Jubilee was the first significant novel to tell the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction from a slave’s perspective. It took a century after the actual events occurred for such a book to be written and published—itself a commentary on American society in the intervening years. The book was thirty years in the making. Margaret Walker worked on it while earning bachelor’s and advanced degrees, marrying, giving birth to four children, teaching at Jackson State College, and writing well-received poetry. She said that the novel was stronger for her having “lived it” through life experiences as well as simply writing it.
Jubilee is based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother as related by her daughter, the author’s grandmother. To these story elements, which she heard in childhood, Walker added intensive research in folklore and history, tracing family birth records and using other primary sources. At the same time, she applied her poetic talents and humanistic outlook to the storytelling. Jubilee was completed as part of the requirements for Walker’s doctorate in creative writing from the University of Iowa in 1965.
Reviewers’ reactions at the time of the novel’s initial publication were mixed. Several critics called it uneven, saying that passages of pedestrian prose and unfiltered historical information undercut its literary value. Other reviewers praised the novel’s achievement as a portrayal of plantation life through the eyes of the slaves who made it possible. As time passed, the criticisms of the work’s literary merit faded. As the canon of African American literature expanded, it became clear that neither the romantic nor the heroic style, both of which had often been used in novels about the Civil War, were suitable approaches to the black experience of slavery and oppression. As an epic work of historical realism, Jubilee was a trailblazer.
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