BY THE AUTHOR:
- The Bluest Eye (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970; London: Chatto & Windus, 1979).
- Sula (New York: Plume, 1973; London: Allen Lane, 1974).
- Song of Solomon (New York: Knopf, 1977; London: Chatto & Windus, 1978).
- Tar Baby (New York: Knopf, 1981; London: Chatto & Windus, 1981).
- Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987; London: Chatto & Windus, 1987).
- Jazz (Franklin Center, Pa.: Franklin Library / New York: Knopf, 1992; London: Chatto & Windus, 1992).
- Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992; London: Picador, 1993).
- Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (New York: Knopf, 1994; London: Chatto & Windus, 1994).
- The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on the Sixth of November, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Six (New York: Knopf, 1996).
- Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1998; London: Chatto & Windus, 1998).
- The Big Box, by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Hyperion Books for Children/Jump at the Sun, 1999; London: Turnaround, 2002).
- The Book of Mean People, by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2002; London: Turnaround, 2003).
- The Ant or the Grasshopper? by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Scribner, 2003).
- The Lion or the Mouse? by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Scribner, 2003).
- Poppy or the Snake? by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Scribner, 2003).
- Love (New York: Knopf, 2003; London: Chatto & Windus, 2003).
- Remember: The Journey to School Integration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).
- The Mirror or the Glass? by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Scribner, 2004).
- Who's Got Game?: Three Fables, by Morrison and Slade Morrison (New York: Scribner, 2005)--comprises The Ant or the Grasshopper?, The Lion or the Mouse?, and Poppy or the Snake?
- Dreaming Emmett, Albany, New York, 4 January 1986.
- The Black Book, compiled by Middleton Harris, edited by Morrison (New York: Random House, 1974).
- "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation," in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), pp. 339-345.
- Race-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality, edited by Morrison (New York: Pantheon, 1992; London: Chatto & Windus, 1993).
- Huey P. Newton, To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton, edited by Morrison (New York: Writers and Readers, 1995).
- Honey and Rue, text by Morrison, compact disc (Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1995).
- Toni Cade Bambara, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Morrison (New York: Pantheon, 1996).
- Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, edited by Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour (New York: Pantheon, 1997).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS--UNCOLLECTED
- "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib," New York Times Magazine, 22 August 1971, pp. 14-15, 63-64, 66.
- "Cooking Out," New York Times Book Review, 10 June 1973, pp. 4, 12.
- "Behind the Making of the Black Book," Black World, 23 (February 1974): 86-90.
- "Rediscovering Black History," New York Times Magazine, 11 August 1974, pp. 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24.
- "Reading," Mademoiselle, 81 (May 1975): 14.
- "A Slow Walk of Trees (as Grandmother Would Say) Hopeless (as Grandfather Would Say)," New York Times Magazine, 4 July 1976, pp. 104, 150, 152, 160, 162, 164.
- "Memory, Creation, and Writing," Thought, 59 (December 1984): 385-390.
- "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," Michigan Quarterly Review, 28 (Winter 1989): 1-34.
The 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Toni Morrison, "who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality," as the citation from the Swedish Academy read. The eighth woman and the first African American to win the prize, Morrison expressed surprise and delight at receiving the honor:
I was thrilled that my mother is still alive and can share this with me. And I can claim representation in so many areas. I'm a Midwesterner, and everyone in Ohio is excited. I'm also a New Yorker, and a New Jerseyan, and an American, plus I'm an African-American, and a woman. I know it seems like I'm spreading like algae when I put it this way, but I'd like to think of the prize being distributed to these regions and nations and races.Morrison's image of herself as a literary organism whose creative force is fed by all that has encompassed her is reflected in her fiction, a combination of prose and poetry so lyrical and evocative that it often transcends the narrative of African Americans that she presents, exhorting all her readers to share in and accept responsibility for the creative act they are witnessing. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech Morrison told a story in which the roles of storyteller and listener eventually elide one another so that both are involved in fiction making. "How lovely it is," the storyteller concludes, "this thing we have done--together."
In describing Morrison's work, Sture Allén, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said in the Nobel press release: "She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry." For Morrison it is the language that, as she said in her acceptance speech, "may be the measure of our lives," and as such it must not be a language that oppresses or manipulates, "the policing languages of mastery," but one that can "limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speaker, readers, writers." It must be free of the arrogance of absolute definition. "Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable." In 1996 Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in her acceptance speech, The Dancing Mind, she continues to emphasize the necessary interconnectedness--the dancing of minds--that occurs through reading and writing. Writing, Morrison says, is
a craft that appears solitary but needs another for its completion. A craft that signals independence but relies totally on an industry. It is more than an urge to make sense or to make sense artfully or to believe it matters. It is more than a desire to watch other writers manage to refigure the world. I know now, more than I ever did (and I always on some level knew it), that I need that intimate, sustained surrender to the company of my mind while it touches another's--which is reading . . . That I need to offer the fruits of my own imaginative intelligence to another without fear of anything more deadly than disdain--which is writing.Morrison has become one of the literary elite even though, since she is African American and a female, her writings are often a challenge to the canon of predominantly white-male American writing. Morrison's remarkable accomplishment is summed up by Henry Louis Gates Jr.: "Just two centuries ago, the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer has won the Nobel Prize." The fact that Morrison has received the most prestigious of writing awards serves not only to expand the literary criteria for greatness but has also initiated discussion about the evolving nature of American literature. Evidence of the high level of scholarly interest in Morrison's work includes the Toni Morrison Society Newsletter, a semiannual publication begun in 1995.
Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children raised in a family that had endured economic and social adversity. Morrison's maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, were sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, having lost their land at the turn of the century. In 1912 her grandparents decided to head north to escape the hopeless debt of sharecropping and the fear of racism, which posed the threat of sexual violation to their pubescent daughters. They traveled to Kentucky, where Morrison's grandfather worked in a coal mine and her grandmother was a laundress. But they left abruptly when their daughters came home from school one day, having taught the white teacher how to do long division. In search of a better education for their children, Morrison's grandparents eventually settled in Lorain.
While growing up during the Depression, Morrison witnessed the struggles of her father, George Wofford, who had migrated from Georgia, and mother, Ramah Willis Wofford, to support their family. George Wofford often worked many jobs at a time--a shipyard welder, car washer, steel-mill welder, and construction worker--while Ramah Wofford, Morrison revealed in a 1983 interview with Nellie McKay (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison, 1994), "took 'humiliating jobs' in order to send Morrison money regularly while she was in college and graduate school." Her parents' willingness to take on hard and sometimes demeaning work was coupled with a distinct unwillingness to relinquish their own sense of value and humanity. Morrison's father was meticulous in his work, writing his name in the side of the ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. Her mother at one point wrote a letter of protest to President Franklin D. Roosevelt when her family received unfit government-sponsored flour.
While Morrison's parents grappled with economic hardship, they also struggled to retain their sense of worth in an oppressive white world. Their early experiences with racism shaped their respective views of white people. Morrison's father was, in her words, a racist; she told Jean Strouse that, as a child in Georgia, he received "shocking impressions of adult white people." Morrison's mother held out hope for the white race to improve, but her father was convinced that whites were never to be trusted or believed. He once threw a white man out of his home, believing the visitor planned to molest his daughters. Both parents had reservations about the potential for the white race and thus taught their children to rely on themselves and the black community rather than the vagaries of a larger society whose worth to them was highly suspect.
Morrison did not suffer the effects of racism early on because she was the only black in her first-grade class and the only one who could read. However, she told Bonnie Angelo that her innocence was soon shattered:
I remember in the fifth grade a smart little boy who had just arrived and didn't speak any English. He sat next to me. I read well, and I taught him to read just by doing it. I remember the moment he found out that I was black--a nigger. It took him six months; he was told. And that's the moment when he belonged, that was his entrance. Every immigrant knew he would not come as the very bottom. He had to come above at least one group--and that was us.Morrison confronted other incidents of racism, but her parents' emphasis on the value of African Americans as a people, of their family as an inviolable unit, and of themselves as individuals was no doubt the psychological foundation that sustained and nurtured her. Her father was convinced that blacks were superior to whites, a belief that deeply influenced Morrison. At age thirteen, when she complained about the mean white family whose house she cleaned, her father told her she did not live with them, but "here. So you go do your work, get your money and come on home." Morrison did not adopt her father's racism, but she always knew, she remarked in an interview with Charlie Rose (Public Broadcasting System, 7 May 1993), "I had the moral high ground all my life."
Though deprived of monetary resources in a hostile world, Morrison's family and community held a remarkable wealth of music, storytelling, the supernatural, and black language--major influences on Morrison and her writings. Morrison woke up to the sound of her mother's voice, singing both at home and for the church choir. But music, Morrison said in the Rose interview, "was not entertainment for us" but more a means of detecting her mother's moods. It acted as a support system. Though her family could not read music, they could reproduce what they heard. Other forms of support included storytelling that involved every member of the family. After adults told stories, they invited the children to do the same. Morrison considered this part as important, if not more important, than listening to the stories.
Though there were few books in her house, Morrison learned early the importance of reading. Her grandfather was a figure of awe and respect to her because, with the help of his sister, he had taught himself to read. Morrison was encouraged to read and did so voraciously, including a wide range of world literature. She told Strouse:
Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway--they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity. I wasn't thinking of writing then--I wanted to be a dancer like Maria Tallchief--but when I wrote my first novel years later, I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in.Morrison did not read literature by black women writers until adulthood, but she told Gloria Naylor in a 1985 interview (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison) that her affinity with them, which critics have identified, is evidence that "the world as perceived by black women at certain times does exist."
