Published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings won critical acclaim and was nominated for the National Book Award. Wrote critic Sidonie Ann Smith in Southern Humanities Review, "Angelou's genius as a writer is her ability to recapture the texture of the way of life in the texture of its idioms, its idiosyncratic vocabulary and especially in its process of image-making." This book, the first of five in a series describing her life and her continuing search for self-realization, was the best received of the collection. Some posit that the reason is that in her subsequent autobiographical novels, Angelou—who went through many ups and downs in her life—was a less appealing character, though her lifelong achievements thus far seem to belie such criticism.
Critical analysis of Angelou's autobiographical prose has mainly focused on Caged Bird and its portrayal of a black woman's coming of age. Assessing the work within the tradition of African-American memoirs, George Kent notes in African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays that the work stands out in its use of the imagination: "I Know Why creates a unique place within black autobiographical tradition ... by its special stance toward the self, the community, and the universe, and by a form exploiting the full measure of imagination necessary to acknowledge both beauty and absurdity." Other critics have examined the manner in which Angelou's characters survive in a hostile world....
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