cover image Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir

Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir

Margo Jefferson. Pantheon, $27 (208p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4817-3

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[d] and blast[ed] 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.)