Donna Meredith Reviews books by Geneva Cobb Moore and Boyd Creasman

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Donna Meredith


Boyd Creasman. Writing West Virginia: Place, People, and Poverty in Contemporary Literature from the Mountain State. The University of Tennessee Press, 2016.

Geneva Cobb Moore. Maternal Metaphors of Power in African American Women’s Literature. University of South Carolina Press, 2017.

At first glance, Writing West Virginia: Place, People, and Poverty in Contemporary Literature from the Mountain State by Boyd Creasman and Maternal Metaphors of Power in African American Women’s Literature by Geneva Cobb Moore may appear to have little in common. Yet both examine the literature of specific cultures and the way writers use characters to document and sometimes transcend restrictions placed upon their lives by class, gender, race, and geography. Serious scholars of regional literature, women’s issues, and sociology will appreciate the insights of Creasman’s and Moore’s analyses and their meticulous research. For those who have read the works Creasman and Moore study, these volumes will add to their appreciation. The studies will also introduce readers to excellent literature they may have missed and inspire them to add new titles to their to-read stacks.

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“Maternal Metaphors of Power in African American Women’s Literature”

Combining literature, history, criticism, and theory, Geneva Cobb Moore divides her 376-page analysis of 245 years of African-American female writers into two sections. The first examines the effects of slavery and abolition, freedom, and Jim Crow America through the works of Phillis Wheatley, Harriet Jacobs, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. The second part studies the conflation of history, past and present, in the works of Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.  All these writers spoke against invisibility and powerlessness, helping to re-create the identity of black women and challenge societal rules shaping their subordinate status and behavior. Interestingly, most of these writers experienced separation from their mothers at an early age.

Harriet Jacobs uses her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to record “the sexualization of plantation slavery as a severe form of neuroses.” She resorts “to sexual and bodily machinations, whether mutually seducing her chosen white lover or cross-dressing as a sailor in an effort to liberate herself and her children.” She uses her beauty as a weapon in the “struggle for self-empowerment and self-identity.”  Her pregnancies infuriate the white master, who vows to put her children up for sale, the boy as a field hand, the girl as a breeder. To save her children, she becomes a runaway, determined that slavery “not shackle [her] children.” For seven years she hides in a garret, sacrificing her health for her children’s sake.

It is fitting that this book begins by examining the works of Phillis Wheatley, who might be viewed as the founder of African-American literature. According to Moore, “rebirth and regeneration are the major motifs” of this “slave-turned poet.” The publication of her poems engendered varied reactions. Abolitionists embraced her works “to attack the institution of slavery,” while Thomas Jefferson, “blind” to the talents and abilities of blacks, “questioned her authenticity as a poet.” Wheatley, whose education “was superior to that of most white women” at that time, uses “powerful women [as goddesses] in powerful roles” with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. Although her poetry expresses gratitude for being brought to America where she is educated and adopts the Christian faith, in private correspondence, Wheatley argues that Christians enslaving blacks manifest a “strange Absurdity of their Conduct” because “God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom” in every human.

Unlike Wheatley and Jacobs, Charlotte Forten Grimke was a black aristocrat whose journals “chart the fledgling democratization of America,” according to Moore. Grimke embraced devoted motherhood and femininity as the ideals women must strive for. She expanded the maternal ideals to include the mothering of her race as a school teacher.

New representations of the black female body emerge in the works of Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, who live under Jim Crow laws. Educated at Cornell, Fauset wrote four narratives “of racial and maternal regenerative power”:

Assuming multiple roles, she was midwife to the Harlem Renaissance, editor of one of the most powerful magazines of racial uplift, the Crisis, and the author of four novels richly imbibed with the aesthetic principles  . . . especially those of Du Bois.

Her characters tend to be formally educated. One of Fauset’s novels, Plum Bun, examines the lives of light-skinned blacks who decide to pass as white. Moore notes that from 1900-1910 as many as twenty-five thousand blacks passed as white to avoid the strictures of Jim Crow laws. One character, Angela, decides to pass because it’s the only way that she will have access to art, travel, and other amenities of life reserved for whites.

