In memoriam: Paule Marshall, acclaimed writer and VCU professor emeritus

Marshall published nine books and was the recipient a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992.
Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall, a celebrated voice in African American literature and a professor emeritus of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, has died. She was 90.

Marshall was the author of nine books, including her classic debut novel, “Brown Girl, Brownstones” (1959), a coming-of-age story set in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and World War II about the struggles of Barbadian immigrants overcoming poverty and racism.

She authored four additional novels, “The Chosen Place, The Timeless People” (1969), “Praisesong for the Widow” (1983), “Daughters” (1991), and “The Fisher King” (2001), as well as several collections of short stories. She also wrote a memoir, “Triangular Road,” that was published in 2009.

Marshall joined VCU’s faculty in 1984, following a two-year stint as a writer-in-residence. In “Triangular Road,” she described being hired by VCU, having previously taught at prestigious institutions such as Yale, Columbia University, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the University of California at Berkeley:

… [T]his would be my first time venturing below the Mason-Dixon Line. True, I knew that Virginia was not considered “South” in the same way as Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn; nevertheless I had misgivings. I needed a job, though, at the time. Then, to my surprise, once I completed the two years of my contract at VCU, I was invited to stay on as a permanent member in the graduate creative-writing program. And it would be a tenured position. My first real job and tenured at that! The offer seemed almost predestined, as if it was somehow important that I remain for a time in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Marshall was featured in the student-run Commonwealth Times in 1985. (Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries)
Marshall was featured in the student-run Commonwealth Times in 1985. (Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries)

She taught at VCU until 1994, when she joined the faculty of New York University, and held the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at NYU and was a member of the NYU Creative Writing Program faculty.

Marshall lived in Richmond and served as a professor emeritus at VCU in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She was the recipient of numerous awards, notably including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1961 and a MacArthur Fellowship — also known as a “genius grant — in 1992. She received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1989. In 1994, the New York Public Library honored her as a Library Lion. And she received a lifetime achievement award in 2009 from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

In 1965, as a young novelist and civil rights activist, she accompanied Langston Hughes on a State Department-sponsored tour of Europe, helping to boost her career and profile in the literary world.

“She was a person of enormous strength and dignity, a powerful sense of purpose, and a clear vision of the scope of what she wished to achieve as a writer,” said Gregory Donovan, Ph.D., professor in the Department of English. “She won the MacArthur Fellowship in 1992 while she was teaching at VCU, which created quite a stir, as you might imagine. She also helped to bring eminent black writers to our campus, including Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, writers who were her friends.”

Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of English, said Marshall was an iconic writer who had an important impact on VCU, the English Department and American literature.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of a wonderful colleague and a wonderful writer,” she said. “While she and I never overlapped, her presence was felt within the department long after her time here. She was an important figure within the department and the university, both as a teacher, colleague and mentor.”

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