Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha, and Other Immortal Mortals
How Brooks Lives On Through Her Fictional Alter-Ego
She was a great actress, but only in real life.
–Hilton Als, White Girls
Gwendolyn Brooks did not live to see her hundredth birthday, but I take comfort in the survival of her alter ego: “Maud Martha was born in 1917. She is still alive.” So begins the novelette of the same name. Before we reach the table of contents, we are already reminded to keep one eye on the world beyond the book, which goes on. Maud Martha, the person, exceeds Maud Martha, the project. Of course, it is through Maud Martha, the project, that Maud Martha outlives Gwendolyn Brooks. What is the nature of this survival? How can we catch hold of the hand they extend, together, into our time?
Because the book’s protagonist shares a birthday with Brooks, and also grows up poor, dark-skinned, and brilliant in black Chicago, Maud Martha is sometimes read as a kind of autobiography. Though early critics of Brooks’ poetry were eager to emphasize her “authentic” relationship to the workaday world she described, poetry itself works to maintain the author’s mystery. While prose seems to demand a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the syntax of poetry can sunder subject and object and make language seem a stranger: the question “what is this?” overtakes the question, “is this you?” Is Emily Dickinson celebrating the freedom of poetry when she writes, “I dwell in Possibility — / a fairer House than Prose — / More numerous of Windows — / Superior — for Doors—”?
Maud Martha does not dwell in that fair, superior house: Maud Martha is a work of prose. But it wasn’t always. As Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her recent essay for the New Republic, “After the success of Annie Allen, Brooks began working on ‘American Family Brown,’ a series of poems that focused on the socioeconomic struggles of black Americans. The poems were initially rejected by her publisher and after much back and forth and revision, it became Maud Martha.” For Brooks, Maud Martha was at first a kind of compromise formation, the shape her poetry took when confronted by rejection, the demands of others, and a creative refiguring of her own literary ambition.
The “novelette” we read now is the new form she came to out of necessity: 34 vignettes of two to five pages each, written with the care and compression of poetry. The neat little squares of text seem to fold themselves up inside the prosaic limitations of the kitchenette apartment where Maud Martha makes her life as a married woman and mother. When she moves in, Maud Martha is disappointed by the cramp, the penetrating grayness. But as she begins to swap out the furniture in her mind, to imagine “green drapes for the windows,” she says to herself: “it was small, but wonders could be wrought here.”
In Dickinson’s metaphor, the best dwelling place is the one with the most numerous technologies of escape—whether or not they are put to use. Like (yet unlike) Dickinson’s, Maud Martha’s life is first and foremost domestic. But the threshold of her house does not mark the threshold of her vision: “She was on Fifth Avenue whenever she wanted to be, and she it was who rolled up, silky or furry, in the taxi, was assisted out, and stood, her next step nebulous, before the theaters of the thousand lights, before velvet-lined impossible shops; she it was.” The dream of New York is so vivid for Maud Martha and so vivid for us, directed by her dreaming, that we can’t be sure she hasn’t left Chicago and brought us along to the bigger city.
And hasn’t she? So much of the world, even as we live in it, is made up of these projected scenes and the gestures we make as we prepare to inhabit them. Imagining New York’s “silver coffee service, old (in the better sense)” and the hostess “inquiring gently whether it should be sugar, or cream, or both or neither,” Maud Martha is already practiced in the art of elegant refusal: “(She was teaching herself to drink coffee with neither.)” In the shabby kitchenette, the practical habit of black coffee then becomes a radiant symbol of that other life that thrives inside her, and appears on her surface as what we call style.
“Maud Martha is sensitive to the deliberate mental work required to make use of the beauty she finds, especially since even ordinary beauty is not always within reach.”
In the book’s first pages, Gwendolyn Brooks conjures up her character in the space between what she liked and what she would have liked, had she been given the opportunity: “She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies . . . But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.” Perhaps Gwendolyn Brooks, the author, has known and loved a lotus and writes from the position of that knowledge. But Maud Martha’s would-haves and could-haves do not require the fact of her author’s award-winning life to verify her delight in its possibilities. Intimations are enough: “The very word meadow made her breathe more deeply.” After all, it was the word that once moved the life of the author in the direction of the wider world.
It is not that Maud Martha does not like what she sees, but that her capacity for sight dilates beyond “the patched green dress of her backyard.” Even this metaphor expresses her sense of the yard as a scrap of life to be lovingly mended through poetry, then slipped into and worn. A dandelion becomes a jewel for Maud Martha not only due to its “demure prettiness,” but because “it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished!” The flower is a way of finding herself out. Maud Martha is sensitive to the deliberate mental work required to make use of the beauty she finds, especially since even ordinary beauty is not always within reach: “one would not be looking at [dandelions] all the time . . . and in the colder months there were no dandelions at all.” Just as the meadow or the glitter of New York remain a horizon of imagination, the dandelion and its mandate must be held in the one true home of the mind.
