Margo Jefferson on the Roots of Criticism
This Week on the Talk Easy Podcast with Sam Fragoso
Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi.
Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso is a weekly series of intimate conversations with artists, authors, and politicians. It’s a podcast where people sound like people. New episodes air every Sunday, distributed by Pushkin Industries.
In this episode, we sit with author and cultural critic Margo Jefferson. We begin with her new book, Constructing a Nervous System (6:54), an early Ella Fitzgerald memory (11:20), and the said (and unsaid) racial pedagogy of her childhood (16:24), defined by Condoleezza Rice (19:54), Bing Crosby (24:18), and a formative interaction at a high school party (27:49).
On the back-half, we walk through Margo’s entry into criticism (34:27), her role in the emerging feminist movement (36:46), and what real allyship looks like in the continued fight for reproductive rights (40:12). To close, Margo discusses her approach in the classroom at Columbia (41:52), finding “temperamental kinship” in Nina Simone (48:59), Oscar Wilde on the role of the critic (53:15), and how, at 74, she continues to “go on” (1:04:50).
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From the episode:
Sam Fragoso: The transition from critic to memoirist, or novelist, it seems like you’re trying to define what your work is. In the book Constructing a Nervous System, you quote Janet Malcolm’s assessment of journalists. You then give your stern assessment of the critic. I wonder if what you’re doing is a little bit closer to what Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist. Here’s the quote:
That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul. It is more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself. It is more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real and not vague. It is the only civilized form of autobiography, as it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one’s life; not with life’s physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind.
Margo Jefferson: I love that. Though, he’s setting up a more ferocious division than I would pick. Memoir can deal with a sociological and historical self, as well as the passions, the sensations of one mind; one helps shape the other. There’s no such thing as this sacred individual self that hasn’t been affected, tainted, stirred by the outside world.
What I love about those words is that he allows criticism such intimacy. He presumes that you can bring any private, particular little instinct from the self into your criticism. You can find a place for it. That seems to be something I’m very much doing in this book. Moving between the purely personal and the more generally cultural was something I was very much doing in Negroland.
Sam Fragoso: That line, the record of one’s own soul.
Margo Jefferson: That’s a beaut.
Sam Fragoso: When it comes to your work, it feels almost incomplete to me. Do you think a lot of your record in this new book and also Negroland, isn’t it also the record of the souls around you, of the family you’ve had and have lost?
Margo Jefferson: Yes. Especially the family I’ve had and lost in this book, and also without my ever-presuming to be the spokesperson for Black people. It is a racial collective as well, and a gendered collective, always with intimacy and particularity, but I don’t want the reader to forget those surroundings. I don’t wanna be above any of that material. I want it in conversation with what I can cherish and hold onto as my particular soul.
Sam Fragoso: When did that urgency begin, to record that history that was disappearing?
Margo Jefferson: In terms of Negroland, my father had died. My mother was getting much older. Her friends were starting to die. All those things I’d taken for granted—all the material, if I were writing a novel—their meetings, their talks, their conversations, their clothes, their beliefs. It was all starting to wither away. And I thought, I’ve got to start talking to them. Not formally—I really did not do formal interviews—but taking in their voices, their manners, all of that.
It’s not a world that loads of people have written about. It felt like private material that I needed to archive, at the same time that I wanted—and needed—to record the ways in which I was moving against it, had moved away from it. I wanted to be a critic as well as an archivist. And then came Constructing a Nervous System, where I wanted that criticism to merge with, to be in some sort of—even when dissonant—harmonic and rhythmic relationship to very personal familial stories.
What are the roots of criticism? Often the roots of something you fall in love with and write about.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson previously served as book and arts critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York Magazine, The Nation, and Guernica. Her memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. She is also the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Sam Fragoso is the host of Talk Easy with Sam Fragoso, a weekly series of conversations with artists, activists, and politicians. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and NPR. After conducting seminal interviews with icons like Spike Lee, Werner Herzog, and Noam Chomsky, he independently founded Talk Easy in 2016.