Historical Background

Jazz takes place in Harlem, New York during the late 1920s. The twenties is a period known in the United States as “The Age of Prosperity.” At the end of World War I in 1918, “The war to end all wars,” America breathed a sigh of relief, as a collective effort freed the world from German imperialism.

After helping to make the world safe for democracy, there were celebrations nationwide. Americans were eager to refocus their attention on themselves. As a result, the country experienced a growth spurt. Modernization brought the invention of the automobile, an increase in the standard of living, in economic opportunities, and in leisure time.

There was a new way of living. For the first time people worked less hours per week and there was more money to spend on entertainment and conveniences. Appliances like irons, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners were widely available. Canned foods and commercial bakeries freed women from long hours in the kitchen. Movies, baseball games, and sports of every sort were popular.

A new emphasis was placed on education. More children attended school regularly with the goal of completing their educations. An education reform movement called for going beyond the three R’s to a more progressive approach.

The political and social climates were pushed in all different directions. The twenties brought the end of the ideals of the Wilson Era.

The presidency passed from Warren G. Harding to Calvin Coolidge to Herbert Hoover. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the sale of liquor. Yet, while prohibition was in effect, speakeasies and night clubs, where liquor was sold, were fashionable and in abundance. It is believed that there were over 30,000 speakeasies in New York City and over 200,000 speakeasies in the United States.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement pushed for the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920. Women formed the League of Women Voters and continued their fight for equality and a change in the status quo.

Change took place very rapidly in all aspects of life. Women’s fashions went from just inches off the ground to above the knee. There was new music, new money, and a new carefree attitude. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway best described the mindset of this era. Gaiety and youth were the new ideals and everyone did a wild and crazy dance called the Charleston.

Another important phenomenon of the twenties was the New York Stock Exchange. People had extra money to invest and putting money in stocks was considered a good way to save for the future. Eventually greed, speculation, and a manipulation of the trading system began to have a devastating effect on the economy. Inflation increased and stock prices fell. On October 29, 1929 the stock market crashed. Many experts view this day as the official end of the “Age of Prosperity.”

In the twenties African-Americans never fully benefited from the “Age of Prosperity.” African-Americans who fought in World War I looked forward to their own taste of freedom. When black soldiers returned home, they wanted freedom from the cotton fields they were still tied to. Under the sharecropping system, no matter how hard they worked, they found themselves deeper and deeper in debt.

After slavery was abolished, African-Americans were no longer forced to pick crops like cotton and sugar cane. However, the work still had to be done, and people still needed a place to live. A land or plantation owner built shacks on his land and the people who picked the cotton or cane crop were allowed to live there. They were given staples like flour, sugar, and perhaps a mule and some tools.

Instead of being paid for the work that was done, another system was devised. The owner would keep a record of how many pounds of cotton were picked, how much rent was charged for the shack, and how much money was owed for the supplies that were given at the start of the year.

Families could work from sun up to sun down for a full year and at the end of the year find themselves getting no pay at all. Furthermore, they found themselves owing the landowner hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Usually sharecroppers could not read or write and were cheated. Prices for the staples were inflated, and prices paid for the crops that were picked were extremely low.

Sharecroppers found themselves doing backbreaking work year after year with...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 has dared to risk her established position by writing a novel that is less masterful and confident, more exploratory and tentative. She begins Jazz not in the rural and small-town settings that are her recognized forte, but in Harlem in the 1920’s; and she uses the novel to explore her mixed feelings about that legendary time and place. Also, Morrison creates quite an unconventional narrator, one who is not the authoritative master of her characters’ lives and fates, but rather a character in her own right who is at times as uncertain and fallible as the other people in the book. Jazz thus seems at times less in control than Morrison’s other novels, but its inventiveness is exhilarating, and its many stories, characters, and perspectives are richly imagined and frequently moving.

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s is a legendary period of African American creativity in fiction and poetry, but Morrison curiously makes no reference to the rich literary culture of that era. Rather, her emphasis is on jazz—the distinctively urban African American music that reached an early peak in the 1920’s. Thus Jazz begins with an anecdote that seems the novelistic equivalent to a blues ballad such as “Frankie and Johnny.” Joe Trace, a married man in his fifties, has a “deepdown, spooky” love for eighteen-year-old Dorcas, but he shoots her when their three-month-old affair goes awry. Joe’s wife, Violet, then takes a strange revenge by bursting in on Dorcas’ funeral and trying to slash the dead girl’s face.

Playing off this sensational opening story, Morrison’s narrative ranges in many directions, much as a jazz musician might improvise on the opening statement of a melody. In a vividly sensuous style, the author brings to life both the excitement of Jazz Age Harlem, to which many African Americans migrated in the years after World War I, and the racism, violence, and unresolved mysteries of the places they left behind—the rural South and the cities of the Midwest.