In contrast to the cosmopolitan world Fauset creates for her characters, Hurston celebrates traditional black culture and the respectability of domestic life and labor. Her writing is imbued with the charm of black dialect and storytelling. Her characters are informally educated but present a contrast to Joel Chandler Harris’s “docile ‘darkies’” in the Uncle Remus tales:

Hurston in her fiction refutes such a stereotype and uses a woman as a strong, culture-bearing maternal figure to do the refuting, thus representing the maternal as a counterforce to patriarchy. Hurston subtly revises the texture of the folk environment as formally unschooled but informally well educated in their African tradition and roots.

Joe Clarke’s store porch was not only a place for entertainment and culture exchange; it was also an aesthetic haven, with the village theater embellishing the daily. Poetically transformed, the villagers created the illusion or perhaps the reality that no other world existed or mattered.

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Maternal images are important in Huston’s work, representing life, creativity, and sacrifice. Moore points out that Hurston balances descriptions of women’s small frames with their “unique psychological/spiritual powers of coherence, disrupting male authority and mediating the women’s wifely role as the feminine repressed.” In her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is not a biological mother, instead mothering women in the community and “soothing and soothing” the younger Tea Cake.

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The second half of Moore’s analysis examines contemporary authors, who “do not limit their work to one time frame but move from the slave era to the Jim Crow period, to the civil rights movement, to our current postmodern age.” Paule Marshall’s characters suffer from the damage done by slavery to their psyches, damage no civil rights movement could fix.  Her trademark is pairing “mothers and daughters to effect personal transformation” to achieve fulfillment. The 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones focuses on maternal warriors and daughters, establishing Marshall as a feminist even before publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in 1963. In The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Marshall examines West Indian colonies and the lasting effect of oppression. She uses the refining process of turning “crude” dark sugar” from the canes into “refined” white sugar in the factories as a symbol of the mental bondage that endures even after enslavement is ended.

I use this term “phallic maternal” to capture what I see as Walker’s willful and sometimes ribald description of female characters’ assumption of a male/phallic  sovereignty; or in other words, weak female types losing their passiveness and developing a warlike or mannish fortitude to effect personal and social regeneration.

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In Meridian, Moore suggest that Walker attacks the maternal ideal and the nuclear family’s suppression of women, while The Temple of My Familiar celebrates female sexuality, and The Color Purple introduces a woman who finds joy in a lesbian attraction.

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Toni Morrison’s novels, on the other hand, often illustrate maternal metaphors of power, as seen in The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved.  According to Moore, “Female characters who resist the social order typically use the extraordinary and magical power of their bodies to heal their disabled communities.”  In Beloved, Morrison shows that men, too, can “mother,” through the character Paul D, though “the heart of the novel is, however, a poignant tale of maternal love, sacrifice, and loss, hence the missing number three from the address 124 Bluestone Road, symbolizing the absent child, Beloved . . .  Seethe lovingly but willfully sacrifices Beloved to prevent her from living a far more prolonged social death as a slave.”

Moore thoroughly addresses each of these authors with attention to the entire body of their works. Intense and meticulous, her scholarship illustrates the ways these writers chose to battle racism—in whatever form it manifested itself during their lifetime—through their characters, especially through the “energy of self-sacrificing maternal figures.” These women resisted and rebelled against “their socially constructed identity in America,” an identity oppressors imposed on the basis of race.

A former Fulbright scholar at the University of Ghana in West Africa, Moore is a professor of English, women’s and gender studies, and race and ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin—Whitewater. She has received grants and awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has previously published articles on the authors included in this study. An adviser to Gale’s Literature of Autobiographical Narrative, Moore has been a reviewer for Auto/Biography Studies.

