Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Maud Martha, Brooks’s only novel, has received little critical attention, which is regrettable, as it is one of the first novels by an African American woman focusing on the black female experience. The book’s major precursor is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Brooks’s novel was to have an important influence on Paule Marshall, who remarked that she considered it the finest portrayal of an African American woman at the time it was published.
This critical void may result from the fact that Brooks is mainly recognized as a poet; indeed, the novel itself reads like poetry, a fact that may have discouraged its wider acceptance. Barbara Christian, in her essay “Nuance and the Novella,” argues that to Paule Marshall, Brooks’s contribution was a turning point in African American fiction because it presented for the first time a black woman “not as a mammy, wench, mulatto or downtrodden heroine but as an ordinary human being in all the wonder of her complexity.”
Christian also claims that the novel was not more widely acknowledged because it was published at the end of the 1960’s Civil Rights era, when the stress was on integration, and just before a new awareness arose that “black is beautiful” and that women, especially black women, faced particular difficulties.