New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 245 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by: Farah Jasmine Griffin
Following Maya Angelou’s death in May 2014, sales of her always-popular first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), soared. That book and those that followed introduced readers to a talented writer who, as a young girl named Marguerite Johnson, had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, became mute as a result of the abuse, and developed an intense and intricate interior life fueled by her voracious appetite for books. Marguerite grew up to be Maya Angelou, Renaissance woman: a formidable storyteller who used language to create herself anew. As much Angelou’s subsequent memoirs (there are eight in total) tell the story of a life, they also embody the act of self-creation. During her lifetime, Angelou also published several volumes of poetry, essays, and aphorisms. She wrote screenplays and plays, and penned inspirational greeting card messages. However, all of these exist in the shadow of the memoirs, which presents a challenge to any would-be biographer who attempts to chronicle a life so well documented by the person who lived it.
A conventional biography requires the writer to establish distance between her project and the memoirs. In fact, the biographer needs to view autobiographical writings with a bit of skepticism, seeing them as but one source, and possibly an untrustworthy one, among many. This kind of project requires extensive investigation of the subject’s archives as well as the archives of those who knew and worked with her. If there are members of this latter group who are still alive, the biographer needs to conduct lengthy interviews with them. Armed with this material, she must then separate the myths of the memoir from the flawed, if gifted, subject of her research. Because Maya Angelou looms so very large, and because the myths of her life are her own creations, such a biography, necessarily years in the making, is warranted. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Maya Angelou is not that biography.
The first book-length treatment of Angelou’s life and work to appear since her death, Wagner-Martin’s text is instead an in-depth literary study of Maya Angelou’s body of work. In her Preface, Wagner-Martin writes:
How does the author of an academic book capture the radiant and effulgent mind, attitude and sound that was Maya Angelou?... [H]ow does an author capture the far-reaching effects of Maya Angelou’s eight memoirs and as many poetry collections, as well as her countless essays, letters, interviews, and even more personal writings?
The subject here is not Maya Angelou’s life per se, but her mind: her ideas and how she expressed them in writing. The subject is the oeuvre. The greatest contribution of Maya Angelou is the seriousness with which it takes Angelou as a writer. Wagner-Martin is the author of a number of books about writers, including Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison, which belong to the genre of literary scholarship whereby the author illuminates aspects of her subject’s life based on her body of work.
Wagner-Martin performs a great service to Angelou’s legacy by including her among the subjects to whom she has devoted her keen analytical abilities, for Angelou’s reputation as a writer is often dwarfed by her reputation as inspirational public figure and a cosmopolitan woman of the world. Some of this is a consequence of the snobbishness of academic literary criticism and some a response to Angelou’s own choices. The popularity of her writing, the anthem-like nature of some of her poems—the most famous of which are recited at graduations, beauty pageants, rites of passage, and funerals—make many academic critics suspicious of their literary merit. Angelou’s books of catchy aphorisms and verses on Hallmark greeting cards also contribute to the overall devaluation of her writing project. Wagner-Martin notes these challenges, asserting, “In both her poetry and her memoir, then, Angelou forged her own directions—and as a result her aesthetic achievements were sometimes unappreciated or overlooked.” She reminds us that Angelou first came to public attention as an original literary voice, telling a story that had not been told: that of an impoverished, brainy black girl in a world that did not wish to see poverty and saw no value in the life of a black girl child.
Wagner-Martin’s contextualization and explication of that first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is extraordinary. By now the book is so ubiquitous it is difficult to remember a time before its existence. As with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (published a year after Caged Bird, in 1970), it became a kind of founding text for the outpouring of work by black women writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Morrison’s work, it is often credited with breaking the silence about the intraracial sexual abuse of black girls, while at the same time chronicling, in beautiful prose, the inner lives of young subjects thought to have none.
Wagner-Martin recreates the sense of excitement that Caged Bird generated, and she explains its distinctiveness. Although some readers have placed it in the context of writings by black men such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, or of white women such as Erica Jong and Marilyn French, Wagner-Martin suggests that Lillian Hellman’s serial autobiographies may be better comparisons for Angelou. However, unlike Hellman, who by the time her books were published was already a widely regarded literary figure, Angelou was unknown outside of an elite circle of black writers, artists, and activists. Caged Bird served as her calling card to a broader public. Once they discovered her, readers felt a sense of empathy and a longing to know more:
[Maya Angelou] had no celebrity status, though she had appeared on stage and in clubs: the heart of her memoir writing was, in fact, the commonality of her life…She also wrote, without apology, about the bleak events in the early years of her life—and she did so without blaming mainstream culture—that is, white culture—for those events. I Know why the Caged Bird Sings was an unanticipated kind of book. Its politics [were] comparatively mild; its energy was devoted to expressing the family love that had saved Maya and her brother; its narrative patterning alternated the serious, and the chilling, with the tranquil and exuberant.
This concise description is an apt one, which delineates elements that Angelou’s book shared with a generation of black women writers. However, rather than letting white people and white supremacy off the hook for black suffering, these women’s books instead devoted themselves to demonstrating the existence of black complexity, humanity, dignity, and love under the conditions of white supremacy. They are not outward looking, directed at white men in anger; they allow for interiority, for anxiety, and for psychological depth. This is a political project, though one that is perhaps not apparent to mainstream readers.
While Wagner-Martin’s readings of Angelou’s writings are indeed valuable and give us a way to better appreciate the work, particularly the poetry, the book falls short in its failure to explore the veracity of some of Angelou’s claims. Wagner-Martin seems to take the memoirs at face value—or perhaps, as a literary critic, she assumes the fictional nature of the autobiographical project. She suggests that Angelou’s memoirs may be more accurately described as “autobiographical novels,” but she does not develop this provocative and interesting assertion. Perhaps her critical methodology does not require a search for truth but instead an illumination of craft. If this is the case, however, she ought to have given greater attention to the inconsistent quality of the later works. Was it a consequence of market pressures? Did Angelou grow bored with the character she had created?
Wagner-Martin engages with a number of other analysts of African American women’s fiction to build the critical framework with which she reads Angelou’s work. That a number of these scholars are black feminist or womanist theorists creates an intellectually rich and nuanced context for her discussion. While we learn no new details of Angelou’s life, Wagner-Martin gives us a way of reading that life. Her final chapter focuses on Angelou as a “spirit leader,” which seems a most apt description of the role she plays in the lives of many readers, including that of her most famous admirer, Maya Angelou herself.
All in all, Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit is an important early contribution to studies of Angelou’s life and writing. By focusing on the literary Angelou, it reminds us that she first came to our attention as a writer of compelling prose and a gifted storyteller who wrote her way into existence.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. Her most recent book is: Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013).