Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
See also Toni Morrison Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 10, 22, 194.
|1931:||Chloe Anthony Wofford (Toni Morrison) is born on 18 February in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children of George Wofford, a shipyard welder, and Ramah Willis Wofford.|
|1949:||Morrison graduates with honors from Lorain High School. She enrolls at Howard University in Washington, D.C.|
|1953:||Morrison graduates from Howard University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Classics. She begins graduate study at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.|
|1955:||Morrison receives an M.A. in English literature from Cornell University. She begins teaching at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas.|
|1957:||Morrison leaves Texas Southern. She joins the faculty at Howard University.|
|1958:||Morrison marries Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect.|
|1961:||Morrison gives birth to her first son, Harold Ford.|
|1962:||Morrison joins a writer’s group. She writes a short story that she later develops into the novel titled The Bluest Eye (1970).|
|1964:||Morrison visits Paris. She and Harold Morrison are divorced. She returns to Lorain, Ohio, where her son Slade is born. Morrison leaves Howard.|
|1965:||Morrison leaves Ohio with her children for Syracuse, New York, to take a job as an assistant editor with a textbook subsidiary of Random House. While there, she works on The Bluest Eye.|
|1967:||Morrison transfers to the trade-book division of Random House in New York City. Over the course of her twenty-year career as an editor for Random House, she works with many African American writers, including Leon Forrest, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Henry Dumas.|
|1970:||Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is published.|
|1971:||Morrison teaches English for a year at the State University of New York at Purchase while continuing to work at Random House.|
|1973:||Sula is published.|
|1974:||Morrison edits The Black Book.|
|1975:||Sula is nominated for the National Book Award in fiction.|
|1976:||Morrison spends a year at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, as a visiting lecturer.|
|1977:||Song of Solomon is published and is a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. It wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.|
|1980:||Morrison is named Distinguished Writer by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Jimmy Carter.|
|1981:||Tar Baby is published; Morrison is featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine. She is elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Writers Guild, and the Authors’ League.|
|1984:||Morrison leaves Random House. She is named Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany.|
|1986:||Morrison’s first play, Dreaming Emmett, is performed on 4 January by the Capital Repertory Theater of Albany at the Marketplace Theater in Albany, New York. Morrison becomes a visiting lecturer at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.|
|1987:||Beloved is published. Morrison is appointed to the Helsinki Watch Committee and to the Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library. She chairs the New York State Education Department’s Committee on Adult Literacy and is Regents Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley.|
|1988:||Beloved wins the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the Robert E Kennedy Book Award, and the Melcher Book Award. Morrison’s visiting lectureship at Bard College ends.|
|1989:||Morrison is named Robert E Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, thus becoming the first African American woman to hold a named chair at an Ivy League university. She receives the...|
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|Modern Language Association of America Commonwealth Award in literature and the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Award in literature.|
|1992:||Jazz is published and makes The New York Times best-seller list; Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, a collection of Morrison’s essays, is published. Morrison edits Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Honey and Rue, an operatic piece with music by Andre Previn and words by Morrison, is performed at Carnegie Hall in January 1992, featuring soprano Kathleen Battle.|
|1993:||Morrison wins the Nobel Prize in literature, the eighth woman and the first African American woman to be so honored. She receives the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization for Women. Morrison’s house on the Hudson River north of New York City burns to the ground on Christmas Day.|
|1994:||Morrison receives the Condorcet Medal and the Pearl S. Buck Award.|
|1995:||Morrison collaborates with drummer Max Roach and choreographer Bill T. Jones on Degga, a performance piece for the Lincoln Center Serious Fun “American Visionaries” Summer Festival. She receives an honorary doctorate from Howard University on 3 March. The Lorain Public Library in Lorain, Ohio, dedicates a library reading room in her honor.|
|1996:||Morrison wins the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book FoundationMedal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on the Sixth of November, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Six, Momson’s National Book Award speech, is published. Talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selects Song of Solomon as the second offering of her book club, resulting in one million copies of the book being sold and a 25 percent increase in sales of her other novels.|
|1997:||Morrison edits Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the 0. J. Simpson Case with Claudia Brodsky Lacour.|
|1998:||Paradise is published. Winfrey selects it for her book club. Winfrey, also produces a film version of Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme.|
|1999:||Morrison’s first children’s picture book, The Big Box, which she wrote with her son Slade, is published.|
|2000:||The Bluest Eye is selected for Winfrey’s book club. Morrison receives the National Humanities Medal.|
|2001:||Morrison becomes the fifth recipient of the Enoch Pratt Society Lifetime Achievement Award.|
|2002:||Sula is the forty-eighth and final selection for Winfrey’s book club.|
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- CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION
- HOWARD UNIVERSITY AND GRADUATE SCHOOL
- DEVELOPING A CAREER
- THE BLACK BOOK
- NEW CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
Born: 18 February 1931
Married: Harold Morrison, 1958 (divorced 1964)
Education: Howard University, Cornell University
CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, on 18 February 1931, to George Wofford and Ramah Willis Wofford. The second of four children, she was named Chloe Anthony Wofford. Her parents’ roots, like those of many African Americans of their generation, can be traced to the South. The family of Morrison’s mother was from Greenville, Alabama; her father’s family was from Georgia. Morrison did not know her father’s parents, who died before her mother and father met, but she remembers her mother’s family well. John Solomon Willis, her maternal grandfather, once owned land in Alabama. He inherited it from his mother, a Native American who had been given eighty-eight acres by the government during Reconstruction. The family subsequently lost the land because of unpaid debts they did not know they owed and ended up working as sharecroppers for the new landowners.1 John and his wife, Ardelia Willis, left Greenville around 1910 or 1912, settling first in Kentucky, where John worked in a coal mine, and then in Lorain, Ohio, a small Lake Erie steel-mill and port town located twenty-five miles west of Cleveland. The Willis family was part of what historians call the Great Migration, a period beginning in the late 1800s when many African Americans left the rural South for northern cities where work was plentiful and racism more tolerable.
George Wofford, Morrison’s father, was about sixteen when he left his birthplace of Cartersville, Georgia, and headed north. He ended up in Lorain, Ohio, where he met and married Ramah Willis.2 Shortly
after they were married, George and Ramah Wofford went to live briefly in Pittsburgh, where “all the black people lived in the hills,”3 a topographical detail that Morrison develops in her second novel, Sula (1973). They returned to Lorain, where George worked as a shipyard welder. George took pride in his work, and whenever he welded a perfect seam, he would weld his name on it. No one could see it, but as he explained to Morrison, what mattered was that he knew it was there.4 As his family grew, George took on two other jobs to support his family, which included Morrison; her older sister, Lois; and two younger brothers.
Despite the pressure of holding down three jobs for almost seventeen years, Morrison’s father was involved with raising his children. Ramah Wofford worked in the home; was active in her church, where she sang in the choir; and was highly regarded in the community as a dedicated “club woman,” a member of African American women’s literary and social clubs with a mission of racial uplift. Evenings with her family laid the groundwork for the aural quality of much of Morrison’s fiction. After the work was done, this tight-knit family would tell stories. In a 1979 interview with Colette Dowling, Morrison says, “My father’s stories were the best … the scariest. We were always begging him to repeat the stories that terrified us the best.”5 Morrison recalls that storytelling, like most other things, was a shared activity in the Wofford family:
There was a comradeship between men and women in the marriages of my grandparents, and of my mother and father. The business of story-telling was a shared activity between them, and people of both genders participated in it. We, the children, were encouraged to participate in it at a very early age. This was true with my grandfather and grandmother, as well as my father and mother, and with my uncles and aunts. There were no conflicts of gender in that area, at the level at which such are in vogue these days. My mother and father did not fight about who was to do what. Each confronted whatever crisis there was.6
A crisis that stands out in Morrison’s memory occurred when her father, who often became very angry, “threw a white man down the stairs when he followed her and her sister into their house.”7 She describes her father as being “very racist,” the result of having “received shocking impressions of adult white people” while growing up in rural Georgia.8
Morrison experienced little overt racism growing up in Lorain, Ohio. The twenty-three blocks that constituted her community were culturally diverse, with African American, Greek, Italian, and southern white families living together as neighbors. Their children attended the same school, and until “things got sexual,” as Morrison puts it, the lines separating them according to race were not clearly drawn.9 Morrison’s strong-willed and determined parents and grandparents instilled in her a sense of security and selfcertainty that served her well as she matured into adulthood. More important Morrison distinguished herself intellectually as early as the first grade, when she was the only child in the class who could read.
Reading was as important to the Woffords as storytelling. Books played a major role in Morrison’s childhood. Her mother belonged to a book club, and for Morrison, the “security felt, the pleasure, when new books arrived was immense.”10 She read books by Ernest Hemingway, Willa Gather, and William Faulkner. She also read novels by Russian authors, including Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. She read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). She read Jane Austen and other writers whose books “were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio,” but that spoke to her nevertheless out of a cultural specificity that she would later try to capture in her own novels.11
In addition to the support she received from her family for her interest in literature, Morrison had two supportive English teachers, one in the sixth grade and one in the twelfth grade, who gave her books and encouragement.12 Morrison excelled in high school, where her course of study included four years of Latin. She was seventeen years old when she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949. Graduation day was a big event for the Woffords. While Morrison’s mother had graduated from high school, her father had not; both parents placed a high premium on education, however. With the support and blessings of her family, Morrison left Lorain for Washington, D.C., where she enrolled at Howard University, the most prestigious African American university in the United States.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY AND GRADUATE SCHOOL
Founded in 1867 by The First Congregational Society of Washington for the purpose of training African American ministers and teachers to help with the “uplift” of the newly emancipated slaves, Howard University includes on its roster of alumnae the names of outstanding African Americans such as the former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the opera singer Jessye Norman, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, dancer and choreographer Debbie Alien, and Patricia Roberts Harris, who became the first African American woman to hold a presidential cabinet position when President Jimmy Carter appointed her secretary of housing and urban development. Harris also taught at the Howard University Law School, adding her name to a list of university faculty that includes some of the most gifted African American scholars, artists, and intellectuals of the twentieth century, including the distinguished sociologists F. Franklin Frazier and Kelly Miller, philosopher Alain Locke, poet Sterling Brown, pianist Hazel Harrison, drama professor Anne Cooke, and poet, playwright, and director Owen Dodson. Cooke and Dodson were key figures in Morrison’s early efforts as an actress with the Howard University Players.
Cooke, who held a Ph.D. in theater from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, began serving as chairperson of the newly established drama department at Howard University in 1942. She used her scholarly background in classical drama and her strong administrative skills to create one of the most professional undergraduate repertory companies in the country. By the time Morrison arrived on campus in 1949, the Howard Players were presenting outstanding
student performances under the direction of Cooke, James “Beenie” Butcher, and Dodson, who joined the department in 1947.13
Morrison has remarked that she was “unprepared for the impact of middle-class values on the black people at Howard, Men … boys chose their sweethearts on their color, the straightness of their hair, their father’s money. I was astonished, … I’m still astonished.”14 An English major with a minor in classics, Morrison joined the Howard Players to escape from the intraracial racism and classism she encountered elsewhere on the campus. She says that she survived these and other problems, including the college’s rigid rules regarding proper conduct —especially rigid for female students —by “being ‘jolly and fun’”15 and by performing with the Howard Players.
The Howard Players were housed on campus in Spaulding Hall. The Players performed on a narrow stage that “allowed no space for actors to pass behind the scenery, but the building had
windows that enabled an actor coming up from the dressing room on stage left to exit, climb a ladder, cross the roof, climb down into another window, then saunter in from stage right. No air conditioning, one dressing room on the first floor, one telephone for all offices, three pipes holding all the lights.”16 In this space Morrison found what she claims she could not find elsewhere on the campus: “hard work, thought, and talent”17 among people who were not concerned with class.
The Howard Players produced few plays by African American playwrights. The mainstays of the undergraduate repertory company were the classics and works by playwrights such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Ernst Toller, Arthur Miller, and, occasionally, by Dodson. Notable among Morrison’s performances is her role as Queen Elizabeth in William Shakespeare’s Richard III (1597). The playbill for the March 1953 production lists her as “Toni Wofford.” (She began calling herself “Toni” shortly after coming to Howard.) The role of Richard was played by Butcher, the acting instructor for the program. The play was directed by Dodson. His biographer, James V. Hatch, reports that Dodson wrote to a friend about what he hoped to achieve with his production: “I want the production to be melodramatic spit, but Richard’s frustration must be explained and the high terrible truth of cruelty exposed with telling loudness.”18 According to Hatch, “It was. Opening on March 11, 1953, Richard III packed the house every night.”19
Morrison thought highly of Dodson as a director. She told Hatch, “Owen understood the play in a most extraordinary way. He was first rate. Our desire to please him onstage was enormous. He could have been another Peter Brook. Maybe he was.” Morrison also confided to Hatch that she was very good in her role as the spiteful queen.20 In 1952 Morrison played the role of Cynthie, the tough-talking barfly in Robert Ardrey’s Jeb, A Play in Three Acts (1945),21 and Elsie in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (1939). She also played one of the children in the 1950 production of the German playwright Ernst Toller’s satirical musical comedy, No MorePeace! (1937).22
Aside from offering her an outlet for her talent and creativity, the Howard Players enabled Morrison to experience firsthand a part of African American life with which she was unfamiliar’that of the rural South. During the summers, members of the Howard Players joined up with other African American actors to form a touring repertory company. They traveled to and performed at African American colleges throughout the South. Carol Foster Sidney, who was at Howard between 1946 and 1950 as an undergraduate major in French and drama, remembers going to the South on a tour in the summer of 1951. She recalls that the group included herself, Anne Cooke, Mary Nelson, Morrison, and about six men. It was a troubled time, long before what Sidney calls the televised Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. The group traveled in two cars with props for scenery conspicuously loaded on top. Their audiences were African American. The group usually stayed on college campuses because, according to Sidney, it often was too dangerous for them to go into town.23 Morrison told Karen De Witt that the tours gave her an opportunity “to see the South —its roads, its shotgun houses, its schools, its particular brand of segregation. The latter of course was not different from D.C.”24
After completing her undergraduate studies in 1953, Morrison left for Ithaca, New York, where she enrolled in the graduate program in English at Cornell University. She earned an M. A. degree in English in 1955. Her M. A. thesis is titled “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated.” Her topic is the theme of alienation as it is developed in Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936). She argues that alienation, a major theme in twentieth-century fiction, is “a focal point” for both novelists, and then contrasts the ways in which that theme is treated in each novel. She writes that in Woolf’s novel, isolation and alienation are inevitable, “the one state of mind in modern existence which allows man to understand and triumph over his position.”25 In Faulkner’s novels alienation is not a state of mind, but rather a choice on the part of the individual to escape his responsibility to others, and is therefore a sin.26
Morrison’s choice of works by Woolf and Faulkner is indicative of her sensitivity to fiction by writers who struggle against traditional narrative structures. Both Woolf and Faulkner were innovators in their presentations of the human condition. The extent to which Morrison’s fiction is influenced by that of Woolf and Faulkner is a continuing subject of debate. She often is compared to Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1949 and is considered one of America’s great modernist writers.
