I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Style and genre

Angelou's prose works, while presenting a unique interpretation of the autobiographical form, can be placed in the long tradition of African-American autobiography.[25] Her use of fiction-writing techniques such as dialogue, characterization, and thematic development, however, often lead reviewers to categorize her books, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, as autobiographical fiction.[26] Other critics, like Lupton, insist that Angelou's books should be categorized as autobiographies because they 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.[27] In a 1983 interview with African-American literature critic Claudia Tate, Angelou calls her books autobiographies.[28]

At first, Angelou intended to return to poetry and play-writing after completing Caged Bird and write no more autobiographies, but she chose the genre as her primary mode of expression because of its challenge and so that she could "change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century". In a 1989 interview, she stated, "I think I am the only serious writer who has chosen the autobiographical form to carry my work, my expression".[29] As she told journalist George Plimpton during a 1990 interview, "Autobiography is awfully seductive; it’s wonderful".[30] She also told Plimpton that like the tradition begun by Frederick Douglass in slave narratives, she used the literary technique of "speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning 'we'".[30] As critic Susan Gilbert states, Angelou was reporting not one person's story, but the collective's.[31] Scholar Selwyn R. Cudjoe agrees, and sees Angelou as representative of the convention in African-American autobiography as a public gesture that speaks for an entire group of people.[32]

Scholar Joanne M. Braxton sees Caged Bird as "the fully developed black female autobiographical form that began to emerge in the 1940s and 1950s".[33] The book presents themes that are common in autobiography by Black American women: a celebration of Black motherhood; a criticism of racism; the importance of family; and the quest for independence, personal dignity, and self-definition.[33] Angelou introduces a unique point of view in American autobiography by revealing her life story through a narrator who is a Black female from the South, at some points a child, and other points a mother.[34] Writer Hilton Als calls Angelou one of the "pioneers of self-exposure", willing to focus honestly on the more negative aspects of her personality and choices.[35] For example, Angelou was worried about her readers' reactions to her disclosure in her second autobiography, Gather Together in My Name, that she was a prostitute. She went through with it, anyway, after her husband Paul Du Feu advised her to be honest about it.[36]

Angelou has recognized that there are fictional aspects to her books, and that she tends to "diverge from the conventional notion of autobiography as truth".[37] Angelou discussed her writing process with Plimpton, and when asked if she changed the truth to improve her story, she admitted that she had. She stated, "Sometimes I make a diameter from a composite of three or four people, because the essence in only one person is not sufficiently strong to be written about."[30] Although Angelou has never admitted to changing the facts in her stories, she has used these facts to make an impact with the reader. As Hagen states, "One can assume that 'the essence of the data' is present in Angelou's work".[38] Hagen also states that Angelou "fictionalizes, to enhance interest".[38] For example, Angelou uses the first-person narrative voice customary with autobiographies, told from the perspective of a child that is "artfully recreated by an adult narrator".[39]

Angelou uses two distinct voices, the adult writer and the child who is the focus of the book, whom Angelou calls "the Maya character". Angelou reports that maintaining the distinction between herself and the Maya character is "damned difficult", but "very necessary".[1] Scholar Liliane Arensberg suggests that Angelou "retaliates for the tongue-tied child's helpless pain" by using her adult self's irony and wit.[40] As such, Caged Bird has been called a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story; critic Mary Jane Lupton compares it to other Bildungsromans like George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss. According to Lupton, the two books share the following similarities: a focus on young strong-willed heroines who have solid relationships with their brothers, an examination of the role of literature in life, and an emphasis on the importance of family and community life.[29]

.mw-parser-output .quotebox{background-color:#F9F9F9;border:1px solid #aaa;box-sizing:border-box;padding:10px;font-size:88%;max-width:100%}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft{margin:0.5em 1.4em 0.8em 0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright{margin:0.5em 0 0.8em 1.4em}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.centered{margin:0.5em auto 0.8em auto}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft p,.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright p{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-title{background-color:#F9F9F9;text-align:center;font-size:larger;font-weight:bold}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:before{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" “ ";vertical-align:-45%;line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:after{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" ” ";line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .left-aligned{text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .right-aligned{text-align:right}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .center-aligned{text-align:center}.mw-parser-output .quotebox cite{display:block;font-style:normal}@media screen and (max-width:360px){.mw-parser-output .quotebox{min-width:100%;margin:0 0 0.8em!important;float:none!important}} "During the months she spent writing the book, [Angelou] practically withdrew from the world. She'd set the bar high. Her ambition was to write a book that would honor the Black experience and affirm the 'human spirit.' She more than achieved her goal. She wrote a coming-of-age story that has become a modern classic".

–Marcia Ann Gillespie, 2008[41]


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