Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir

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Article number: Jefferson CANS HB
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NOTE: Margo Jefferson was an invited speaker at our 18th International Cather Seminar in New York, June 21-23, 2023 — Constructing a Nervous System is also available here in paperback.

WINNER OF THE FOLIO PRIZE • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE FINALIST

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New York TimesTIME Magazine, Oprah Daily, The New Yorker, Washington Post, Vulture, Buzzfeed, Publishers Weeklyv

The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and memoirist Margo Jefferson has lived in the thrall of a cast of others—her parents and maternal grandmother, jazz luminaries, writers, artists, athletes, and stars. These are the figures who thrill and trouble her, and who have made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer. In her much-anticipated follow-up to Negroland, Jefferson brings these figures to life in a memoir of stunning originality, a performance of the elements that comprise and occupy the mind of one of our foremost critics.

In Constructing a Nervous System, Jefferson shatters her self into pieces and recombines them into a new and vital apparatus on the page, fusing the criticism that she is known for, fragments of the family members she grieves for, and signal moments from her life, as well as the words of those who have peopled her past and accompanied her in her solitude, dramatized here like never before. Bing Crosby and Ike Turner are among the author’s alter egos. The sounds of a jazz LP emerge as the intimate and instructive sounds of a parent’s voice. W. E. B. Du Bois and George Eliot meet illicitly. The muscles and movements of a ballerina are spliced with those of an Olympic runner, becoming a template for what a black female body can be.

The result is a wildly innovative work of depth and stirring beauty. It is defined by fractures and dissonance, longing and ecstasy, and a persistent searching. Jefferson interrogates her own self as well as the act of writing memoir, and probes the fissures at the center of American cultural life.

Pantheon Books: April 12, 2022 • Hardcover: 208 pages

 

About the Author

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson previously served as book and arts critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, VogueNew York Magazine, The Nation, and Guernica. Her memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. In Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir, Jefferson examines her life through the artists who have influenced her, including Willa Cather. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.

 

Some Reviews

“An elegantly structured, ambitious work of cultural criticism.” Roxane Gay, “My 2022 in Reading”

“In her second memoir, Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson brilliantly interrogates and expands the form. . . . What emerges is a carefully woven tapestry of American life, brought together by Jefferson’s lyrical and electric prose.”  TIME, “The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2022”
 
“With gorgeous writing and indelible insight, this singular work defies categorization. . . . a beautiful place to spend time in.”  Oprah Daily, “Our Favorite Books of the Year”
 
“The book’s title is a sly description of Jefferson’s project, with “nervous system” referring to the materials — “chosen, imposed, inherited, made up” — that jumble together into an identity. The book is part rumination on the nature of memoir, part traditional autobiography and — always — an engagement with art, including that of Ella Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Harriet Beecher Stowe.”  The New York Times, “100 Notable Books of 2022”

“Shoving aside old ideas about memoir as mere biography... [Jefferson] exudes charisma on the page with a voice that commands attention, drawing us into her thoughts about particular artists she admired in youth and then saw anew with the perspective of age.”  The Washington Post, “The 10 Best Books of 2022”
 
“Drawing on material as disparate as Henry James, The WireOthello, and Black spirituals, [Jefferson] narrates moments of her life as they unfold in relation to “avatars”. . . . “Great soloists never perform entirely alone,” Jefferson writes, and the same is true for her.”  The New Yorker“The Best Books of 2022 So Far”

“[A] moving excavation of Black female identity. . . . Through autobiographical fragments and sharp cultural commentary, Jefferson delivers an innovative interrogation of the intersections of race and class.”  Publishers Weekly“Best Books 2022”

“This is a book for deep submergence, not quick flipping. This is appointment reading. Clear the schedule and commit . . . Hypnotic. . . Ravishing and rigorous . . . in an artistic tradition that includes Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman: ruthless self-excavation that is scrupulously free of solipsism . . . [Jefferson] has—along with other recent innovators in the form . . . grabbed hold of that permission slip and torn it to shreds.” Molly YoungThe New York Times

“An extraordinary reading experience—the first book I recall wanting to reread immediately after reaching the end . . . [Jefferson] lures us into a dreamy and peripatetic journey . . . [inviting] us to rethink our experiences with art while finding resonance in intimacies that she shares from her own life. I still can’t say I know exactly how she manages to make this all succeed. I only know that she does, and it is splendid.”
Karen Sandstrom, The Washington Post

“[Margo Jefferson’s] new memoir takes the story forward to her formation as a critic and thinker, analyzing her heroes, influences and foils…These examinations of self double as reconsiderations of culture and society, including those artists she now sees in a far more complicated light.” Los Angeles Times

“An enthralling memoirist and a masterful cultural critic, Jefferson overlaps those skills in her formally improvisational and percolating new book . . . Forcefully, gracefully, ‘Constructing’ illustrates that the Black critic always enacts her interiority, self-assembly, and education publicly." The Boston Globe

“In a hot bebop of syntax and cultural retrieval, restrained by a cool syncopation of bemusement and contradiction – or is it grief? – Margo Jefferson accounts for a mind and soul bestowed by, among others, Topsy, Josephine Baker, Willa Cather, Bud Powell, James Baldwin, Kara Walker, even Bing Crosby. Constructing a Nervous System is raucous and new, a signal contribution, an immediate classic.”
Honor Moore, author of Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury
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