DEVELOPING A CAREER
After earning her M. A., Morrison took a job teaching English at Texas Southern University in Houston. The university was founded on 3 March 1947 after a long struggle, dating from the nineteenth century, by the African American community of Houston to end segregation in Texas educational institutions and to ensure that the African American citizens of Texas received a quality education.27 By the time Morrison arrived in 1955, the administration at Texas Southern University had begun to expand its role in community education and job training. The strong link between the school and the African American community of Houston perhaps explains why Morrison claims to have begun to think about African American culture in more formal, academic ways at Texas Southern University. More so than at Howard, which modeled itself after East Coast Ivy League colleges, the liberal studies curriculum and programs at Texas Southern University were rooted in the history and culture of African American people and were designed to meet the educational needs of a growing African American population.28
Morrison returned to Howard in 1957 to teach English. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican student who was studying architecture at Howard. Their first child, Harold Ford, was born in 1961. Sometime in 1962 Toni Morrison joined a writing group. The group included among its members May Miller, a widely published playwright of the Harlem Renaissance era; Claude Brown, a young writer whose autobiographical Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is regarded as a seminal work of the 1960s; and Charles Sebree, a gifted painter and writer.
The group met once a month and had one rule: “You couldn’t come unless you brought something” to read. Morrison, who was still teaching at Howard, brought the “old junk” she had written in high school. When that ran out, she wrote a story about a young black girl— subsequently named Pecola—and her desire for blue eyes. In a 1977 interview she said of the story, “It was written hurriedly and probably not very well, but I read it and some liked it—I was 30 years old then so I wasn’t a novice. Still I thought it was finished; I’d written it, had an audience, so I put it aside.”29
Her audience included Sebree, whom Morrison met through Dodson. Before coming to Washington, D.C., Sebree had taught theater design for the American Negro Theater in New York.30 He was brought to Howard, at Dodson’s insistence, to design the set and costumes for Dodson’s new script, Bayou Legend (1948). In the 8 May 1948 edition of the Washington, D.C. Evening Star, Jay Carmody called Bayou Legend the “most elaborate production staged in campus theatre history.”31 Morrison told James Hatch that Sebree was a “key person in my writing. Without his encouragement I never would have written The Bluest Eye.” She credited Sebree with being generous with his encouragement and advice.32
After putting her story aside, Morrison went about the business of raising her family and teaching in an intellectual climate that was just beginning to reflect the social and political changes that were sweeping the nation. Morrison’s reaction to the turmoil that engulfed Howard’s campus in the early 1960s over the ideologies of blackness and cultural identity was similar to that of many other educators who found themselves caught up in the cross fire between students and college administrators over university policies. She did not understand this new idea of blackness. Her idea of blackness had been nurtured by her family and, during her undergraduate days, by Dodson and Brown. She felt that they had a deeper and more historically grounded understanding of blackness than the younger people, whose militancy she found unsettling.
Morrison also might have been unsettled at that time by a marriage that was going badly. She left Howard in 1964, traveled to Europe, and divorced her husband when she returned. She gave birth to her second son, Slade, and returned with her two children for a brief stay at the home of her parents in Lorain, Ohio. One day she noticed in The New York Review of Books an ad for a textbook editor at L. W Singer, a subsidiary of Random House, located in Syracuse, New York. Morrison took the job and set out for Syracuse for the practical purpose of supporting her family. She told Colette Dowling in a 1979 interview that the job appealed to her for another reason. “The civil rights movement was putting pressure on schools to revise the way blacks were being presented in the curriculum. I thought I might be able to make some changes.”33 She also hoped eventually to be transferred to Random House offices in New York City.
Living in Syracuse was a mixed blessing for Morrison. Without friends or family close by and with only two small children to keep her company, she often was lonely and unhappy, words that best describe for her what she calls “an unbusy state,” when a person is more aware of the self than of others.34 To ease her loneliness Morrison began reworking and developing the story she had written for the writing group at Howard University. She wrote late in the evenings, after her children were in bed. When she transferred in 1967 to the trade division at Random House in New York City, where she had greater responsibilities, Morrison was accustomed to living a quiet and—she insists—uneventful life that did not include much socializing. She spent her time and energy juggling the three spheres around which her life revolved: that of her children, her job, and her writing.
As Morrison explains it, managing her responsibilities in each of these spheres was not as daunting as it might seem. She simply cut out those things that were not essential to them. “What happens, I think, when you do several things is that you cut a lot of things out. So I don’t entertain people very much and I’m not entertained very much. So, if you don’t go to a dinner party, you have three hours to do something else in. … I think one thing that happens is that you learn to use time for more than one thing. If you’re cutting the lawn, you really can’t focus all of your mind on that, so you really are in the business of thinking through some different kinds of things. When I’m writing a book, there’s almost no time when it’s not on my mind.”35 This practical approach to her career served Morrison well. During the 1970s Morrison published three novels, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), and Song of Solomon (1977), and many newspaper and magazine articles. She also edited several important works of African American fiction and nonfiction, including The Black Book (1974).
The Bluest Eye received favorable reviews by Haskel Frankel in The New YorkTimes Book Review and by L. E. Sissman in The New Yorker. The novel also attracted the attention of a growing African American female audience, although it was not an immediate success. Neither was her second novel, Sula. Sara Blackburn, in a 1973 review of Sula for The New York Times Book Review, underscored an attitude against which African American writers continue to struggle. She wrote, “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 writers’ and take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working.”36 Blackburn’s comments elicited strong responses in the editorial pages of The New York Times Book Review from several people, including the novelists Clarence Major and Alice Walker. Major and Walker both argued that her review was an example of how far white critics would go either to dictate what African American writers should write or reduce their works to sociology.”37
THE BLACK BOOK
Morrison found her 1974 editorial project, The Black Book, to be particularly satisfying and enlightening. In a 1974 New York Times Magazine article, she wrote that The Black Book demanded the collabo-ration of “collectors—people who had the original raw material documenting our life” rather than writers.38 The chief collector for the project was Middleton Harris, a retired city employee whom Morrison met through a friend. She described him as having a special gift of humor, a love for the material he collected, and a “ruthlessness in his pursuit of material.” Joining Harris were Morris Levitt, “a retired public-school teacher and amateur black sports enthusiast”; Roger Furman, “an actor and director of New York’s black New Heritage Repertory Theatre”; and Ernest Smith, who began collecting African American memorabilia when he was fourteen.39 Harris’s sense of humor probably helped the group keep its sense of purpose as it sifted through print material and artifacts and listened to the “recollections” of the many people who contributed to the book, including Morrison’s parents, whom the editors credit in their acknowledgments.
The materials collected in The Black Book are disturbing reminders of the extent to which racism is embedded in almost every social, cultural, and political institution in the United States. Newspaper articles and advertisements about the sale of African Americans as slaves, a slave tax receipt for the State of Virginia, the grotesqueries of popular sheet music covers, a photo of a lynching—these materials recount a part of American history that many people would rather forget. Morrison describes the time she spent working on the project as a growing experience:
For me it was like growing up black one more time. As I worked with those men to select and focus the material every emotion that had engulfed or buoyed me as a black in this country was repeated. It was also as though I were experiencing once again the barbarity visited upon my people as I sat in Spike Harris’s apartment reading 17th-century through 19th-century newspapers with a magnifying glass.40
The barbarous acts she read about make it all the more remarkable that the creative spirit of African American people prevailed under tremendous racial oppression. The book includes “pages and pages of the incredible craftwork of slaves: the beautiful quilts, silks, ironwork done by the people for whom artistry, genius and pride in the work of one’s hands was not broken by white contempt.”41 It also includes examples of African American genius in manufacturing and industry, as well as defining moments for African Americans in sports and entertainment during the first half of the twentieth century.
During the eighteen months that Morrison worked on The Black Book, her other “publishing ventures” got secondary treatment because she was “scared that the world would fall away before somebody put together a thing that got close to the way we really were.”42 When it was finished, she returned to her own writing with apparent renewed vigor and enough energy to teach at Yale University for a year.
Morrison’s third novel, Song ofSolomon, was published in 1977. It was chosen as the Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club for that year. Its selection marked the second time the club gave top billing to a book by an African American author. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was the first. Song of Solomon also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1977. In 1978 Morrison was presented with an award in literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Other prestigious honors, awards, and appointments followed. In 1980 President Carter appointed Morrison to the National Council for the Arts; in 1981, the year in which her fourth book, Tar Baby, was published, she was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
NEW CHALLENGES AND REWARDS
In 1983, after almost twenty years in publishing, Morrison left Random House. She returned to teaching in 1984 when she was named Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York in Albany. While in Albany, Morrison wrote a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986), based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, an African American teenager from Chicago who was murdered by racist whites for allegedly whistling at a white woman during a summer vacation at his relative’s house in Mississippi. It was commissioned by The New York State Writers Institute at State University of New York at Albany and produced in the Capital Repertory Theater as part of the first celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., as a national holiday.
The murder of Till first arose as a topic in Morrison’s writing in a discussion among characters in Song of Solomon. Morrison had been trying to conceptualize the story of Till and his death as a play prior to going to Albany. However, she was aware that novelists often fail as playwrights. She reportedly asked her colleague and founder of the Writers Institute, Bill Kennedy, “to find one American who wrote novels first and then successfully plays. Just one. And neither he nor I could come up with any one American. Even Henry James was a failure. He tried it three times and each time it was worse than the other. But I feel I have a strong point. I write good dialogue. It’s theatrical. It moves. It just doesn’t hang there. Besides I have Gilbert Moses. And I have great respect for him as a stage director.”43
Gilbert Moses was a founding member of the Free Southern Theater, a group of committed and socially conscious theater artists that traveled throughout rural Mississippi presenting plays to African American people for free during the 1960s. Moses had come to Mississippi from New York in the early 1960s to work at the Mississippi Free Press. In the summer of 1962 he met other northern students who shared his dream of creating a socially conscious theater in the South with the purpose of helping to liberate African American people from racial oppression. He remained with the Free Southern Theater until 1966.44 In 1969 Moses won an Obie Award for directing Amiri Baraka’s Slave Ship (1967). He won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1975 for The Taking of Miss Janie, a 1975 play by Ed Bullins. In addition to directing for theater, Moses wrote and directed for television and cinema.
Dreaming Emmett premiered on 4 January 1986 at the Market-place Theatre in Albany, New York. The performance apparently was not widely reviewed. An article announcing the play, titled “Toni Morrison Tries Her Hand at Playwriting,” appeared in the 29 December 1985 issue of The New York Times. In the article Morrison, who attended some of the rehearsals, compares writing for the theater with writing fiction:
The play is both more and less … It’s less in the setting of a mood and in manipulating the readers. In the novel one has control of everything. Giving that up in a play is not pleasant for me. But on the other hand, there is a thing that happens on the stage. After giving up control, you see the manifestation of the work through somebody else’s mind … Like going to auditions. Everyone reads the lines in a different way. When I read the lines, I hear only my voice. When you hear the actresses and actors read they give new meanings to the lines and so the texture of the play changes. But in a novel, I only hear it one way, through my voice.45
In addition to attending rehearsals for Dreaming Emmett, in 1986 Morrison was finishing her fifth novel, Beloved, which was published in 1987. It was the second of Morrison’s novels to become a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month-Club. In 1988 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, and the Unitarian Universalist Association Melcher Book Award. The Pulitzer Prize helped to secure Morrison’s position as a major American writer.
In 1989 Morrison made another important move—from Albany to Princeton, New Jersey, where she was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities. In addition to her distinguished faculty position, Morrison has served as a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee and the Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library and has chaired the New York State Department of Education Committee on Adult Literacy. Morrison’s service on these committees apparently did not hamper her creativity or energy. In 1992 she published her sixth novel, Jazz, which made The New York Times best-seller list. In that year she also published Playing in the Dark: Whiteness andThe Literary Imagination, a collection of essays in which Morrison reexamines several major American novels from what she calls an “Africanist” perspective. A collection of essays Morrison edited in 1992 on the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, titled Race-ing, Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, ClarenceThomas and the Construction of Social Reality, helped to establish Morrison as an important commentator on social issues.
In a display of the range of her creativity, Morrison also wrote the lyrics to Honey and Rue (1992), a cycle of six songs commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation for the soprano Kathleen Battle. After having read The Bluest Eye and Morrison’s more recent fiction, Battle began thinking of how “thrilling it would be to hear her words set to music.” She asked Andre Previn if he would be interested in composing a song cycle for her and asked Morrison if she would write the lyrics. Morrison agreed to write the lyrics.46 This effort was Morrison’s second venture into music. She wrote the lyrics for a musical about Storyville, titled New Orleans, which was set to music by Jelly Roll Morton.47 One of the things that attracted her to Battle’s song cycle was that she would be writing lyrics for which the music had yet to be composed. Morrison worked alone, without consuiting either Previn or Battle. As Morrison explained to Matthew Gurewitsch:
I worked with images rather than a story: images of yearning, satisfaction, resolution. And when I had the lyrics done, I sent them to Andrê. He would ask me questions and we would wrestle with certain words. The words were not a kind that establish some sort of privilege over the music. They were not so determinative that you could only do one thing. Later he played me the music, asking me at many junctures, “Is this the mood you had in mind? Did you expect resolution here?” And I’d tell him what I thought the language was doing on its own. It was a very exciting collaboration.48
When Morrison and Previn completed their tasks, they gathered at Battle’s house for a private “unveiling.” Battle sang the songs and was “at once struck by how beautifully the poetry and music melded and how naturally they fit in my throat.” She describes Honey and Rue as “a work of light and shadow, hope and frustration, celebration and disappointment, contemplation and resignation, faith and renewal.”49
Honey and Rue premiered on 5 January 1992 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with Andre Previn conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Although reviews of the performances by Previn and Battle were mixed, Morrison received high praise for her lyrics. David Patrick Sterns described Morrison’s lyrics as “alternately earthy and ethereal prose vignettes of love, faith and liberation” but felt that Previn in his musical scoring of them “either kept too much of a respectful distance or didn’t feel them deeply enough to match the vividness of Morrison’s images.”50
In 1993 Morrison reached a pinnacle when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. She was the ninetieth winner of the prize and the first African American woman to be so honored. When asked by Claudia Dreifus during an interview for The New York Times Magazine if she felt a sense of triumph when she went to Stockholm to collect her prize, Morrison responded,
I felt a lot of “we” excitement. It was as if the whole category of “female writer” and “black writer” had been redeemed. 1 felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world. I felt the way I used to feel at commencements where I’d get an honorary degree: that it was very important for young black people to see a black person do that, that there were probably young people in South-Central Los Angeles or Selma who weren’t quite sure that they could do it. But seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books I’m desperate to read. And that made me happy. It gave me license to strut.51
As a Nobel Prize laureate, Morrison received an $825,000 cash award. Sales of her books quickly jumped to an all-time high. In Germany, more than three hundred thousand copies of Jazz were sold on the day the prize was announced.
While 1993 was a year for Morrison to celebrate, it was not without trials. On Christmas Day her home on the Hudson River burned to the ground after an ember in the fireplace ignited a sofa. No one was injured, but the fire, which took a hundred firefighters five and a half hours to put out, destroyed many of her manuscripts and other personal papers. Morrison had promised to donate the documents to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. The chief archivist of the center, after hearing about the loss, commented on its impact on literary scholars and historians: “Most fine writing is the result of draft upon draft upon draft before you get to the final published text … Literary scholars and biographers and others working on the life and contribution of certain literary artists turn to the original manuscripts to assist in tracking the process of intellectual creativity.”52 Morrison told Dreifus that for months after the fire she “wouldn’t talk to anyone who had not had a house burn down,” including the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, with whom she “traded information.”53 Although she felt that she “may not ever, ever get over” the fire, by late 1994 she was deeply immersed in the writing of her new book, Paradise (1998).
Between 1994 and the publication of Paradise, Morrison added her voice to an increasingly heated debate over immigration in a collection of essays titled Arguing Immigration: The Debate Over theChanging Face of America (1994).54 She edited Birth of a Nation ‘hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, a collection of essays, and she collaborated with the choreographer Bill T. Jones and the drummer-arranger Max Roach on an experimental performance piece titled Degga (1995). Degga is a word from Wolof, an African language spoken mainly in Senegal. It means “to know,” “to hear,” or “to understand.” Part of the Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun “American Visionaries” Summer Festival, Degga was scheduled for two performances, 25 and 26 July 1995. They sold out immediately. A third performance on 27 July also sold out. Reviews were mixed. The New York Times critic Margo Jefferson’s review is typical of the kinds of responses the work received. She felt that the piece was “uneven” and more about cooperation than collaboration:
Some of Mr. Roach’s solos were too self-important (overlong solos usually are). And while Ms. Morrison’s prose is dramatic—it joins elaborate storytelling to impassioned, analytical preaching—it is not theatrical. What do I mean by that? 1 mean that it seems wholly self-contained; it does arouse and instruct listeners, but it does not encourage them to answer back on equal terms. Mr. Jones is as strong an artist as Ms. Morrison, but while you could see the links between his dance and her words, you didn’t altogether feel them viscerally; the two cooperated more than they collaborated.”55
In 1996 Morrison received yet another prestigious literary award, The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The sales of her books skyrocketed again in 1996 after Song of Solomon was picked as the second selection of Oprah Winfrey’s television book club. Winfrey launched her book club on 17 September 1996. Much to the amazement of writers and publishers everywhere, Winfrey dramatically and almost instantly boosted sales of books featured on her show. Her first selection, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean (1996), brought that author instant celebrity.56 Song of Solomon was already a best-seller when it was announced as a selection on 18 October 1996. According to Morrison, the novel “sold more in three or four months than it had in its entire 20 years” as a result of Oprah’s Book Club.57 On 16 January 1998 Winfrey announced that Paradise, Morrison’s newly published seventh novel, had been selected. On 27 April 2000 Winfrey selected Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.
Paradise is the third book by Morrison to be chosen by The Book-of-the-Month-Club as its main selection. Most reviews of the novel were positive, but after it was featured on Oprah’s Book Club, what reviewers and critics had to say about it did not matter much in terms of sales. Readers rushed to the bookstores to buy Paradise.
Morrison has long been a favorite of Winfrey. An avid reader, Winfrey had read Beloved shortly after it was published. Deeply moved by the suffering of Morrison’s fictional character, Sethe, Winfrey decided eleven years later that the novel should be brought to the big screen with herself in the lead role. She told Morrison, “I think I can play Sethe … And if I can’t, I’ll learn how.”58 Danny Glover played the role of Paul D. The screenplay was written by Richard LaGravenese and was directed by Jonathan Demme. Despite a big budget, excellent actors, extensive advertising, and a screenplay that remained as true to the novel as the medium of film would allow, the 1998 movie was not a success at the box office. Despite the disappointing outcome, Winfrey, through her movie venture and her book club, achieved something that even the awarding of the Nobel Prize had not: she made Toni Morrison a household name.
In 1999 Morrison published with her son Slade a children’s picture book titled The Big Box. Based on a story Slade composed when he was nine years old, the book tells of three children, Patty, Mickey, and Liza Sue, placed in a big box after their parents, teachers, and other adults decide that they “can’t handle their freedom.”59 The inside of their box is filled with each child’s favorite things. Their parents visit once a week and bring them more things. The children cannot leave their box to happily romp and roam as they once did. The door is secured with three strong locks. The children play with the things their parents bring, eat lots of junk food, and wear the blank expressions of little people whose imaginations have grown dull. The last of the colorful images Giselle Potter created for the story shows the children purposefully pushing away the walls of their box and climbing out to join the animals waiting expectantly for them to be free. Morrison’s foray into children’s literature, although not universally praised, is one more example of her insistence on stretching the boundaries of her creativity and working in media that offer new challenges and opportunities for her to continue growing, learning, and teaching others about her many fictional worlds.
1. Collette Dowling, “The Song of Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p. 54.
2. Betty Russell, “All That Jazz” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 283.
3. Ibid., p. 12.
4. Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine, 11 September 1994, p. 73.
5. Dowling, p. 50.
6. Nellie Y. McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 141.
7. Dowling, p. 50.
8. Jean Strouse, “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” Newsweek, 30 March 1981, p. 53.
9. Ibid., p. 54.
10. Dreifus, p. 73.
11. Strouse, p. 54.
12. Chat room transcript, Time.com (21 January 1998).
13. James V. Hatch, Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 144-150.
14. Karen De Witt, “Song of Solomon: Toni Morrison’s Saga Is Praised in All the Proper Places,” Washington Post, 30 September 1977: p. Cl.
15. Ibid., p. C2.
16. Hatch, p. 145.
17. De Witt, p. 2.
18. Hatch, p. 186.
19. Ibid., p. 186.
20. Ibid., p. 325, n. 6.
21. Robert Ardrey, Plays of Three Decades (New York: Atheneum, 1963), pp. 93-168.
22. Richard Dove, He Was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller (London: Libris, 1990), pp. 224-228.
23. Unpublished interview with Carol Foster Sidney, 4 July 2001.
24. DeWitt, p. 3.
25. Chloe Ardellia Wofford, “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated,” M. A. thesis, Cornell University, 1955, p. 2.
26. Ibid., p. 3.
27. Ira B. Bryant, Texas Southern University: Its Antecedents, Political Origin, and Future (Houston: Armstrong, 1975).
28. Ron David, Toni Morrison Explained (New York: Random House, 2000), p. 11.
29. Mel Watkins, “Talk with Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 44.
30. For a brief biography of Charles Sebree, see Hatch, Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One: The Life of Owen Dodson, p. 311, n. 11.
31. Ibid., pp. 146-147.
32. Ibid., p. 324, n. 3.
33. Dowling, p. 55.
34. Claudia Tate, “Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 167.
35. Jane Bakerman, “The Seams Can’t Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 33.
36. Henry Louis Gates Jr., and K. Anthony Appiah, eds., Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993), p. 8.
37. “To the Editor,” New York Times, 20 January 1974, VII: 27.
38. “Toni Morrison: Rediscovering Black History,” New York Times Magazine, 11 August 1974, p. 16.
41. Toni Morrison, “Behind the Making of The Black Book,” Black World, 23 (February 1974): 87.
42. Ibid., 90.
43. Margaret Croyden, “Toni Morrison Tries Her Hand at Playwriting,” New York Times, 29 December 1985, II: pp. 6, 16.
44. See Annemarie Bean, ed., A Sourcebook of African American Performance: Plays, People, Movements (London & New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 97-147. See also Mance Williams, Black Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s: A Historical-Critical Analysis of the Movement (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 56-66.
45. Croyden, p. 16. See also Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), pp. 119-122.
46. Kathleen Battle, “The Birth of Honey and Rue,” compact-disc liner notes for Honey and Rue (Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1995), p. 3.
47. Betty Fussell, “All That Jazz,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994), p. 286.
48. Matthew Gurewitsch, “Toni Morrison on Honey and Rue,” compact-disc liner notes for Honey and Rue (Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1995), pp. 6, 8.
49. Battle, p. 3.
50. David Patrick Sterns, “Honey and Rue,” Independent (London), 8 January 1992.
51. Dreifus, pp. 73-75.
52. Beth J. Harpaz, “Morrison’s Manuscripts Are Destroyed in Fire,” Chicago Sun Times, 28 December 1993, p. 36.
53. Dreifus, p. 74.
54. Nicolaus Mills, ed., Arguing Immigration: The Debate Over the Changing Face of America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994).
55. Margo Jefferson, “Performing Art Is Always Theater,” New York Times, 6 August 1995: H5: p. 18.
56. Prakash Gandhi, “Oprah’s Book Club,” 0: The Oprah Magazine, 1 (April 2000): 48.
57. Richard Corliss, “Bewitching Beloved,” Time, 152 (October 1998): 78.
58. Ibid., 75.
59. Toni Morrison and Slade Morrison, The Big Box (New York: Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 1999).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6450
- GETTING ESTABLISHED
- AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS AND TRADE PUBLISHING
- TECHNIQUES FOR WRITING
- THE WORK OF WRITING
- GETTING THE WRITING UNDER WAY
- MORRISON’S CHARACTERS
Morrison has said time and again that when she began working on The Bluest Eye, she did not think of herself as a writer. Writing was then more of a diversion than a vocation, something she did for herself—the only thing she does for herself, she once told an interviewer.1 Her professional priority was editing. As she explained to Robert Stepto in a 1976 interview, “What I want to do with an author is to get him into the position to do the best work he can, and then to try to publish it so it will receive the widest amount of attention, and look elegant, and be well received.”2 As an editor for Random House and one of only a handful of African Americans ever to work as a senior editor in a major publishing house, Morrison gained firsthand knowl-edge about the business of trade book publishing. Although her area of expertise was work by African American writers, she told Jessica Harris that the books she edited included topics ranging from “the women’s movement to railroads.”3 Through her commitment to her work, her ability to recognize and attract talented young African American writers, and her natural intellectual curiosity, Morrison soon gained a reputation as one of the most competent editors of fiction written by African Americans in the trade book industry. As she was helping to develop the projects of other novelists, how-ever, she kept her own efforts a secret from her employers. In a 1993 Paris Review interview she told Elissa Schappell that at Random House she never said she was a writer because “it would have been awful. First they didn’t hire me to do that. They didn’t hire me to be one of them. Secondly, I think they would have fired me.” She explained, “There were no in-house editors who wrote fiction, Ed Doctorow”—author of the novel Ragtime (1975)—“quit. There was nobody else’no real buying, negotiating editor in trade who was also publishing her own novels.”4 Morrison’s colleagues at Random House found out about her writing when they read reviews of The Bluest Eye in The New York Times.
Writing became work for Morrison after an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston read parts of her manuscript, liked it, and offered her a contract.
Then it became “work to do well.”5 Holt, Rinehart and Winston was not the first publisher to whom Morrison submitted her work, however. She admitted to the novelist Gloria Naylor that her manuscript was turned down many times:
You know the little letters you get back from the editors. They wrote me nice letters. This book has no beginning, no middle, and no end’: or, your writing is wonderful, but … ‘I wasn’t going to change it for that. 1 assumed there would be some writing skills that I didn’t have. But that’s not what they were talking about. They thought something was wrong with it or it wasn’t marketable.6
AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS AND TRADE PUBLISHING
Prior to the founding of Afro-American studies programs in colleges and universities in the mid 1970s, trade book publishers made little effort to publish works by African American writers. A notable exception to this lack is the Harlem Renaissance, a brief period in the 1920s when a group of fledgling African American writers were brought to the attention of the New York literati. Under the guidance of their mentors—the philosopher Alain Locke, the scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jessie Redmon Fauset, co-editor with Du Bois of The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the names of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Zora Neale Hurston circulated in the mainstream press during the mid 1920s as new writers of considerable talent. The Great Depression of the 1930s and dissatisfaction among some of the writers with the often misguided philanthropy of their white patrons helped to bring the era to an end. The works of these writers quickly went out of print.
Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts movement of the 1960s was short-lived. Interest was generated in books by African American writers for about a decade then faded away along with the names of many promising young African American novelists. The prevailing industry attitude has been that African Americans do not
read and therefore do not buy books. Until recently, when the industry published the work of an African American writer—usually an African American male writer—they did little to advertise and promote his book. Without advertising or reviews in mainstream magazines, most books do not make it in the marketplace and are soon out of print. This has been the fate of books by African American writers since 1773, when Phillis Wheatley inaugurated the African American literary tradition with her collection of poems titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.7 With die exception of writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, whose novels frequendy were treated by critics and academics as sociological treatises on the so-called Negro problem rather than as literature, African American writers have been practically invisible in the trade book industry.