Curiously, Morrison almost never uses the word “Harlem”; instead, throughout the novel she refers to this section of New York as “the City.” This nomenclature conveys the legendary power that this specific locale had in the 1920’s, as well as suggesting the mythic dimensions that large cities in general had for African Americans at that time. In Morrison’s hands, the City virtually becomes a character in its own right. The main narrator—an unnamed observer with a distinctly subjective personality—sounds a keynote theme of the novel when she declares early on, “I’m crazy about this City.” Joe’s decision to take a mistress seems as much an aspect of his love for the City as an attraction to a particular woman. The narrator notes that generally, when a man in the City sees a woman who excites him, “he’d think it was the woman he wanted, and not some combination of curved stone, and a swinging, high-heeled shoe moving in and out of sunlight.” The narrator implies that Joe takes a mistress largely because he wants to feel once again the excitement that he and Violet experienced when they “train-danced” into the City in 1906, when “the ground was a dance-hall floor.”

Another way that Morrison brings the City’s personality into play is to connect its moods to the moods and actions of the characters. For example, Joe begins his affair with Dorcas in October—an autumnal time of his life, as well as a special time of year when he begins to notice how the color of the city sky “move[s] from a thin ice blue to purple with a heart of gold.” The main action of the novel moves from this golden October, through the cold January of Dorcas’ murder and Joe and Violet’s despair, to the “sweetheart weather” of early spring when life begins to blossom for Joe and Violet once again.

For Morrison, the City and its music are initially a metaphor for the exhilarating liberation felt by African Americans who moved to northern cities. Her narrator says, “I like the way the City makes people think they can do what they want and get away with it.” In the decade after the end of World War I, it seemed that “all the wars are over and there will never be another one.…There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff.…The way everybody was then and there. Forget that. History is over, you all, and everything’s ahead at last.” With her colloquial voice and exuberant clusters of vivid images, Morrison’s narrator celebrates the vitality and promise of the City in a manner that is often reminiscent of the first great New York City poet, Walt Whitman.

The characters in Jazz, however, hold divergent visions of the City’s promise. Even more than Joe and Violet (who came to the City in 1906 as a married couple in their thirties), teenage Dorcas feels the sensual power of the City. Transformed from the sorrowful nine-year-old orphan who arrived in New York City in 1917, Dorcas becomes obsessed with Harlem’s flashy styles and “lowdown” jazz, its abundant nightlife and uninhibited attitudes: “Dorcas thought of that life-below-the-sash as all the life there was.” In contrast, her aunt, Alice Manfred, gains an inspiring vision of the political potential that New York City holds for African Americans. Arriving in the City in July, 1917, soon after the East St. Louis riots that killed her sister and brother-in-law (Dorcas’ parents), Alice witnesses a solemn march down Fifth Avenue in protest over the two hundred people killed in the riots. For Alice, this silent march, accompanied only by drumbeats, suggests the “fellowship, discipline and transcendence” possible in a unified black community. Although this vision of black solidarity is subsumed in Jazz (as it has been in American society) by the sensual, individualistic energies of urban life, Alice’s experience of it remains a resonant moment in the novel.

Enraptured by the City and its jazz as Morrison’s narrator is, she also acknowledges that its mood of incessant liberation and excitement has a darker side of emotional volatility, despair, and violence. “Word was that underneath the good times and easy money something evil ran the streets and nothing was safe—not even the dead.” How could someone as avuncular and trustworthy as Joe Trace, “a nice, neighborly, everybody-knows-him man,” be capable of seducing a teenage girl and then shooting her? How could someone as good looking and industrious as Violet become so emotionally unstable as to try to steal a baby from one of her hairdressing clients, or to try to slash the face of a girl who was already dead? According to the narrator, part of the answer to these questions can be found in the nature of the City itself. She claims that the City enables people to become “their stronger, riskier selves,” but after a while “they love that part of themselves so much they forget what loving other people was like.” Also, the narrator maintains, “Little of [the sensual delight of the City] makes for love, but it does...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Any discussion of Jazz will probably deal with questions of motivation and of verisimilitude. Although a powerful verbal construct in...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Shortly before she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first ever awarded to an African-American woman writer, Toni Morrison released...

(The entire section is 2880 words.)

Techniques / Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although Jazz is part of a larger narrative that began with Beloved and moves on to Paradise, it is much more daring and...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Gates, David. “American Means Black, Too.” Newsweek 119 (April 27, 1992): 66. A review of Jazz that maintains that the novel is not just about the story and characters but also about “the process of its own creation.”

Hulbert, Ann. “Romance and Race.” Review of Jazz, by Toni Morrison. The New Republic 206 (May 18, 1992): 43-48. Hulbert criticizes Jazz as a failed experiment in self-conscious improvisation. She argues that Morrison’s characters are flat and her descriptions clichéd. According to Hulbert, although Morrison intends to avoid romanticizing blackness, she instead ends up...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

Adams, Russell L. Great Negroes Past and Present. Chicago: Afro-Am, 1984.

Adero, Malaika. ed. Up South. New York: The New Press, 1993.

Angelo, Bonnie. “The Pain of Being Black.” Time (May 22, 1989): 120-122.

Bloom Harold. Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Boardman, Fon W. America and the Jazz Age. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1968.

Dreifus, Claudia. “Chole Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine (September 11, 1994).

Eden, Richard. “Those Nights on the Harlem Roof Tops,” Los Angeles Times Book Review (April 19, 1992): 3.


(The entire section is 185 words.)