In 1987, Barbara Christian asserted that important African American literature is suffering critical neglect by an academy preoccupied with developing literary theory; her specific examples included the works of Frances Harper, Alice Walker (with the exception of The Color Purple), and Gloria Naylor. Since then, Hazel Carby's excellent The Reconstruction of Womanhood has discussed Harper, but no major work has emerged to engage Naylor's novels. To some degree, the problem may lie in the precursor to extended critical interpretation, reviews.
The major reviews of Naylor's 1988 novel, Mama Day, refuse in crucial ways to grant the novel's donnee, even when they are generally positive. To some extent, these judgments stem from the critics's classification of the novel in one or another overly exclusive tradition. Thus, Rosellen Brown situates the novel as part of "a preoccupation of black writers in general, and black women in particular, with the gains and losses that have come with the move from rural to urban, from intuitive to rational, life" (74). But the equation of rural and intuitive greatly oversimplifies the functioning of the novel's Sea Inslander characters, and besides, omits another clear part of the novel's parentage, what Bharati Mukherjee calls "its roots in The Tempest." She, in turn, overemphasizes the Euro-American sources so that she distorts the plot, saying inaccurately, for example, that the book shows the title character's "acquisition, exercise, and relinquishment" of magic.
The review commentary repeatedly singles out for criticism the novel's "strident parallels" with earlier texts (Mukherhjee), its "need to elevate by making symbolic, or by fitting everything into a larger scheme" (Brown). Linda Simon's article in Women's Review of Books extends the implications of these arguments and incorporates them in a vitriolic attack on Naylor's artistic choices. In her view, the novel's theme could evidently develop beautifully and unproblematically if Naylor could only adopt the proper mode of development:
What interests Naylor is her heroine's identity as a rural Black woman
and her confrontation with urban America....Through work, marriage,
and eventually motherhood, she could no doubt learn...what from her
personal and racial history could help in her urban experience. From a
sassy, street-smart, insecure and cynical young woman she might
develop into someone more trusting, tolerant and self-assured, if Naylor
The changes in her have not unfolded in the course of daily events.
Rather, they are magical transformations worked by the extravagant
tragedy Naylor has fashioned here. The questions set out in the
beginning are never resolved [in]...the tale of terror and suspense that Mama
Tempted to forget her rural southern past, to reject her ancenstors'
sustaining superstition and belief in magic, she incurs a wratful
punishment -- one that has nothing to do with the changes that could have
taken place in her if Naylor had decided to opt for character
development in a more realistic setting.(11)
Now exactly why Naylor, or any other writer, should be obligated to write a naturalistic novel -- and that is what this review demands -- remains unclear. In many ways, this commentary revoices the narrow contemporary critiques of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, which angrily condemned it for not depicting the depression and urban experience. Somehow one might have hoped that in the fifty years between the publications of Hurston's novel and Naylor's Mama Day, the African American woman writer would be permitted access to more genres that the sociological or the naturalistic.
Further, Simon's assumptions about "reality," no matter what her heritages, bespeak a profoundly Euro-American perspective. The symbolic levels of Naylor's novel are not layered, sedimentary-style, on top of the literal plot. Mama Day testifies to two fundamental characteristics of African American culture: the past's persistence in the present, the present's participation in myth and archetype. For example, the devastating hurricane in Mama Day travels a naturalistically accurate route from Africa west to Willow Springs over the Sea Islands to the mainland United States -- that is, the route of the Middle Passage. The storms are the heritage of slavery, periodically ravishing the land; the novel's perspective recognizes no division between their literal physical being and their symbolic meaning.
The review's dissatisfaction with the handling of symbolic resonance echo many of the comments which greeted Naylor's earlier work, Linden Hills. Brown in fact refers directly to this second novel, noting that it "used nothing less than the Inferno as armature" (74). While they might testify simply to the reviewers's belief that the realistic level is not sufficiently realized, in context the Brown and Mukherjee complaints about omnipresent larger frames seem aimed at classifying the novel's genre as well as discussing its technique or mode. Simon calls the novel a failed "tragedy"; Brown implies that it's an allegory; Faith Pullin refers to "a tale of melodrama and intrigue." No wonder, then, that Naylor's mode in Mama Day disappoints Simon, Mukherjee, and Brown, because they've mistaken its genre and defined its originating traditions too narrowly. Mama Day belongs not to the tradition of the realistic novel but to the tradition of the romance.(1)
As a romance, Mama Day beckons toward a liberating social/sexual order by revoicing phrases from both Euro-American and Afro-American tradition. While examining individual character's growth within a stable but evolving community, the novel simultaneously appropriates and signifies on earlier texts to create its own idea of order. Mama Day stresses the original nature of this order by using as its progenitors two personalities who become mythic through the passage of time, Bascombe Wade and Sapphira. The novel is at pains to specify that the slave owner Bascombe is not American but European; the bill of sale describing Sapphira indicates that she is "Pure African stock." Mama Day images, therefore, not merely a particular stage or progression of Afro-American culture, but its very creation. Bascombe and Sapphira's descendants constitute most of the population of Willow Springs, a sea island. Though claimed by two states, Willow Springs has never been legally part of either; not belonging to a state and not …