In the first of the novel’s thirty-four brief chapters, the seven-year-old Maud Martha Brown yearns to be “cherished” in the way that she perceives her sister Helen, two years older, to be. The same motif of sibling envy pops up late in the novel when Maud Martha’s mother, Belva, reveals that Helen wants to marry the family doctor, a man much older. This revelation (the girls’ father is thinking of changing doctors) leads to Maud Martha’s musing that “It’s funny how some people are just charming, just pretty, and others, born of the same parents, are just not.” The best answer that Belva can muster is “you make the best cocoa in the family.”
These passages reveal something of the insecurity that Maud Martha feels, but her sensitivity to race and class issues troubles her much more. Her “first beau,” Russell, is “decorated inside and out,” but he is dismissed in favor of the “second beau,” who longs to be an English country gentleman and envies the chaps who have mastered Vernon Parrington’s classic work of intellectual history, Main Currents in American Thought. Maud Martha comes to an understanding, however, with Paul Phillips, who admits “I’m not handsome,” and their generally contented marriage produces Paulette, who arrives in the world in comic confusion.
Some of Brooks’s best chapters are stinging portraits of pretentiousness. When she goes to hear a popular black author speak, to his annoyance she tags along with him afterward toward the Jungly Hovel. His tone changes immediately when they meet up with a white couple, and Brooks’s contemptuous portrait of this “rash representative from the ranks of the intellectual nouveau riche.” Equally cutting is the sketch of Mrs. Burns-Cooper, an elegant white lady who interviews Maud Martha as a potential house maid. Mrs. Burns-Cooper struggles to achieve the common touch as Maud Martha is peeling potatoes, but her tedious chatter about her imported lace, her sister-in-law’s Stradivarius, and the charm of the Nile convinces Maud Martha never to return.
Maud Martha is a novel of acute observation of human behavior, and it is written in the bright language of a major poet.
Maud Martha is a lyrical, impressionistic series of episodes and vignettes narrating the life of Maud Martha Brown, a young African American woman born into a struggling working-class family. It is clear from the beginning that she is sensitive, aware, and deeply affected by color prejudice both outside and inside her home. The reader follows her through her development from a seven-year-old child into young adulthood. Much of the novel is loosely autobiographical.
The novel is divided into thirty-four brief chapters, each delineating a moment in Maud Martha’s life. The narration is in the third person, but events are seen from Maud Martha’s point of view. The first five chapters take readers quickly through her childhood, touching on her family life with reference to quarrels between her parents, a description of her schoolyard, the death of her grandmother, and the experience of being visited, and patronized, by a white child.
The sixth chapter begins to explore the young woman, beginning with a visit to a theater that results in Maud Martha’s making the decision that what she wanted was “to donate to the world a good Maud Martha.” The next few chapters explore three events significant in the heroine’s life not only as individual occurrences but also as representative of the kind of traumas she deals with throughout the novel: the death of her Uncle Tim, the near loss of the family home; and the preference of a young man for her younger, lighter-skinned sister Helen, which makes Maud Martha realize that even her beloved father favors Helen. Helen tells her sister that she will never get a boyfriend “if you don’t stop reading those books.”
The following chapters prove that statement false, as they describe Maud Martha’s “first beau,” Russell, her “second beau,” David McKemster, and Paul Phillips, the “low yellow” man who is to become her husband. Although at this point she is dreaming of going to New York City, her symbol for what life ought to be like, at the age...
(The entire section is 834 words.)