Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

The Doom of the Unknown Book Critic, or Who Mourns for Margaret Wallace?


Thanks to former NBCC board member David Kipen, on the road most days, it seems, with the NEA’s “Big Reads,” who offers up this cross post from his NEA blog (thanks also for the tip of the hat to our recent guest post on the black critical tradition from former NBCC board member Jabari Asim.

We all know Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple, redeemer of Zora Neale Hurston’s work, and fine commentator on The Big Read’s CD about Hurston’s masterpiece, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”—but whatever happened to Margaret Wallace? If not for Walker’s championing in the pages of Ms. magazine, Hurston might still be languishing out of print. We’d have lost not just “Their Eyes” but Hurston’s wonderful essays, like the unreconstructedly joyful “How It Feel to Be Colored Me,” so bracing in expression, so sad in retrospect, which I read last night in “Best American Short Stories of the Century.” But without Margaret Wallace, Walker might never have read Hurston in the first place.

Margaret Wallace will be long dead now, and just 13 Googles mark her passing. She apparently reviewed for the New York Times quite a lot in the ’30s and ’40s, including pieces about Thomas Wolfe and Edna Ferber. Maybe she put other important writers on the map too, and we just don’t know it because some publisher credited her review to the Times, but omitted her name. Yet it’s just possible that without her Times rave of Hurston’s “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” on May 6, 1934, datedly but earnestly headlined “Real Negro People,” this early Hurston novel might have sunk without a trace, and Hurston with it. Instead, Margaret Wallace had the discernment to write the following words—hundreds more like them in the same vein too, sadly beyond Googling—and Hurston’s bones were made:

Jonah’s Gourd Vine can be called without fear of exaggeration the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race…Unlike the dialect in most novels about the American Negro, this does not seem to be merely the speech of white men with the spelling distorted. Its essence lies rather in the rhythm and balance of the sentences, in the warm artlessness of the phrasing…Not the least charm of the book, however, is its language: rich, expressive, and lacking in self–conscious artifice. From the rolling and dignified rhythms of John’s last sermon to the humorous aptness of such a word as “shickalacked,” to express the noise and motion of a locomotive, there will be much in it to delight the reader. It is hoped that Miss Hurston will give us other novels in the same colorful idiom.

This is a model of fine, necessary book reviewing. Margaret Wallace states her case, and then she makes it. She says what the book isn’t, and then what it is. She says it well, too. “Much in it to delight the reader” is a mite starchy, but “in the rhythm and balance of the sentences, in the warm artlessness of the phrasing” uses Wallace’s own different rhythm to get at precisely what made Hurston such a revelation. Someone actively “looking to be offended,” in Pynchon’s rueful, useful phrase about political correctness, could take issue with the repetition of the word “rhythm” to describe a black writer’s work, but please. “colorful” is a bit on the cute side, too, the kind of inside joke a working reviewer tosses in occasionally to keep herself amused—not unlike “unreconstructedly,” up above—but who knows how many other books Margaret Wallace was weighing that week?

I can just picture Alice Walker’s mother seeing this notice, or another one assigned by an editor who read this one and then decided to send “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” out for review after all. I can imagine Mrs. Walker going down to the local department store and buying a copy instead of renting it, which was also an option in those days, and taking it home and enjoying it, and Alice finding it in the attic, and remembering it years later, and finally writing the piece that sent Zora Neale Hurston shickalacking down the track to resurrection.

This is the way that natural selection has usually worked in the swampy ecosystem of literary reputation. What I can’t imagine is where we’ll be now that reviewers like Margaret Wallace, the indicator species in that particular pond, are dying out in most newspapers and magazines. To cite just one example among many, The New Republic lost its book critic, the estimable James Wood, to the New Yorker a few months ago, and he has not been replaced.

This is not news anymore. If editors would just give half the column inches to book reviews that they’re spending on handwringing about the lack of book reviews, we’d be out of the woods already. Instead, like Zora Neale Hurston before Alice Walker found her unmarked grave and paid to put a proper stone over it, Margaret Wallace lies in a potter’s field somewhere, unmourned, unrisen. Whatever happened to Margaret? Will no one lift her up again?—David Kipen, NEA Literature honcho, blogs about the Big Reads here.