How does Gwendolyn Brooks present the poor in her works?
What is Brooks’s attitude toward the young men in “We Real Cool”?
Children appear prominently in Brooks’s poetry. How would you characterize her treatment of them?
How does Brooks treat racial differences?
What formal devices—such as rhyme, meter, figures of speech—can be discerned in Brooks’s works, including Maud Martha?
Discuss how Bronzeville becomes for Brooks a sort of microcosm, like William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha and Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.
How does Mrs. Burns-Cooper offend the narrator in chapter 30 of Maud Martha?
Chapter 25 of Maud Martha ends with the sentence “She kept on staring into Sonia Johnson’s irises.” Explain.
Brooks is superb at catching people’s personalities with a few striking phrases, as in chapter 23 of Maud Martha. Identify examples of this skill in both the poetry and the prose.
In addition to the poetry on which her literary reputation rests, Gwendolyn Brooks published a novel, Maud Martha (1953); a book of autobiographical prose, Report from Part One (1972); and volumes of children’s verse. An episodic novel, Maud Martha makes some use of autobiographical materials and shares many of the major concerns of Brooks’s poetry, particularly concerning the attempts of the person to maintain integrity in the face of crushing environmental pressures. Report from Part One recounts the personal, political, and aesthetic influences that culminated in Brooks’s movement to a black nationalist stance in the late 1960’s. She also wrote introductions to, and edited anthologies of, the works of younger black writers. These introductions frequently provide insight into her own work. Several recordings of Brooks reading her own work are available.
Working comfortably in relation to diverse poetic traditions, Gwendolyn Brooks has been widely honored. Early in her career, she received numerous mainstream literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1950 for Annie Allen. She became poet laureate of Illinois in 1969 and has received more than fifty honorary doctorates. Equally significant, numerous writers associated with the Black Arts movement recognized her as an inspirational figure linking the older and younger generations of black poets. Brooks’s ability to appeal both to poetic establishments and to a sizable popular audience, especially among young blacks, stems from her pluralistic voice, which echoes a wide range of precursors while remaining unmistakably black. Her exploration of the United States in general and Chicago in particular links her with Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Her exploration of the interior landscape of humanity in general and women in particular places her in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At once the technical heir of Langston Hughes in her use of the rhythms of black street life and of Robert Frost in her exploration of traditional forms such as the sonnet, Brooks nevertheless maintains her integrity of vision and voice.
This integrity assumes special significance in the context of African American writing of the 1950’s and 1960’s. A period of “universalism” in black literature, the 1950’s brought prominence to such poets as Brooks, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Robert Hayden. During this period of intellectual and aesthetic integration, Brooks never abandoned her social and racial heritage to strive for the transcendent (and deracinated) universalism associated by some African American critics with T. S. Eliot. Responding to William Carlos Williams’s call in Paterson (1946-1958) to “make a start out of particulars and make them general,” Brooks demonstrated unambiguously that an African American writer need not be limited in relevance by...
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- Critical Essays