Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Jubilee is based on the life of Margaret Walker’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, called “Vyry” in the novel, as her story was related to the author by her grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, or “Minna.” As Walker explains in her book How I Wrote “Jubilee” (1972), however, the novel is not based solely on the oral tradition. It is also the product of ten years of research into historical documents. Therefore, although Jubilee is classified as a historical novel, rather than as a biography, it is very close to the truth.

The novel is divided into three sections, each representing a distinct period in Vyry’s life. “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years” describes her childhood as a slave on the Dutton plantation near Dawson, Georgia. After her mother’s death, Vyry is reared by an elderly slave. At seven, she is taken to the Big House to be the maid of Lillian Dutton, who is actually her half sister, since both are daughters of the white plantation owner, John Morris Dutton, or “Marse John.” His wife, Salina Dutton, or “Big Missy,” hates and abuses Vyry, and, although Marse John seems kind, he never forgets that Vyry is his property. He will not permit her to marry Randall Ware, the father of her unborn child. When Vyry tries to run away, she is caught and whipped.

The middle section is entitled “‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory’—The Civil War Years.”...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jubilee is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Walker’s maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the character of Vyry in the novel. She lived through slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction and died a month before Margaret Walker was born. Walker’s grandmother passed on the history of her mother’s life in the form of bedtime stories that she told her granddaughter. From this oral history, Walker reconstructed the events of that period of American history from antebellum days through Reconstruction. In doing so, she shows the everyday life from the point of view of a slave woman. Walker began the novel when she was nineteen and finished it thirty years later.

Jubilee resembles a true slave narrative based on Vyry’s experiences as a slave and her search for freedom. The novel begins and ends with childbirth. As the book opens in 1839, Sis Hetta is giving birth to her last child. The novel ends in 1870 with Vyry looking forward to the birth of her fourth child. Jubilee is divided into three sections following the structure of the slave narrative: bondage, escape, and freedom.

The first section, “Sis Hetta’s Child—the Ante-Bellum Years,” begins when Vyry is two years old. After Sis Hetta, Vyry’s mother, dies giving birth to her fifteenth child, Mammy Sukey takes over as Vyry’s surrogate mother. When Mammy Sukey dies of the plague, Aunt Sally, the Duttons’ cook, takes Vyry into her cabin. Aunt Sally teaches Vyry how to cook and how to use herbs and roots for medicinal...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In 1965, Walker received a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, using Jubilee as her dissertation. In 1966, she received a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship for the novel. Jubilee has been translated into several languages. Walker’s chief contribution to the world of women’s literature is her portrayal of the daily lives of black women during the time of the Civil War. Walker shows the strengths of these women who survived the hardships of slavery. Unlike other writers who use such stereotyped characters as mammies and pickaninnies, Walker portrays realistic female characters with individual personalities and strengths. She points out the important contributions these women made in the arts of healing, food preparation, and needlework. She shows the hard work and skill that went into the preparation of food for so many people. She describes the nursing skills of women such as Vyry who act as midwives for other women. Throughout the novel, Walker portrays a community of women who worked together to care for one another and for their children. Older women taught the younger ones the skills necessary for survival. Through the oral tradition the women handed down the history necessary to preserve a sense of family. In presenting history from a black woman’s point of view, Walker shows the strengths of these women.

She treats the problems that existed in the relationships between black and white women during this period of history. On...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Alexander, Margaret Walker. “The Fusion of Ideas: An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander.” Interview by Maryemma Graham. African American Review 27 (Summer, 1993): 279-286. Although the focus of the interview is on Walker’s This Is My Century, the exchange offers useful insights as Walker discusses her lengthy career, the Civil Rights movement, and her approaches to literature.

Baraka, Amiri. “Margaret Walker Alexander.” Nation 268 (January 4, 1999): 32-33. A tribute to Walker and an appreciation of her contributions to the Civil Rights movement as well as an assessment of her works.

Bell, Bernard W. “The Contemporary Afro-American Novel, 2: Modernism and Postmodernism.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. An excellent essay with detailed analysis of such matters as the importance of the epigraphs in the forward movement of the book. Although Bell admires the character of Vyry, he argues that because her interests are limited to the welfare of her own family she cannot be seen to represent black women of the present day.

Carby, Hazel. “Ideologies of Black Folk: The Historical Novel of Slavery.” In Slavery and the Literary Imagination, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. An interesting comparison of Margaret Mitchell and Margaret Walker, emphasizing the different ways the two writers used the oral histories on which their works were based. Urges that Jubilee be given more critical attention.

Carmichael, Jacqueline M. Trumpeting a Fiery Sound: History and Folklore in Margaret Walker’sJubilee.” Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998. Carmichael presents a thorough analysis of Walker’s historicist approach and the use of folk motifs in the novel.

Debo, Annette....

(The entire section is 848 words.)