On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation.
Harry B. Shaw University of Florida
Stephen Caldwell Wright's On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation offers a useful companion piece for those interested in reading Brooks purely for the joy of it and a valuable instrument for those intent on more serious study. Besides being a book of convenience, On Gwendolyn Brooks judiciously selects and assembles the most important writings to date about the works of Gwendolyn Brooks in the form of reviews, essays, and recent essays.
The three-part organization is especially useful as a tool for even long-time Brooks scholars, for it helpfully separates the reviews from the essays and then the very recent essays from all the others. This organization affords comprehensive coverage without being either exhaustive or exhausting. The contributors are those who ushered in the first offerings of the gifted author in A Street in Bronzeville in 1945 as well as those who look at her older works with the fresh eyes of the present and those who look with seasoned eyes at her fresh new works. Wright's book becomes a ready reference for anyone beginning a study of Gwendolyn Brooks's works.
The review section is valuable because it chronicles a contemporary reaction to and assessment of Brooks's works as they emerged onto the literary scene. It shows concisely not only the progression of the artist but also the progression of the critics. Juxtaposition helps to show the difference in perspectives of the reviewers and critics as they range from the unrealistic notion that Brooks's poetry was somehow necessarily devalued because it focused primarily on Black life to the full flowering of appreciation for her art. At one end of the spectrum, for example, in a review of The Bean Eaters which appeared in the October 27, 1963 issue of the New York Herald Tribune Book Week, Louis Simpson writes: "I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important." Wright's inclusion of a footnote which contains a 1993 explanation by Simpson of what he really meant by his statement and a defense of his position is indicative of the attention paid to the reviews and essays and the controversy they stirred.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Harvey Curtis Webster's review in the September 1, 1962 issue of The Nation of The Bean Eaters, Annie Allen, and A Street in Bronzeville views the same tendency in a more favorable light: "In her ability to see through the temporal, she equals Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, writers of fiction who accept Negro-ness as prizeable differentiation and a dilemma, [and] include it to transcend it."
While the editor provides fresh, initial, varied reactions of the reviewers in Part One, he presents longer, more settled and reflective critical essays in Part Two. The reviews are like color commentary during the game. The essays are like post-game commentary and analysis.
Overall the book is another tribute to the art of Gwendolyn Brooks and her gift to poetry and to criticism. Nowhere else is there so concise a critique of the critics and the artist. In much the same way that slave narratives were protests simply by recounting and thereby exposing the experiences of slavery, Wright provides insightful glimpses of the artist simply by collecting and presenting the reaction to the artistic stream that is Gwendolyn Brooks's works. Tellingly the brilliance of the art shines through the critics. This is not only a review of critics but also of Gwendolyn Brooks's art. It works.
Interestingly, Wright's Part Three includes recent essays, but the essays are decidedly not necessarily or even primarily about recent works by Brooks. They include discussions that range from A Street in Bronzeville (1945) to Winnie (1988). In this way he shows that Brooks's early poetry is as alive as it ever was, still growing, and showing no signs of slowing. The critics find much to discuss in the many-faceted world of Gwendolyn Brooks's works, and all readers will take away from Wright's book a heightened appreciation for Gwendolyn Brooks's artistry. For the world's sake, Gwendolyn Brooks needs to be read, and undoubtedly she should be read-whether by the casual reader or the serious critic - with Stephen Caldwell Wright's On Gwendolyn Brooks as a companion.