- Creative Multivalence:Social Engagement beyond Naturalism in Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha
“Maud Martha is a lovely little novel,” Gwendolyn Brooks affirmed in her 1984 self-interview, “about a lovely little person, wrestling with the threads of her milieu. Of course this ‘lovely little person’ was the essence of myself, or aspects of myself tied with as neat a ribbon as my innocence could manage. The novel is very funny, very often!—and not at all disappointing” (114). In this fascinating characterization of her novel, Brooks actually echoes the language of its early reviewers who, in the words of Mary Helen Washington, “gave it the kind of ladylike treatment that assured its dismissal,” and “invariably chose to describe the novel in words that reflected what they considered the novel’s appropriate feminine values” (453). That the “lovely little” novel actually takes on racism, the complexion hierarchy in the black community, classism, poverty, war, lynching, and disillusionment with marriage—taken together with the paradox inherent in calling one’s novel “not at all disappointing”—adds complexity to the statement, and gives the reader reason to believe that perhaps Brooks did not mean her words, in her novel or elsewhere, to be read “straight,” even when they are in some measure felt in earnest.
Indeed, while reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s letters in the archives and the “Marginalia” chapter collected in her first autobiography, I was struck by what I term the multivalent, or multifaceted—and dubiously straightforward—nature of her statements about her own life and writing. What little criticism has come out on this brilliant poet’s only novel is generally split between commentaries that discuss its understatement, its fragmented nature, and its “limited” viewpoint and subject matter,1 and those that argue for reading these as symptoms of a suppressed rage.2 Yet there are many passages in the novel that seem to suggest irony, ambivalence, or a sort of layering of innocent sincerity with either implied or explicit protest—and as a result, I am not convinced we’re supposed to read Maud Martha’s silence, restraint, or good nature simply as such in the first place, symptomatically or otherwise.3 As a chord is produced from multiple notes struck at once, multivalence allows for the simultaneous expression of multiple, even conflicting, sentiments, without necessarily specifying the truth-value of any one. Multivalence is akin to but distinct from Karla Holloway’s concept of “plurisignation,” which she applies to African American women’s fiction more generally, and which signals a sort of “internal displacement” or “dissonance” (388).4 The multivalence I see in Brooks, in contrast, is less determinate, as it can range broadly in meaning and has the potential to incorporate earnestness as much as it does discord. In some cases, it can entail a complex negotiation of expectations—as in enunciating a socially approved viewpoint while implicitly questioning it at the same time—and perhaps explore the ways in which it is possible to move fluidly between identification with extrinsic expectations and resistance to them, or even to occupy both positions at once. In other cases, it may involve the protagonist wrestling with her own beliefs and feelings; in still others, all of the various sentiments expressed may be more or less equally felt as true.
In this essay, I first explore this multivalence as it appears in the novel, considering the multivalence of Brooks’s own commentary alongside it where possible. Then, in a sustained reading of the mouse and rat scenes, respectively, I undertake [End Page 313] a comparative analysis of the mechanisms of liberation and hero-formation that operate in Maud Martha alongside those of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a landmark work of the Chicago School naturalism that the later novel counters. Finally, I argue that the sophisticated consciousness with which Brooks endows her protagonist, and the nimbly complex signification through which this consciousness is expressed, point to a new, nonnaturalistic form of social engagement that Brooks innovates in Maud Martha. Through its emphasis on multivalence in concert with Maud Martha’s in-depth contemplation of her circumstances, the novel engages social issues, injustice, and hegemonic social expectations in...