An annotated bibliography of “significant” books by African American writers published between 1965 and 1971, compiled in 1971 by the New York Public Library, includes forty-seven new novels. Ten of the novels in the bibliography were written by women. The Bluest Eye is among them. It is described as “A quiet, gentle story of one girl’s world as she grows up black, poor, and alienated.”8 A survey by Gloria Wade-Gayles of major novels by African American women published between 1946 and 1976 lists twenty-six titles. Of those she identifies twelve, including The Bluest Eye and Sula, as having been “well received by the general reading public and by critics.”9 Two other novels on Wade-Gayles’s list of twelve, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975) and Eva’s Man (1976), were edited by Morrison.
There was intense controversy surrounding the publication of Jones’s novels. Morrison discusses the controversy and defends her choices in a December 1976 interview with Jessica Harris for Essence:
Some women’s literature is very aggressive and sometimes hostile in what it says about men. Gayl Jones’s writing has enormous range, and it’s unfair for conclusions to be drawn about her from these books. Although there was a lot of other Gayl Jones material from which to select, I chose to publish Corregidora and Eva’s Man because I thought that they would receive an enormous amount of notice and I wanted that for her. But the men come off badly in Corregidora. They are violent, insensitive, greedy, selfish and mean. Men don’t like to be portrayed that way.10
Morrison felt that the attention she received for books she edited by Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Lucille Clifton, Muhammad Ali, whom she described as “very exciting and electric,” and Angela Davis, “a very coherent, bright, very loving woman,”11 initially eluded her own first novel, The Bluest Eye, despite the publication of reviews of her novel by several major publications.
Morrison notes in the last lines of her afterword to the 1994 Plume edition of the novel that with “very few exceptions, the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread.”12 Haskel Frankel, in a review of The Bluest Eye for The New York Times Book Review, praised Morrison as “a writer of considerable power and tenderness,” but was critical of the way she constructed the novel. He felt that the scene between Pecola and Soap-head Church came too late in the novel to achieve the impact it might otherwise have had; that Frieda and Claudia “serve little purpose beyond distraction”; and that Pecola’s breakdown, “when it comes, has only the impact of reportage.” His criticisms notwithstanding, Frankel felt that Morrison showed great promise. He wrote, “The writer who can reveal the beauty and the hope beneath the surface is a writer to seek out and to encourage.”13 Criticism of the novel by L. E. Sissman, writing for The New Yorker, had to do with Morrison’s framing of the novel in “the bland white words of a conventional school ‘reader’—surely an unnecessary and unsubtle irony.”14 Sissman also accused Morrison of writing “an occasional false or bombastic line.” Another problem for Sissman was that Morrison “permits herself some inconsistencies.” Sissman gave as an example the way the real name of Soap-head Church is given, “Elihue Micah Whit-comb and Micah Elihue Whitcomb.”15
Reviewers from African American publications were more generous with their praise of The Bluest Eye. Liz Gant wrote favorably about the novel in her May 1971 review for Black World. The African American actress Ruby Dee wrote poignantly about the pain of reading The Bluest Eye in her review Dee called for a remedy to “some of the social elements of some of the people, black and white, that contribute to the erosion of innocence and beauty” as Morrison presents it.16 Although The Bluest Eye was included in the required reading lists of a few college courses in English and Afro-American studies in 1972 and 1973, by 1974 the novel was out of print.17
The greater commercial success of Sula can in part be attributed to the publication of the novel by Knopf. Founded in 1915 by Alfred A. Knopf, the company began publishing works by African American authors early in the twentieth century, including works by Hughes and James Baldwin. Committed to producing good books by
authors with first-rate minds, Knopf often published and strongly promoted works of fiction and nonfiction that were not destined to be best-sellers.18 By the time Knopf died in 1984, his company had published a formidable list of Nobel Prize winners from other countries, including Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Thomas Mann.19
At Knopf, Morrison had the good fortune to work with Robert Gottlieb as her editor. She knew from her own experience as an editor that good editors are crucial for serious writers. By most accounts, Gottlieb is one of the best. According to Boston Globe writer Mark Feeney, “Gottlieb is … the most celebrated book editor of his generation, the possessor of the pair of eyes such authors as Joseph Heller, John Cheever, John Le Carre, and Toni Morrison wanted to have first look at their work.”20 Morrison described Gottlieb, who edited all her books at Knopf through Beloved, as “superlative for me … What made him good for me was a number of things: knowing what not to touch; asking all the questions you probably would have asked yourself had there been the time.”21 She also found him “funny … literate and really able to tell you things.”22 After she wrote Sula, Morrison was persuaded by Gottlieb that the appellation writer was one she needed to claim.23 Whereas Morrison began to write as an antidote for loneliness, by the time she finished The Bluest Eye, she was already thinking about her next book. Writing had become more than work: it was an obsession.
TECHNIQUES FOR WRITING
Novelists who teach creative writing are regularly asked whether or not the art of writing can be taught. Morrison’s response is that some aspects can be taught. As a teacher with years of experience in professional editing, she feels that what she can offer students is guidance. “I can follow their train of thought, where their language is going, suggest other avenues.”24 What neither she nor anyone else can teach is “vision or talent,” which must be discovered and developed by the writer alone.25 Morrison’s talent for writing was revealed early in her childhood. She remembers being “very little" and writing stories for classes and knowing that the teacher did not believe that they were her compositions.26 She also apparently continued writing in high school, since she has said that she began working on the story that became The Bluest Eye when she ran out of the old high school “junk" she had been reading at the writing group she joined while teaching at Howard.27
The idea for The Bluest Eye came from a memory of a girl Morrison knew in elementary school, who told Morrison that she wanted blue eyes. Morrison recalls being angry and then repulsed by the girl’s expressed desire for “very blue eyes in a very dark skin.”28 This notion of beauty was alien to Morrison at that time. The idea of beauty she had imagined for herself was not physical; it was not external: “Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”29 As the story developed, Morrison found herself focusing “on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society; a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”30 In this and in her subsequent novels, her writing was guided by a series of questions. A strong motivation for Morrison as a writer is questions for which she seeks, if not answers, understanding. As Morrison told Jane Bakerman, writing became “a sort of compulsive thing because it was a way of knowing, a way of thinking that I found really necessary.”31
In The Bluest Eye Morrison’s questions have to do with standards of beauty. What would cause a young African American girl “to feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on die beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.”32 Once she had established her theme, Morrison began tackling some of the problems of writing that she later discusses more fully in her essays on fiction. One problem was what she calls the problem of centering: how to keep the weight of the novel’s inquiry from overwhelming such a “delicate and vulnerable a character” as Pecola, this totally victimized child; how to keep her from being “smashed” to the point that it would provoke in readers a feeling of pity rather than an “interrogation of themselves.” Morrison tried to resolve the problem by breaking the narrative into parts which the reader would have to reassemble, a solution that later dissatisfied her.33
Another problem—one that continues to occupy Morrison—was how to manipulate the spoken language of African American people into “race-specific yet race-free prose.”34 What she strove for was an expressiveness that relied on the “full comprehension” of “codes embedded in black culture” that would “effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy” between the reader and the text, and that would “transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black-American culture into a language worthy of the culture.”35
Twenty-three years after the publication of The Bluest Eye, Morrison examined her earliest work with the careful eye of a scholar and critic. In 1965, after she committed herself to completing the story she had started at Howard University, her concern was with the act of writing: giving her story shape and form, developing and refining her characters, making those characters speak truthfully, and putting it all down on the pads of paper she continues to use to draft her novels.
THE WORK OF WRITING
Morrison often has stressed the point that her writing is not the result of inspiration. Writing for her is work. It involves thinking, reading, writing, and rewriting. To do her work well, she has to organize her time carefully. In Syracuse, New York, where Morrison lived until she transferred to Random House in New York City in 1967, Morrison found it necessary to write early in the morning before her two sons got up, because she was not able to do so at night. Working early in the morning—in the predawn hours—soon became a habit, one that she continues today.
Morrison feels that it is important for writers to establish a ritual preparation for entering their writing space, “that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process.” She tells her students that “one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?”36 Morrison’s preparatory ritual is simple: she makes a cup of coffee while it is still dark—“it must be dark”—and drinks it while watching the day dawn.37 Her ideal writing routine is one she claims never to have experienced: days, “say, nine uninterrupted days,” of writing in an uncluttered space with “huge tables” during which she would not have to leave the house or answer calls.38
For Morrison, the physical act of writing is simple. She writes her drafts on yellow legal pads, usually with a number two soft Dixon Ticonderoga pencil.39 The hard part is “releasing the imagination” so that the writing will come. It does not always happen in those ideal spaces Morrison encourages her students to seek. If the writer has released her imagination, the writing will come at anytime and anywhere. Morrison resolved many literary problems while doing other things—traveling on the subway to her job, for example. The important thing is to be ready when the writing arrives. Speaking about some of her previous work, Morrison said, “There was no blank time,” especially when she was working on the “strong interior lives” of her characters, because “something was always churning.”40 She refrains from reading her work aloud while writing it. She fears that doing so might interfere with her efforts to “write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything.” She wants the language to direct the reader’s attention to “what is in between the word.” She believes that it is “what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”41
What Morrison writes are powerful stories about African American people that rely heavily on their interior lives, on what they are thinking and feeling at a given time or in a given set of circumstances. Morrison does not exclude whites as subjects of her writing—in Tar Baby, Valerian and Margaret Street, a white couple, are essential to the story—but she feels that African American characters best manifest the themes she wants to explore. Furthermore, she views the world from the perspective of an African American woman who is thoroughly grounded in African American culture. She brings to the work of writing a rich repository of materials gathered from the stories her parents used to tell when she was growing up, from her extensive reading of literature and research on African American history and culture, and from her keen sensitivity to the tones, rhythms, cadences, and nuances of the English language as spoken by African Americans.
Morrison is stimulated by what has not been written about African Americans. She wrote The Bluest Eye because there were no novels about the kinds of African American girls she portrayed. They were absent in the fiction of her youth, superseded in popular culture by the image of the child movie star Shirley Temple. In Sula Morrison focused on a theme she felt had received little attention in African American fiction—that of friendship between women. She told Claudia Tate, “Nobody ever talked about friendship between two women unless it was homosexual, and there is no homo-sexuality in Sula. Relationships between women were always written about as though they were subordinate to some other roles they’re playing.”42 Like many of the characters and events in her fiction, the friendship she writes about in Sula is not representative of what most people experience in their daily lives. As girls, Nel and Sula share a dark secret. As an adult, one betrays the other and dismisses her actions on the basis of their long friendship.
Morrison also is motivated to write novels that offer new challenges in terms of narrative techniques. The challenge of Song of Solomon was to write from a masculine perspective, and to envision the fictional world she created from the perspectives of two African American men, Milkman and his father, Macon Dead. In Jazz, arguably her most experimental novel, Morrisons concern was with creating a narrative structure akin to the kinds of improvisation found in jazz music. She explains in “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV” that what held her interest in Jazz was the “melody,” as she calls the plot, and the satisfaction of recognizing it whenever the narrator returns to it, just as the musician’s return to the melody after a long improvisation is recognized. For her, “the real art of the enterprise” was “bumping up against that melody time and again, seeing it from another point of view, seeing it afresh each time, playing it back and forth.” Citing the jazz musician Keith Jarretts performances of “Ol’ Man River,” Morrison adds, “the jazz-like structure wasn’t a secondary thing for me-it was the raison d’etre of the book. The process of trial and error by which the narrator revealed the plot was as important and exciting to me as telling the story.”43
The themes and ideas for Morrison’s stories come from many sources. Her richest source is her imagination. Growing up in a household with parents who enjoyed telling their children stories, and particularly ghost stories, Morrison had many opportunities to imagine herself in situations she would never encounter in real life. An avid reader even today, Morrison’s love for fiction and her subsequent formal study of English and Classics helped to enrich and keep fresh the material stored in her imagination, as did the Bible, which, Morrison exclaims, “wasn’t part of my reading, it was part of my life.”44 As a girl, Morrison’s task was to read the Bible aloud to her dying grandmother.45
Visual images and historical documents are other sources for Morrison. The idea for Jazz came from her involvement with Camille Billops’s The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978), a book of funeral portraits by the African American photographer James Van Der Zee, with poetry by Owen Dodson.46 Morrison, who wrote the foreword of the book, was struck by the portrait of a young girl in a draped coffin surrounded by floral arrangements.47 The girl had gone to a party where a jealous lover shot her with a gun equipped with a silencer. As she lay dying she refused to tell people who shot her, saying only “I’ll tell you tomorrow,” thereby allowing her lover to get away.48
Beloved grew out of her research for The Black Book. Morrison for years was obsessed with a newspaper article she read about Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave and mother of four children. The woman was so determined to prevent the return of her children to slavery after slave catchers tracked her down in Ohio that she tried to kill the children. She succeeded in killing one of them before she was apprehended. Morrison was struck by newspaper accounts of the woman’s calmness and serenity during an interview after the incident. The more Morrison thought about the event, the more she realized that this deed was not that of a madwoman, but rather one of a mother who loved her children too much to see them live as slaves.49
In Beloved Morrison fills in the silences left by the slave narratives. Writers of slave narratives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were constrained in what they could present about the condition of slavery by the strict codes of nineteenth-century decorum and deference and by the purposes for which they wrote—the abolition of slavery. Although Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) offered glimpses of what was going on in the mind of her heroine, in Beloved Morrison delves deep into the interior lives of the slaves to reveal slavery’s effect on their psyches.
The spark that ignited Morrison’s imagination for Paradise was the motto “Come Prepared or Not at All,” which she “stumbled across” six years prior to the publication of the novel in 1998.50 These and the other ideas that have sown the seeds for Morrison’s fiction did not immediately reveal themselves as themes, however. She did not immediately recognize the story of Beloved in the newspaper article about Garner. She told Tate that what obsessed her in both the article and the Van Der Zee photograph was the love these women had for something other than themselves: that Garner “would not see” her children “sullied” and that the woman in the Van Der Zee photograph “had loved a man or had such affection for a man that she would postpone her own medical care or go ahead and die to give him time to get away.”51 As these themes began to take shape in her mind, it became increasingly clear to her that they could evolve into the trilogy now completed with the publication of Paradise.
