Paule Marshall Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn as Valenza Pauline Burke, one of three children of Samuel and Ada Burke, immigrants from the island of Barbados. Her father, whom she dearly loved, was unskilled but dreamed of a better life. Eventually, he left the family to join the “kingdom” of black religious leader Father Divine in Harlem. Her mother worked as a domestic servant. Marshall credits her early interest in language and stories to “the poets in the kitchen,” her mother’s Barbadian friends who gathered in the basement kitchen of her brownstone house after work to have a cup of tea or cocoa and discuss their lives.

At the age of nine, Marshall visited Barbados, where she first met her maternal grandmother, an impressive ancestral figure who appears in many of Marshall’s works. Her story “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” (1967) is a nearly autobiographical account of this visit. Inspired by the beauty of the islands, she began to write poetry, and on her return began a period of intense reading. By accident, she discovered the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American author whose work she had ever read, and this experience gave her the courage to think of becoming a writer.

In 1950, Marshall married Kenneth E. Marshall. Three years later, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, from Brooklyn College. Her first published story, “The Valley Between” (1954), reflects her own struggle as a wife and mother with her desire for education and a writing career. Marshall worked in New York public libraries and from 1953 to 1956 was the only woman staff writer for Our World magazine, traveling on assignment to Brazil and the West Indies.

While doing postgraduate work at Hunter College in 1955, Marshall began her autobiographical novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), completing it in...

(The entire section is 757 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Marshall has incorporated into her work her personal struggle as a black woman and black writer living in a society that undercut her sense of self and her concern for social change. Her books explore the individual search for identity as well as the simultaneous need for integration within a larger community and a deeper awareness of the past. Her vivid portrayal of West Indian American life contributes to a better understanding of the multiple aspects of the African American experience.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn in 1929, the daughter of Samuel and Ada Burke, émigrés from Barbados who arrived in the United States shortly after World War I. She thus grew up in a culture with its roots in the Caribbean, which she visited for the first time when she was nine years old, an experience that had a strong influence on her future writing. She wrote poetry as a child and listened to the talk of women, both preparing her for her career as a powerful and poetic writer. In the opening of Reena, and Other Stories, she describes the influence of her mother, woman relatives, and other female friends on her experience in an essay called “From the Poets in the Kitchen”:They taught me my first lesson in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the workshop of the kitchen.

Marshall attended Brooklyn College, receiving a B.A. cum laude in 1953; she was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She wrote her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, while a graduate student at Hunter College. She married Kenneth E. Marshall in 1950; they had a child, Evan, but the marriage ended in 1963. In the meantime, Marshall worked as a librarian for the New York Public Libraries and as a staff writer for Our World magazine in New York; she also...

(The entire section is 461 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York, to Samuel Burke and Ada Clement Burke, who migrated to New York from Barbados shortly after World War I and joined the growing community of West Indian immigrants in Brooklyn. Her parents brought with them to the United States the strong sense of pride and tradition that was an integral part of West Indian culture, and she was nourished by a community of people who revered their West Indian heritage even as they embraced the advantages that their new country afforded them. Her parents returned often to their homeland of Barbados, taking their small daughter with them. Thus, from her earliest years, Marshall began to develop an understanding of the two worlds to which she belonged and to appreciate the differences between those worlds—a fact that is immediately recognizable in her fiction.

Marshall attended Brooklyn College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1953, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She subsequently went to work as a researcher and later as a feature writer for Our World magazine. In 1955, she enrolled as a graduate student at Hunter College (City University of New York) but continued to write for Our World, where her assignments carried her to Brazil and the West Indies. In 1957, she married Kenneth Marshall, with whom she had one son, Evan Keith. Her trips to the Caribbean islands were rewarding in that they provided her an...

(The entire section is 463 words.)