Mourning and Melancholy: Literary Criticism by African American Women

Elise Miller, Saint Mary’s College of California
Vol. 35, No. 2 (Fall 2016), 463-489

Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and bell hooks use their “writing about writing,” a special genre that returns to the origins of what they have authored, to find ways to encounter personal, familial, and cultural histories of loss, suffering, and trauma. The result is a tradition of literary criticism that aligns with what Sigmund Freud called the work of mourning; both practices are about memory and preservation, taking inventory, distinguishing what has value and what can be relinquished, elevating, idealizing, discarding, and forgetting. These women writers read their way into becoming writers, and in the process, they name predecessors and identify sources and inspirations, producing, in effect, a literary legacy that produces them. The literary and psychological labor of canon formation is embedded in the language and imagery of creativity and connectedness that puts the dead to rest in order to make room for the living.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]