GETTING THE WRITING UNDER WAY
Morrison begins writing as soon as she recognizes the story in the ideas she has gathered. Sometimes this takes years, as in the case of Beloved. A notable exception is Tar Baby. Morrison told Tate that when she finished Song of Solomon, she did not have an idea for another book. She dismisses the notion that she might have experienced a writer’s block. She believes that “when you hit a place where you can’t write, you probably should be still for a while because it’s not there yet.”52 This statement suggests that the ideas for Tar Baby—considered by most critics to be Morrison’s weakest novel—were not quite the obsession that the ideas for her other novels seem to have been.
When writing the first drafts of her novels, Morrison’s starting point often is not what becomes the beginning of the work. She believes that trying to write the beginning first can be inhibiting because of the tendency of writers to try and “get it just right.” She starts with whatever persists in her mind. For example, with Sula she started, not with her title character, but with Shadrack. Endings are easier for Morrison. She told Bakerman that she usually knows how
the story will end before she begins writing. She writes from notes rather than an outline. Morrison explains, “It’s like a plot, but it isn’t; it’s just things I think about the people and what happens. Notes. They’re notes, I suppose, but sometimes they have continuity. Parts of that stuff, I’m able to use verbatim, and some of it, I’m not. But it does give me a sense of the whole.”53
In most of her novels Morrison presents her plots in the first few pages. Like a writer of detective stories, she wants to “hook” her readers right away. She wants to tell them what happened in such a way that they will keep reading to find out how it happened, who did it, and why.54 The opening sentence of Paradise—“They shoot the white girl first”—is dramatic and effective.55 The reader is indeed hooked until the end of the novel. With Beloved Morrison felt that it was important that Sethe’s act of infanticide and the details that drove her to it be immediately known but that the scene itself be deferred. Her concern was with trying to avoid “engorging herself or the reader with the violence” of Sethe’s actions. Morrison told Schappell,
I remember writing the sentence where Sethe cuts the throat of the child very, very late in the process of writing the book. I remember getting up from the table, and walking outside for a long time—walking around in the yard and coming back and revising it a little bit and going back out and in and rewriting the sentence over and over again… . Each time I fixed that sentence so that it was exactly right, or so I thought, but then I would be unable to sit there and would have to go away and come back. I thought that the act itself had to be not only buried but also understated, because if the language was going to compete with the violence itself it would be obscene or pornographic.”56
Among the charges made against Morrison is precisely that her novels contain a great deal of violence. That violence often is committed by women—mothers who stick, slash, and bum their own children. Morrison manages to keep the violence from becoming “obscene or pornographic” by carefully and economically contextualizing it. Sethe’s actions in Beloved are shocking. Infanticide among enslaved African Americans was rarely discussed prior to the publication of Beloved. Within the context of the narratives of Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Paul D., Sethe’s motivations for killing her children, while not easily justifiable, cause the reader to think about the culpability of the African American community, which should have been on guard. This context also reminds readers that the fugitive slave laws allowed slave owners to go into states where slavery was prohibited and reclaim runaways. Eva Peace in Sula is another mother who does the unthinkable. Not only does she manage to lose a leg in order to collect insurance for the support of her children; she kills one adult child by immolating him rather than see him die the slow death of a drug addict, and nearly kills herself trying to put out the flames engulfing the body of another. Similar to Cholly Breedlove’s brutal attack on his daughter Pecola in The Bluest Eye and Margaret Street’s abuse of her son in Tar Baby, the violence in Sula serves to show the danger of misguided and distorted love. Furthermore, Morrison cautions that the situations and characters she presents in her novels are not representative. They are drawn almost exclusively from her imagination.
Morrison insists that she neither writes about herself nor about people she knows: “In fiction, I feel the most intelligent, and the most free and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.”57 Even historical figures such as Garner are more invented than documented. When she was preparing to write Beloved, Morrison chose not to do in-depth research on Garner’s life. She read only what she needed to render what it might have felt like, internally, emotionally, to be a slave. Morrison told Schappell,
I’m not interested in real-life people as subjects for fiction—including myself. If I write about somebody who’s an historical figure like Margaret Garner, I really don’t know anything about her. What I knew came from reading two interviews with her. They said, Isn’t this extraordinary. Here’s a woman who escaped into Cincinnati from the horrors of slavery and was not crazy. Though she’d killed her child, she was not foaming at the mouth. She was very calm, she said, ’I’d do it again.’ That was more than enough to fire my imagination.58
Morrison enjoys “taking control of her characters,” placing them in difficult situations, trying to figure out how they would act, and creating for each of them a distinct way of speaking and of being that is different from any other characters. To do so requires that they be “very carefully imagined”59 and that she guard against grafting onto to her characters her own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. After years of editing, Morrison is able to maintain sufficient distance to let her characters come into their own, although occasionally she has to shut them up. She told Schappell that when she was writing Song of Solomon she had to make Pilate shut up, “otherwise she was going to overwhelm everybody. She got terribly interesting; characters can do that for a little bit. I had to take it back. It’s my book; it’s not called Pilate.”60
Pilate is one of many memorable characters in Morrison’s fiction. Along with Consolata and Lone DuPres in Paradise, the midwife Circe and Jake in Song of Solomon, Baby Suggs in Beloved, and Therese in Tar Baby, Pilate represents the kind of ancestral figure Morrison discusses in an essay titled “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.”61 They are “timeless people whose relationships to the other characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective and they provide a certain kind of wisdom.” For Morrison, who admits to being superstitious, that wisdom arises out of a blending of the realms of the supernatural with “a profound rootedness in the real world” as the African American people among whom she was raised understood it. It is through this kind of blending and her continuing efforts to refine and free up the aural qualities of her language that Morrison hopes to engage readers everywhere more deeply in the culture of African American people.
1. Jane Bakerman, “The Seams Can’t Show: An Interview with Toni Morrison" in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p. 31.
2. Robert Stepto, “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 23.
3. Jessica Harris, “Toni Morrison: I Will Always Be a Writer,” Essence, 7 (December 1976): 56.
4. Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV,” Paris Review, 35 (Fall 1993): 98.
5. Harris, p. 91.
6. Gloria Naylor, “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, pp. 199-200.
7. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. By Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston (London: Printed for Archibald Bell and sold in Boston by Cox & Berry, 1773).
8. No Crystal Stair, A Bibliography of Black Literature: Books Published Since 1965. Compiled by The New York Public Library, 1971.
9. Gloria Wade-Gayles, No Crystal Stair: Visions of Race and Gender in Black Women’s Fiction, Revised and Updated (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1997), pp. 1-14.
10. Harris, p. 56.
11. Ibid., p. 90.
12. Toni Morrison, “Afterword” in The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 216.
13. Haskel Frankel, Untitled review of The Bluest Eye in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988), pp. 20-21.
14. L. E. Sissman, “Beginner’s Luck,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. Anthony Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), pp. 4-5.
15. Ibid., p. 5.
16. Ruby Dee, Untitled review of The Bluest Eye in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 19.
17. See the syllabi in the appendices of All the Women Are White, AH the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1982), pp. 360-378.
18. “Alfred Knopf, Man of Letters, Dies at 91,” anonymous, San Diego Union-Tribune, 12 August 1984.
19. W. J. Weatherby, “Nobel House,” Guardian (13 August 1984).
20. Mark Feeney, “Literally a Legend,” Boston Globe, 21 November 2000, Cl.
21. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, p. 91.
22. Zia Jaffrey, “The Salon Interview: Toni Morrison,” Salon.com (2 February 1998).
23. Kathy Neustadt, “The Visits of the Writers Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 88.
26. Charles Ruas, “Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 98.
27. Mel Watkins, “Talk with Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 44.
28. Morrison, pp. 209, 211, 216.
29. Ibid., p. 209.
30. Ibid., p. 210.
31. Bakerman in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 210.
32. Morrison, p. 21.
33. Ibid., p. 211.
35. Ibid., p. 215.
36. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, p. 87.
37. Ibid., pp. 86-87.
38. Ibid., p. 87.
39. Ibid., p. 89.
40. Jaffrey, p. 3.
41. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, pp. 89-90.
42. Claudia Tate, “Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 157.
43. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, p. 110.
44. Ruas in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 97.
45. Ibid., p. 104.
46. James Van Der Zee, Owen Dodson, and Camille Billops, The Harlem Book of the Dead (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Morgan & Morgan, 1978).
47. Ibid., pp. 52-53.
48. Ibid., p. 52.
49. Naylor in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 207.
50. Paul Gray, “Paradise Found,” Time.com (19 January 1998).
51. Naylor in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 208.
52. Ibid., p. 206.
53. Bakerman in Conversations with Toni Morrison, pp. 32-33.
54. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, pp. 109-110.
55. Morrison, Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 3.
56. Schappell and Brodsky Lacour, pp. 110-111.
57. Ibid., p. 105.
58. Ibid., pp. 123-124.
59. Ibid., p. 106.
61. Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984), p. 343.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5414
THE 1930s AND 1940s
Toni Morrison was born in 1931, less than two years after the stock market crashed and the United States fell into a general economic depression that continued until World War I. The decade of the 1930s was one of economic hardships for most poor and working-class people. For African Americans, especially the three-quarters of that population that lived in the South, it was dire. Those who migrated to northern urban areas from the rural South in search of better living conditions and employment opportunities quickly learned that whites would not hire them because they were African Americans. Even skilled laborers found it difficult, if not impossible, to be hired on a work crew. A lucky few, such as Morrison’s father, regularly were hired at a lower wage than the white workers and were assigned to do the most dangerous jobs. Many other African Americans lost their jobs to less skilled white workers when employers, out of economic necessity, had to cut their workforces. By 1933, more than twelve million Americans were unemployed. Because of racist practices in most industries and professions, for many years African Americans were the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Even in economically stable times prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans had no legal protections against unfair and discriminatory practices in labor, education, and housing.
The MacTeer family’s living conditions described in The Bluest Eye were typical for most African American families during the 1930s and 1940s. Most working-class families during that period, both African American and white, had at least one roomer. In The Bluest Eye, that roomer is Mr. Henry. For the young narrator, Claudia, the idea of a roomer is exotic: “Our roomer. Our roomer. The words ballooned from the lips and hovered about our heads—silent, separate, and pleasantly mysterious. My mother was all ease and satisfaction in discussing his coming.”1 Claudia’s mother is “all ease and satisfaction” because Mr. Henry’s
choice of her house over the others available to him means extra income for the household. His stay there also raises her esteem in the eyes of her gossipy neighbors. Mrs. MacTeer had beat out the competition.
During the Depression even the best and most frugal homemakers found it difficult to stretch their already limited budgets. According to the historian Lois Rita Helmbold, “About half of urban northern Black families received relief in the mid 1930s, three or four times the rate of white families in the same areas.”2 Morrison’s family was no exception. Despite her father’s best efforts, they on occasion had to accept welfare relief.3 In a 1994 interview for The New York Times Magazine Morrison told Claudia Dreifus that she knew her family was very poor, “But that was never degrading.” Morrison remembers that despite their impoverishment, her parents made their children “feel as though there were these rather extraordi-nary deserving people within us.”4 The children were taught not to gauge their worthiness in economic terms.
The economic circumstances of Morrison’s family and of millions of other American families improved after the United States entered World War II on 8 December 1941, the day after Japan attacked the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The demand for labor as a result of the war opened up employment opportunities for both women and men in manufacturing and industry. The first few years of the war effort resulted in significant demographic shifts, with more than 470,000 African Americans leaving the rural South for the North, where they hoped to find employment in the national defense industry. The industry also briefly brought economic independence to black women. The proportion of black women working in industry rose from 6.8 percent in 1940 to 18 percent in 1944. For the first time in the his-tory of the United States, more African American women were working in industry than in domestic service. Similar to African American men, however, the women were limited by racism. The best jobs went to white women. African American women worked at hard, often hazardous jobs for low wages in deplorably dirty working environments. When the war ended and women were urged to return to their traditional roles as keepers of the hearth, African American women were among the first to be let go. Many of them did not return home, though. Those who came north generally stayed in the cities and tried to find work in the domestic and service sectors of the labor market.
Morrison grew up in a time when educational and career expectations for African American women were not high. Like most women in this country, African American women were expected to get married and raise a family after graduating from high school. College-bound women, and particularly African American women, were steered to colleges with strong programs in home economics. Since only 4 percent of all African American families in 1949—the year Morrison left Lorain, Ohio, for college—had a total annual household income of $5,000 or more (as compared to 21 percent of all white families), and the median annual black family’s income was $1,650 (as compared with $3,232 for white families),5 African American women took it for granted that they would work outside the home to help support their families.6 Employment opportunities for African Americans in general were limited, the result of de facto and de jure racial segregation. African American men worked as laborers, while African American women worked as domestics or in other service fields. African American women with college degrees could expect to teach in segregated schools and colleges, to go into social work, or to go into nursing.
Morrison recalled in her interview with Dreifus that she was around thirteen years old when she first went to work for a white family. That experience provided her with a framework for Pauline Breed-love in The Bluest Eye:
That was the kind of work that was available: to go to a woman’s house after school and clean for three or four hours. The normal teen-age jobs were not available. Housework always was. It wasn’t uninteresting. You got to work these gadgets that I never had at home: vacuum cleaners. Some of the people were nice. Some were terrible. Years later, I used some of what 1 observed in my fiction. In The Bluest Eye, Pauline lived in this dump and hated everything in it. And then she worked for the Fishers, who had this beautiful house, and she loved it. She got a lot of respect as their maid that she didn’t get anywhere else. If she went to the grocery store as a black woman from that little house and said, “I don’t want this meat,” she would not be heard. But if she went as a representative of these white people and said, “This is not good enough,” they’d pay attention.7
In terms of career goals, the expectations of Morrison’s parents were consistent with those for women in general. In a 1981 interview she said, “They assumed that all my life I should work. And I guess they assumed that I should get married. It never occurred to me that I could get married and not work. What was needed was skill. I had an uncle who had gone to college, and I was surrounded by people who had done extraordinary things under duress in order to survive.”8 Morrison grew up in a family that embraced a strong work ethic, and she was surrounded by role models such as her father. It is not surprising that Morrison, after completing her undergraduate degree, made gaining an advanced degree, rather than marriage, a priority.