“Writing West Virginia”                                                                     

Creasman’s analysis primarily focuses on one outstanding work by each of eight West Virginia writers: Davis Grubb, Mary Lee Settle, Breece D’J Pancake, Denise Giardina, Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Pinckney Benedict. Their works explore the role of tradition, connection to the land, and leaving the land for economic opportunity. The characters struggle to rise above the socio-economic burdens of the region and the debilitating effects of poverty and joblessness on gender roles. To provide further credence to his opinions, Creasman includes relevant quotations from the writers and from other scholars’ studies of their works.

Set during the Depression, Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter is a classic suspense novel inspired by the real murder of two widows and three children. In the novel, the barely-scraping-by Ben Harper robs a bank and kills two employees. Socio-economic class emerges as a major theme with many characters willing to excuse the criminal as a man overcome by the pressures of poverty. They understand how difficult economic times could cause a good man to do bad things.  Gender transcendence appears in the character of Rachel who, according to Creasman, defines what it means to be an independent woman. Creasman states that Grubb writes about sexuality and economic trials with frankness while illustrating the “basic decency of the West Virginia people.”

For Mary Lee Settle, Creasman chose to study the ambitious Beulah Quintet, which chronicles the history of West Virginia, tracing the state’s development from the first settlers of the Kanawha valley to modern day citizens caught up in the economics of the coal industry. In the end, Settle’s characters reject the “class snobbery” of their parents and embrace the notion that “truly worthy individuals are those who work to maintain the possibility of personal liberty for everyone.” 

Other West Virginia writers depict characters failing to achieve transcendence over poverty and gender roles. In his brief life, Breece Pancake produced only one short story collection, but it had a profound impact on other writers. His stories, Creasman says, explore both economic and spiritual poverty, especially how male characters are impacted in negative ways. Similarly, the male characters in Denise Giardina’s novel Storming Heaven demonstrate how “traditional gender roles limit and distort human experience.” On the other hand, that novel presents a truly independent woman in the character Carrie Bishop, who insists on defining herself and her relationships on her own terms. Likewise, Ann Pancake in Strange As This Weather Has Been gives us a strong woman in Lace and a weaker man in Jimmy Make:



Everybody around here is raised to take it, Lace would say, to put up with it and take it, that’s what makes us tough, but especially the girls, the women are tougher than the men, because the men just take it from the industry and then the government, and then they take that out on the women.

Lace refuses to let the coal industry force her to abandon her land, while Jimmy Make leaves for better economic opportunity. He is unable to adapt to changing times.

Creasman includes many quotations from Irene McKinney’s poetry collection Vivid Companion, establishing her voice as a strong, independent woman:

. . . Dear Mr. President, I said, Dear Dean

Dear Husband, Dear Our Father, Dear Tax Collector,

You don’t know me. I don’t know what I am,

 but whatever it is, you can’t have me.

Creasman asserts that McKinney’s poetry “shows how difficult it can be for women in a patriarchy to chart their own courses in their lives, and how they may be considered freaks for doing so.” McKinney “presented women and men with the possibility of moving past restrictions, of celebrating their inner freak, of not fearing the pursuit of the personal, no matter how much that pursuit might be misunderstood.” This analysis of McKinney’s work so impressed me, I immediately went online and ordered the book. 

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In Jane Anne Phillips’s novel Lark and Termite and in Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Other Stories, the characters sometimes forge almost magical bonds. Phillips, Creasman says, “depicts characters who discover in themselves the power of connecting the self with something greater and rising above their situations.” She succeeds in “blending fairy tale elements with unflinching realism.” Likewise, by moving from landscapes into dreamscapes, Benedict “explores exciting new possibilities for transcending traditional limitations of the region and of Appalachian literature.” Both writers venture into the kind of magical realism mined by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Readers of Creasman will acquire a deeper appreciation for eight outstanding West Virginia writers who deserve a wider audience.

In 2018 Creasman became Provost at Mount St. Mary’s University. Previously Creasman served as Provost at West Virginia Wesleyan after teaching a range of literature and writing classes as an English professor there. He has published articles and presented conference papers on writers as diverse as Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene and Jayne Anne Phillips. Creasman holds a Bachelor of Arts from Middle Tennessee State University and Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in English from Florida State University.

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