Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
In 1987, Toni Morrison achieved a decisive plateau in her career with her fifth novel, Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller that solidified her position as the leading African American novelist of her generation. With Jazz, on the other hand, Morrison dared to risk her established position by writing a novel that is less masterful and confident, more exploratory and tentative.
One measure of Morrison’s adventurousness in Jazz is her choice of setting. She begins the novel not in the rural and small-town settings that have been her recognized forte, but rather in 1920’s Harlem; she uses the novel to explore her ambivalence toward that legendary time and place. On the one hand, Morrison enjoys celebrating Harlem and its jazz as a metaphor for the exhilarating liberation felt by blacks who moved to Northern cities after World War I, when it seemed as if racism and war might be things of the past. On the other hand, she is also honest enough to recognize that the excitement and sensuality of the City lured people away from the kinds of love and maturity that could truly heal them.
Jazz is also audacious in the lengths to which Morrison is willing to go to make her narrator fallible. Rather than excising the early passage that mistakenly foreshadows a second shooting, Morrison chooses to leave the passage in and to dramatize the feelings of anxious inadequacy that this dissonance in the plot brings up in the narrator. In this way, Morrison provides the narrator with the same opportunity that the characters have enjoyed: the chance to realize her mistakes and to renew and reinvent herself on a stronger footing.
Though Jazz seems at times less in control than Morrison’s other novels, its adventurousness and inventiveness are exhilarating, and its many stories, characters, and perspectives are richly imagined and frequently moving. Ultimately, Jazz shows Toni Morrison to be a great American writer who is not content to let her past successes become formulas for her future works. In 1993, her achievements were recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature.