Authors: Paule Marshall

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American fiction writer and professor.

April 9, 1929

Brooklyn, New York


The novelist and story writer Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke, the daughter of Samuel and Ada Burke, immigrants from Barbados. She grew up in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and, at the impressionable age of nine, made her first visit to her parents’ homeland. This experience, combined with the nuances of the black Caribbean culture that permeated her home life in Brooklyn, inspired the child to write poems celebrating the beauties of the West Indies. The West Indian influence is apparent in her adult writings. A bright student, Marshall attended Brooklyn College, graduated cum laude in 1953, and enrolled at Hunter College in 1955. During this period she also worked as a librarian in New York public libraries; she was a staff writer for Our World, a small black magazine, from 1953 to 1956. She married Kenneth E. Marshall in 1957; they were divorced in 1963, after having one son. In 1970 she married Nourry Menard; they have also divorced.

Marshall was a lecturer on creative writing at Yale University. As her literary reputation grew, Marshall lectured on African American literature at Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, Lake Forest College, and Cornell University. She has held the position of Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has also received numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1960, the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962, a Ford Foundation grant in 1964, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1967. In 1992 she received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and in 1994 she was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library. She is a professor in the New York University creative writing program, where she holds the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture.

Marshall’s fiction is celebrated for its vivid characterization and sparkling reflection of Barbadian idiom dialect. Generally, it incorporates a perspective that is both American and West Indian, as her characters seek to discover their complex identities, which, like the author’s own, span two cultures. Moreover, by placing her artistic focus on the experience of the black woman in particular, she explores not only racial issues and stereotypes but also sexual roles and feminine identity.

In her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall tells the story of Selina, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants. This classic female Bildungsroman traces the girl’s development through childhood and adolescence toward womanhood among the Barbadians in Brooklyn. Selina’s father is portrayed as an imaginative man who loves all the material trappings the free enterprise system can provide but is incapable of competing successfully in his adopted society. Caught in dreams of American success (imagining himself a mechanic, an accountant, even a trumpeter in a band), he simultaneously longs to return to the simple life of his native homeland. Selina’s forceful, independent mother, on the other hand, hates the thought of returning to the poverty of Barbados. She is willing to live as a second-class citizen in the United States and attain the American promise by leasing a house in Brooklyn in the hope of converting it into apartments and becoming a landlord. Selina is caught in the conflict between her father’s visions and her mother’s push to get ahead. Within this conflict, Marshall explores not only the girl’s coming-of-age but also the complexity of cross-cultural pressures on men and women who struggle to survive in a world full of constricting and contradictory racial and sexual stereotypes.

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People is set on a fictional Caribbean island. To this underdeveloped place comes a group of liberal-minded social scientists to conduct research on a development project. The island and its people become a testing ground for the Americans’ university-trained “understanding” of the impoverished natives and their culture. Marshall’s heroine, Merle, who has lived in England and now runs a guest house on the island, comes to represent the resilient, suffering spirit of her people and challenges the commitment, knowledge, and values of the Americans. Similarly, in the confrontations of the groups, Merle personifies the enslavement and vicious subjugation the black race has suffered at the hands of whites—a historical truth that cannot be undone or forgotten. She also embodies black people’s ability to nurture integrity and hope for freedom.

In Praisesong for the Widow, Marshall’s themes once again revolve around the discovery of black identity in a white world. Avey Johnson, the heroine, is a black New York widow, secure in her civil service job and white middle-class attitudes. Yet she is somehow uncomfortable with herself, having lost touch with her past and her black roots. During a vacation, her dissatisfaction and frustrations cause her to leave her luxury Caribbean cruise ship for an out-of-the-way island. There the rhythms of the natives’ dances inspire her to discover her deeply buried black womanhood. She rebels against the complex forces of the Western world that have, through the years, tamed her away from her true self. In Praisesong for the Widow, as in all Marshall’s work, the author suggests that, at times, radical choices can free the deep consciousness of a human being—indeed, of a people. Such a liberation of spirit and will can create new personal, social, and political worlds. It is this spirit of becoming free that is Marshall’s great theme.

Daughters is the story of Ursa, an upwardly mobile, well-educated woman in the black diaspora. A central conflict of the novel arises from Ursa’s love for the men in her life. Her love for her father, Primus, particularly clouds her judgment. By the novel’s end Ursa learns to break free from her father to define herself.

