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The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor.

Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, ed. Westport: Greenwood P, 1997. 275 pp. $65.00.

University of Florida

Since receiving the 1983 American Book Award for The Women of Brewster Place, Gloria Naylor has been hailed as one of contemporary African American literature's most insightful and significant writers. Like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison (to whom her work has been compared), Naylor is recognized as a brilliant cultural scribe and poetic historian of Black life in America. Not one but two collections of critical perspectives on her work have been published within the last few years. The latest, The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor, edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, is an exceptional accomplishment consisting of twenty-two chronologically arranged essays discussing everything from the symbolic use of food in Naylor's work to her use of well imagery. A special feature of this collection is an exclusive author interview whose title is as provocative as the interview itself: "The Human Spirit is a Kick-Ass Thing."

Unlike many collections of critical essays, this volume does not include reviews but does include a Naylor chronology, a commissioned essay, an adaptation of a book chapter, a dissertation excerpt, a useful bibliography, and a general index, as well as a large selection of previously published essays. The editors have taken into consideration the 1993 collection of Naylor critical perspectives edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah (Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present) and have painstakingly avoided repetitions. Such care adds to the value of this collection. By itself, Felton and Loris's The Critical Response is a "find," offering precision scholarship and a unique thoroughness. Coupled with the Gates and Appiah edition, we have a veritable gold mine of the most diverse Naylor scholarship presently available.

The editor's introduction offers a brief summary of each selected essay and outlines five categories of scholarly perspectives addressed by Naylor critics: "Naylor's work as a product of an African-American writer, as an example of work positing a feminist or women's studies agenda, as a focus of influence studies or intertextual comparisons, as a study of narrative and/or rhetorical methods, and as an exponent of popular culture." Although Felton and Loris focus their introductory comments on the first two of these, each of the other three categories is nicely summarized, with some of the best critical offerings from each filling the book's four major sections (which the editors call "chapters").

It is usually impossible to describe a collection of this type in one word, but the editors of this volume have made the task easy. Throughout the introduction they stress the word connections. According to Felton and Loris, "The perspectives of new and established scholars, domestic and international, black and white, male and female," contained in this volume are unified by the pursuit of the "holistic connections" that build the "quartet design" of Naylor's present body of work. Perhaps with this in mind, they open the first section, "The Women of Brewster Place," with an essay whose placement in the lead slot of a book on Gloria Naylor could be read as a misjudgment had the idea of connections not been emphasized as essential to the goals of this collection.

Beyond the collection's focus on the "quartet design" of Naylor's four novels are the connections drawn among Naylor's work, other African American texts, white-authored novels and poetry, Jungian archetypes, and African traditions. The opening essay mentioned above, Ebele Eko's "The Myth of Confrontation," for instance, connects a principal thematic concern of Naylor's first novel (mother-daughter confrontation) with black women's literature in both Africa and America. In "The View from the Outside: Black Novels of Manners," Mary F. Sisney draws lines of continuity between Linden Hills (as well as other African American texts) and white-authored novels of manners such as Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848). Gary Storhoff offers an excellent reading of Mama Day's Shakespearean subtext, while Nellie Boyd discusses "Dominion and Proprietorship" in Mama Day and Linden Hills - occasionally comparing these texts with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Dante's Inferno (respectively). Christine G. Berg, on the other hand, presents a superb close reading of Naylor's use of Wait Whitman's "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand" from his controversial "Calamus" poems (1860). According to Berg, "Naylor, in her use of Whitman, underscores the cohesiveness of American literature as a whole, constructing a bridge between the literature of African-Americans and the canon."

While Berg's reading of Whitman in Linden Hills explores Naylor's bridging of black and white literary traditions, Susan Meisenhelder's "The Whole Picture" examines Mama Day as a text exposing the fragility of that bridge, especially when laid beside one built upon a Black "past and present" filled with "joy and pain, triumph and despair." Meisenhelder argues that a misguided belief in white romantic myths and the "European tradition of heroic quest legends," as portrayed in pop culture and in white-authored literature, corrupt and fragment George and Coco's relationship in ways that only an understanding of "the complex [Black] history of which [they] are a part" can correct. Similar essays that depart from the theme of cross-cultural connections include those that focus on Naylor's use of "cultural nationalism" in Bailey's Cafe, communal bonding in Linden Hills, womanist and Black cultural speech patterns in The Women of Brewster Place, and African American mysticism in Mama Day.

As mentioned earlier, the collection concludes with an exclusive and very useful author interview. In this eleven-page interview, Naylor offers a glimpse into both her creative process and the symbolic narrative structure of her novels as she talks about her humanist feminism, the "moral vision" of her work, her spiritual views, American race relations, and parenting, among other things. She suggests, for instance, that critics look at names and naming in her novels closely, or compare the rhyme scheme of Dante's Inferno with the narrative structure and imagery of Linden Hills. The interview concludes with "a comment that forges an important connection of [Naylor's] own - between her garden and the human spirit." Like the collection as a whole, this interview is filled with thought-provoking insights into Naylor's work. It is a ideal way to end what is certainly a substantial contribution to Naylor scholarship.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Walker King, Debra
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Previous Article:Toni Morrison and the American Tradition: A Rhetorical Reading.
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