Was written as Margaret Walker's PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa. As she typed the final lines of the story of her maternal great-grandmother, Margaret Duggans Ware Brown (on 9 April 1965), Walker brought to conclusion the creative task of transforming the oral history passed on by her grandmother into a sweeping novel of southern life before and immediately after the Civil War. Jubilee won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship and was published in September 1966.
The novel is divided into three major sections, representing the antebellum years, the Civil War period, and Reconstruction as witnessed by the central character, Vyry. Born a slave on a Georgia plantation, she eventually finds a peace she cannot vocalize and hope for a future in the red-clay hills of Alabama. Orphaned by the death of her mother and nurtured by the women of the slave community, Vyry suffers for being her owner's daughter and must use wit and intelligence to survive the wrath of Salina Dutton, who despises Vyry's resemblance to her own daughter, Lillian. Vyry's strengths are tested when her husband, Randall Ware, escapes to the North; refusing to abandon her two children for the promise of freedom, she remained on the plantation during the Civil War, a model of sanity and generosity as the chaos of war brings irreversible change. The interdependence of slave and slaveowner and the suffering both must endure are foils for Vyry's heroism. Assuming that Ware is dead, Vyry marries Innis Brown and seeks to begin a new life with him in Alabama at the war's end. Life is marked by the poverty, sickness, and persecution of the postwar South, and Vyry must make a hard choice when Ware reappears.
The compassion of Jubilee challenged stereotypes about African American historical fiction. Published just as the focus on civil rights was shifting to Black Power and nationalism, its initial critical reception was decidedly mixed. Opinions ranged from Guy Davenport's biting conclusion in the National Review that the novel ironically swallowed the myth of a romantic South that never existed to Abraham Chapman's remarks in Saturday Review that the novel was faithful to the facts of slave life. Neither facts that might have cast light on the textual tensions, the pull between verifiable data and the author's re-creation of family history, nor the insights of feminist critique about the novel's complexity were available to early commentators. The facts would not be available until Walker published How I Wrote Jubilee (1972), thus enabling a more reasoned assessment of the novel within the tradition of African American historical fiction.
Since the 1970s, many critics acknowledge, as does Bernard Bell in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987), that Jubilee is an innovative neo-slave narrative, remarkable for its use of folklore, knowledge of black culture, abundance of carefully researched historical detail, and the prism of woman's vision. Seen now as the precursor of such works as Dessa Rose (1986) and Beloved (1987), Jubilee inspires deeper studies of what it might tell us about the interrelations of memory and literary imagination in the history of African American literature and culture.