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    LIT 4386 British and American Literature by Women

    Class 26

    Marshall, "Poets in the Kitchen" (1946)
    POST #11 Group B

    Class Objectives:

  • To analyze the kitchen culture of Marshall's West Indian women
  • To discuss the way language represents people, culture, philosophy

    Marshall begins by offering a female kitchen culture as an advantageous and fertile ground for the artist (p. 1946), by "instilling in her an appreciation for ordinary speech." She shows us how she develops as an author from this background.

Notes and Discussion Questions:

1. Paule Marshall, "Poets in the Kitchen"

What form is it? How does this differ from a short-story? A Memoir? An Autobiography?

What does it share with these?

How does it compare with V. Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own?

What style is the writing?

What is the context (if not setting)?

Who are the main characters?

Why is "ordinary speech" important, according to Marshall?

In Marshall's experience, the occupants of her basement kitchen were poets, who after a day of "'scrubbing floor'" would gather for conversation: "Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked. While my sister and I sat at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they talked -- endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them. True, they would indulge in the usual gossip: whose husband was running with whom, whose daughter look slightly 'in the way' (pregnant) under her bridal gown as she walked down the aisle. That sort of thing. But they also tackled the great issues of the time" (1947).

Note the energy of conversation -- the ability to speak freely. How does this differ from other spaces in which these women might speak?

What do the women talk about?

Later she analyzes this speech: "It served as therapy, the cheapest kind available to my mother and her friends. Not only did it help them recover from the long wait on the corner that morning and the bargaining over their labor, it restored them to a sense of themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth. Through language they were able to overcome the humiliations of the work-day" (1948).

It also served as a creative outlet: "They were women in whom the need for self-expression was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to them they made of it an art form that -- in keeping with the African tradition in which art and life are one -- was an integral part of their lives" (1948).

It served as a refuge: "Language is the only homeland" (Czeslaw Milosz) p. 1949.

It served as visibility: "My mother and her friends were after all the female counterpart of Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Indeed, you might say they suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners. They really didin't count in American society except as a source of cheap labor. But given the kind of women they were, they couldn't tolerate the fact of their invisibility, their powerlessness. And they fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word" (1949).

Note how important the spoken word -- the voice -- is. How can talking in the language of their common speech, of their homeland, do all this?

What qualities does Marshall take from her experience with the language of these women -- their spirit expressed in their style? (1949)

Note their agency in adapting the standard English to their needs, their desires, their character: "There is a theory in linguistics which states that the idiom of a people, the way they use language, reflects not only the most fundamental views they hold of themselves and the world but their very conception of reality. Perhaps in using the term 'beautiful-ugly' to describe nearly everything, my mother and her friends were expressing what they believed to be a fundamental dualism in life: the idea that a thing is at the same time its opposite, and that these opposites, these contradictions make up the whole" (1950).

How do you understand this dualism? What does this dualism suggest about life?

In what sense is Marshall's "graduation", from the female-centered oral environment of the kitchen to the male-centered, white written-word of the library -- symbolic? (1950)

After awhile the wonderful emersion into the long, detailed novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left her feeling "a lack after a time" (1951). Why does she feel this lack? What's missing?

She discovers an affinity with the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "Although I had a little difficulty at first with the words in dialect, the poem spoke to me as nothing I had read before of the closeness, the special relationship I had had with my father" (1951).

And this whets her appetite for more. She makes of point of saying that she doesn't give up her Fielding, Dickens or Thackery, but she discovers James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston -- she discovers a history, a culture and art of black Americans. Why is it important for Marshall to have discovered this writing tradition? How is this like the need to study women writers in this class?

At the same time she begins to imagine her own future in writing -- and these things are related. She says "Dunbar -- his dark eloquent face, his large volume of poems -- permitted me to dream that I might someday write, and with something of the power with words my mother and her friends possessed" (1952). How does Dunbar's example help her envision her own writing? Can this be another reason for including black writers (women writers) in the tradition or education of young people?

2. Discussion

How are the writings by Hurston, Angelou and Marshall similar in their use or awareness of language?

Follow up questions:

How is the language of Hurston's characters, Angelou's Mamma and Marshall's mother and her friends different from "standard English"? What is "standard English"?

How does the writer come to know the difference? (Marshall's experience is the most explicit.)

What results?

As women writers, how does each author represent this conflict in language - the conflict between the dominant form of spoken and written English and the idiom of her people?

What is the "value" of their idiomatic languages?