That world was often rife with the supernatural. In a 1977 interview reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison, when asked by Mel Watkins whether she believed in ghosts, Morrison replied, "Yes. Do you believe in germs? It's part of our heritage." Morrison stated that her family was "intimate with the supernatural," her parents often telling exciting and terrifying ghost stories that the children were encouraged to repeat. Dreams were a constituent of reality--her grandmother even played the numbers with the use of a dream book--and ghostly apparitions were not considered astonishing. Without the belief in the supernatural, Morrison remarked to Valerie Smith, "I would have been dependent on so-called scientific data to explain hopelessly unscientific things and also I would have relied on information that even subsequent objectivity has proved to be fraudulent." Her novels, too, would have been bereft of their distinctive blend of fantasy and reality, myth and history, folklore and legend. So intertwined are the supernatural and empirical reality in Morrison's novels that the seen and the unseen often elide one another.
After high school Morrison attended Howard University, majoring in English and minoring in the classics; her dream was to be a teacher. While at Howard she acquired the nickname Toni. She soon became disenchanted with Howard and the importance students placed on marriage, fashion, socializing, and being chic. She joined the Howard University Players, thus getting an opportunity to travel in the South, to experience its history and geography, and to relive her grandparents' harrowing flight from poverty and racism. Morrison graduated from Howard in 1953 and then enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University.
Morrison's rich history of family and community filters directly into her novels, a progression of works that begins by addressing the black family and then broadens to the black community, regions of the United States, foreign lands and alien cultures, history, and reality. In her novels Morrison celebrates the rich heritage and language of the black community and the values it struggles to maintain in a predominantly white society whose own value system, she finds, has lost its collective way. Morrison's thematic consistency is refigured in each novel so that her canon constitutes a progressive troping of her own works. Each novel is an original revoicing of her previous concerns with the black community and family. She experiments almost relentlessly with language, with narrative forms, and with fictive reality in an endeavor to redefine the African American experience not as marginal or peripheral, but as American.
Morrison received her master's degree from Cornell in 1955. She wrote her thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner . She then taught English at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, beginning a teaching career that she proudly continues. According to Smith, Morrison has taught at "Yale, Bard, the State University of New York at Purchase, and the State University of New York at Albany. Since 1988 she has held the Robert F. Goheen Professorship of the Humanities at Princeton University."
In 1957 Morrison, then an English instructor at Howard, began to meet and influence young men who became prominent in the 1960s, among them Amiri Baraka , Andrew Young, and Claude Brown. She taught Stokely Carmichael in one of her classes; she told Strouse that he was "the kind of student you always want in a class--smart, perceptive, funny and a bit of a rogue." Morrison stayed at Howard from 1957 to 1964, leaving because she did not have the Ph.D. necessary for tenure.
Two major events marked her period of teaching at Howard. She began to write, and she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. During her marriage Morrison joined a writers' group at Howard, composing a story that grew into her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), about a little girl who longs for blue eyes. With her writing career only in its infancy, her marriage ended around 1964, leaving Morrison with two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. Though reticent about her marriage and reluctant even to discuss its actual date, she does refer to cultural differences and a feeling of personal bankruptcy: "It was as though I had nothing left but my imagination. I had no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self--just this brutal sense of irony, melancholy and a trembling respect for words."
After her divorce Morrison lived with her parents in Lorain for a year and a half and then accepted an editorial position with a textbook subsidiary at Random House in Syracuse, New York. Her mother expressed dismay that Morrison was a single parent without other family there--a difficult, isolated condition for anyone, but especially for African Americans, who to a great extent rely on extended family and community for well-being in an indifferent, if not inhospitable, world. Morrison talked to Rose about raising children alone: "It was terrible. Very hard. Awful." She added, "You need everybody [to raise a child]." For Morrison writing helped fill the void of family, husband, and, to a great extent, self. She remarked to Naylor: "But I was really in a corner. And whatever was being threatened by the circumstances in which I found myself, alone with two children in a town where I didn't know anybody, I knew that I would not deliver to my children a parent that was of no use to them. So I was thrown back on, luckily, the only thing I could depend on, my own resources."
While in Syracuse, Morrison continued work on The Bluest Eye as a way to find her place in a world where she felt she no longer belonged. She told Naylor that writing the novel became a process of reclamation:
And I began to do it. I began to pick up scraps of things that I had seen or felt, or didn't see or didn't feel, but imagined. And speculated about and wondered about. And I fell in love with myself. I reclaimed myself and the world . . . I named it. I described it. I listed it. I identified it. I recreated it. And having done that, at least, then the books belonged in the world.An editor read the partly completed manuscript and suggested she finish it. It was rejected many times before Holt, Rinehart and Winston published The Bluest Eye in 1970.
The Bluest Eye is a wrenching account of how the Western notion of idealized beauty and its penchant for blue eyes and blonde hair turn self-esteem in the black community into self-loathing. The novel reveals the destructive potential of a standard of beauty that places value on the way people look rather than on their intrinsic worth. This condition is manifested in the character of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl on the verge of womanhood, who longs for blue eyes as an avenue to prettiness and, hence, love. Her desire for the impossible would be less pathetic given the unconditional love and support of family and community. However, her mother, suffering from her own belief in the ugliness of her family, ignores her, while her drunken father's twisted attempt at loving his daughter turns into rape. The community watches but does nothing as Pecola gives birth to a baby that dies and as she then lapses into an insanity in which she is finally possessed of the bluest eyes.
Pecola's tragedy is the ultimate expression of an entire community infected with distorted notions of worth. Most of the characters in the novel suffer different degrees of victimization at the hands of a society that confuses whiteness with virtue. Morrison shows that blacks in a white society often have turned against themselves, adopting the racist attitudes that dehumanize them. The prime example of this tendency is Pecola's mother, Pauline Breedlove, who, convinced of her own ugliness, retreats to a movie theater and images of white beauty she vicariously experiences. She prefers the quiet order and tidiness of the white people's houses she cleans to the confusion of her own ragtag storefront home. Pecola's blackness is a constant reminder to Pauline of her own inability to approximate the ideal of white beauty. As a result, she simply ignores her daughter rather than sustain her.
Pecola's father, Cholly, has learned that his blackness is a sign of absence and exclusion. He is abandoned by his mother and father as an infant. In his first act of lovemaking he is surprised by white hunters who force him to complete the act. Though he is initially capable of investing Pauline with a sense of her own beauty, he is divested of his authority by the overwhelming influence of white society. Powerless to empower, Cholly resorts to drunkenness, and eventually to rape, in a demented effort to convince Pecola that she is lovable.
The Bluest Eye is flooded with characters whose humanity has been diminished as a consequence of their blackness, a signifier of lack to white society, their own community, and even themselves. Most disturbing in the novel are the light-skinned blacks who distance themselves from their black heritage in an exercise of same-race hatred. As schoolmate Maureen Peal's actions illustrate, black children are taught early to assume a superiority based on the lightness of their skin. Maureen, the "high-yellow dream" who has "lynch ropes for hair," deals Pecola the ultimate insult: "I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos."
Another light-skinned character, Geraldine, attempts literally to scrub the blackness from her life and that of her son, Junior. When she finds Pecola in her home, she unleashes a rage on her simply because she cannot tolerate the relative darkness of her skin. The ultimate manifestation of self-hatred and same-race hatred is Soaphead Church, who was taught "to separate [himself] in body, mind and spirit from all that suggested Africa." He is so twisted by an obsession with whiteness and cleanliness that he resorts to molesting little girls rather than engage in a mature sexual relationship.
As in most of her novels, in The Bluest Eye Morrison presents ways of surviving in a world suffused with psychic pain and suffering. The MacTeers represent a black family who, though struggling for its economic life, has not been divested of its humanity. Blessed with a hardworking father and a dutiful mother, the MacTeers nevertheless are profoundly affected by the difficult conditions of their lives. In Mrs. MacTeer is a "misery colored by the greens and blues in her voice." Her life, marked by poverty and a bitter climate, shapes her sometimes-harsh treatment of her children, Claudia and Frieda.
But love, not money, is the motivating force in the MacTeer household, and that is what sustains them. Mrs. MacTeer is capable, as Claudia recalls, of music, warm laughter, and an abiding love: "Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it--taste it . . . everywhere in the house." Even more remarkable than the love in the MacTeer household is their willingness to extend it into the community. They take in Pecola for a brief time, increasing the burden on an already strapped existence. Mrs. MacTeer becomes the moral authority in the novel in her condemnation of the Breedloves and their irresponsible treatment of Pecola. "Folks," she says, "just dump they children off on you and go on 'bout they business. . . . What kind of something is that?"
The domestic blues of the MacTeer family and the general gloominess of the novel are offset by the world of the prostitutes China, Poland, and Miss Marie. Though they exist outside society, despised and reviled, they create an atmosphere of jocularity and freshness that momentarily brightens the darkness of the novel. Pecola takes refuge in this world because the prostitutes remain unaffected by the standards of a culture that has already rejected them. They are, therefore, oblivious to Pecola's ugliness and dirt, and they treat her with genuine warmth and affection. Pecola is so content in an environment of laughter and unconditional love that she wonders, "Were they real?" Still, the whorehouse provides only a brief respite from the reality of Pecola's world. The prostitutes, like the other members of the community, cannot or do not take responsibility for Pecola's life.
Pecola's insanity, in which she convinces herself that she possesses blue eyes, is an ironic reversal of a society that considers itself sane in its valorization of physical features. If Pecola's raison d'être revolves around the color of her skin and her eyes, she must imagine herself into existence in order to survive. While her survival is perceived as craziness, it is the only alternative given her treatment as a black person. Pecola's insanity, then, is a manifestation of corrupt societal values and an indictment of the human beings who perpetuate them. The consequences of reducing human worth to the limited criteria of physical beauty are insanity, death, and sterility. Claudia realizes that, as a young black girl, she is an endangered species from which "no green was going to spring." The soil is "bad," she says, "for certain kinds of flowers."
