Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Maud Martha is a collection of thirty-four short episodes from a young woman’s life. Beginning when she is seven years old, the loosely structured novel traces her childhood, youthful aspirations, dating, and eventual marriage and motherhood. With each chapter, Gwendolyn Brooks creates a poetic description of Maud’s interior and exterior worlds, weaving the details of her South Side Chicago neighborhood skillfully into each vignette. Maud’s youth is spent feeling second rate, thanks to her sister’s self-absorption and the obvious favoritism her parents and brother show for Helen. Weary of the competition, Maud decides that her best contribution to the world is to be a “good Maud Martha,” thereafter a characteristic she hones. She never forgets the slights, however, thinking back in adult years to the injustices she suffered as a girl. Brooks uses flashbacks to illustrate this abiding and painful memory.

The novel covers a number of years, during which Maud grows up and leaves home to make a life with Paul Phillips in their roach-infested apartment. After she is married, her days are spent reading and watching the fascinating individuals who live in her building. Eventually, she has a baby whom they name Paulette. Soon she finds herself changing diapers, making baking-powder biscuits, and ironing aprons. Longing for intellectual stimulation, she attends lectures at the university alone; occasionally, she convinces Paul to go with her to a motion picture or musical production. Life, she thinks, can be...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Prior to the publication of Maud Martha, modern white American writers, in an effort to challenge artistic complacency and cultural institutions, broke spatial wholeness into fragments and disrupted the traditional temporal sequence of the novel. Yet, for all their literary innovation, modernist writers were deeply conservative in one important respect: They failed to challenge white male power and privilege. While Brooks’s novel clearly fits the new fragmented framework, it breaks ground in its challenges to the patriarchal structure. Brooks uses modernist devices to explore women’s assigned role as the second sex, their lives fragmented by a society that cannot even imagine them. Her work is both radical and hopeful. It engages and enrages readers through its examination of a woman’s humiliation at being stereotyped in a racist, misogynist white America.

Brooks includes men as both subjects and objects, but she reserves the role of wise and resilient knower for Maud, whose silence, therefore, should not be misread as naïveté or acceptance of society. Brooks said that Maud Martha is an autobiographical novel. Maud is as wise as Brooks herself, yet unlike Brooks she lacks the power of words. The short chapters mirror Maud’s own aborted attempts to communicate verbally, while the text illustrates Maud’s insight into the miseries of life, her unflinching honesty, and her writer’s memory for detail.

Since its publication in 1953, Maud Martha has not received the critical attention it deserves. Although critics frequently comment on Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, they virtually ignore her novel. Clearly, the work fills a literary gap and offers a woman’s perspective on the racial discrimination addressed by other writers of the time, such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Brooks’s novel is not peopled with tragic heroes. As Maud says, “The truth was, if you got a good Tragedy out of a lifetime, one good, ripping tragedy, . . . your were doing well.” Instead, the book challenges readers to understand how one woman maintains her dignity in the daily struggles within a destructive society.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bell, Bernard. “Myth, Legend, and Ritual in the Novel of the Fifties.” In The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Views Brooks’s work as a link between the poetic realism of Jean Toomer in the 1920’s and the fiction of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972. Autobiography describing events from Brooks’s childhood and the lives of her own children. Includes a report of her visit to Africa, photographs of family and friends, and three interviews about her work. Reveals the origin of characters and events in Maud Martha.

Christian, Barbara. “Nuance and the Novella: A Study of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha.” In A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. A look at the critical reception of Maud Martha and an analysis of why it received less attention and favor than the works of Baldwin, Wright, or Ellison. This essay presents a useful commentary on why the ordinary rituals of daily life must be made into art.

Davis, Arthur P. “Gwendolyn Brooks.” In From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers (1900 to 1960). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Traces Brooks’s development from her beginning as a mainstream poet to her involvement with the Black Arts movement. Pays tribute to her brilliant craftsmanship in poetry and recognizes Maud Martha as one of her best works.

Hackney, Sheldon. “A Conversation with Gwendolyn Brooks.” Humanities 15 (May/ June, 1994). Hackney, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, speaks with Brooks about her education in literature, the influence of her parents on her writing, the effect of winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Annie Allen,” and her views about being a black American. Although Maud Martha is not discussed, this interview is useful for understanding how Brooks’s background influenced her work.


(The entire section is 923 words.)