(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title and thematic center of Soul Clap Hands and Sing are taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium”: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing.” The male protagonists of these novellas are not singing. Each is middle-aged or older and has lived a life essentially empty of commitment; each reaches out tentatively and too late to another person.

In this collection, Marshall moves the setting beyond the United States to the islands of the Caribbean Sea and South America, deliberately assuming a male perspective. These stories concern not so much the age of the men but the parched condition of their souls.

Barbados is the first and shortest novella. Mr. Watford, thin, spare, and comfortably retired from his job in America, spends his days tending his coconut trees and scoffing at the young people and their political slogan, “The Old Order Shall Pass.” A local shopkeeper urges Mr. Watford to support the unsteady economy by hiring a servant, but the girl he sends disturbs Mr. Watford, who is grudging and harsh with her, though he allows her to stay. Only when he sees her dancing with a young man does he begin to realize how jealous he is of her, and how lonely. He tries to approach the girl, but she spurns him, and he realizes that in his life “it had been love, terrible in its demand, which he had always fled.”


(The entire section is 539 words.)

The Novellas

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Soul Clap Hands and Sing comprises four novellas, each set in a different location and featuring different characters. In Barbados, Mr. Watford lives a repetitious life caring for his doves and dwarf coconut trees. Despite his return from the United States five years earlier, his grand Colonial American home remains unfinished, the imported furniture unarranged. Mr. Watford worked in the United States for more than fifty years before returning to his homeland. His return, however, seems empty: Caught between the two cultures, he remains in a self-imposed exile, cut off from the Barbadian people around him.

In Brooklyn, Max Berman believes that his only chance to prove his existence is through his hesitant and submissive student Miss Williams. When he propositions her, she denies him in silent rage but later returns to accept. During their day together, Williams leads Berman to the revelation that his life has no importance. Following this revelation, she shares one of her own: His advances have settled her uncertainty, showing the flaws in her parents’ advice to stay away from people both lighter-and darker-skinned than she is. Upon hearing this, Berman realizes the depth of her anger in the face of his own indifference, and he acknowledges his own responsibility.

In British Guiana, Gerald Motley’s day begins as he retrieves Sidney Parrish. More than an announcer, Sidney acts as Gerald’s conscience, revealing his flaws. On this...

(The entire section is 472 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Coser, Stelamaris. Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. Explores the connections between the three authors and the ways in which they work to create inter-American bridges.

Denniston, Dorothy Hamer. The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Argues that Marshall’s works create an African unity for her characters through her reconstruction of African history and culture. The confusion and cultural exile of the men portrayed in Soul Clap Hands and Sing, for Denniston, leads to questions regarding the meaning of existence in the New World.

Gadsby, Meredith M. Sucking Salt: Caribbean Women Writers, Migration, and Survival. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Offers a special emphasis on the creative artistry of Paule Marshall, drawing on critical and ethnic studies to cover a wide range of topics.

Hawthorne, Evelyn. “Ethnicity and Cultural Perspectives in Paule Marshall’s Short Fiction.” MELUS 13, nos. 3/4 (Autumn/Winter, 1986): 37-48. Challenges traditional readings of Soul Clap Hands and Sing and Marshall’s other short fiction, looking closely at subtexts that highlight cultural, social, and political concerns.

Pannill, Linda. “From the ’Wordshop’: The Fiction of Paule Marshall.” MELUS 12, no. 2 (Summer, 1985): 63-73. Posits that the strength of Marshall’s writing is in her complex black women characters and in her own political and creative stance as a wordsmith.

Pettis, Joyce. Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction. London: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Points to a lack of spiritual wholeness and posits that, despite the male characters’ failures, Marshall’s novella collection reveals that the path to wholeness lies in individual vision and communal attachment, both of which must come from within.

Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. “Paltry Things: Immigrants and Marginal Men in Paule Marshall’s Short Fiction.” Callaloo 18 (Spring/Summer, 1983): 46-56. Investigates the alienation experienced by immigrants, particularly the marginalized men of Soul Clap Hands and Sing, and argues that Marshall is at once critical of and sympathetic to their plight.