Reviews of The Bluest Eye were generally encouraging, though at times reserved in their praise. Many reviewers recognized a brilliant novelist in the making, emphasizing the beauty of her prose, her authentic dialogue, and her insight into black life. But they also criticized what they saw as an excess and abuse of those same qualities. In The New York Times (13 November 1970) John Leonard provided the most enthusiastic appraisal of The Bluest Eye, characterizing Morrison's prose as "so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry." Several reviewers were less laudatory, criticizing her for what L. E. Sissman in The New Yorker called "an occasional error of fact or judgment" or what Haskel Frankel (New York Times Book Review, 1 November 1970) saw as "fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery."
But even reviewers most critical of Morrison's first novel sensed her potential. The Choice reviewer stated that The Bluest Eye may not be the "best first novel ever published; it is, however, a sympathetic and moving portrayal of human beings . . . and for this alone it deserves to be read." Sissman concluded that, in spite of Morrison's penchant for "an occasional false or bombastic line," none of it matters "beside her real and greatly promising achievement." Frankel conceded that, though Morrison "has gotten lost in her construction," she is a writer "to seek out and encourage."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Morrison's career as a writer paralleled her increasing prominence in the publishing world and as one of the cultural elite of the black community. She left Syracuse to become a senior editor at Random House in New York City. There, she established herself as a mentor for such aspiring African American women writers as Toni Cade Bambara , Gayl Jones , and Angela Davis. Bambara told Strouse that Morrison is "a superb editor" whose judgment she trusts "absolutely." In the same article Young remarked that "Toni had done more to encourage and publish other black writers than anyone I know." Morrison also supported the publication of important works on black history, including The Black Book (1974), which she edited. Morrison was called on increasingly in the early 1970s to review books, especially for The New York Times Book Review, for which she critiqued twenty-eight books from 1971 to 1972. In 1971 she also wrote an article, "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib," for The New York Times Magazine.
The idea for Morrison's second novel, Sula (1973), came months after she finished The Bluest Eye. In her conversation with Naylor she stated:
And so after I finished that book I was in some despair because several months passed and I didn't have another idea. And then I got to thinking about this girl, this woman. If it wasn't unconventional, she didn't want it. She was willing to risk in her imagination a lot of things and pay the price and also go astray. It wasn't as though she was this fantastic power who didn't have a flaw in her character. I wanted to throw her relationship with another woman into relief. Those two women--that too is us, those two desires, to have your adventure and safety. So I just cut it up.In Sula Morrison focuses on the friendship of the two women she imagined. Nel represents the traditional roles of wife and mother in a patriarchal society, and Sula rejects those roles in favor of a life that is separate from family and community. They are inseparable as childhood friends, sharing a complicity in the death of a young boy Sula accidentally lets slip into a raging river. Eventually, Sula leaves the community, only to return in search of her friend and any of Nel's life experiences she may have missed, including Nel's husband, Jude, with whom she has an affair.
As children, Nel and Sula are exposed to the distinctive, often bizarre configuration of their town and the people who inhabit it. Bottom is a black hilltop community that overlooks the white valley town of Medallion. In Bottom the residents are often as topsy-turvy as the topographically misleading name of the town indicates. Shadrack is a mad World War I veteran who celebrates National Suicide Day. Sula's mother, Eva, has sacrificed her leg for the economic security of disability payments, while Nel's mother, Helene Wright, has assimilated white, patriarchal ways even though her own mother is a Creole whore. Death through fire, drowning, disease, and madness becomes the fate of Bottom residents--a fictional apocalypse both frightening and confusing in its implications.
In Sula, as in The Bluest Eye, Morrison continues her denunciation of white values and their negative impact on the black community. Sula is a novel of contrasts, ironic reversals, and mirror images reflected in the fates of her characters and their community. Bottom and Medallion exist in an uneasy social stasis because they represent two often-opposite ways of living. Medallion generates commerce and industry, while Bottom, excluded from the economic benefits of the valley town, concentrates its efforts on family and community. Bottom residents struggle with the shifting plates of their stability. The notion of nuclear family as ideal undergoes a strong challenge from the existence of Eva's household. Reality is balanced by the ever-present supernatural. Women's roles--the focus of the novel--are scrutinized in the figures of Nel and Sula.
Bottom and Medallion, as top and bottom, generate an opposition that frames the story. The geography emphasizes the contending ideologies of the two communities. Medallion represents commerce, whereas Bottom is a community of people, not an aggregation of houses surrounding a business district. However, Bottom residents and valley people look to each other for the missing pieces of their respective lives. The valley people envy the simple pleasures of the hill people, who engage freely in creative and artistic expression, whether in the form of laughter, singing, playing the banjo, donning a flowered dress, or high stepping. The hill people release the joy of life absent in Medallion, where residents wistfully long for an existence less rigidly defined by dollars and cents.
But the longing of the valley people blinds them to the pain of the Bottom residents, who struggle simply to survive. Having no choice in their setting and divorced from the mainstream, the people of Bottom must create an identity and a purpose that must necessarily include an identification with a culture that shuns them and a heritage that threatens to escape them. In the midst of this confusion Bottom residents are influenced by the same value system that generated Medallion. They embrace a tunnel project as their way out of poverty but are symbolically and literally crushed by it. The deaths of the tunnel victims initiate the death of a community that eventually assimilates into Medallion. Bottom residents turn to the valley, and, "just like that, [whites] had changed their minds and . . . now they wanted a hilltop house." In Sula, Bottom and the valley, rather than melding and resolving the dialectic of their inhabitants' lives, simply switch places in a circular fashion.
The fate of Bottom is shared by many of its residents. The strong Eva, who creates a haven of her home by including all walks of life, goes mad after burning her drug-addicted son to death and watching as her daughter Hannah is also consumed by flames. Though her home is an alternative to the restrictive, stultifying atmosphere of Helene Wright's house, it cannot isolate itself from the externalities of racism and oppression that infect it. Sula becomes the town pariah, whose evil presence is evidenced in several omens. In an effort to understand an unrelenting reality, Bottom residents invoke the supernatural to explain the phenomenon of a woman who does not and will not succumb to traditional gender roles. Nel finally appreciates the nature and function of her friend, but only after Sula dies. Finally, Bottom residents attempt to destroy a tunnel that once promised economic security, but they end up being destroyed by it. The community of Bottom, which possesses so much potential as an alternative to a white world struggling to find its spiritual center, ends up burying itself in physical and spiritual death. There is no synthesis for this fictional world, only "circles and circles of sorrow."
With the publication of Sula, Morrison's importance as a writer was established. The novel received more critical and popular attention than The Bluest Eye and was excerpted in Redbook, selected as an alternate for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Reviewers of Sula both praised and condemned Morrison's prose poetry, narrative construction, and moral and ethical vision of black life. The positive reviews, such as Jerry Bryant's in The Nation (6 July 1974), cited the beauty of her language and her originality. Both Booklist (15 March 1974) and Choice (March 1974) commended Sula for its authenticity and craftsmanship.
Other reviewers, however, criticized Sula for what they perceived to be a lack of careful craftsmanship. The Times Literary Supplement reviewer (4 October 1974) called the plot "contrived," and Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times (7 January 1974) complained that Morrison's scenes seem "written from scratch" and that her prose poetry, in an attempt to avoid clichés, ends up "call[ing] them to mind." Lehmann-Haupt stated that the novel suffers from a lack of objectivity, and Sara Blackburn in The New York Times Book Review (30 December 1973) complained of a "narrowness" and "refusal to brim over into the world outside its provincial setting." In response to these observations, the Black World (June 1974) reviewer commented that angry reactions to Sula were a "ripping hostility" to Morrison's "excellence and skill."
Morrison's third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), expands beyond the time and place of her first two books, moving from North to South and from present to past in an endeavor to uncover and rediscover the personal history of an African American family. Song of Solomon is, in some ways, a fictionalized venture of another project in which Morrison was involved, The Black Book, a scrapbook of African American history published soon after Sula. In Song of Solomon Morrison for the first time uses a male protagonist, Milkman Dead, to undergo a rite of passage--not from innocence to experience but from one history to another, one culture to another, and one value system to another. He undergoes a ritual immersion into the South and his own history in an attempt to understand himself and his culture.
As in The Bluest Eye and Sula, the black community in Song of Solomon struggles with a double consciousness that can wreak havoc on their lives. Not willing to give up the distinctive quality of their African American culture, they are nevertheless pressured or lured into a desire for assimilation that, in this novel, takes the shape of landownership, a crucial aspect of African American history because it constitutes physical and legal evidence of a history and tradition. Perhaps for this reason many of the characters in Song of Solomon adopt the appropriative, rather than the custodial, view of the land.
Milkman's father, Macon, is a money-grubbing landlord who exploits his own community for profit; Guitar Bains is obsessive in his desire for the money, land, and even blood of those who have oppressed him. While appropriation characterizes the motives of Macon Dead and Guitar Bains, it can be seen earlier in Macon's grandfather, a separatist who attempts to create a private paradise and, hence, a measure of autonomy. Yet, his land, Lincoln's Heaven, is also stripped from him, and he is murdered. The exception to the destructive policies of appropriation is Pilate, for whom land is not an entity to be owned. It simply is. She envisions herself as a temporary custodian of the land, which itself is eternal and thus independent of the generations of people who will lay claim to it. Freed from the obsession of appropriation, Pilate can channel her energies into human relationships and eventually into the community.
Milkman must find his way through the turnstiles of this double vision, as Ralph Ellison calls it, to create a sense of self that does not yet exist. To reach this point he embarks on a traditionally male mythic journey that Morrison implies is an extremely clumsy approach to the obvious. Milkman travels to Pennsylvania in search of gold for his selfish purposes, but he acquires an education that takes him south through Danville and then Shalimar. In Danville he becomes reacquainted with his grandfather's history of proud landownership. Since his death, however, the community has limped along, clinging to tradition but lacking the vitality to generate any. This inertia motivates Milkman to the wrong action. His desire for gold becomes a form of revenge on the people who murdered his grandfather.
