Toni Morrison Essay - Morrison, Toni (Vol. 4)

Morrison, Toni (Vol. 4)

Morrison, Toni 1931–

Ms Morrison, a Black American, is an editor and novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

Toni Morrison is someone who really knows how to clank a sentence, as the novelist Irving Rosenthal has put it, and her dialogue is so compressed and life-like that it sizzles. And Morrison's skill at characterization is such that, by the end [of Sula], it's as if an enormous but too severely framed landscape has been unrolled and inhabited by people who seem almost mythologically strong and familiar; like the gorgeous characters of García Márquez, they have a heroic quality, and it's hard to believe we haven't known them forever.

Yet the comparison can't be extended: Morrison hasn't endowed her people with life beyond their place and function in the novel, and we can't imagine their surviving outside the tiny community where they carry on their separate lives. It's this particular quality that makes "Sula" a novel whose long-range impact doesn't sustain the intensity of its first reading. Reading it, in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness, its refusal to brim over into the world outside its provincial setting.

As the author of frequent criticism and social commentary, Morrison has shown herself someone of considerable strength and skill in confronting current realities, and it's frustrating that the qualities which distinguish her novels are not combined with the stinging immediacy, the urgency, of her nonfiction…. 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 woman writer" and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.

Sara Blackburn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 30, 1973, p. 3.

Toni Morrison's [Sula] seems to me an exemplary fable, its brevity belied by its surprising scope and depth….

Sula's moral and spiritual entropy is set against the essential mysteries of death and sex, friendship and poverty, and the desperation and vulnerability of man that one encounters in many stories, but rarely so economically expressed. Toni Morrison's narrative contains symbolical and fabulous elements and is laid out in small set pieces, snapshots arranged in a pattern that cannot be anticipated until the author is done with her surprises. There is a great deal of humor here, and a sense of celebration, in spite of deaths by water and fire, of all there is that a man or a woman can lose—husbands, lovers, children, even misery—and all of it is beautifully wrought.

Peter S. Prescott, "Dangerous Witness," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1974, p. 63.

What gives this terse, imaginative novel [Sula] its genuine distinction is the quality of Toni Morrison's prose. Sula is admirable enough as a study of its title character, an alluring and predatory woman, and of life in the black section of a small Ohio town; but its real strength lies in Morrison's writing, which at times has the resonance of poetry and is precise, vivid and controlled throughout….

Thus the novel is much more than a portrait of one woman. It is in large measure an evocation of a way of life that existed in the black communities of the small towns of the '20s and '30s, a way of life compounded of such ingredients as desperation, neighborliness and persistence….

Morrison's ideas are striking and inventive, though a subplot involving an off-kilter World War I veteran who celebrates "National Suicide Day" seems to me to be strained. Sula is rich in mood and feeling, its humor is earthy and delightful, and its dialogue is especially sharp. Sula Peace herself is a fascinating character, a tough and ruthless woman who nonetheless is possessed by her own private aches and pains.

The most fully realized character in the novel, however, is the community of the Bottom. Toni Morrison is not a southern writer, but she has located place and community with the skill of a Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty. Sula is an intelligent and intriguing novel—and prose such as Morrison's simply does not come along very often.

Jonathan Yardley, "The Naughty Lady," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 3, 1974, p. 3.

I am madly in love with the book.

Sula. Just the name/title rolls poetically off the tongue gently dripping like an ice cream cone on a hot day. The novel itself is a visit to Baskin Robbins where new flavors of ice cream are served up on a smooth pink plastic spoon, care having been taken to secure samples of all the ingredients, i.e., sweets, fruits, crunchies, nuts, nougat goodies. Toni Morrison serves up a marvelous pink spoon sample of credible—sometimes familiar—people; Sula, Nel, Eva (oooooooh, do I know an Eva), Hannah, Shadrack, Ajax (uuuuuh, would I like to know an Ajax), Jude and Plum. It isn't a huge double dip of people. It is served up small and potent so that you take it seriously, roll it around in your mind/mouth, savor and think about it.

The book begins with the now familiar Negro Removal project to make room for the golf course in Medallion City (should we assume Ohio, U.S.A.). There Black folks lived in the Bottom (Black Bottom?)…. Two Black girls grow up here: Nel, whose parents "had suceeded in rubbing down to a dull glow any sparkle or sputter she had"; and Sula, who was described by a townswoman as an adult with: "when Sula drank beer she never belched."…

Toni Morrison has served up a thought provoking story worthy of her marvelous talent. While waiting eagerly for her next novel I, for one, will view this book as she describes love—"a pan of syrup left too long on the stove and cooked out leaving only its odor and a hard, sweet sludge, impossible to scrape off." The effect of reading this novel is absolutely impossible to scrape off. But then, I don't believe you'll want to.

