Paule Marshall’s debut novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones is one of the best American novels of the mid-twentieth century. When Marshall died within a week of Toni Morrison, critics, notably Edwidge Danticat in The New Yorker, were quick to honor their places in the 20th century tradition of Black novelists, but Marshall has never been honored as Morrison has. That is owing in part to the era when her career took flight, and in part to her much smaller output. But she is a vital author—in the root sense of vitality—representing, already in her debut novel, an extension of a literary tradition, and showing how much life remains in it.
In discerning that tradition, a contrast with Morrison is helpful. Morrison evolves the tradition of James, Conrad, and Faulkner: a tradition that scrutinizes the moral weight of a moment’s decision whose significance surpasses the opaque psychological and historical skeins that surround it. The decision is sometimes figured as a crisis, sometimes as an obliterated memory; it often marks a boundary of the novelist’s art—a limit of understanding and articulation. They share not a moral outlook, but a technique of moral judgment; a common referent of art. Morrison, like Faulkner before her, and like Conrad before him, and James in turn before him still, expands our sense of what that technique can help us reckon with—in her case, Black American history, during and in the wake of genocidal enslavement.
It might be that James’ art evolves out of his careful reading of George Eliot. But of George Eliot’s presence in the lineage of Paule Marshall’s art there be no doubt; she is the heir of Eliot and Lawrence. Though F.R. Leavis famously placed both of those names in a list with Conrad and James, Marshall helps us see how helpful it can be to set them apart: she draws upon, and extends the range of their technique of representing the inner self, and the interior of that inner self, through a drama of concrete abstractions and muscular emotions that, by virtue of their solid depth and physical dynamism, are on the same representational plane as entities in the external world:
Her hand reached her mouth too late. Her eyes dilated and a small choking sound came from her throat. “Selina…Oh Lord, I’m sorry. I forgot. I didn’t mean that. I forgot. You made me so made I forgot…I swear I forgot…”
Selina did not hear, for the familiar upheaval had started. The cold and powerful wave drowning out her mind, the same one, she imagined, that had borne her father down to the sea’s floor. She was hardly aware of picking up her coat or of leaving the room. Only when Beryl caught and clasped her from behind on the stairs did she slowly rouse.
As with all great realists, Marshall’s realism eclipses the surfaces of things—though in her case, it is not by selectively omitting them, so much as by proliferating the number of surfaces, so that feelings, memories, and the sense of self are all given edges, texture, and weight, and those surfaces abut and squeeze within, often pressed uncomfortably, the feelings, memories, and sense of self that others have, as well as the clutter of furniture and daily life, whose surfaces are in turn invested with the properties of memory and feeling, from use and association.
There is, in the novel, a feel of feeling, which depends not on a superabundance of abstraction, but on locating abstract properties in tactile experiences, and in discerning how there are experiences that, though described by way of abstractions, are unignorably sensual:
Slowly Silla lowered her face and gingerly touched the sore places on her shoulders and arms. She stared down, with a strange awe and respect, at the limp figure huddled against her and the thin arms wound loosely round her neck. Carefully she lifted Selina’s legs over the footboard, and with the sheet trailing behind them she carried her out of the room, up through the dim hall to the parlor, and turned on the chandelier. For a long while she sat quietly holding her on the sofa under the brilliant light. Then, almost reverently, she touched the tears that had dried white on her dark skin, traced with her finger the fragile outline of her face and rested her hand soothingly on her brown. She smoothed her snarled hair. Yet, despite the tenderness and wonder and admiration of her touch, there was a frightening possessiveness. Each caress declared that she was touching something which was finally hers alone.
“The tenderness and wonder and admiration of her touch” is set against “a frightening possessiveness,” not only communicated through it, but inseparable from it; that touch could not be described apart from these words, and these words are themselves given sense in the act of touching; the thoroughly depicted act of Silla touching Selina allows for us, the readers, to touch what these words mean.
