(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Thomas and Beulah is a tour de force, a virtuoso performance by a major poet operating at the height of her powers. Thomas and Beulah takes the form of a two-part book of narrative poems that collectively tell the stories of Thomas (in “Mandolin,” the book’s first part) and his wife, Beulah (in “Canary in Bloom,” the second part). The parts are meant to be read sequentially and offer the male and female perspectives on some seventy years of private history. The two parts are followed by a “Chronology” that provides an imagined framework of the critical years in the married life of Thomas, a mandolin player and talented tenor, and Beulah, his proud and sometimes unforgiving spouse. The poems are a mixture of lush imagery involving food, musical instruments, cars, and weather, as well as quotations from songs and specimens of actual “Negro” speech. Although the poems form interlocking units, many of them (such as “The Zeppelin Factory” and “Pomade”) are self-sufficient and freestanding works of art that could be read individually, without reference to the book as a whole.

The story is a fairly simple one, even if the reader must fill in some gaps. Thomas takes a riverboat and leaves Tennessee. After two years of rambling and playing his mandolin, he settles in Akron, where there are many good jobs, and where Beulah’s family has already established itself after leaving Georgia. Thomas cuts a dashing figure, with...

(The entire section is 527 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Rita Dove’s third collection of poems, Thomas and Beulah, presents a fictionalized version of the author’s maternal grandparents’ lives in Akron, Ohio. Dove explains that she likes to show many sides of an event or experience. Accordingly, the book is divided into two almost-equal sections. The first section, “Mandolin,” contains twenty-three poems from Grandfather Thomas’s point of view, and the second section, “Canary in Bloom,” contains twenty-one poems telling the story according to Grandmother Beulah.

The book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1987, explores the changing lives of a middle-class African American family set against the background of American history in the first half of the twentieth century. Dove includes a chronology at the end of the book that starts in 1900 with Thomas’s birth in Wartrace, Tennessee, and ends in 1969 with Beulah’s death. Events listed in the chronology include both personal events, such as the couple’s wedding in December, 1924, and birth of their first child, Rose, in 1926, and public events, such as the building of the Goodyear Zeppelin Airdock in 1929 and the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights. The events of history and the cultural changes remain in the background. Dove wished to convey the meaning of her grandparents’ lives rather than be strictly factual.

In both Tennessee and Ohio, the couple faces discrimination in various forms. For example, in “Nothing Down,” Thomas remembers having to hide from rampaging white men. In “Roast Possum,” Thomas tells his grandchildren stories, but omits the passage from an encyclopedia that claims that “Negro” children become lazy at puberty. After Thomas’s death (“Wingfoot Lake”), Beulah attends a company picnic on Independence Day, 1964, in which the families of whites and the families of African Americans sit on opposite sides at the picnic, yet unpacking similar food items.

Musical imagery, as the section titles indicate, is a structural link among the poems, starting with the mandolin that Thomas’s friend Lem plays and echoing through the sequence as Thomas joins a gospel chorus and Beulah gets a pet canary and a musical jewelry box. Poem titles include “Jiving,” “Refrain,” and “Lightnin’ Blues.” Both the rhythms of many of the poems and the book’s themes of love and loss suggest blues songs.

A chain of images revolves around the colors yellow and blue. Thomas gives Beulah a yellow scarf when they are courting. In “Dusting,” Beulah remembers having a goldfish, and she later gets a pet...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)