Once he arrives in Shalimar, Milkman's transformation begins. He is confronted by a town that boasts no commerce, transportation, or government. Invisible even on a map, Shalimar does not exist on the level of civilization. In this sequestered setting Milkman undergoes a series of initiations that strip him of his cultural indoctrinations. Eventually, he is led to the myth of flight, which is a catalyst for his symbolic and literal leap out of ignorance into the knowledge of his past and himself. It is also a leap into confrontation with yet another distorted value system--represented by Guitar's blood lust--that could end up destroying the African American community.
Though Milkman's fate is in question and Pilate, one of Morrison's most enduring characters, dies at the end of the novel, Song of Solomon represents a significant departure from Morrison's first two novels in that celebration and hope eclipse despondency and utter despair. The novel is often an expression of joy--especially in Pilate's household, with the "three women singing in the candlelight," and later, in Milkman's discovery of the myth of Shalimar. Song of Solomon suggests that, through history, African Americans can begin to make sense of their lives in the context of being American. With knowledge comes connection and a sense of responsibility, a process that Pilate initiates with her arrival in Southside and that she is able to pass on to Milkman before her death. But Morrison, always a reserved optimist, leaves sufficient doubt about what Milkman will be able to accomplish as a way of reminding readers that the resolution to hundreds of years of oppression will be a long, painful journey.
Mitigating the reality of Southside is a Morrison trademark, the use of the supernatural. In Song of Solomon she indulges in myth, fantasy, and the supernatural as a form of transcendence for her African American characters. While she dabbles in the supernatural in both The Bluest Eye and Sula, in Song of Solomon she further blurs the lines between mimesis and fantasy. In this novel Morrison uses myth as a device that mitigates the dichotomy of being black in white society. Myth, as used in Song of Solomon, is not only a metaphor but also a course of action that, as it muddies the distinction between spiritual and physical flight, provides fuel for the collective imagination. Fantasy also figures heavily in Song of Solomon. Pilate can talk to her dead father; Ruth's watermark does grow each day; and Solomon and Milkman can fly. By casually mingling the real and the bizarre, Morrison negotiates the chasm between reality and fantasy so that the impossible becomes the inevitable.
Song of Solomon was both a popular and critical success, establishing Morrison as one of America's most important novelists. The novel became a paperback best-seller, with 570,000 copies in print in 1979. Song of Solomon was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, the first novel by an African American so chosen since Richard Wright 's Native Son (1940). Morrison's success and recognition led to her 1980 appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts. In 1981 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Reviews of Song of Solomon were generally enthusiastic and appreciative of the depth and richness of Morrison's art, with its mixture of reality and fantasy and its strikingly original use of language. Susan Lardner in The New Yorker (7 November 1977) considered Morrison "a genuine rhapsode," while Linda Kuehl in the Saturday Review (17 September 1977) called Morrison a "romantic revolutionary" whose new novel is "the vision of an original, eccentric, inventive imagination." Several reviewers remarked on Morrison's growth as a writer. On the front page of The New York Times Book Review (11 September 1977) Reynolds Price stated that in Song of Solomon "the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields." Angela Wigan in Time (12 September 1977) observed that Song of Solomon is in what Morrison herself described as the fifth stage of African American writing, "an artistic vision that encompasses both a private and a national heritage."
Some reviewers praised Morrison for her moral sensibility. In The Nation (19 November 1977) Earl Frederick called Morrison "appealingly old fashioned" in her vision of "love as an abiding need, and dignity and desperation as inseparable aspects of individual existence." The World Literature Today (Summer 1978) reviewer compared Morrison to Karl Marx "because her novel turns upside down many of the established social, moral and cultural beliefs that the Western world has inherited from the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions." Some muted criticism centered on Morrison's choice of a man as her protagonist. Vivian Gornick in The Village Voice (29 August 1977) stated that the "source of artistic trouble in Song of Solomon resided in Morrison's choice of Milkman as protagonist--instead of with one of the women in the book."
In Tar Baby (1981) Morrison no longer focuses exclusively on the black family and community, setting her novel in the Caribbean and thus incorporating several different cultures, including the island natives, Philadelphia blacks, and Western imperialists, all of whom are mutually dependent on one another but who are alienated from any sense of community. With this hodgepodge of people comes a conflicting set of values that struggle for an impossible hegemony in a riot of interdependency. Therese, Gideon, and Alme Estee as well as Ondine, Sydney, and Jadine rely on the beneficence of the white Streets for their livelihood, as Valerian and Margaret Street rely on them for their service and devotion.
The occupants of the house engage in a subtle warfare in which subterfuge, subversion, and emotional blackmail are employed to gain some measure of control. In the Street household the dependents gain power and control within the system but do not free themselves from it. All are essentially codependents of the addictive system that has minimalized their lives. Yet, they cannot live without it, for to do so would require total self-reliance, a concept too frightening for them to consider. Only Son continues to be a human being capable of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth. And, as a male, he signals a departure from Morrison's earlier conceptions of woman as spiritual healer and as separate from society at large.
The social fabric in Tar Baby is multifaceted and highly complex. Filled with inter- and intraracial conflict as well as class and gender conflict, the Isle de Chevaliers is a microcosm of modern society. As in Song of Solomon, these conflicts involve the real and imagined ownership of the island, a tendency that includes both a physical and spiritual preoccupation with the land. Both cultures lay claim to a symbolic geography: the white imperialists justify occupation by their commercial interests and the belief that a hundred French cavaliers haunt the island; the natives claim custodianship of the island by virtue of their presence and the myth of the shipwrecked blind slaves.
This difference in the mythic beliefs and land-ownership informs the relationship of all the characters--to each other and to the communities in which they live. Valerian's sense of security is directly linked to ownership of his plantation. Even his last name, Street, suggests a manipulation of nature into municipality. As servants to Valerian, Sydney and Ondine are appendages to his system and thus have no affinity or connection to the land. Jadine sees the world as a global mall, a consumer's paradise that is hers for the taking.
Son retains a mythic notion of community in Eloe; but, in spite of Son's attempts to romanticize it, Eloe lacks direction and purpose. Finally, it is Therese, the island native, who sees land as something one must work with and not against, in cooperation and dependency. The natives are convinced that they will remain through a string of occupations; thus, their values represent the custodial rather than the appropriative view of the land. This sense of the relationship between the land and people becomes the metaphor for community in contradistinction to the Street occupation and is the essential value that Therese wishes to impart to Son.
In Tar Baby Morrison again relies on myth, ghosts, and evil, intensifying their mystical qualities by placing them in the isolated setting of a Caribbean island. Morrison invokes the supernatural as a way to fend off a reality in which whites are set against blacks, women against men, culture against primitivism, and civilization against nature. Morrison challenges these dualities by creating an atmosphere in which the island itself is sentient; competing myths on the island proliferate; and several characters experience psychic occurrences.
The Isle de Chevaliers is cluttered with spirits and myths that should inevitably minimize individual differences but instead tend to intensify them. Given a more complete perspective of alternative realities, individuals should be able to release themselves from their own limited vision and open up to creative solutions. If Jadine and Son, Valerian and Son, Ondine and Jadine, and Margaret and Michael cannot solve their problems, it is because they do not possess total knowledge. Morrison provides her characters with that missing information by way of the supernatural, although they may not always be able to interpret it adequately. At the end of the novel Son appears to embark on a journey that is a rebirth of sorts, but, as is often the case in Morrison's novels, considerable doubt exists as to whether or not Son will be able to reacquaint himself with his "ancient properties."
Tar Baby met with considerable advance publicity, as publication coincided with a cover story on Morrison in Newsweek. However, reviewers expressed a measure of ambivalence about the novel, especially in terms of Morrison's thematic intent. Wilfrid Sheed in The Atlantic Monthly (April 1981) commented, "We have experienced Morrison, half at her very best and the other half presumably having fun, dabbling in something new--white light comedy--with only sporadic success. And there's no harm in any of that." Less conciliatory, David Dubal in The Hudson Review (Autumn 1981) characterized her "response to both the personal and cultural crisis of the book . . . perplexing, if not confused." Brina Caplan in The Nation (2 May 1981) stated that Tar Baby suffers because it is "a novel of ideas set in the white world." Nicholas Shrimpton in the New Statesman (23 October 1981) called Tar Baby "a seriously overweight novel."
More positive reviews zeroed in on Morrison's "vast curiosity," "her terrible honesty," and what Maureen Howard in The New Republic (21 March 1981) admitted is a "pleasure I associate with the best kind of reading." Some reviewers, including Selden Rodman in the National Review (26 June 1981) commented on the negative portrayal of white characters in the novel, continuing a pattern of critique that appears to hold Morrison accountable for her depiction of fictional characters and worlds in ways that other writers have not been. She has been chastised for her narrow vision of black life in The Bluest Eye and Sula, her lack of strong male characters, her selection of a male hero in Song of Solomon, her exclusion of white characters, and her characterization of white people. Evaluation of Morrison's art often appears to be influenced by the political agendas of her constituents.
In Beloved (1987) Morrison embraces the supernatural as perhaps the ideal vehicle for the investigation of slavery, an institution so incomprehensible that Morrison suggests that most Americans would like to bury it, since it is the historical reminder of a national disgrace. Morrison delayed the writing of this novel because she anticipated the pain of recovery and confrontation. She told Elizabeth Kastor, "I had forgotten that when I started the book, I was very frightened. . . . It was an unwillingness and a terror of going into an area for which you have no preparation. It's a commitment of three or four years to living inside--because you do try to enter that life." In spite of "this terrible reluctance about dwelling on that era," Morrison informed Angelo that she went ahead with the writing of the book because "I was trying to make it a personal experience."
