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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370

Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah (1986) won a Pulitzer Prize in the year following its publication. It is a series of poems that are based on the writer's maternal grandparents. The primary setting is the married couple's residence in Akron, Ohio. The writer imparts a magical, poetic quality to her...

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Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah (1986) won a Pulitzer Prize in the year following its publication. It is a series of poems that are based on the writer's maternal grandparents. The primary setting is the married couple's residence in Akron, Ohio. The writer imparts a magical, poetic quality to her grandparents' ordinary lives. The book is divided into two sections, "I. Mandolin" and "II. Canary in Bloom," recounting the stories of her grandfather and grandmother, respectively. The mandolin for which the first part is named, belonged to her grandfather's late childhood friend, Lem. One day, her grandfather, Thomas, challenges a friend, Lem, to swim to an island from a riverboat on the Mississippi. This led to his friend, Lem's death, from which Thomas never fully recovers.

As a young adult, Thomas moves to Akron Ohio where he works for Goodyear. Here, he courts Beulah (whose family is from Georgia) by playing the mandolin. Later, Thomas works at the giant facility erected for making Goodyear's first giant blimp, which results in an accident injuring a few of the employees. Thomas is haunted by memories of Lem, whom he imagines floating up inside the blimp.

Thomas becomes a grandfather, and enjoys telling stories to his grandchildren (particularly one about a possum, who plays dead though he is really alive). On the way to the drug store to buy medication for his heart condition, Thomas dies from a stroke.

Part II, "Canary in Bloom," begins with Beulah, a dark-skinned girl who is part Cherokee. As a child, Beulah's mother is a washerwoman and her alcoholic father is perpetually unemployed. Beulah dreams of going to Paris, though she never makes it there. At one point, she works at a dress shop (where colored girls work in the back and white girls in the front). As a married woman, Beulah enjoys the contemplative monotony of dusting the furniture in the house while drinking to recall the name of a former boyfriend (which she eventually does). Beulah's development of her maternal instinct is described, alongside her fears that her baby disappears or explodes. Beulah spends her final years afflicted with glaucoma. She cannot see, but feels the sunlight as she lies with her head on a pillow.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064

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 canary. Thomas gets a blue car (which gets repossessed during the Depression) and shows Beulah her first swimming pool when she is thirty-six years old.

Another recurring image is that of river and water. The book grew from a story that Dove learned about her grandfather after his death. In “The Event,” Thomas and his friend Lem, a musical duo, are traveling on a riverboat. One night, Thomas dares Lem to swim, but he drowns, leaving Thomas to grieve the rest of his life. In fact, Lem appears in several poems by name or by reference as a kind of guide for Thomas (“Variation on Pain,” “The Charm,” “The Stroke,” and “Thomas at the Wheel”). As Thomas dies in his car in the parking lot of a pharmacy, where he had driven for his medication, he thinks about how he, too, must now swim the river, as did Lem years ago.

Thomas starts out as a young dandy but becomes a family man. He is disappointed that he fathers only daughters and is happy when he gains a son-in-law. The Depression finds him struggling to support his family. He would like to join the U.S. Army during World War II (“Aircraft”), but is deemed too frail to serve. Instead, he gets a job as a riveter at Goodyear Aircraft.

In a 2005 interview in the journal Callaloo, Dove explains that she had written the poem “Dusting” for inclusion in an earlier book, Museum, published in 1983. She began working on a series of poems after this, about her grandfather, and realized that “Dusting” represented her grandmother speaking to her: “Wake up Girl! I’m here too! I wanna talk!” Beulah wanted to be part of the evolving book, along with her husband—and so the Beulah sequence derived from this start. For the book, Dove changed her grandmother’s name from Georgianna to Beulah because she wanted the biblical allusions and because it was more effective rhythmically to use a shorter name in the poems. The name Beulah is derived from the Hebrew word that means “married,” and it refers to the land of Israel in the book of Isaiah. Dove asserts that Beulah also means “desert in peace.”

In Thomas and Beulah, the mother of the young Beulah wishes to protect her from her father: In “Taking in Wash,” her mother warns her husband not to “touch that child.” The poem “Promises,” about the wedding of Thomas and Beulah, deals as much with Beulah’s father as it does with her new husband. After her marriage to Thomas, Beulah’s life revolves around her family and housekeeping. As the mother of four daughters, she still finds space to indulge her private fantasies (“Daystar”) and has dreams of Paris and travel, which she never fulfills. Poems such as “Taking in Wash,” “Dusting,” “A Hill of Beans,” and “Sunday Greens” refer to the women’s work of housekeeping and cooking. When she is forty-two years old, Beulah gets a part-time job pressing clothes and making alterations in a dress shop.

The marriage is a comfortable one, although Dove treats the couple realistically rather than romantically. In “Company,” as Thomas is suffering his last illness, Beulah reminds him of the following: “listen: we were good,/ though we never believed it.” In an interview, the poet said that she had wished to honor her grandmother as a curious and imaginative person, “a very strong woman, who still has no way of showing how strong she could be.”

Dove’s intent in writing the book was to combine the“grandness” and “sweep of time” that narrative poems achieve with the immediacy of lyric poetry. In another interview, Dove said she wanted the book to embody the best features of both lyric and narrative, “to string moments as beads on a necklace.” In writing the book, she said, she believed she was returning to her family background and honoring her grandparents.

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