THE 1950s AND CORNELL UNIVERSITY
Morrison graduated from Howard in 1953 and entered Cornell University that fall. By that time, the country had begun moving along a long, painful, and often violent road to desegregation. In 1950 the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against classroom and social segregation in the McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents case had a direct effect on African Americans in higher education.9 In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas). In overturning Plessy v. Ferguson—the 1896 case in which the Court found that “separate but equal” facilities are constitutional, the Court ruled that segregated schools are “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional.
This ruling might have opened up many new teaching opportunities for some of the more than thirteen thousand African American women and men who earned bachelor’s degrees in 195310 had it not been for the tremendous and often violent resistance to it, especially in the southern states. In the North many colleges and universities were opposed to admitting African American students to their graduate programs, although their resistance was not as virulent as that of institutions in the South. Morrison might well have chosen Cornell for her graduate studies because of the university’s long history of trying to provide a quality education for women and people of color, and because a member of Howard University’s Board of Trustees, Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, did her graduate work there.11
Morrison graduated from Cornell just months before a heinous crime in Mississippi turned the international spotlight on the serious racial problems of the United States—the torture, mutilation, and murder of a fourteen-year-old African American from Chicago named Emmett Till. In August 1955 Till, during a stay with his uncle in Tallahatchie County, allegedly either whistled at or propositioned the wife of a white store owner, Roy Bryant. A few nights after the incident, Bryant and his half brother, J. W. Milam, went to Till’s uncle’s house and demanded that he be turned over to them. A few days later Till’s badly beaten and mutilated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. Bryant and Milam were tried for murder and acquitted by an all-white male jury. Both the trial in Mississippi and Till’s funeral in Chicago received international media coverage.12 His mother’s insistence that the casket remain open was effective in rousing antilynching sentiment. For most African American people, this crime was not merely a murder: it was a lynching. The difference was that the murder was not performed in the public, communal, and ritualized manner that was common in the South during the 1930s. Bryant, Milam, and their accomplices accomplished their deed away from witnesses. The intensity of the international public outcry not only had to do with the violent nature of the crime against a child; thoughtful people around the world criticized the government and the American judicial system for not doing enough to protect the rights of its African American citizens. African Americans in rural Mississippi were disfranchised and therefore could not serve on juries. In the aftermath of the Till lynching and several other less publicized murders of African American men during the four years that followed, African Americans in Mississippi and in other areas of the rural South lived under constant threat of violence from whites.
The image of Till’s face, beaten and swollen beyond recognition, was seared onto the memories and imaginations of people, young and old, for many, many years. His death was written about by journalists, poets, and novelists alike. The death of Till motivated many young black people to become involved with the Civil Rights movement.13 Rosa Parks helped to put the movement into motion when, just a little more than three months after the death of Till, she boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and refused to give her seat up to a white man. The hope of the many people who were mobilized in Montgomery and elsewhere in the South was that through nonviolent protests the country could be forced to acknowledge, respect, and protect the rights of African Americans as a first step to a fully integrated society.
In the wake of several events—the murder of Till, the Montgomery bus boycott that catapulted Martin Luther King Jr. to international fame, the 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation on Montgomery’s city buses, and the 17 May 1957 prayer pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., organized by King and the African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph—many students at Howard University became dissatisfied with programs of study that they felt were not relevant to the needs of African Americans. By 1962 a more militant tone was being sounded at Howard. Tom Myles, an alumnus who was a major player in student activism, summed up the problem in his photographic history of student demonstrations at Howard:
Black students came to understand that the University was neither responsible to nor accountable to black people. It had concerned itself primarily with its role as an escape hatch for the few Negroes able to afford its services. This is not surprising since it was just a few years ago that the emphasis was on integration as the mechanism through which Negroes could escape all the stigmas assigned to them by whites. And it was thought that educated Negroes were what was needed to make integration work. The lesson had not yet been learned. But in the process of educating Negroes to be acceptable to whites, far too many of them became polarized against their own people. And the University was the prime agent.14
A direct result of the student-protest movements in the South and the violence they engendered in racist whites was the development of a new black consciousness among black college students who demanded a new kind of education. As Myles boldly stated,
black students clearly understand now that the construction of a new black consciousness which will serve the needs of black people must begin with the schools, colleges, and universities. Universities in which the majority of the students are black have a special obligation to transform themselves into universities in which the curriculum is relevant to and addresses itself to the special problems of black people living in what has now been officially declared a racist society.”15
Among the leaders of the campus protest movement who were committed to this radical reorganization of Howard University and the development of a new black consciousness among its students was one of Morrison’s students, Stokeley Carmichael, who popularized the slogan, “Black Power!”
According to Morrison, Carmichael was “the kind of student who makes average grades, but he was clever in class, the kind of student who made others respond. He was a wonderful, welcoming presence. In 1964 when he was graduating, I said, ’Stokeley, where are you going now?’ and he said, ’I’ve been accepted at Union Theology Seminary.’ He was going to study theology, but first, he was going to Mississippi to work for one summer in the field.”16 As a member of the Howard Non-Violent Action Group, Carmichael “appeared before the Congressional Subcommittee of the Equal Employment Commission on Civil Rights to protest discriminatory hiring practices of Craft Unions building the University’s new gymnasium.”17 In 1966 Carmichael was elected chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Formed in 1960, SNCC was an interracial activist organization committed to carrying out nonviolent voter-rights campaigns and civil-rights demonstrations throughout the South, particularly in Mississippi, where African Americans, often under the threat of death, were denied the right to vote. Under the leadership of Carmichael and others the organization had by 1966 become very militant and adopted a separatist policy that led to the exclusion of white participants.18
The seeds of black cultural nationalism that had begun to take root nationwide in the early 1960s spread to the campus of Howard before Morrison left for Europe in 1964. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evers, the field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), were assassinated. Four girls were killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. James E. Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, three civil-rights workers, were murdered in Mississippi in 1964. In light of these events and the continuing violence against African Americans that they witnessed daily on their televisions, students at Howard grew increasingly militant and frustrated with an administration that refused to hear their demands for change. The assassinations in 1965 of Malcolm X, the racial violence that spread through the major cities in 1967, the assassination in 1968 of King, and the raging war in Vietnam further fueled discontent at Howard, leading to the protests that Myles documents. The protests culminated in the student takeover of an administration building in 1968. The university was finally forced to change.
Morrison admits that she was not politically engaged while she was teaching at Howard, although many of her students were involved in the movement. Her attention was diverted to her personal life. She had given birth to her first child in 1961. She also was not in favor of integration. As she explained to Rosemarie K. Lester during a 1983 interview,
1 knew the terrors and the abuses of segregation. But integration also meant that we would not have a fine black college or fine black education. 1 didn’t know why the assumption was that black children were going to learn better if they were in the company of white children. Since that time I’ve seen other things happen where there were black separatists who said, “we don’t want to have anything to do with white people.” I was always on the other side of the mirror of the moment, busing and such. In my heart, I didn’t like it. But I knew that the racists also wanted segregation for their purposes… . What I thought ought to happen was that the money should be there for the materials for education, for the fine faculty, and so on… . Put the money into black neighborhoods, get it there, and we will produce our own excellent faculty, curricula, etc.”19
Despite her reservations about enforced desegregation in public education, when Morrison took a job in 1965 with L. W. Singer, she realized that the pressure the Civil Rights movement was putting on schools to revise their curricula offered her an opportunity to help “make some changes.”20 The greatest and most rapid changes came from student protests similar to the ones at Howard, Cornell, Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Berkeley. By 1970 several of these and other colleges and universities had yielded to pressure from students to institute Afro-American studies programs and to revise the undergraduate curricula to include courses about African Americans.
As programs in Afro-American studies became more formalized during the 1970s, a distinct gender bias became apparent, at least from the perspective of African American women scholars and writers. The programs were administered mainly by men and most of the works included on course reading lists were by and about African American men. African American women scholars and teachers, some of whom experienced sexism in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and racism in the new feminist movement, found themselves fighting an uphill battle as they tried to remedy a situation that they felt was detrimental to the development of Afro-American studies as an academic discipline—the exclusion of African American women. Among the problems they encountered was the paucity of materials in print by and about African American women. African American women were not getting published at the rate of their male peers.
Morrison’s most significant contributions to the changes occurring around her were in the field of publishing. Over the course of the twenty years she worked as an editor at Random House in New York City, Morrison came to be known and respected as a major force behind the books the company published by black writers. She helped to guide the careers of Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, and Lucille Clifton. Morrison was particularly proud of having published posthumously most of the work of Henry Dumas, whom she called “the best naturally talented, no-holds-barred writer I have ever published.”21 She edited the autobiography of Muhammad Ali, described by Morrison as “absolutely as fascinating as he says he is.”22 She found Davis to be “very committed and selfless but without that abrasive quality that many committed people have.” Morrison added, “She’s the genuine article.”23
In addition to her writing and editorial work Morrison frequently wrote articles and reviews for The New York Times during the 1970s. Her 1971 article, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” offers insights into why mainstream feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) failed to attract African American women. She explains why African American women, if they respond to feminism at all, do so with distrust:
In spite of the fact that liberating movements in the black world have been catalysts for white feminism, too many movements and organizations have made deliberate overtures to enroll blacks and have ended up by rolling them. They don’t want to be used again to help somebody gain power—a power that is carefully kept out of their hands. They look at white women and see them as the enemy—for they know that racism is not confined to white men, and that there are more white women than men in this country, and that 53 per cent of the population sustained an eloquent silence during times of greatest stress. The faces of those white women hovering behind that black girl at the Little Rock school in 1957 do not soon leave the retina of the mind.24
Aside from their general distrust of the feminist agendas as defined by NOW founder Betty Friedan and other mainstream feminists, African American women felt that feminism did not speak to their realities and practical needs.25 As Morrison points out, black women were less concerned with getting into the workforce than with being upgraded to better-paying jobs. Their educational needs were different. While white women were fighting to get into medical school, black women’s more immediate educational needs were more likely to be adult education programs. More important, black women were not concerned with “how to exercise freedom from the head of the household,” but in how to be head of the household.26
Morrison also comments on stereotypes or what she refers to as “archetypes” such as the comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine, and Sapphire from Amos and Andy. She argued that these “are the comic creations of men.” As stereotypes they were distortions, but underneath their comic veneer there were some truths about the strength of black women. Morrison discusses at length the impact of feminism on interracial relations between black men and white women before concluding on a more hopeful note that, as more black women such as Democratic representative to the U.S. House of Representatives Shirley Chisholm and the civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer got involved with women’s liberation, it would become “something real: women talking about human rights rather than sexual rights—something other than a family quarrel”27 between white women and white men, something that would benefit a broader group of women than those on the membership lists of NOW.
THE 1980s AND 1990s
During the 1980s and 1990s African Americans were more engaged than ever in the economic, political, and cultural arenas of the United States. The 1990s particularly can be called the best of times for African Americans in light of their earlier history. As Orlando Patterson illustrates in The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis (1997), “Afro-Americans from a condition of mass illiteracy fifty years ago, are now among the most educated groups of people in the world, with median years of schooling and college completion rates higher than those of most European nations.”28 Among those graduating from college during the 1990s, women out-numbered men two to one. Their presence in universities and their demand for courses by and about black women helped to boost sales of African American fiction. In 1993 alone, African Americans spent an estimated $178 million on books.29 After the long and hard struggle toward integration, millions of African Americans in the 1990s moved into the economic middle class and used some of their so-called disposable income for their own cultural enrichment and that of their children. In the 1980s and 1990s African Americans received more awards for their contributions to art, literature, and music than ever before. Toni Morrison’s selection for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993 was a crowning achievement for a literary tradition that was a little more than two hundred years old before Morrison went to Oslo, Norway, to accept her prize.
If a single era could be singled out as a defining moment in a writer’s career, at least in terms of the volume of her writing and the number of awards and other recognition bestowed on her, for Morrison, it would be the decade of the 1990s. After writing seven novels, creating pieces for theater and the concert stage, and participating in contentious debates over the trial of O. J. Simpson, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and immigration, Toni Morrison at the end of the 1990s had won for herself a place among the world’s most gifted intellectuals. She is even the topic of a debate between two characters in Rebecca Gilman’s 2000 play, Spinning into Butter. The play deals with racism at a small college in Vermont. It focuses on the campus administrators and their ineptness in dealing with a racial problem involving a black student. It focuses especially on the dean of students, Sarah Daniels, and her efforts to come to terms with the racism beneath her liberalism. To show how hopelessly lost she is, Daniels tells her colleague Ross that she once got drunk at a faculty Christmas party and told an English professor that she hates Toni Morrison. Ross asks her why. Daniels replies, “Her books suck.” She particularly hates Morrison’s Beloved. She tells Ross, “Stylistically it’s a mess. It’s like a sloppy first draft.” Ross accuses Daniels of “imposing traditional standards” on the novel, to which Daniels replies, “I know why I’m supposed to like her, but I don’t. And I don’t think that hating Toni Morrison makes you a racist. I just know that other people think it makes you a racist.”30 Expressing her hatred of Morrison is Sarah Daniels’s way of unburdening herself of her own racial problems. Gilman, by introducing Morrison in her characters’ conflicts, underscores the importance of Morrison’s novels for ongoing discussions between blacks and whites over what W. E. B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), identified as the problem of the twentieth century—the problem of the color line.
1. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1993), p. 12.
2. Lois Rita Helmbold, “The Depression,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Ter-borg-Penn, volume 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 328.
3. Colette Dowling, “The Song of Toni Morrison” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p. 30.
4. Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks about Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine, 11 September 1994, p. 73.
5. Charles H. Thompson, “The Relative Enrollment of Negroes in Higher Educational Institutions in the United States,” Journal of Negro Education, 22 (Summer 1953): 439.
6. Jeanne L. Noble, The Negro Woman’s College Education (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University Press, 1956), pp. 116-117.
7. Dreifus, p. 73.
8. Charles Ruas, “Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 98.
9. Sharon Harley, The Timetables of African-American History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in African-American History (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 263-264.