Beloved is based on the true story of a slave, Margaret Garner, who murdered her own child rather than return her to slavery. In the novel the slave woman, Sethe, escapes to freedom in the North, where she lives with her remaining children. Morrison altered the true story, she told Marsha Darling in a 1988 interview (reprinted in Conversations with Toni Morrison), as Garner was not tried for murder:
She was tried for a real crime, which was running away--although the abolitionists were trying very hard to get her tried for murder because they wanted the Fugitive Slave Law to be unconstitutional. They did not want her tried on those grounds, so they tried to switch it to murder as a kind of success story. They thought that they could make it impossible for Ohio, as a free state, to acknowledge the right of a slave-owner to come get those people. In fact, the sanctuary movement now is exactly the same. But they all went back to Boone County and apparently the man who took them back--the man she was going to kill herself and her children to get away from--he sold her down river, which was as bad as being separated from each other. But apparently the boat hit a sandbar or something, and she fell or jumped with her daughter, her baby, into the water. It is not clear whether she fell or jumped, but they rescued her and I guess she went on down to New Orleans and I don't know.Morrison informed Darling that she did not do much research on Garner because "I wanted to invent her life, which is a way of saying I wanted to be accessible to anything the characters had to say about it. Recording her life as lived would not interest me, and would not make me available to anything that might be pertinent." The metaphor for Morrison's reluctance for mimesis is the configuration of Beloved--part ghost, zombie, devil, and memory. Morrison reveals Beloved in tantalizing degrees until she is manifested as a full-blooded person. Like a childhood trauma, Beloved comes back in snatches until finally her history is retold, a discovery process shared by Morrison, her characters, and the readers as the primary step to collective spiritual recovery.
Beloved is a purging of the guilt of the American psyche, and it acts as an historical precedent to and psychological referent for the rage of the oppressed in Morrison's other books. Sethe's slave status involves total loss of freedom and humanity and serves as the origin of all subsequent forms of oppression endured by Morrison's other characters and the motivation for their violent reactions to them. In The Bluest Eye Cholly's response to racial oppression is the rape of his own daughter. In Sula oppression caused by war turns Eva's Plum into a drug addict, forcing her to euthanize him. Sexual oppression in Tar Baby drives Margaret to burn little holes in her baby. All these acts testify profoundly to the legacy of an institution so evil that it affords a mother no alternative for her children but death.
Reviewers, sensing that they were witnessing a literary phenomenon, lavished Beloved with praise. Publishers Weekly (17 July 1987) called it a milestone in the chronicling of the black experience in America, while Merle Rubin in The Christian Science Monitor (5 October 1987) said it is "a stunning book and lasting achievement [that] transforms the sorrows of history into the luminous truth of art." Leonard (Los Angeles Times Book Review, 30 August 1987) stated that, without Beloved, "our imagination of the nation's self has a hole in it big enough to die from." He felt Beloved "belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off." Walter Clemons in Newsweek (28 September 1987) declared, "I think we have a masterpiece on our hands here." Not all reviews were positive, however. Stanley Crouch in The New Republic (19 October 1987) saw Beloved as "the failure of feeling that is sentimentality." He accused Morrison of "almost always [losing] control" and of not resisting "the temptation of the trite or the sentimental." Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (2 September 1987) wrote, "There is a contemporaneous quality to time past and time present as well as a sense that the lines between reality and fiction, truth and memory, have become inextricably blurred."
Beloved earned the Pulitzer Prize, an award that had been denied another great writer, James Baldwin . In an effort to prevent the glaring oversight that Baldwin suffered and to secure Morrison's place in literary history, many African American writers had published a tribute to Morrison in The New York Times Book Review (24 January 1988), "Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison," that states in part: "We find your life work ever building to a monument of vision and discovery and trust." The writers argued that, "despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: she has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. We, the undersigned black critics and black writers, here assert ourselves against such oversight and harmful whimsy."
Jazz (1992), Morrison's sixth novel, is based on a photograph in James Van DerZee's Harlem Book of the Dead (1978) that shows, according to Leonard in The Nation (25 May 1992), "the body of a young girl, shot at a party by a jealous boyfriend, who died refusing to identify her assailant." Morrison told Rose that she wished to investigate "the question" of male/female passion, hence the story of Joe, a middle-aged cosmetic salesman; his childless wife, Violet; and the teenage Dorcas, with whom Joe has an affair and whom he shoots when he is jilted for a younger lover. While Jazz may have begun with the issue of male/female passion, it ends as a fictive re-creation of two parallel narratives set during major historical events in African American history--Reconstruction and the Jazz Age.
Morrison weaves together the story of Joe, Violet, and Dorcas with the history of their predecessors: True Belle, Violet's grandmother; Vera Louise, a wealthy white woman; and Golden Gray, her mulatto son. True Belle serves as caretaker of Vera Louise and Golden Gray. The respective stories are so intricately linked that Golden Gray at one point rescues Wild, Joe's crazed mother, while she is pregnant with him. Though Joe's and Violet's histories intersect at this moment, they never attempt to integrate into their troubled lives the significance of their pasts.
The initiative that Joe and Violet lack in recovering their personal histories is more than compensated for by the narrator, who possesses a surfeit of curiosity, taking great pains to reimagine both stories. An enigmatic presence in the book, the narrator possesses a feminine, African American voice. At first arrogant in her ability to present the truth, the narrator eventually undergoes a rite of passage perhaps more subtle, but no less profound, than that of Milkman. The narrator begins by trying to "figure out [her characters'] plans, their reasonings, long before they do." In spite of the narrator's efforts, the narration follows a path of its own, independent of the will of the narrator. The narrator has judged inaccurately that Joe will repeat the act of violence that took Dorcas's life. When Joe instead reconciles with Violet, the narrator chastises her inability to present the truth: "I have been careless and stupid and it infuriates me to discover (again) how unreliable I am." In a self-reflective moment the narrator questions the authority of authorship. Thus, what is ultimately at stake in Jazz is the process of reclamation and arrival at truth.
In Jazz Morrison continues her investigation of the debilitating impact of history on black families. In this novel she does not focus on slavery, but on its legacy to a generation removed in time but not place from its grasp. The unrelenting, destructive influence of racism and oppression on the black family is manifested in Jazz by the almost-total absence of the black family. Even Morrison's mothers, previously incomparable in their strength and endurance, succumb to the social, economic, and political forces of history. Joe, Violet, and Dorcas lose their mothers to insanity, suicide, and murder. Their deaths are directly attributable to institutionalized racism.
Considered little more than chattel to the dominant culture, these women endured unspeakable abuse. Rose Dear, abandoned by a husband who is denied the economic opportunity to support his family, jumped to her death in a well rather than face homelessness and starvation. Dorcas's parents were innocent victims of the East Saint Louis riots. With no father or mother to form their identities and to succor them, Joe, Violet, and Dorcas are left to be raised by kindly friends or relatives, all of whom themselves are disconnected in various ways from family and community.
For many of the characters in the novel, the absence of family is replaced by the ever-present city. Morrison attempts to reconstruct the complex set of factors that brought black people to the city in the first place as well as those factors that compelled them to stay. She told Rose that one of the goals she tried to accomplish in Jazz was to "recall . . . what it was like when people went to the city, when the city was the place to go." Morrison cited economic opportunity and social equality as primary reasons for flight, but, while initially "running from want and violence," black people, Morrison shows, sought more than a safe job and a secure environment, amenities even the city could not guarantee.
Perhaps most important for black people, the city represented indifference. A community of steel and concrete more than of people, the city protects black people from constant scrutiny, from the ever-present, appropriating glare of a racist society that defines and shapes their identity. Separated by the enormity of the city from the "Look," black people can reclaim the freedom of self-definition that is tied to their anonymity: "There, in a city, they are not so much new as themselves: their stronger, riskier selves."
Jazz was published simultaneously with Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination , a scholarly work based on three lectures she gave at Harvard University. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education (22 April 1992), the publisher, Harvard University Press, decided to print 25,000 first-run copies of this book instead of the traditional 1,500. Harvard University Press's confidence in a scholarly work, as David Gates noted in Newsweek (27 April 1992), is clearly indicative of Morrison's stature as "the last classic American writer, squarely in the tradition of Poe, Melville, Twain and Faulkner." Reviews of Jazz praised Morrison's language and intricate plot construction but tended to admonish her use of an unreliable narrator. Leonard in The Nation (25 May 1992) called Jazz a "brand-new star" in Morrison's "constellation of humming spheres." Jane Smiley in Vogue (May 1992) stated that Morrison's style "is commanding and seductive at the same time."
Less complimentary reviews included Edna O'Brien's in The New York Times (5 April 1992), which stated that Jazz lacks an "emotional nexus" so that "what remains are the bold arresting strokes of a poster and not the cold astonishment of a painting." Ann Hulbert in The New Republic (18 May 1992) complained that Morrison's narrative strategy undermines her authority as author: "Morrison has charged her narrator with the duty to avoid the weakness that she herself has acknowledged--an inclination to romanticize black lives." Hulbert concluded that "her relentless vigilance, rather than issuing in creative sympathy, leads her toward the double dead end of indicting other writers for failures of vision and apologizing for her own." Focusing less on the narrator, Gates characterized Morrison's narration as "metafictional shenanigans" that nevertheless "hardly affect the experience of reading Jazz."
