Toni Morrison

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Morrison, Toni (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,945 words.)