Doris Jean Austin

(c. 1949—1994)

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(c. 1949–1994), novelist and essayist.

Doris Jean Austin is the author of one novel, After the Garden (1987), and a frequent contributor to such periodicals as Essence and the New York Times Book Review. In Essence, she has published articles such as “The Men in My Life,” “Fighting Off the Fears,” and “Holistic Healing: Mind: Taming the Demons” (all 1992).

Austin was born in Mobile, Alabama, where she lived until she was six, when her family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. That city serves as the locale for her fictional creation. She has been a MacDowell Colony fellow and a recipient of the DeWitt Wallace/Reader's Digest Award for Literary Excellence. That recognition came with the publication of After the Garden.

Episodic in structure, After the Garden takes place over a twenty-three year period, from 1939 to 1962. It presents a self-contained African American world little impacted by the turbulent historical events of the period, although they are mentioned from time to time, and little impacted by white racism. It presents a rich and varied African American world in the middleclass community of Astor Place, the working-class community of Kearney Avenue, the school, the neighborhood bar, and the church.

Growing up in a three-generational household, Austin experienced firsthand the value of strong kinship ties. The novel reflects that. Beginning on the day that heroine Elzina James begins menstruation, the novel is an extended coming-of-age story. Elzina must resolve allegiances to Rosalie Tompkins, the puritanical and strong-willed grandmother who raised her, and her husband Jesse, whom her grandmother despises because of his lower-class background.

The novel is one of the narratives in African American literature that dramatizes the class conflicts and disparate value systems found within the African American community. Rosalie Tompkins, whose life revolves around the church and raising her granddaughter, has only two wishes before she dies: to return to the red clay of her native, beloved Alabama and to see Elzina enrolled at Tuskegee Institute. Her wishes are thwarted when Elzina, at fifteen, loses her virginity to the highschool heartthrob Jesse, of the free-spirited, hard-partying James clan, marries him, and has a son, Charles. The young couple resides in Rosalie's house and the grandmother-granddaughter relationship remains unchanged by Elzina's marriage and presumed adult status. Jesse chafes under Rosalie's thinly veiled contempt for him and resentment over the warted plans for her granddaughter. His unemployment and Elzina's refusal to ask her grandmother for money for him to finance a gas station exacerbate the tensions in the marriage. At the height of a quarrel Jesse tells Elzina: “‘We ain’t got no business married. … At least I know my black ass ain’t got no business married to no Tompkins! I ain’t nothing but a po’ ol’ field nigger, that's me!”’ Jesse becomes an accomplice in an armed robbery and receives a harsh sentence. Although Rosalie dies midway through the novel, she lives on in the values instilled in her granddaughter, whose life revolves around being a model single mother and the proprietor of a well-run, profitable boardinghouse.


Subjects: Literature.

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