Though they share this visionary power of perception, Maud Martha and her author do not share authorship itself. Maud Martha is not a writer, painter, or performer. It’s true that she is not born into an abundance of opportunity for such a life, but neither was Brooks herself. She does, though, place Maud Martha in the way of literature. Maud Martha likes to read: one scene finds her reading Somerset Maughm’s Of Human Bondage in bed while her husband tries to provoke her by reading “a paper-backed copy of Sex in the Married Life.” And the University of Chicago is not so far away. In one vignette, Maud Martha goes “to hear the newest young Negro author speak at Mandel Hall” and runs into a young man from her neighborhood, now a student eager to impress his “good, good” white friends with “words like anachronism, transcendentalist, cosmos, metaphysical, corollary, integer, monarchical.”
Maud Martha’s cool assessment of his efforts is one among several moments in which we can see her decide against a certain kind of life. But she is not only rejecting the humiliation of striving to meet empty white standards of excellence. She is also skeptical of the more general drive so many people have “to parade themselves on a stage . . . exhibit their precious private identities.” After seeing a pop singer at the Regal theater, she notices how quickly the applause passes, how soon the audience “was going home, as she was, and its face was dull again. It had not been helped. Not truly. Not well.” The unstable hysteria of public acclaim is a danger for the performer, and for the audience it is a danger to depend on forms of “help” that require a ticket, that cannot be integrated into the goings-on of everyday life. And so she makes her vow: “To create—a role, a poem, picture, music, a rapture in stone. Great. But not for her. What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.”
What are we to make of Maud Martha’s deliberate refusal to become an artist? It’s true that Gwendolyn Brooks pursued a different path. But I want to hold onto the sense in which she “is still alive” as Maud Martha. Every artist has a phantasmatic intimacy with her own silence. And those of us who cannot regard a career in the arts as an entitlement know very well that it might have been otherwise. I don’t want to suggest that Gwendolyn Brooks is a dime a dozen on the South Side of Chicago or anywhere else. But through Maud Martha, she poses an ethical question: does Maud Martha need to produce art in order for us to appreciate her artistry?
Gwendolyn Brooks’ mother Keziah trained as a concert pianist, but she worked as a schoolteacher for most of her life. Both my mother and grandmother were easily talented enough for careers as performers. The fact that none of these women lived out those careers as we conventionally recognize them can of course be attributed, in some measure, to structures of oppression. But the absence of a consistent concert stage in no way diminished the dramatic effects of their performances. I grew up made in the image of my grandmother’s adventurous glamour, refined by my mother’s wide-ranging taste in music and people. I grew up intimidated by their self-possessed sensuality and electrified by the persuasive power of their voices. Whatever they touched, no matter how basic, was transformed by their high style. I recognize the magic with which Maud Martha “spread[s] her little second-hand table” with a “really good white luncheon cloth,” “a plate of frosted gingerbread,” and “a little pink pot of cocoa” whose delicious secret she will “never . . . tell.” But in “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison admits to a kind of thinking I also recognize:
I have suspected, more often than not, that I know more than [my grandmother] did, that I know more than my grandfather and my great-grandmother did, but I also know that I’m no wiser than they were. And whenever I have tried to speculate on their interior life and match it up with my own, I have been overwhelmed every time by the richness of theirs . . . these people are my access to me; they are my entrance into my own interior life.
It’s all too easy to believe that the desire and opportunity to write a book is a kind of moral triumph. God knows I’m not saying that art is easy to make, or that works of art don’t matter. They do. But the work of art is far from the only form art takes. As Marx teaches us, when we fetishize the commodity we disappear the labor of its making. Not to mention all the making that does not result in commodities: making the bed, making dinner, making love, making time, making way, making do, making up, making your day. In privileging the work of art, we furthermore imply that black lives, or the lives of the poor, only matter as commodities on the cultural marketplace.
In the epigraph that lines up her own life with Maud Martha’s, Gwendolyn Brooks tempts our gaze toward her own burgeoning celebrity only to deflect it. Maud Martha doesn’t need to be a star to shine—and neither does her author. The apparent irony of the fact that this message is transmitted by way of a published book would not be lost on Brooks and need not be lost on us, the readers:
She watched the little dreams of smoke as they spiraled about his hand, and she thought about happenings. She was afraid to suggest to him that, to most people, nothing at all “happens.” That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.
But there’s always a scale at which this will be true for every individual: even the names most deeply carved into the canon of human culture by the hand of power will not survive the eventual erasure of our planet as “earth.” Maud Martha makes a mental gesture in this cosmic direction even as she refrains from deflating her husband’s masculine fantasies.
The argument for remembering Brooks—or an “under-read” work like Maud Martha—does not depend on a grandiose investment in immortality or the conviction that Maud Martha does more for us than other works of art or styles of survival. It’s simpler than that: we should hold fast to whatever beauty blesses us in passing, including the book itself. But through the book, Brooks trains us for a world in which we don’t have her or her writings, and reminds us that the world in which we don’t is not a world in which she isn’t there. What’s always “still alive” is the capacity to make something of ourselves—not in Horatio Alger’s sense, but in the sense of the woman on the subway whose wing of eyeliner is so smooth it might fly us all away.