Maya Angelou: Poems

Style and genre in autobiographies

Angelou's use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and development of theme, setting, plot, and language has often resulted in the placement of her books into the genre of autobiographical fiction.[154] Angelou made a deliberate attempt in her books to challenge the common structure of the autobiography by critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre.[155] Scholar Mary Jane Lupton argues that all of Angelou's autobiographies conform to the genre's standard structure: they are written by a single author, they are chronological, and they contain elements of character, technique, and theme.[156] Angelou recognizes that there are fictional aspects to her books; Lupton agrees, stating that Angelou tended to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth",[157] which parallels the conventions of much of African-American autobiography written during the abolitionist period of U.S. history, when as both Lupton and African-American scholar Crispin Sartwell put it, the truth was censored out of the need for self-protection.[157][158] Scholar Lyman B. Hagen places Angelou in the long tradition of African-American autobiography, but claims that Angelou created a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form.[159]

According to African-American literature scholar Pierre A. Walker, the challenge for much of the history of African-American literature was that its authors have had to confirm its status as literature before they could accomplish their political goals, which was why Angelou's editor Robert Loomis was able to dare her into writing Caged Bird by challenging her to write an autobiography that could be considered "high art".[160] Angelou acknowledged that she followed the slave narrative tradition of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'".[124] Scholar John McWhorter calls Angelou's books "tracts"[130] that defend African-American culture and fight negative stereotypes. According to McWhorter, Angelou structured her books, which to him seem to be written more for children than for adults, to support her defense of black culture. McWhorter sees Angelou as she depicts herself in her autobiographies "as a kind of stand-in figure for the black American in Troubled Times".[130] McWhorter views Angelou's works as dated, but recognizes that "she has helped to pave the way for contemporary black writers who are able to enjoy the luxury of being merely individuals, no longer representatives of the race, only themselves".[161] Scholar Lynn Z. Bloom compares Angelou's works to the writings of Frederick Douglass, stating that both fulfilled the same purpose: to describe black culture and to interpret it for their wider, white audiences.[162]

According to scholar Sondra O'Neale, Angelou's poetry can be placed within the African-American oral tradition, and her prose "follows classic technique in nonpoetic Western forms".[163] O'Neale states that Angelou avoided using a "monolithic black language",[164] and accomplished, through direct dialogue, what O'Neale calls a "more expected ghetto expressiveness".[164] McWhorter finds both the language Angelou used in her autobiographies and the people she depicted unrealistic, resulting in a separation between her and her audience. As McWhorter states, "I have never read autobiographical writing where I had such a hard time summoning a sense of how the subject talks, or a sense of who the subject really is".[165] McWhorter asserts, for example, that key figures in Angelou's books, like herself, her son Guy, and mother Vivian do not speak as one would expect, and that their speech is "cleaned up" for her readers.[166] Guy, for example, represents the young black male, while Vivian represents the idealized mother figure, and the stiff language they use, as well as the language in Angelou's text, is intended to prove that blacks can competently use standard English.[167]

McWhorter recognizes that much of the reason for Angelou's style was the "apologetic" nature of her writing.[130] When Angelou wrote Caged Bird at the end of the 1960s, one of the necessary and accepted features of literature at the time was "organic unity", and one of her goals was to create a book that satisfied that criterion.[160] The events in her books were episodic and crafted like a series of short stories, but their arrangements did not follow a strict chronology. Instead, they were placed to emphasize the themes of her books, which include racism, identity, family, and travel. English literature scholar Valerie Sayers has asserted that "Angelou's poetry and prose are similar". They both rely on her "direct voice", which alternates steady rhythms with syncopated patterns and uses similes and metaphors (e.g., the caged bird).[168] According to Hagen, Angelou's works were influenced by both conventional literary and the oral traditions of the African-American community. For example, she referenced over 100 literary characters throughout her books and poetry.[169] In addition, she used the elements of blues music, including the act of testimony when speaking of one's life and struggles, ironic understatement, and the use of natural metaphors, rhythms, and intonations.[170] Angelou, instead of depending upon plot, used personal and historical events to shape her books.[171]


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