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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Paule Marshall
(b. 1929)

Paule Marshall, née Valenza Pauline Burke, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, Ada and Samuel Burke, were emigrants from Barbados, West Indies. At the age of nine, Marshall made an extended visit to the native land of her parents and discovered for herself the quality of life peculiar to that tropical isle. Although she then wrote a series of poems reflecting her impressions, creative writing did not become a serious pursuit until much later in her young adult life. The selection included in the book is a mature reminiscence and symbolic expansion of that childhood visit.

A quiet and retiring child (“living her old days first,” her mother used to say), Marshall was an avid reader who spent countless hours in her neighborhood library. This, it seems, was at least a partial escape from the pressures of growing up, for the author admits going through a painful childhood period in which she rejected her West Indian heritage. Easily identified by the heavy silver bangles which girls from “the islands” wore on their wrists, she felt even more estranged from her classmates when she returned from Barbados with a noticeable accent. During early adolescence, reading also helped ease the longing for her father who, having become a devoted follower of Father Divine, left home to live in the Harlem “kingdom.”

Marshall had been attending Hunter College, majoring in social work, when illness necessitated a one-year stay in a sanatorium in upstate New York. There, in a tranquil lake setting, she wrote letters so vividly describing the surroundings that a friend encouraged her to think of a career in writing. Upon her release from the sanatorium, she transferred to Brooklyn College, changed her major to English Literature, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1953. Her first marriage, in 1957, was to Kenneth Marshall, with whom she had a son, Evan Keith. She divorced in 1963 and in 1970 wed a second time to Haitian businessman, Nourry Ménard.

Formerly a researcher and staff writer for Our World magazine, located in New York City, Marshall traveled on assignment to Brazil and to the West Indies. Once her literary career had been launched, she contributed short stories and articles to numerous magazines and anthologies and began lecturing at several colleges and universities within the United States and abroad. The recipient of several prestigious awards, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship, Marshall continues to write and to teach. She currently is a professor of English and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and resides in Richmond, Virginia.

While clearly influenced by the literary giants (black and white), Marshall attributes her love of language and storytelling to her mother and other Bajan (Barbadian) women who, sitting around the kitchen table, effortlessly created narrative art. In her informative essay, “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” the author explains the process as a transformation of standard English into “an idiom, an instrument that more adequately described them—changing around the syntax and imposing their own rhythm and accent so that the sentences were more pleasing to their ears....

And to make it more vivid, more in keeping with their expressive quality, they brought to bear a raft of metaphors, parables, Biblical quotations, sayings and the like.

Marshall goes on to provide examples like the following:

“The sea ain’ got no back door,”...meaning that it wasn’t like a house where if there was a fire you could run out the back. Meaning that it was not to be trifled with. And meaning perhaps in a larger sense that man should treat all of nature with caution and respect.

This is the legacy which the artist proudly claims, and she makes of it a distinctive stylistic device which combines forms of Western origin with the style and function of traditional African oral narrative. In short, she manipulates verbal structures so that they accommodate new patterns and rhythms, and this gives to the written word a stamp of cultural authenticity.

Marshall’s artistic vision evolves in a clear progression as she moves, through her creations, from an American to an African American/African Caribbean and, finally, a Pan-African sensibility. Indeed, the chronological order of her publications suggests an underlying design to follow the “middle passage” in reverse. That is, she examines the experience of blacks not in transit from Africa to the New World, but from the New World toward Africa. Thus, her first major work, Brown Girl, Brownstones, considers the coming of age of a young West Indian girl and simultaneously explores the black emigrant experience in America. Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a collection of novellas, is a lyrical depiction of the lives of four aging men coming to grips with the decline of Western values. The geographical setting changes from Brooklyn to Barbados to British Guiana and then to Brazil. Marshall next moves, in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, to an imaginary Caribbean island which, on one side, faces the continent of Africa. In this epic novel, she traces the development and perpetuation of colonialism. In Praisesong for the Widow, the artist shows increasing reliance on African images as she presents the portrait of an elderly black American widow who, on a cruise to Grenada, confronts her African heritage. In her most recent novel, Daughters, Marshall moves her geographical setting back and forth between the Caribbean and the United States to suggest the bicultural ties of her protagonist as well as the political strategies affecting both nations. She further establishes the centrality of women in transforming self, community, and nation.

Throughout her fiction, Marshall is preoccupied with black cultural history. Additionally, her emphasis on black female characters addresses contemporary feminist issues from an Afrocentric perspective. She insists that African peoples take a “journey back” through time to understand the political, social, and economic structures upon which contemporary societies are based. As her vision expands to include oppressed peoples (men and women) all over the world, she develops a sensibility which values cultural differences while it celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.

Dorothy L. Denniston
Brown University

In the Heath Anthology
To Da-duh: In Memoriam (1967)

Other Works
The Valley Between (1954)
No-No Boy (1957)
Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961)
Reena (1962)
Some Get Wasted (1964)
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969)
Praisesong for the Widow (1983)
Reena and Other Stories (1983)
Daughters (1991)

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A list of biographical and critical sources on Marshall.

Paule Marshall
A biographic and literary introduction and a bibliography.

Paule Marshall
An annotated bibliography of electronic sources.

Secondary Sources