Constructing a nervous system A memoir

Margo Jefferson, 1947-

Book - 2022

"Stunning for her daring originality, the author of Negroland gives us what she calls "a temperamental autobiography," comprised of visceral, intimate fragments that fuse criticism and memoir. Margo Jefferson constructs a nervous system with pieces of different lengths and tone, conjoining arts writing (poem, song, performance) with life writing (history, psychology). The book's structure is determined by signal moments of her life, those that trouble her as well as those that thrill and restore. In this nervous system: The sounds of a black spinning disc of a 1950's jazz LP as intimate and instructive as a parent's voice. The muscles and movements of a ballerina, spliced with those of an Olympic runner: templa...te for what a female body could be. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Topsy finds her way into the art of Kara Walker and the songs of Cécile McLorin Salvant. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner become alter egos. W.E.B. DuBois and George Eliot meet illicitly, as he appropriates lines from her story "The Hidden Veil" to write his famous "behind the veil" passages in The Souls of Black Folk. The words of multiple others (writers, singers, film characters, friends, family) act as prompts and as dialogue. The fragments of this brilliant book, while not neglecting family, race, and class, are informed by a kind of aesthetic drive: longing, ecstasy, or even acute ambivalence. Constructing a nervous system is Jefferson's relentlessly galvanizing mis en scene for unconventional storytelling as well as a platform for unexpected dramatis personae"--

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New York : Pantheon Books [2022]
Main Author
Margo Jefferson, 1947- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
197 pages : illustration ; 20 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 189-195).
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Jefferson glories in words, linguistic mouthfuls like "diaphoresis" and "oleaginous" and playful glances at the "recitatif of racial injuries" and "decorating deprivations." Like a skilled embroiderer, she blends the multicolored threads of Black cultural life with memories of her past in a memoir that is impressionistic rather than chronological. In Negroland (2015), she chronicled her childhood of relative privilege and the contradictions of middle-class Black childhood in the 1950s and '60s. Here, Jefferson looks inward, reflecting on the Black icons who shaped her worldview. Jazz great Bud Powell was a "genius monster" driven mad by racism and addiction, the flip side of Jefferson's respectable father, a Chicago pediatrician who suppressed his own artistic yearnings. Teen Margo thrills at imitating a down-home Tina Turner, while the adult Jefferson acknowledges the "fraught history . . . of how the Black bourgeoisie has used, honored, disdained, borrowed from and gone slumming in . . . the culture of The People". Sweaty, "portly" Ella Fitzgerald, muscular Wilma Rudolph, and colonial fantasy Josephine Baker all reflect white American discomfort and disgust with Black female bodies, attitudes Jefferson assimilates but intellectually rejects. Jefferson is a critic's critic, turning her keenly honed analysis on herself, her family, and her class, while relentlessly interrogating the broader underlying context of white racism.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer Prize--winning critic and memoirist Jefferson (Negroland) refashions her nervous system into a "structure of recombinant thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and words" in this bold and roving work. As most people refine their adult selves, she posits, they become calcified and set in their ways. To resist that--and instead "become a person of complex and stirring character"--Jefferson plunges deep into her "raw intimacies," memories, and the histories of Black artists who have nurtured her creative and critical self throughout her life. Reflecting on her early love of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Bud Powell--whose chords "blaze and blast through unsanctioned states of mind"--she ruminates on the ways their brilliance came up against society's "firm constraints." When contemplating Hattie McDaniel's 1940 Oscar ("the first Academy Award nomination for our race") for her role in Gone with the Wind, she wonders whether it was an "advance or setback" (settling on "both"). Most intriguing, though, is Jefferson's self-aware refusal to write from a critic's remove: when a discussion of Willa Cather's writing tempts her to launch into lofty analysis, she interjects "STOP! Collect yourself, Professor Jefferson." By inviting readers backstage, she creates a dance of memory and incisive cultural commentary that's deeply and refreshingly personal. This gorgeous memoir elevates the form to new heights. (Apr.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Jefferson's latest memoir (following her National Book Award winner Negroland) is what she calls a "temperamental autobiography"--a merging of memoir and criticism in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic analyzes her life through the macroscopic lens of American culture. It is a thrillingly original personal narrative, interlacing Jefferson's family and recollections with her interrogations of the writers, musicians, and entertainers who have mapped, she says, "the neural pathways by which a vision of culture develops." Childhood memories of Jefferson's father's depression splice with her thoughts about the life of jazz pianist Bud Powell; a close look at Ella Fitzgerald's "sweat and heft" is juxtaposed with Jefferson's feelings about standards of beauty as a Black teen. Her admiration for Willa Cather's work is examined against the backdrop of Jefferson's writing seminars (she's a professor of professional practice in writing at Columbia) in which she taught primarily white college students. Jefferson deconstructs and then rebuilds "the stuff of memory and experience"; the best way to "be a critic of your own past," she writes, is to "dramatize it, analyze it, amend it accidentally, remake it. Intentionally." This slim volume is saturated with brilliance. VERDICT A fierce and fresh amalgamation of memoir and cultural criticism by one of the country's most compelling thinkers. Highly recommended.--Megan Duffy

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

The Pulitzer Prize--winning critic and memoirist returns with an inspired and unstinting examination of American class, culture, and personal memory. Jefferson, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, Negroland, moves beyond autobiography into a deeper excavation of music, literature, and personal memory, examining her role in American culture as both the influenced and the influencer. In Negroland, the author revealed the burdens of membership in a class of ambitious Black Americans, and she further details the impact on their children: "You were always calculating--not always well--how to achieve; succeed as a symbol and a self." Jefferson escaped into music and literature, finding artists who helped her move beyond rigid family expectations. Among the musicians she praises are Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, Bobby Short, Andy Bey, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Ike Turner. Jefferson also pays fervent tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, whose incendiary talent flowered despite abuse, neglect, and immersion in a brutally competitive musical culture. Upon first meeting her, bandleader Chick Webb dismissed Fitzgerald as "too ugly." Three years later, Fitzgerald's rendition of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" propelled Webb's band to the top of the charts. Jefferson brilliantly deconstructs Fitzgerald's version of that tune and how it echoed the singer's terrible years in an orphanage, and the author's fire for "the redemptive tumult of the '50s and '60s" is palpable. A chapter about her disenchantment with Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark due to its homage to White superiority is tinged with academese, and her meditation on Josephine Baker has a more distanced, elegiac feel and is weighed down by too many quotes. Nonetheless, Jefferson's unique perspective and relentless honesty and self-examination ensure that there's something worthwhile on every page. Devotees of Negroland will want to continue the dialogue with this top-notch writer. A dynamic, unflinchingly candid examination of the impacts of race and class on culture and the author's own life. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.