Miss Mary died a few months later. Entering the room, Selina saw the wizened form contorted in the last throes, the pinched mouth open as if to speak and the quiet stare. She was not afraid, for there was no difference between this and Miss Mary’s living death in the dust-yellow tomb. A thought sparked and died as she stood there beside the bed. Perhaps everyone had his tomb: the mother hunched over the table all night might be locked in hers, her father, stretched on the cot, might have been sealed in his, just as she was shut within the lonely region of herself. She might never find a way out, but like Miss Mary, move from one death to another. Suddenly she resented the old woman for having lured her as a child into her tomb with her crooning memories. For the first time her resentment reached out to her father for having died and left her always to mourn. She wanted something else. She sought it in the old woman’s set eyes, which were startlingly blue now and clear, as though life was an impurity which death washed away. The air in the room seemed washed also. The tarnished dust was gone and the silence no longer hummed of the past. She heard noises from the street, the brash, surging, alive sound of children playing. It rushed in to fill the emptiness, and caught between that clamorous call and Miss Mary’s fixed silence, she knew what she wanted. It was not so much a thought as something deeply felt. To flow out of herself into life, to touch and know it fully and, in turn, to be touched by it. And then, sometimes, to withdraw and be quiet within herself…But how? How even to begin? She did not know.
This passage stands as a single paragraph, and serves to show just how carefully Marshall handles that unit; consider how many places this might have been broken. But to break it would be to deprive it not only of its compounding weight, sentence after sentence, but to ignore the cues that Marshall gives for considering each paragraph as a closed object, with an interior that both contains further interiors and that opens out beyond itself. A critic has written on how Dickens, in David Copperfield, offers numerous figures of confinement, perhaps, as is the case of much in that novel’s design, unwittingly. Marshall must have her full wits about her when she offers, time and again, figures not only of, but with an interiority and enclosed space in which she moves further. Here it is a room, a tomb, and Selina’s self, but in the novel as a whole, it is of course the brownstone house itself—which stands even for the Victorian inheritance of the novel that Marshall inhabits and comes to possess as her own.
Marshall, like Lawrence, and like Eliot, risks piling on too thick, insisting on the weight of experience by words that are asked to weigh too much; but that risk is justified, and evaded, by the proportions of interior and exterior, affect and object, abstraction and concretion, almost set in a predictable weave, or alternating current, the one pole charging the other, and then back again, in a syntactical variety that in turn guards against any neat schematization of language, and instead mirroring the unpredictable stops, starts, bifurcations, and elaborations of experience within a single moment. Each paragraph is perhaps just that: a single moment of feeling—in both senses—which Marshall apprehends as always both inner and outer, containing memory and yearning, physical circumstance and qualities of abstracted being. And novel progresses, moment to moment, often a sequence of moment, each a feeling containing more than itself, eventually yielding another moment to be felt in turn. Without the rails of a plot that turns and leaps, and without the ballast of voices in dialogue that carry their own sound and sense, released from interiority but shaped by it, the moments would lack limits and direction, the novel would congeal—but instead the moments gain momentum, registering not just a life at one time, but a life in time, subject to time, as it is subject to much else, not least to its own subjecthood:
But even as her body arched to meet his that afternoon and on all the other afternoons, she could sense the detachment which his eyes and his bland voice reflected. Even as his body, taut and graceful then, moved above her like a sea in which she drowned, she could sense the thoughts crowding her out in his mind. He accepted her high and eager passion as casually, it seemed, as he did her invasion of his life. But sometimes, in the calm after the crest, while their bodies were still joined, his eyes would move in a grave and wondering perusal over her face, piercing her skin, it seemed to seek out her mystery and the wellspring of her passion, and his frown then would betray a certain helplessness and wonder. At those moments, as transitory as they were, a dim thought would stir amid her pleasure: in some way she was stronger than he, she possessed a hard center he would never have. Had Suggie ever felt this profound woman’s strength? Or the girls romping with their lovers on the slope…? But the moments would pass and he would withdraw, his detachment restored.
Thus even the acceleration of time in the novel, the dissolution of moments into a larger span, is captured as a singular moment repeated habitually. The routine of “would” (the quintessential verb of realism, at least after Flaubert) runs up against an account of a moment of such intense particularity that it seems it could not, in such precise contouring, be repeated; but that is just what the passage claims it does. The moment, with its sensibly-felt surfaces of thought, feeling, and object, inadequately described as either metaphorical or figurative, contains within itself the stuff of self and memory and hope that endures across time, and because of that, it, the moment, can be made out as repeatable; since each moment is a crystallization of habits, routines, and repetitions, it is plausible that, however distinct and particular in its form, it does in fact define a succession of encounters between Selina and Clive.
In such baroque prose, we are both invited into a character’s inner life, and held at a distance of analytical perspicuity; we are asked both to live on the surfaces of things and to encounter surfaces in depths where we would not expect to find them.