Jazz remained on The New York Times best-seller list for weeks. Playing in the Dark quickly became required reading in college literature courses throughout the country, provoking considerable scholarly attention and establishing Morrison as a major voice in American literary studies. With her books translated into many different languages, Morrison, by 1992, had joined the ranks of the world's greatest living novelists. She was recognized as such in 1993 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Fortunately for Morrison, the idea for her next book, Paradise (1998), was percolating in her mind long before she won the Nobel Prize, for the award carries with it the burden of being a highly public figure. As Paul Gray remarked in a 1998 article for Time magazine, "A crushing mantle of gravitas descends on the winners" of the Nobel Prize: "People honored for making up stories or poems or plays are then expected to make pronouncements, in front of packed houses, on public issues. As an African American woman, Morrison has faced such expectations constantly." Recalling how hectic her life became after the Nobel Prize was announced, Morrison told Gray, "I was so happy that I had a real book idea in progress, . . . If I hadn't, I would have thought, 'Uh-oh, can I ever write a novel again?'" That book idea was rooted in the little-known history about the migration of former slaves into the Oklahoma territories and a slogan that appeared in newspaper ads offering them an opportunity for a new life: "Come Prepared or Not at All." As she had done with the newspaper article about Margaret Garner that inspired Beloved and the photograph of the murdered young woman from which Jazz grew, Morrison let that slogan guide her invention of an imaginary community of African Americans seeking to come to terms with its history and its place in American society. She also conceived of Paradise as the last of a trilogy, beginning with Beloved and including Jazz.
Paradise opens with a startling sentence: "They shoot the white girl first." It is July 1976, the year of America's Bicentennial. In an historical twist, the founding fathers of a fictional African American town named Ruby in western Oklahoma storm a nearby convent and massacre its female inhabitants. Morrison told Gray that she deliberately withheld the identity of the white woman because "I wanted the readers to wonder about the race of those girls until those readers understood that their race didn't matter. I want to dissuade people from reading literature in that way. . . . Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It's real information, but it tells you next to nothing." What matters in Paradise is the history behind the men's murderous act and the story of how the women, each bearing deep emotional scars and in need of spiritual healing, ended up in the Convent in the first place.
These men and their families had migrated from Haven, Oklahoma, an all-black town founded by their fathers, after that town's decline proved irreversible. They packed up their belongings, their families, and the great Oven their forefathers had built and founded the town of Ruby, which they now intended to protect from what they considered the corrupting influence of the women living in the Convent.
With the precision of a well-trained militia, the men move quietly through the Convent, the interior design and ornate decorations of which are reminders that the building belonged to an embezzler with a decadent sense of style long before the Sisters of the Sacred Cross took it over. The clash between the sacred icons of the Convent and the erotic images on many of the permanent fixtures of the mansion-turned-convent strengthen the men's belief that the women who currently live there are part of a cult and must be eradicated for the good of the town. Two of the men, Deacon and Steward Morgan, are brothers--twins with "powerful memories." Uppermost in their memory during this early morning raid is the town's "controlling" story. The story "explained why neither the founders of Haven nor their descendants could tolerate anybody but themselves." As they and the other men stalk their prey, the history of those earlier black homesteaders begins to unfold.
Shortly after the Civil War, 158 freedmen journeyed from "Mississippi and two Louisiana parishes to Oklahoma" only to find that they were unwelcome "on each grain of soil from Yazoo to Fort Smith," including territory occupied by other black homesteaders. When they finally settled on the land that was to become the town of Haven, the men built a great Oven on which the twins' grandfather engraved a motto. The Oven served the practical purpose of both a community kitchen and a gathering place for the people of Haven. When, in 1949, the twins "stared at their dwindling postwar future" in Haven and decided "to repeat what the Old Fathers had done in 1890" and journey to other as yet uninhabited territory, they and the fourteen other families that followed them dismantled the Oven and took it with them. In Ruby, as the founding fathers named their new town, the Oven and its motto became a source of contention between young and old just as the women began arriving at the Convent. This rift and others in the patriarchal structure of Ruby is what drove the men to wipe out the women. Like Milkman Dead's grandfather in Song of Solomon, the men of Ruby had become separatists by dint of exclusion. They had built a town, their version of paradise, "the one all-black town worth the pain," and felt it was their moral responsibility to ensure that "nothing inside or out rots" it.
Like Song of Solomon, Paradise was both a popular and critical success, with a first printing of 400,000 copies selling quickly. The Book-of-the-Month Club chose it as its main selection, and Oprah Winfrey selected it for her televised Book Club, thereby introducing millions of her viewers to Morrison's work. (Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye were also Oprah Book Club selections, in 1996 and 2000, respectively). After Winfrey announced the book for her club, sales soared to more than one million copies. Yet, despite the mass appeal of the novel, many readers found Paradise complex and inaccessible. Some reviewers panned the book, while others lavishly praised it as Morrison's best. Carol Shields called Paradise "a long, complex, fluent novel" that presents a cast of "epic" characters: "there are the original founding families and their descendants, and then there are the drifters who attach themselves to Ruby and its environs--and each is granted a thread in the communal tapestry" (The Washington Post, 11 January 1998).
One of the difficulties for readers unfamiliar with Morrison's narrative techniques is grasping those threads--the different narrative voices and points of view--as they weave back and forth over more than one hundred years, from the Reconstruction to the American bicentennial in 1976. Shields admitted that "some readers may find the issues too many and too unfocused," but she praised Morrison for taking "her time setting a scene" and furnishing it with "sumptuous details." Brooke Allen called Paradise "possibly [Morrison's] best work of fiction to date," but admitted that it is not flawless, citing the "male-female dichotomy, for example, with the male represented as rigid and legalistic, the female as mysterious and 'other'" as contemporary cliches that "Morrison plays too heavily." She also comments on the difficulty of reading Paradise, which she describes as "dense, repetitive and obscure," requiring "close scrutiny and concentration." But, she adds, "the novel richly rewards the reader's efforts. It is an ambitious, troubling and complicated piece of work, proof that Toni Morrison continues to change and mature in surprising new directions" (The New York Times, 11 January 1998).
Among those who disagreed with the generally positive reviews was Kakutani, who described Paradise as "a heavy-handed, schematic piece of writing, thoroughly lacking in the novelistic magic Ms. Morrison has wielded so effortlessly in the past. It's a contrived, formulaic book that mechanically pits men against women, old against young, the past against the present" (The New York Times, 6 January 1998). Comparing it to Morrison's earlier novels, Kakutani was especially critical of the way the author presents her characters. She argued that the "motley assortment of misfits and fugitives" that inhabit the Convent never rise above their status as victims and that the men "are almost uniformly control freaks or hotheads, eager to dismiss independent women as sluts or witches, and determined to make everyone submit to their will." Commenting on the mythic and supernatural elements of the novel, Kakutani wrote that they fail to evoke the "dreamlike images the author has used so dexterously in the past to suggest the strangeness of American history."
When asked in an interview for the on-line periodical Salon (1998) what she thought about Kakutani's "strongly negative review," Morrison replied,
Well, I would imagine there would be some difference of opinion on what the book is like or what it meant. Some people are maybe more invested in reading it from a certain point of view. The daily [Kakutani's] review in The New York Times was extremely unflattering about this book. And I thought, more to the point, it was not well written. The unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book.Those who did seemed to come to the same conclusion: Paradise is a complex novel that is worth the effort it takes to read it for what it reveals about history and humanity.
Morrison published her eighth novel, Love , in 2003. Set in an all-black East Coast resort, Love presents yet another insular African American community struggling to retain vestiges of its former self amid rapid social and economic changes. What was once a thriving seaside retreat for black people when racial segregation was the custom, if not the law, has become in the 1990s a sandy wasteland where a few longtime residents, such as Sandler Gibbons and his wife, Vida, struggle to eke out a living. They were among the people Bill Cosey rescued from the drudgery of a local fish cannery by giving them employment in the hotel and resort he built with the money he inherited from his father. To the grateful Vida, Bill Cosey "was royal," a patron saint for having given her a "high" and "permanent leap out of the fish trough" where the Up Beach population worked. Thanks to him, she and her husband and only child, Dolly, were able to move from Up Beach to the more prosperous town of Silk, where she worked as a receptionist in Bill Cosey's hotel and, for a short time, her husband waited tables. Now an aide in the local hospital, Vida remembers when the resort lived up to Bill Cosey's motto, offering his guests "The best good time this side of the law." The women, "dressed in moire and chiffon and trailing jasmine scent in their wake," and the men "with beautiful shoes and perfect creases in their linen trousers," returned year after year to enjoy "the wide hospitality his place was known for" until integration came and they started going elsewhere, and Bill Cosey lost interest in the little empire he had built with the money he inherited from his father.
Like Milkman Dead's money-grubbing father in Song of Solomon, Daniel Robert Cosey became wealthy by exploiting his own people. But whereas Macon Dead did so through the property he rented to them, Cosey "earned his way as a Courthouse informer." For "fifty-five years" he was "well paid, tipped off, and favored" by the white people who were determined that "Dixie law" remained the law of the land. According to L.--Bill Cosey's unnamed chef, who narrates much of the Cosey family history--Daniel Robert Cosey "kept his evil gray eye on everybody. For the pure power of it," since he got little enjoyment from the money he earned as the white people's "Danny Boy." As miserly as he was wicked, he died and left his son $114,000, which Bill Cosey used to create a seaside haven for wealthy and well-known black tourists. His resort provided employment for local residents, but they were not welcome at the hotel as guests. With the exception of Sandler Gibbons, whom he would often take fishing, Bill Cosey firmly but politely drew the line when it came to associating with or accommodating people he considered beneath him. So when he chose Heed Johnson as his second wife, people were as astonished by the fact that she was an Up Beach girl as they were by her age--eleven years old. The man who could have had any woman he wanted chose his granddaughter's best friend because, after the death of his son Billy Boy, "he wanted children, lots of children," and "only an unused girl would do." That wish went unfulfilled; he and Heed had no children.