The Fisher King begins with Edgar Payne, a successful Brooklyn businessman, arranging a memorial concert for his brother, jazz pianist Sonny-Rett Payne, who died fifteen years previously. Sonny-Rett had fled to Paris in 1949 to escape both the racism of American society and his family’s disapproval of his desire for a music career. Edgar’s concert turns out to be part of a ploy to gain custody of Sonny-Rett’s grandson, Little Sonny, who lives in Paris with Sonny-Rett’s former lover, Hattie Carmichael. The struggles between love and power within family are evocatively explored.

Author Works Long Fiction: Brown Girl, Brownstones, 1959 The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, 1969 Praisesong for the Widow, 1983 Daughters, 1991 The Fisher King, 2000 Short Fiction: Soul Clap Hands and Sing, 1961 Reena, and Other Stories, 1983 Merle: A Novella and Other Stories, 1985 Nonfiction: Triangular Road: A Memoir, 2009 Conversations with Paule Marshall, 2010 (James C. Hall and Heather Hathaway, editors) Bibliography Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Compares Marshall’s representation of mothers and the mother-daughter relationship with those of Jamaica Kincaid and Maryse Condé. Brown, Lloyd W. “The Rhythms of Power in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1974): 159-167. This essay focuses on Marshall’s short story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” tracing Marshall’s concern with the problems of African American women, tied to her commitment to feminism and racial equality. Brown argues that Marshall sees power as both a political goal of ethnic and feminist movements and a social and psychological phenomenon that affects racial and sexual roles, shapes cultural traditions, and molds the individual psyche. Collier, Eugenia. “The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. Collier finds in Marshall’s writing a movement from the separated, segmented self to a discovery of wholeness and completion; this healing and wholeness is found within the context of the community. Contains good discussions of the short fiction. The first of two essays on Marshall in Evans’s collection, which should be required reading for anyone interested in African American woman writers. Contains a bibliography of criticism on Marshall and an index. Coser, Stelamaris. Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. Compares and contrasts the fiction of the three authors, taking their cultural heritage into consideration. DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Studies Marshall’s oeuvre, focusing on her Caribbean roots. Denniston, Dorothy Hamer. The Fiction of Paule Marshall. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Examines the fiction of Marshall as an imaginative reconstruction of African history and culture; provides close readings of Marshall’s work along with biographical information. Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Studies Marshall in the context of the black diaspora, emphasizing the West Indian themes in her work. Kapai, Leela. “Dominant Themes and Technique in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” College Language Association Journal 16 (September, 1972): 49-59. Examines Marshall’s use of folk tradition in her novels through The Chosen Place, the Timeless People and also in the short story “Reena.” Kapai claims that Marshall puts being a human being and the universal human experience before racial identity and states that Marshall is aware of her Western heritage, even as she writes out of her personal experience as an African American. Contains some good, close readings. Lock, Helen. “‘Building Up from Fragments’: The Oral Memory Process in Some Recent African-American Written Narratives.” College Literature 22 (October, 1995): 109-120. Discusses Marshall and others as representative of a generation of African American literary artists whose sensibilities do not exclude orally constituted modes of thought; claims she energizes the dialectic between oral and literate conceptions of memory by reasserting—through the medium of the written word—the value of an orally derived perception. Lee, Felicia R. “Voyage of a Girl Moored in Brooklyn.” Review of Triangular Road: A Memoir, by Paule Marshall. The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2009, Accessed 4 May. 2017. Reviews Marshall’s memoir, which is an adaptation of lectures she gave at Harvard University in 2005. McClusky, John, Jr. “And Called Every Generation Blessed: Theme, Setting, and Ritual in the Works of Paule Marshall.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. This essay, the second on Marshall in Evans’s book, gives an overview of Marshall’s achievement, evolution, and her future directions in writing. Macpherson, Heidi Slettedahl. “Perception of Place: Geopolitical and Cultural Positioning in Paule Marshall’s Novels.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Although the focus of this article is on Marshall’s novels, it is a helpful discussion of her use of fictionalized island backdrops in her fiction generally; argues that while she acknowledges a geopolitical place, her representation of place moves beyond a specific locale. Waxman, Barbara Frey. “Dancing out of Form, Dancing into Self: Genre and Metaphor in Marshall, Shange, and Walker.” MELUS 19 (Fall, 1994): 91-106. Discusses how texts by Paule Marshall, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker articulate truths about the multiple selves of African American women by creating new mythopoetic genres and tropes that mediate between the word and the dance.

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