Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. As she was regarded primarily as a poet, Maud Martha, her only novel, received little serious attention from the public or from literary critics and was considered a minor work. Black reviewers were generous but often missed the importance of the novel in the African American tradition. White reviewers emphasized the lyrical quality of the writing as an example of Brooks’s poetic gifts and praised its optimistic courage in the face of hardship. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, however, scholars began to examine more closely the place of Maud Martha in the tradition of writing by African Americans.
Some critics view the novel as equal to Brooks’s best work in poetry, while others focus on the psychological dilemma of a black woman facing prejudice within a race that adopts a white standard of beauty. Feminist critics, however, see Brooks’s heroine as a classic example of a woman repressing rage at the neglect of her individuality and creativity and oppressed by both whites and African Americans. In this view, the novel is a direct link between the earlier work of Zora Neale Hurston, most notably Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and the novels of such black woman writers as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker in the 1970’s and 1980’s.