Similar to Sula and Nel in Sula, Christine Cosey and Heed Johnson forged a strong and exclusive childhood friendship that dissolved the line that separated them by social status. Their friendship was suddenly disrupted when Bill Cosey exercised his privilege as the town's benevolent patriarch and, "with no one to stop him," married Heed. Christine never forgave her "best and only friend" for happily leaving her and the bedroom they often shared in the big house on Monarch Street for the one "at the end of the hall reeking of liquor and an old man's business." Their love for each other quickly turned to hatred as Christine saw herself displaced in her grandfather's affections by a girl only eight months younger than she. Christine was sent away. She returned twice: the first time to celebrate her sixteenth birthday; and later to nurse her dying mother and to lay claim to the house she believed rightfully belonged to her as the only living, true-blooded Cosey. Since that last return more than twenty years ago, Christine and Heed have lived together in the house on Monarch Street, each hating the other, and both scheming on how to claim the Cosey house as her own.
As with all of her novels, reviews of Love were mixed. Laura Miller accurately described how Morrison's work has been received since she won the Nobel Prize: "once the Swedish Academy bestowed its laurels, the response to her books broke down into two categories: prostrate worship and gleeful nose-thumbing" (The New York Review of Books, 2 November 2003). Miller avoided both. She summarized the novel without giving away too much of the plot, and then quite fairly discussed its weaknesses, among which is what she felt is Morrison's tendency to "speechify": "Having become the first African American and only the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison is expected to speak appropriately on behalf of two aggrieved groups, and too often, alas, she does." Charlotte Moore wrote in the London Daily Telegraph (29 November 2003) that with Love, Morrison "reaches towards" but does not quite succeed in arriving at a "spiritual profundity where most novelists would fear to tread." She called Love a "curiosity" that "lacks the freshness of Sula, the narrative drive of Song of Solomon, the moral power of Beloved." Nevertheless, she found it a "fascinating attempt to understand personal and political history in terms of love." Mary Mitchell called it a "brilliant novel that will give you a piercing look at love from every angle" (Chicago Sun Times, 26 October 2003). Ron Charles described Love as "the carefully crafted work of a storyteller entirely unburdened by her Nobel Prize. No pretension deadens her rhythm, no self-importance forces her wit, no presumption of Significance bloats her significant insights" (Christian Science Monitor, 28 October 2003).
Most reviews of Love mentioned that it is Morrison's most accessible novel, a major weakness for Kakutani, who wrote that "the book is in fact one of her slighter efforts" (The New York Times, 31 October 2003). Kakutani did not like Love any better than Paradise, which she called Morrison's "flatfooted and highly schematic 1998 novel." She wrote, "the story as a whole reads like a gothic soap opera, peopled by scheming, bitter women and selfish, predatory men." Lorenzo Thomas also compared Love to Paradise, but more favorably. He wrote that Love "is simultaneously an intriguing flirtation with the mystery-novel form and an unsettling meditation on the ideas we think define us" (The Houston Chronicle, 30 November 2003). Thomas also mentioned that, as a "Nobel Prize laureate and best-selling star of Oprah's book club," Morrison's stature "makes what she says important," and sometimes "troublesome and discomforting." Like any true intellectual, she takes advantage of her stature to speak out on many social and political issues, but her main interests, what she likes to talk about most, are literature and the art of writing fiction.
Morrison's concern in Jazz with the responsibility of the artist and the possibility or impossibility of presenting truth through language exhibits the range of her career-long experimentation in novel writing. Morrison has successfully invoked such literary movements as naturalism, magical realism, high modernism, historical revisionism, and postmodernism in an endeavor to get at the essence of her subject matter. She takes increasing risks with language, narrative construction, and most of the contrivances of literary convention in order to communicate the most profound secrets of the human heart. She told Rose that when a young black man at a Princeton lecture asked her who she wrote for, she replied: "I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people . . . people who can't be faked, people who don't need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria."
Morrison's experimentation with the novel coincides with her ever-increasing thematic concerns. As if constricted by the necessary closure of a novel, Morrison expands the consciousness of each successive novel without leaving behind the burning issues that mark her previous ones. Thus, family, community, and the love they provide or deny are a constant in her canon. History, geography, and eventually myth, fable, and the supernatural are gradually implemented to illuminate the nature of those families and communities. Morrison's first two novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, are spatially and chronologically limited, though Sula introduces World War I as an historical backdrop. Song of Solomon moves in time and place from present to past and from North to South, while Tar Baby is set outside the continental United States on an island where past and present frequently intermingle. Beloved is an historical novel that concerns Reconstruction, yet it implies ahistoricity in the amazing figure of Beloved. Jazz integrates historical eras and moves to the city, all the while disavowing its own efficacy to reproduce either time or place.
In Paradise and in Love Toni Morrison returns to the small, insular, and provincial communities that Sara Blackburn decried when she wrote in her review of Sula for The New York Times Book Review (30 December 1973),
Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves, she is going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel. And if she does this, it seems to me that she might easily transcend that early and unintentionally limiting classification "black women writers" and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.Undaunted, if not hurt, by Blackburn's criticism, Morrison continued charting her own literary path and has taken her place among the most talented novelists in the world. As a profile of Morrison in Ebony magazine (March 2004) announcing the release of Love noted, "she is an icon, a Black woman who has become an international presence, sharing the stories of Black Americans with the world--the stories and their universal themes. She carries on a fine Black literary tradition dating back to Phillis Wheatley ." That tradition began in 1773 with the publication of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Two hundred and twenty years later, Morrison stepped forward on a stage in Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, thereby validating a long-ignored literary tradition and opening the way for the generations of black writers who will follow her to continue reinvigorating and building upon the African American literary tradition.
1993 Nobel Prize in Literature Presentation Speech
by Professor Sture Allén, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy (Translation from the Swedish)
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Nobel Prize awarded by the Swedish Academy is, as we know, a literary prize. This year it has been granted to Toni Morrison, making her the ninetieth Nobel Laureate in Literature.
In her volume of essays, Playing in the Dark, Miss Morrison lucidly pictures the insights that she has gained, as an author and a reader in her native country: "It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl--the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles travelling to the surface--and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world." In other words, she regards the African presence in her country as a vital but unarticulated prerequisite for the fulfilment of the American dream. Similarly, she sees whiteness in literature as having blackness as its constant companion, the racial other as its shadow.
In her depictions of the world of the black people, in life as in legend, Toni Morrison has given the Afro-American people their history back, piece by piece. In this perspective, her work is uncommonly consonant. At the same time, it is richly variegated. The reader derives vast pleasure from her superb narrative technique, shifting from novel to novel and marked by original development, although it is related to Faulkner and to the Latin American tradition. Toni Morrison's novels invite the reader to partake at many levels, and at varying degrees of complexity. Still, the most enduring impression they leave is of empathy, compassion with one's fellow human beings.
Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, reflects one of the basic themes of Miss Morrison's novels, in his quest for self. Milkman's paternal grandfather was a liberated slave. When he was registering his freedom, he responded to a question about his father with the word "Dead," thus acquiring his macabre surname from the drunken official who asked. His family was prepared to accept this name: "It was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out." The Solomon whose name occurs in the title of the novel, Milkman's peculiar southern forefather, was to be found even in the song that went with children's games. The intensity of his inner life had carried him through the air back to the Africa of his origins. Solomon's rapture was ultimately Milkman's as well.
Motifs in space and time continue to be interwoven in Beloved. Paradoxically, the combination of realism and folklore enhances the novel's credibility. In the world which the female protagonist, Sethe, inhabits, one does not possess one's own body. There is tremendous power in Toni Morrison's description of Sethe's act of releasing her child, Beloved, from the destiny she imagines her facing, and of the consequences of this act for her own life, in which Beloved's double personifies the burden of Sethe's guilt.
In her latest novel, Jazz, Toni Morrison's approach is similar to the style in which jazz is performed. The opening lines of the novel state its theme, the lives of a number of people in Harlem in the 1920s. In the course of the novel we perceive a first-person narrator, varying, supplementing and intensifying the story. The final picture is a highly composite image of events, characters and atmospheres, mediated in sensual language with a deep inherent sense of musicality. Toni Morrison's way of addressing her reader has a compelling lustre, in a poetic direction.
When she was very young, her family's landlord set fire to the house in which they lived when her parents fell behind with the rent. And while they were in it. Her family reacted to this absurd form of crudeness, monumental crudeness, not with resignation but with laughter. This, says Toni Morrison, is how you can distance yourself from the act and take your life back. You take your integrity back.
In great minds, gravity and humour are close neighbours. This is reflected in everything Toni Morrison has written, and evidenced in her own summary: "My project rises from delight, not disappointment."
Dear Miss Morrison,
I have just told the audience that, in your own words, your project rises from delight, not disappointment. As you disclose fundamental aspects of hidden reality, you make gravity and humour abide side by side in your remarkable work, with its verbal music. It is my privilege and pleasure, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, to convey to you our warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1993, and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1993.]
Morrison: Banquet Speech
Morrison's speech at the Nobel Banquet, 10 December 1993:
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I entered this hall pleasantly haunted by those who have entered it before me. That company of Laureates is both daunting and welcoming, for among its lists are names of persons whose work has made whole worlds available to me. The sweep and specificity of their art have sometimes broken my heart with the courage and clarity of its vision. The astonishing brilliance with which they practiced their craft has challenged and nurtured my own. My debt to them rivals the profound one I owe to the Swedish Academy for having selected me to join that distinguished alumnae.
Early in October an artist friend left a message which I kept on the answering service for weeks and played back every once in a while just to hear the trembling pleasure in her voice and the faith in her words. "My dear sister," she said, "the prize that is yours is also ours and could not have been placed in better hands." The spirit of her message with its earned optimism and sublime trust marks this day for me.
I will leave this hall, however, with a new and much more delightful haunting than the one I felt upon entering: that is the company of Laureates yet to come. Those who, even as I speak, are mining, sifting and polishing languages for illuminations none of us has dreamed of. But whether or not any one of them secures a place in this pantheon, the gathering of these writers is unmistakable and mounting. Their voices bespeak civilizations gone and yet to be; the precipice from which their imaginations gaze will rivet us; they do not blink nor turn away.
