowings of a Black Mystique: Poems in the Second Period of Gwendolyn Brooks," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 10, Fall, 1977, pp. 37-45.

[In the following essay, Hansell examines political themes and aspirations in the "second period" of Brooks's poetry. According to Hansell, Brooks "dramatically portrays the black poet's role in the revolution which is intended to bring about a rededication to American ideals."]

Gwendolyn Brooks, in a 1976 interview at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, said that her work falls into three periods which correspond to "changes" in her perspective. A study of her work seems to reveal strong grounds...

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Hortense J. Spillers (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gwendolyn the Terrible: Propositions on Eleven Poems," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 233-44.

[In the following essay, Spillers examines the form, language, and unassuming subjects of Brooks's poetry. "The style of Brooks's poetry," writes Spillers, "gives us by implication and example a model of power, control, and subtlety."]

For over three decades now, Gwendolyn Brooks has been writing poetry which reflects a particular historical order, often close to the heart of the public event, but the dialectic that is engendered between the event and her...

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Mary Helen Washington (essay date Summer 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Taming All That Anger Down': Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 453-66.

[In the following essay, Washington discusses the critical reception of Maud Martha and the suppressed rage, self-loathing, and reticence displayed by Brooks's autobiographic heroine.]

Then emotionally aware
Of the black and boisterous hair,
Taming all that angêr down.

Gwendolyn Brooks

When Gwendolyn Brooks' autobiographical first novel, Maud Martha, was published in...

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Beth Brown (review date November-December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Beckonings, in Black Scholar, Vol. 15, no. 6, November-December, 1984, pp. 63-4.

[In the following review, Brown offers positive evaluation of Beckonings.]

This special edition of Gwendolyn Brook's Beckonings can be found on the local library shelf in a beige and chocolate cover. The poems will have private meanings for most poets. In 1975, I was writing the poems which were published in Lightyears. Gwendolyn Brooks was one of those distant ethereal figures whose works I stood in line to buy at bookstores. Her volumes were curiously hard to obtain. Fortunately, for me and about twenty-five other people, the Poet Laureate of...

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Barbara Christian (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nuance and the Novella: A Study of Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha," in Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Pergamon Press, 1985, pp. 127-41.

[In the following essay, Christian examines the social context and presentation of Maud Martha. According to Christian, Brooks's "emphasis on the black girl within the community is a prefiguring of black women's novels of the sixties and seventies, which looked at the relationship between the role of women in society and the racism that embattled the black community."]

Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks's only novel, appeared in 1953, the same year that Go Tell It On The...

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R. Baxter Miller (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Define … the Whirlwind': Gwendolyn Brooks' Epic Sign for a Generation," in Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940–1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, University of Tennessee Press, 1986, pp. 160-73.

[In the following essay, Miller examines the major themes and structure of In the Mecca. According to Miller, Brooks draws upon Anglo-American poetry, Judeo-Christian myth, and folklore to explore the paradox of the American Dream within the context of African-American experience.]

For twenty-three years, Gwendolyn Brooks tried to write her epic In the Mecca (1968). Her portraits of the Black community began with Street in Bronzeville...

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Claudia Tate (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anger So Flat: Gwendolyn's Brooks's Annie Allen," in A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 140-52.

[In the following essay. Tate examines the form, structure, and heroine of Annie Allen. As Tate notes, Brooks presents "an emotionally charged satirical comment about the tragedy of a woman's inactive life, a tragedy compounded by racial prejudice."]

In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks became the first black American to receive a Pulitzer Prize for literature for Annie Allen (1949), a collection of rigorously technical poems, replete with lofty...

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Maria K. Mootry (essay date March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Chocolate Mabbie' and 'Pearl May Lee': Gwendolyn Brooks and the Ballad Tradition," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXX, No. 3, March, 1987, pp. 278-93.

[In the following essay, Mootry discusses the appropriation of folk ballad and blues conventions in Brooks's poetry. "While, on the surface, these folk elements make her poetry more accessible to the reader," writes Mootry, "a closer examination reveals insinuations and refinements of technique that augment the complexity so characteristic of her work."]

Among the five major volumes of Gwendolyn Brooks' poetry, one of the notably recurring poetic forms is the ballad. From "The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie," in her first...

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Houston A. Baker, Jr. (review date Fall 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Blacks, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 567-73.

[In the following review, Baker offers an overview of Brooks's poetry and favorable evaluation of Blacks.]

When a compendium of her poetry entitled The World of Gwendolyn Brooks appeared in the 1970s, the Poet Laureate of Illinois seemed fitly rewarded for a life of creative labor. The collection represented more than three decades. And its very name seemed proper and patently personal—a tribute to the genius behind its assembled offerings. "The world of Gwendolyn Brooks," one thought. "Yes, that is certainly appropriate for a Pulitzer Prize winner, a...

(The entire section is 2732 words.)

Henry Taylor (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gwendolyn Brooks: An Essential Sanity," in Kenyon Review, XIII, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 115-31.

[In the following essay, Taylor offers an overview of Brooks's poetry, artistic development, and critical interpretation.]

Gwendolyn Brooks's emergence as an important poet has been less schematic, but not less impressive, than commentary upon it has suggested. It is difficult to isolate the poems themselves from the variety of reactions to them; these have been governed as much by prevailing or individual attitudes toward issues of race, class, and gender, as by serious attempts at dispassionate examination and evaluation. Furthermore, Brooks's activities in behalf...

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Cheryl Clarke (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Loss of Lyric Space and the Critique of Traditions in Gwendolyn Brooks's In the Mecca," in Kenyon Review, XVII, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 136-47.

[In the following essay, Clarke examines the significance of ambiguity, indeterminacy, and postmodern subjectivity in In the Mecca. According to Clarke, "'In the Mecca' is an enunciation of place, fragmentation, despair, death, and a frantic splitting of the narrative strategies of showing and telling."]

What else is there to say but everything?

In the Mecca

The 1952 razing of Chicago's once magnificent showplace,...

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Kathryne V. Lindberg (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the 'Margins,'" in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers, edited by Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, pp. 283-311.

[In the following essay, Lindberg discusses Brooks's artistic development, critical reception, and identity as a spokesperson for African-American women. According to Lindberg, Brooks sought to overcome "the double bind of a black woman artist who would be heard as something other than victim of or exile from her race and class."]

Black Poet, White Critic

A critic advises

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Hughes, Gertrude Reif. "Making It Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry." American Quarterly 42, No. 3 (September 1990): 375-401.

Examines the appropriation of modernist literary strategies and anti-heroism in the poetry of Doolittle and Brooks.

Kent, George E. "Aesthetic Values in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks." In Black Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 75-94. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981.

Discusses elements of existential despair and the social alienation of...

(The entire section is 386 words.)