Ruth Rambo McClain, in Black World (copyright © June, 1974 by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Ruth Rambo McClain), June, 1974, pp. 51-2, 85.

A fascination with evil has crept into black fiction, an interest in the lower layers of the psyche of black characters, in their capacity to hurt and destroy. I don't see that this is as yet a "movement," or even that writers like Bullins, Walker and Morrison have by deliberate plan entered these new areas. But when Bullins shows us a cool rapist or that murderous half-rodent, half-bird that slashes to death its would-be protectors; when Walker depicts an ignorant black sharecropper cutting away his daughter's breasts and blasting her with a shotgun; and when Morrison gives us a Sula, we know we are faced with something quite different from Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am or Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman—or, for that matter, Barth's Chimera or Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

It is true that Morrison operates within many of the racial commonplaces. First in The Bluest Eye (1970), now in Sula, she has staked out an area of the Midwest made familiar to us by Sherwood Anderson, the small Ohio town governed by a rigid moral prudery that dampens spontaneity and twists natural appetites. She focuses on the black sections of those towns and, to the middleclass hypocrisy attacked by Anderson, she adds the racial prejudice of the whites. But this is the weakest strain in her novels, for it is virtually impossible to do anything fresh with a vein that has been mined to exhaustion. We begin to fidget when we see her stacking the deck against such easy marks as the black bourgeoisie and reaching for the heartstrings when describing the humiliation of some proud black soldiers on a Jim Crow railroad car.

Her orginality and power emerge in characters like Sula, that we have seldom seen before and that do not fit the familiar black images…. Against the background of the respectability of black Medallion, Ohio,… acts and emotions appear as the trust of some powerful new force, loosening the foundations of the old sterotypes and conventional manners.

Writers like Toni Morrison, like Ed Bullins and Alice Walker, are slowly, subtly making our old buildings unsafe. There is something ominous in the chilling detachment with which they view their characters. It is not that their viewpoint is amoral—we are asked for judgment. It's that the characters we judge lie so far outside the guidelines by which we have always made our judgments….

The feeling I get … is not so much that of the familiar literary viewpoint of moral complexity as that of a calm sardonic irony over the impossibility of ever sorting out the good from the bad. This feeling gives Sula a portentousness that makes it perhaps an inadvertent prophet, whose prophecy is that all our old assumptions about morality are disintegrating before a peculiarly black assault against them.

Jerry H. Bryant, "Something Ominous Here," in The Nation, July 6, 1974, pp. 23-4.

There is nothing particularly striking about the black citizens of Medallion, Ohio where Sula is set…. Despite the mundane boundaries of their lives, Toni Morrison illuminates the complexity of their attitudes towards life. Having reached a quiet and extensive understanding of their situation, they can endure life's calamities and not burn up prematurely, the martyrs of some terrible desperation…. Morrison never allows us to become indifferent to these people. She knows them and we know them too; we have seen them in our neighborhoods and in our churches. They make up our communities. Her citizens of the Bottom jump up from the pages vital and strong because she has made us care about the pain in their lives; and Sula is ultimately a book about pain and estrangement.

All the personalities in this story are molded by the quality and the duration of their pain….

Morrison portrays Sula and Nel with an amazing delicacy and lightness of touch. Nothing glares out, instead we reach inside their beings and begin to understand what activates their needs and what motivates their hostilities. The language is always simple and potent. It is both tight and quiet, not overluscious with flowery phrases. This spare quality of the writing blends softly with the languid and familiar tone of the dialogue. A beautiful and haunting atmosphere emerges out of the wreck of these folks' lives, a quality that is absolutely convincing and absolutely precise. These people's tears and hurts are our own; we have watched it happen too often around us to deny them their tragedy. Toni Morrison takes that simple locality and populates that landscape with familiar folks. But these types—like Sula, like Shadrack, like Nel—especially take on a larger and more encompassing importance. They are not limited to their time and space, but reach out to us and take in our pain also. We happen with them through lives, fraught like our own, with all sorts of tragedies and jokes. It is this capacity which distinguishes Toni Morrison's work: she can write so that it rings true to us. She draws in Sula a vision of pain that lives in our eyes too.

Fath Davis, in The Harvard Advocate (© 1974 by The Harvard Advocate; reprinted by permission), Vol. CVII, No. 4, Special Issue, 1974, pp. 61-2.