It is, therefore, mindful of the gifts of my predecessors, the blessing of my sisters, in joyful anticipation of writers to come that I accept the honour the Swedish Academy has done me, and ask you to share what is for me a moment of grace.
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1993. Toni Morrison is the sole author of her speech.]
Press Release: The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993
from the Office of the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, 7 October 1993
"who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality"
"My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world." These are the words of this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature, the American writer Toni Morrison, in her book of essays Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). And she adds, "My project rises from delight, not disappointment. . . ."
Toni Morrison is 62 years old, and was born in Lorain, Ohio, in the United States. Her works comprise novels and essays. In her academic career she is a professor in the humanities at the University of Princeton, New Jersey.
She has written six novels, each of them of great interest. Her oeuvre is unusually finely wrought and cohesive, yet at the same time rich in variation. One can delight in her unique narrative technique, varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from Faulkner and American writers from further south. The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy, humanity, of the kind which is always based on profound humour.
Song of Solomon (1977) with its description of the black world in life and legend, forms an excellent introduction to the work of Toni Morrison. Milkman Dead's quest for his real self and its source reflects a basic theme in the novels. The Solomon of the title, the southern ancestor, was to be found in the songs of childhood games. His inner intensity had borne him back, like Icarus, through the air to the Africa of his roots. This insight finally becomes Milkman's too.
Beloved (1987) continues to widen the themes and to weave together the places and times in the network of motifs. The combination of realistic notation and folklore paradoxically intensifies the credibility. There is enormous power in the depiction of Sethe's action to liberate her child from the life she envisages for it, and the consequences of this action for Sethe's own life.
In her latest novel Jazz (1992), Toni Morrison uses a device which is akin to the way jazz itself is played. The book's first lines provide a synopsis, and in reading the novel one becomes aware of a narrator who varies, embellishes and intensifies. The result is a richly complex, sensuously conveyed image of the events, the characters and moods.
As the motivation for the award implies, Toni Morrison is a literary artist of the first rank. She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the lustre of poetry.
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1993.]
Morrison: Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1993
"Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise." Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.
"Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise."
In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, "Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead."
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. "Is the bird I am holding living or dead?"
Still she doesn't answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
The old woman's silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. "I don't know," she says. "I don't know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands."
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.
For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.
Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency--as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: "Is it living or dead?" is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.
She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise. In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek--it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language--all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
The old woman is keenly aware that no intellectual mercenary, nor insatiable dictator, no paid-for politician or demagogue; no counterfeit journalist would be persuaded by her thoughts. There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Underneath the eloquence, the glamor, the scholarly associations, however stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing, or perhaps not beating at all--if the bird is already dead.
She has thought about what could have been the intellectual history of any discipline if it had not insisted upon, or been forced into, the waste of time and life that rationalizations for and representations of dominance required--lethal discourses of exclusion blocking access to cognition for both the excluder and the excluded.
The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower's failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
She would not want to leave her young visitors with the impression that language should be forced to stay alive merely to be. The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here," his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600,000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the "final word," the precise "summing up," acknowledging their "poor power to add or detract," his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never "pin down" slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference--the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
"Once upon a time, . . ." visitors ask an old woman a question. Who are they, these children? What did they make of that encounter? What did they hear in those final words: "The bird is in your hands"? A sentence that gestures towards possibility or one that drops a latch? Perhaps what the children heard was "It's not my problem. I am old, female, black, blind. What wisdom I have now is in knowing I cannot help you. The future of language is yours."
They stand there. Suppose nothing was in their hands? Suppose the visit was only a ruse, a trick to get to be spoken to, taken seriously as they have not been before? A chance to interrupt, to violate the adult world, its miasma of discourse about them, for them, but never to them? Urgent questions are at stake, including the one they have asked: "Is the bird we hold living or dead?" Perhaps the question meant: "Could someone tell us what is life? What is death?" No trick at all; no silliness. A straightforward question worthy of the attention of a wise one. An old one. And if the old and wise who have lived life and faced death cannot describe either, who can?
But she does not; she keeps her secret; her good opinion of herself; her gnomic pronouncements; her art without commitment. She keeps her distance, enforces it and retreats into the singularity of isolation, in sophisticated, privileged space.
Nothing, no word follows her declaration of transfer. That silence is deep, deeper than the meaning available in the words she has spoken. It shivers, this silence, and the children, annoyed, fill it with language invented on the spot.
"Is there no speech," they ask her, "no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just given us that is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said? To the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom?
"We have no bird in our hands, living or dead. We have only you and our important question. Is the nothing in our hands something you could not bear to contemplate, to even guess? Don't you remember being young when language was magic without meaning? When what you could say, could not mean? When the invisible was what imagination strove to see? When questions and demands for answers burned so brightly you trembled with fury at not knowing?
"Do we have to begin consciousness with a battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost leaving us with nothing in our hands except what you have imagined is there? Your answer is artful, but its artfulness embarrasses us and ought to embarrass you. Your answer is indecent in its self-congratulation. A made-for-television script that makes no sense if there is nothing in our hands.
"Why didn't you reach out, touch us with your soft fingers, delay the sound bite, the lesson, until you knew who we were? Did you so despise our trick, our modus operandi you could not see that we were baffled about how to get your attention? We are young. Unripe. We have heard all our short lives that we have to be responsible. What could that possibly mean in the catastrophe this world has become; where, as a poet said, "nothing needs to be exposed since it is already barefaced." Our inheritance is an affront. You want us to have your old, blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity. Do you think we are stupid enough to perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood? How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?
"You trivialize us and trivialize the bird that is not in our hands. Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly--once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.
"Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.
"Tell us about ships turned away from shorelines at Easter, placenta in a field. Tell us about a wagonload of slaves, how they sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow. How they knew from the hunch of the nearest shoulder that the next stop would be their last. How, with hands prayered in their sex, they thought of heat, then sun. Lifting their faces as though it was there for the taking. Turning as though there for the taking. They stop at an inn. The driver and his mate go in with the lamp leaving them humming in the dark. The horse's void steams into the snow beneath its hooves and its hiss and melt are the envy of the freezing slaves.
"The inn door opens: a girl and a boy step away from its light. They climb into the wagon bed. The boy will have a gun in three years, but now he carries a lamp and a jug of warm cider. They pass it from mouth to mouth. The girl offers bread, pieces of meat and something more: a glance into the eyes of the one she serves. One helping for each man, two for each woman. And a look. They look back. The next stop will be their last. But not this one. This one is warmed."
It's quiet again when the children finish speaking, until the woman breaks into the silence.
"Finally," she says, "I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done--together."
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1993. Toni Morrison is the sole author of the text.]
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, "Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV," Paris Review, 128 (Fall 1993): 83-125.
Danille Taylor-Guthrie, Conversations with Toni Morrison (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994).
Claudia Dreifus, "Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,"New York Times Magazine, 11 September 1994, pp. 72-75.
Zia Jeffrey, "Toni Morrison: The Salon Interview" Salon, 2 February 1998, <http://www.salon.com/books/int/1998/02/cov_si_02int.html>.
Curtis Martin, "A Bibliography of Writings by Toni Morrison," in Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), pp. 205-207.
David L. Middleton, Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1987).
Harriet Alexander, "Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Articles and Essays, 1975-1984," College Language Association Journal, 33 (September 1989): 81-93.
Word-Work: The Newsletter of the Toni Morrison Society's Annual Periodical Bibliography, 7 (Spring 2000).
Patrick Bryce Bjork, The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place Within the Community (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).
Harold Bloom, ed., Toni Morrison (New York: Chelsea House, 1990).
Karen Carmean, Toni Morrison's World of Fiction (Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 1993).
Douglas Century, Toni Morrison (New York: Chelsea House, 1994).
Katrine Dalsgard, "The One All-Black Town Worth the Pain: (African) American Exceptionalism, Historical Narration, and the Critique of Nationhood in Toni Morrison's Paradise," African American Review, 35, no. 2 (2001): 233-248.
Jan Furman, Toni Morrison's Fiction (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1996).
Furman, ed., Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993).
Paul Gray, "Paradise Found," Time, 151 (19 January 1998): 62-68.
Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, A World of Difference: An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison's Novels (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).
Trudier Harris, Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991).
Harris, "The Worlds That Toni Morrison Made," Georgia Review, 49 (Spring 1995): 324-330.
Denise Heinze, The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness": Toni Morrison's Novels (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993).
Karla Holloway and Stephanie Dematrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987).
Lauren Lepow, "Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby," Contemporary Literature, 28. no. 3 (1987): 364-377.
Nellie Y. McKay, ed., Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988).
David L. Middleton, ed., Toni Morrison's Fiction (New York: Garland, 1997).
Terry Otten, The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989).
Philip Page, Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
Page, "Furrowing All the Brows: Interpretation and the Transcendent in Toni Morrison's Paradise," African American Review, 35, no. 2 (2001): 637-650.
Linden Peach, Toni Morrison (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
Nancy J. Peterson, ed., Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).
Harry Reed, "Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon and Black Cultural Nationalism," Centennial Review, 32 (Winter 1988): 50-64.
Barbara Hill Rigney, The Voices of Toni Morrison (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991).
Wilfred Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems, Toni Morrison (Boston: Twayne, 1990).
Valerie Smith, ed., New Essays on Song of Solomon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Jean Strouse, "Toni Morrison's Black Magic," Newsweek, 97 (30 March 1981): 52-57.
Philip M. Weinstein, What Else But Love?: The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
Susan Willis, Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).
John Young, "Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey, and Postmodern Popular Audiences," African American Review, 35, no. 2 (2001): 181-204.