10. This figure is based on Noble’s estimate for 1950. See The Negro Woman’s College Education, Appendix D, Table 2.
11. For a history of the efforts of Cornell University to provide education for women and people of color, see Charlotte Williams Conable, Women at Cornell: The Myth of Equal Education (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977).
12. Stephen J. Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (New York: Free Press, 1988), pp. 33-50.
13. Ibid., pp. 91-96.
14. Tom Myles, Centennial Plus 1: A Photographic and Narrative Account of the Black Stu-dent Revolution, Howard University 1965-1968, edited by J. L. Pinderhughes (Washington, D.C.: Black-Light Graphics, 1969), p. 23.
15. Ibid., p. 9.
16. Rosemarie K. Lester, “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany,” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay (Boston: Hall, 1988), p. 51.
17. Myles, p. 9.
18. William L. Van Deburg, Modern Black Nationalism: From Marcus Garvey to Louis Farrakhan (New York: New York University Press, 1997), pp. 119-126.
19. Lester, p. 51.
21. Jessica Harris, “Toni Morrison: I Will Always Be a Writer,” Essence, 1976: 56.
22. Ibid., p. 90.
23. Ibid., p. 90.
24. Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” New York Times Magazine, 22 August 1971, pp. 14-15, 63-64, 66.
25. See Betty Freidan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Dell, 1963).
26. Morrison, “What the Black Woman Thinks about Women’s Lib,” p. 15.
27. Ibid., p. 66.
28. Orlando Patterson, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1997), p. 21.
29. See Carolyn M. Brown, “Writing a New Chapter in Book Publishing,” Black Enterprise, vol. 25, February 1995, pp. 108-116.
30. Rebecca Gilman, Spinning into Butter (New York: Faber & Faber, 2000), pp. 79-80.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14177
The Bluest Eye. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.
In a 1984 essay titled “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” Morrison wrote, “I want my fiction to urge the reader into active participation in the non-narrative, nonliterary experience of the text, which makes it difficult for the reader to confine himself to a cool and distant acceptance of data.“1 Her concern is writing novels that cannot easily be consumed and then discarded. She wants her readers to look beneath the surface of her stories, which often are quite simple, and to focus on the experience of reading in much the same way she believes a person experiences works of art or musical compositions; that is, without having to rely on prior literary knowledge. She therefore structures her novels in such a way that the bits and pieces from which she develops her stories are related in a nonlinear manner. In an effort to clarify what she means, she describes the form of her first novel, The Bluest Eye:
The form becomes the exact interpretation of the idea the story is meant to express. There is nothing more traditional than that—but the sources of the images are not the traditional novelistic or readerly ones. The visual image of a splintered mirror, or the corridor of split mirrors in blue eyes, is the form as well as the content of The Bluest Eye.2
She attempts to convey through the form or structure of her novel the splintering of the life of a young African American girl, Pecola Breedlove, whose victimization is so complete that she goes insane.
The Bluest Eye is divided into four parts, each representing a season of the year. It begins with a version of the Dick and Jane primer, which once was required reading for elementary school children. The Dick and Jane story presents an ideal (white) American family in a perfect setting. The story is repeated three times, with the second and third repetitions suggesting the disintegration of the idea of a nuclear family, one of the organizing themes of the novel. Although Claudia MacTeer, the principal narrator of the novel, and her sister, Frieda, enjoy a nurturing environment and loving parents, their physical environment is far
removed from that of Dick and Jane. Morrison deconstructs the American ideal by presenting families whose lives are conditioned by racism and poverty and, in the case of the Breedloves, by deep pathology.
The Bluest Eye is set in the small, insular, African American community of Lorain, Ohio, where Claudia and Frieda MacTeer try to find an explanation for two extraordinary events: that the marigold seeds they planted did not grow—in fact, “there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941”—and that their friend Pecola Breedlove was raped and impregnated by her father, Cholly Breedlove.3 When Pecola’s baby dies, Claudia and Frieda blame each other for having planted their seeds incorrectly. For many readers, the theme of incest and the graphic description in the section titled “Winter” of the rape scene over shadow some of the more humorous sections of the novel. For example, Claudia’s reaction in “Autumn” to the child star Shirley Temple, her comments about her mother’s blues lyrics and incessant “fussing,” and her and Frieda’s efforts to hide from their mother that Pecola has started “ministratin” offer comic relief from the bleakness that otherwise characterizes Pecola Breedlove’s existence.4 Likewise, Pauline Breedlove’s first-person account of how she tried to emulate the movie star Jean Harlow offers a humorous side to Morrison’s critique of popular standards of beauty and their effect on young and vulnerable African American girls. Pauline’s narrative offers an explanation of how the love between her and Cholly Breedlove ended in hate. In “Spring” a third-person narrator states emphatically that “Pauline and Cholly loved each other.”5 Unlike the MacTeers, how-ever, their love for each other and for their children is not strong enough to sustain them against the external forces of racism and poverty. The family becomes increasingly dysfunctional and finally disintegrates with Cholly’s brutal assault on his daughter.
Although Morrison generally is regarded as a modernist, The Bluest Eye is an example of writing in the tradition of literary realism. Morrison’s depiction of Lorain, Ohio; her emphasis on the cultural specificity of the community in which she sets her novel; and her accuracy in portraying the speech, behavior, and attitudes of poor African American people are examples of her use of realist technique. Morrison’s modernism, however, is evident in her use of a shifting narrative point of view. The point of view shifts between that of young Claudia MacTeer; that of a more mature voice that narrates the histories of Cholly Breedlove, Soaphead Church, and the other minor characters; and that of the first-person narrative voices of Pauline and Pecola Breedlove. Pecola’s voice is rarely heard. Almost all of her thoughts and actions are presented from a thirdperson point of view. After her baby dies, she communicates only with herself, “walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear.”6
Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Two common traits of Morrison’s novels are the use of settings in small African American communities and a focus on women. Most of her novels are set in the Midwest. The setting of Sula is a place called the Bottom, an African American neighborhood in the hills of the fictional Ohio River Valley town of Medallion. The novel spans five decades, from 1919, when World War I veteran Shadrack returns to the Bottom and establishes National Suicide Day, to 1965, when all but a handful of the original residents of the Bottom either have died or moved elsewhere. The linear structure of the novel is complicated by the shifts in narrative time from the present to the past. For example, in order to understand the behavior of Sula Peace’s one-legged grandmother, Eva Peace, the reader is taken back to 1895 when Eva Peace’s husband, Boy Boy, deserts her and their three children, Pearl, Plum, and Hannah—later Sula’s mother. Shortly afterward, Eva leaves the three children with a neighbor. She returns to Medallion eighteen months later with only one leg and enough money to build a large and rambling house. She shares her house with several eccentric characters, including a drunken blonde-haired white man whom she names “Tar Baby”; three young boys all named Dewey; her son, Plum; her daughter, Hannah; and her granddaughter, Sula.
At the center of Sula is the relationship between the title character and her friend Nel. Morrison has said that the theme of Sula is the “nature and quality of forgiveness”7 she believes characterizes friendship between women. The friendship between Sula and Nel is traced from 1922—when they both were twelve years old—to Sula’s death in 1940. Among the things that bind them together throughout their adolescence are their solitariness, their delight in daydreaming, and their culpability for the death in 1922 of a little boy known in the neighborhood as Chicken Little. Their relationship is disrupted by Nel’s marriage to Jude Green. After the wedding, Sula leaves the Bottom. She returns ten years later amid a “plague of robins,” seduces Nel’s husband, and then abandons him.8 Forgiveness does not come easily for Nel after her husband leaves her for her best friend. She does not admit to herself until 1965 that Sula, rather than her husband, Jude, is the one whom she misses the most.
Morrison’s treatment in Sula of the themes of forgiveness, mother love, and good and evil are as unsettling as the rape scene in The Bluest Eye. She explains in “Memory, Creation, and Writing” that her early efforts as a novelist were focused on subverting her reader’s “traditional comfort so that he may experience an unorthodox one: that of being in the company of his own solitary imagination.”9 In order to do so, she invented characters that most readers had not previously encountered in African American fiction. Eva Peace is a murderer. She kills Plum by dousing him with kerosene and setting him afire. Sula watches calmly as her mother, Hannah, burns to death; and Nel, despite her association with the maternal, remains throughout her life indifferent to the death of Chicken Little.
Although it retains some elements of realism, the fictional world depicted in Sula borders on the surreal. The surreal qualities of the novel are reinforced by the horrifying actions of characters that inhabit that world and by the inexplicability of natural events. Only days before Hannah’s accidental death in August 1923, a series of five “strange” things occur and are later recognized by Eva Peace as omens. The “second strange thing,” Eva and Hannah Peace’s one-sided discussion about mother love and murder, is preceded the night before by the first strange thing that the people of the Bottom remember as an ominous sign: a powerful wind that “tore over the hills rattling roofs and loosening doors,” then dissipated without so much as a “crack of lightening” or a drop of the rain for which they had hoped.10 The third strange thing is Hannah’s dream about a red wedding dress. The dream disturbs Eva as much as the next strange thing: Sula’s “acting up.”11 Sula, who is thirteen years old and has a rose-like birthmark darkening over her eye, “was dropping things and eating food that belonged to the newly married couple”—roomers in the Peace house—and threatening to give the three Deweys a much needed bath.12 The fifth strange thing is Hannah’s death. Morrison invokes the supernatural by suggesting that Hannah foresaw her own death by fire in her dream of the red dress. The inexplicable plague of robins that coincides with Sula’s unannounced return to the Bottom and the drastic changes in the weather that precede Shadrack’s fatal January 1941 celebration of National Suicide Day are other indicators that with Sula Morrison had begun to give the realm of the supernatural a more prominent role in her fiction.
Song of Solomon. New York: Knopf, 1977.
In this novel Morrison explores more fully the literary possibilities of the supernatural, African mythology, and African American folklore. Contrary to her insistence that she self-consciously tries to avoid striking “literary postures,” Morrison uses many literary allusions in Song of Solomon, thus revealing the breadth of her knowledge of Western literature.13 The title is an allusion to the Old Testament love story about King Solomon and a Shulamite girl.14 Less obvious, especially to readers unfamiliar with the classics of Western literature, are allusions to Homer’s Odyssey and to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Ulysses (1922). Similar to the latter work, Song of Solomon is a bildungsroman; that is, the education and development of the protagonist is traced from his childhood to maturity. Song ofSolomon differs from Morrison’s first two novels in that the narrative centers around the experiences of a male protagonist, Milkman Dead, whose quest for gold ultimately becomes a journey of personal discovery. That journey takes Milkman from his hometown in Michigan to Danville, Pennsylvania, where his father, Macon, and Pilate, Macon’s sister, were born. Milkman’s journey ends in Shalimar, Virginia. In Shalimar, Milkman, much like the questing heroes of modern bildungsromans, finally finds his spiritual home, revealed to him through the “Sugarman” song that the children of Shalimar sing during a ring game. The song is based on the myth of the flying Africans and records the lineage of Milkman’s ancestors.
Morrison discusses the importance of the role of the African American ancestor in “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1984). She describes Song of Solomon as her effort to “blend the acceptance of the supernatural and a profound rootedness in the real world at the same time with neither taking precedence over the other.”15The supernatural events that occur are not questioned by characters in the novel. They see these events as natural phenomena that need no rational explanations.
As with Morrison’s previous two novels, the complex structure of Song of Solomon requires that readers be attentive to shifts in the narrative points of view and to shifts from the present to past, particularly as the principal characters tell Milkman their versions of their family history. That history refers to Solomon, the flying African, and his son Jake, the father of Macon and Pilate. Morrison introduces a West African cosmology: Jake regularly appears to Pilate as a guiding spirit after his death. Jake acts as an ancestor who keeps Pilate rooted in the beliefs and traditions that sustain her throughout her life. Part of the mystery of the Dead family is what Jake means when he appears and says to his daughter, “Sing.” Another mystery that unravels over the course of the narrative is that of a secret society called the Seven Days. Milkman learns from his friend Guitar why a former member of the society, Robert Smith, committed suicide by leaping from the roof of a hospital while wearing a pair of homemade blue silk wings. The novel comes full circle when Milkman returns to Shalimar and leaps from the place where, according to the “Sugarman” song, his great-grandfather one day flew away.
Tar Baby. New York: Knopf, 1981.
Morrison continues her explorations of myth and the supernatural in Tar Baby. Set on a Caribbean island, Tar Baby is the first novel by Morrison that does not focus exclusively on a small community of African Americans living in the Midwest. For the first time Morrison places white characters at the center of her narrative. Valerian and Margaret Street are wealthy Philadelphians who take up residence on the sparsely populated Isle des Chevaliers with their servants, Sydney and Ondine. Structurally one of Morrison’s more accessible novels, Tar Baby is an account of the relationships between the Streets; Sydney and Ondine; their niece, Jadine, a successful fashion model; and Son, the young African American man who Margaret finds hiding in her closet one evening after dinner.
Two other employees of Valerian Margaret Street are Therese and Gideon. They are the ancestral figures through whom Morrison communicates the myths of the blind African horsemen, after whom Isle des Chevaliers is named. As ancestral figures, they remain close to their folk roots. They share with the people of Eloe, Florida (Son’s birthplace), a respect for ordinary black people, a respect that Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine have lost. Son feels close to them and leads the mutiny that occurs during Christmas dinner after Valerian tells his dinner guests that he has fired Therese and Gideon for stealing some of the apples he had shipped to the island from the United States. During the ensuing arguments between Valerian and Son and the fight between Ondine and Margaret, Ondine reveals to Valerian a long-kept secret about Margaret’s relationship with her son, Michael. Valerian never recovers from what he hears. Son and Jadine leave for New York where they try—but fail—to make a life together. After Jadine leaves him, Son turns to Therese and Gideon for help in finding her. Gideon refuses and urges him to “Let her leave, man. Let her go.”16 Son finally gets Therese to take him to L’Arbe de la Croix by boat. They set out at night and arrive at Isle des Chevaliers during a heavy fog. As he climbs out of the boat and up the rocky slope toward the shore, Therese whispers to him, “Small boy … don’t go to L’Arbe de la Croix…. Forget her. There is nothing in her parts for you. She has forgotten her ancient properties,” indicating to Son that Jadine no longer identifies with her ancestral roots.17 To help him free himself from his obsession with Jadine, Therese takes him to the wrong side of the island so that he can join the mythical horsemen of Isle de Chevaliers. The novel ends in ambiguity. Morrison leaves it up to her readers to decide what happens to Son once he reaches the shore.
Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Morrison makes even greater demands on her readers in Beloved. In addition to the complex structure of the novel, readers are confronted with the problem of plausibility. Slavery in the United States is an historical fact. Novelists who write about slavery usually work from historically accurate documents and are careful to realistically present their topic. In Beloved, Morrison breaks with the realism of slave narratives and historical fiction by making a ghost a principal character. Readers therefore are required to suspend their expectations and disbelief and free their imaginations as they would with any other ghost story.
Sethe, a former fugitive slave, and her daughter Denver live at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their house is haunted by a baby’s “spiteful” spirit. The spite is so intense that by 1873 Sethe’s other two children, Howard and Bugler, have run away, never to be heard from again, and Baby Suggs, her mother-in-law, has died of grief. Sethe and Denver’s attempts to exorcize the baby fail because its spell is too powerful. Equally powerful are the memories that filter though Sethe’s consciousness as she goes about her daily routines. Despite her attempts to suppress them, Sethe’s memories haunt her. The baby’s powerful spell is unbroken until Paul D, “the last of the Sweet Home men,” comes to 124 Bluestone Road and chases the spirit out.18
Shortly after Paul D rids the house of the raging spirit, a beautiful young girl appears in the yard. She calls herself “Beloved.” Denver recognizes her right away as the reincarnation of the sister murdered by Sethe almost eighteen years earlier. For Sethe, recognition comes almost too late. Beloved’s possessiveness and her desire to avenge her death nearly destroy Sethe. The African American women in the community bond together to help Sethe and Denver. They bring them food and then conduct an exorcism of 124 Bluestone Road. Under the women’s powerful songs and prayers, Beloved briefly appears in the doorway and then vanishes, leaving the women wondering if they saw her at all.
Although some of the narrative techniques Morrison uses to present her characters’ histories are similar to those in Song of Solomon, in Beloved she experiments more fully with interior monologues, stream of consciousness, shifting narrative points of view, and flashbacks. This kind of narrative fragmentation best expresses her characters’ efforts to suppress their memories of slavery and the psychological pain they suffered as they tried to rebuild their lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they hoped to be free.
Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.
Whereas in Beloved the narrative voices are identifiable with the characters whose history and memories they recount, in Jazz readers are faced with the question, “Who is speaking?” The opening sentence of the novel, “Sth, I know that woman,” establishes a first-person, omniscient narrative voice from whose perspective the story of Joe and Violet Trace begins to unfold. The narrator presents the facts in the first paragraph.19 Joe Trace shot his eighteen-year-old lover, Dorcas Manfred. His wife, Violet, goes to the funeral and attempts to slash the dead girl’s face. The perspective of the narrative voice shifts from Violet and Joe to a panoramic view of the City after the narrator discloses that by spring of 1926, the year Dorcas Manfred died, another young girl enters the lives of Joe and Violet Trace, creating a “scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue.”20
In Jazz Morrison is more preoccupied with the narrative voice than she is in her previous novels. The narrating voice that introduces the Harlem cityscape by claiming “I’mcrazy about this City” takes center stage and comments on everything from the social changes occurring in the City to the behavior and attitudes of the people whom it claims to know well.21 In this sense, the voice functions as an omniscient narrator. It knows everything about the characters. It knows their histories, what they think and feel, and what motivates their behavior. For example, at one point in the novel, the gossipy narrative voice describes the effect of springtime in the City on its inhabitants, before focusing on a rainy afternoon in the spring of 1926, and on Joe, who sits in his apartment window, crying like a child and wiping his eyes and nose with the red handkerchiefs Violet so assiduously washes and irons for him. The narrator claims to know him well. The narrative perspective is such that the reader gets the impression that the narrator is close by, watching as Joe leaves his apartment and moves about the city selling his cosmetics. The narrator cautions the reader to be wary of a “faithful man near fifty” who has “never messed with another woman” and who selects “a young girl to love” because “he thinks he is free … to do something wild.”22 After the narrative voice says what it thinks about this kind of man, Joe Trace takes over and tells his side of the story. The stories of other principal characters follow.
This emphasis in Jazz on the act of narrating, and the narrator’s self-reflection is typical of postmodern fiction, which is often self-reflexive. The postmodern novel is as much a commentary on the act of writing, the essence of language, and on the narrative voice as it is a commentary on whatever reality the novelist attempts to represent.
Paradise. New York: Knopf, 1998.
In Paradise Morrison’s mode of presentation is less experimental.23 Although she continues to work within a nonlinear narrative framework, the nine titled sections of the novel and the more reliable narrative voices places fewer demands on the reader than does Jazz. Similar to her other novels, the basic plot of Paradise is presented in the opening pages. The opening sentence, “They shoot the white girl first,” announces the murderous rampage of nine men intent on wiping out a group of women living in an old convent near the western Oklahoma town of Ruby.24
Each chapter of the novel is named after a woman, four of whom are residents of the Convent. With the exception of Consolata, who was brought from Brazil to the Convent when she was a child, each woman was headed elsewhere and ended up in the Convent by accident. Among the things they have in common is their inability or unwillingness to conform to the expectations of others. All of the women either are in search of something or trying to escape a painful experience. At the Convent they find shelter from whatever ails them and the freedom to be themselves. The men of Ruby find that freedom from conformity threatening. The section titled “Patricia” is helpful in explaining the relations between the Ruby families, their intraracial prejudice, and why they find outsiders so intolerable.
Although intraracial racism and intergenerational conflict are themes Morrison deals with in her earlier novels, none of her previous treatments of these conflicts include the kind of organized and preplanned violence against women encountered in Paradise. The violence is made palatable for sensitive readers by Morrison’s use of the supernatural. As is her custom with her later novels, Morrison leaves her readers wondering what actually happens at the end of the novel. When undertaker Roger Best arrives at the Convent after the massacre, expecting to find the bodies of five women, there are none. He looks all over the Convent and the surrounding fields. All that was left of the massacre was “a sheet and a folded raincoat” on the kitchen table, “the only sign that a body had been there.”25 There is nothing else: “No bodies. Nothing.”26 Perhaps of even greater significance is what the Reverend Richard Misner and his fiancée, Anna Flood, see or sense when they go to the Convent a few weeks after the massacre. Standing on the edge of the garden near the house, they think they see either a door or a window, although there is “nothing to see.”27 The questions they each have but do not express aloud as they stand transfixed seeing or sensing an invisible object are, “Whether through a door needing to be opened or a beckoning window already raised, what would happen if you entered? What would be on the other side?” “What on earth would it be? What on earth?”28 The women of the Convent may have found out what was on the other side. With the exception of Consolata, they each reappear—for a fleeting moment—before the person whom they loved the most. For Morrison’s readers the ending poses a problem in interpretation. She does not allow the comfort of closure. As in Song of Solomon, the ending is whatever readers make of it.
As is often the case with a novelist’s early efforts, reviews of The Bluest Eye were mixed. The novel has since been reevaluated many times and now is considered an important literary achievement. As a featured novel for Oprah Winfrey’s April 2000 televised book club, it has been brought to the attention—along with Sula—of a new generation of readers whose literary tastes have been conditioned by the recent successes of African American women writers of popular fiction such as Terry McMillan.
Morrison fared better with Sula (1973). Jerry H. Bryant, a reviewer for The Nation, felt that something new was happening with black fiction in terms of the characterization of black women. In his 1974 review of Sula, Bryant noted “a fierceness bordering on the demonic” in the characters of writers such as Ed Bullins, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. He wrote that Morrison’s “originality and power emerge in characters like Sula, that we have seldom seen before and that do not fit the familiar black image.”29 He mentioned all of the women in Sula as examples of characters who threaten to make “our old buildings unsafe.”30 Astute readers such as Bryant could not, after the publication of Sula, return to comforting and assuring fictional commonplaces.31
For other reviewers of Sula, Morrison already had taken her place among writers whom they considered “important and talented.” Both Barbara Smith and Roseann P. Bell praised Morrison for the beauty of her writing and for offering black women a fictional universe that was both familiar and frightening. Although Smith admittedly found Sula’s insensitivity toward her friend Nel in one instance “unbearable,” she wrote, “Morrison is a virtuoso writer. The music and paintings she makes with words stun the reader’s senses at the same time that they convince her of their totally natural rightness … Morrison’s exquisite language and subject matter embody Black experience in a way rarely achieved by Black novelists, except for masters like Hurston and Toomer.”32 Bell, who made Sula’s grandmother Eva the focus of her review, described Sula as “an important statement in the contemporary discussions on the Black Aesthetic.”33 Bell defined the Black Aesthetic as “what we are and what we perceive to be true, good, beautiful and useful.”34 Morrison’s freeing of the mind in the interest of “a more realistic human existence.”35
Nellie Y. McKay, in the introduction to Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (1998), suggests that Morrison’s first two novels received “limited, mixed and/or unfavorable attention” because most of the early reviewers and critics were “white Americans who were uncomfortable” with Morrison’s characterizations of African American women.36 Despite the mixed reviews it received, Sula helped to strengthen Morrison’s presence on the American literary landscape as a novelist worth serious critical consideration. The literary establishment did indeed begin to pay attention. In 1975 Sula won the Ohioana Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award for fiction. Morrison did not achieve national prominence, however, until the publication of Song of Solomon.
Published in 1977, Song of Solomon was widely acclaimed as an American epic. The novelist Reynolds Price, in a 1977 review for The New York Times Book Review, described the novel as “a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full-novel … not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat’s cradles customwoven for the delight and job assistance of graduate students of all ages.”37 Susan Lardner described the novel as “a domestic epic—a rhapsodic work, demonstrating the virtues of the spoken word and the abiding presence in certain corners of the world of a lively oral tradition.”38 Charles Larson wrote that Song of Solomon is “the most substantial piece of fiction since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man…. So marvelously orchestrated is Morrison’s narrative that it not only excels on all of its respective levels, not only works for all of its interlocking components, but also—in the end—says something about life (and death) for all of us…. Her affinities with Faulkner are, in fact, not limited to the comic bawdy but also embrace his darker, more profound recesses; and I imagine if your greatest American novelist were alive today he would herald Toni Morrison’s emergence as a kindred spirit.”39
Many other reviewers also commented on Morrison’s rendering of an oral tradition and the skill with which she weaves myth, folklore, and history into her story about an African American family in a small, unnamed Michigan town. In a 1978 review, Samuel Alien, commenting on the array of stylistic devices Morrison uses in her efforts to capture the complexity of the African American experience, wrote, “The extensive array includes inversion, paradox, the play of opposites, criss-crossing conversations and an appropriately masculine metaphorical language…. The novel most notably excels, however, in its imaginative use of myth and folklore. There is an achieved fusion of fantasy and fact, of ancient myth and Virginia coon hunt.”40 Melvin Dixon wrote in a review for Callaloo, “The complexity of events in the novel forms an extremely rich mosaic of narrative and point of view. But it is only part of the full beauty of the work. What finally takes hold of the reader is the sustained metaphor of flight which unfolds in a taut pattern of images like the suspended strings of a parachute, holding the reader absolutely breathless.”41
Morrison earned major awards for Song of Solomon. The novel was selected as a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club for 1977 and was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for that year. In 1978 Morrison was presented with an award in literature by the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters for her achievements in Song of Solomon. By 1979 Song of Solomon was a paperback best-seller. In a 1977 interview with Karen De Witt for The Washington Post, Morrison admitted that the paperback rights to Song of Solomon had made her rich. Accustomed to “living closer to the edge,” as she put it, Morrison recalled that the auction of the paperback rights to Song of Solomon was one of the more exciting moments of her new fame. The sale of the rights garnered her something “well up in the six-figure area.”42
With the publication of Song of Solomon, Morrison’s artistry had begun to flourish; her technical skill and command of her craft had matured, and her imagination seemed to enrich and rejuvenate itself contantly. Four years after the publication of Song of Solomon, Morrison published TarBaby and was featured on the cover of the 30 March 1981 Newsweek.
One of the possible reasons for the great success of Tar Baby is that—unlike in her previous novels in which whites, if they appear at all, are on the periphery of the lives of Morrison’s African American characters—a white couple, Valerian and Margaret Street, take center stage. Tar Baby was also supported by an aggressive publicity campaign. In her feature article for Newsweek, titled “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” Jean Strouse wrote that Morrison “has produced a truly public novel about the condition of society, examining the relations between blacks and whites, men and women, civilization and nature circa 1981 … Tar Baby keeps you turning pages as if to find out who killed J. R.: a melodrama full of sex, violence, myth, wit, wry wisdom and the extraordinary sense of place that distinguishes all Morrison’s writing, it wraps its urgent messages in a highly potent love story.”43 As this review and others suggest, Tar Baby is a novel that places readers, particularly white ones, on familiar ground.
Writing about the lush and animated tropical landscape in which most of the novel is set, Maureen Howard commented in her 1981 New Republic review, “Though it can come perilously close to Disney, the animation works most of the time in this novel to reinforce our sense of the storybook island on which the wealthy white liberals, the chic, educated black beauty, and the Uncle Toms can face each other simply.”44 Howard also described the novel as “so much fun: the rich in the sun; the snappy talk in the servants’ quarters; the glamour of Jadine Childs, a sort of honey-colored Rosalind Russell, bored with her success … Then we get our hero, a big black man who’s jumped ship, young, handsome—tarnished but sterling.”45 Morrison offers readers the comfort of characters with whom they could more closely identify. Howard compared some of the scenes between Valerian and Margaret Street with those familiar to fans of Noel Coward and August Strindberg. “We seem to be involved not only in a tale of wonders but in a brittle comedy of manners, a smart script.”46 Howard is not without her criticism, however. She pointed out that there are parts of the novel that are decidedly melodramatic and dull. But her overall assessment was that “Tar Baby is a good American novel in which we can discern a new lightness and brilliance in Toni Morrison’s enchantment with language and in her curiously polyphonic stories that echo life.”47
Robert G. O’Meally made similar observations in his 1981 review of Tar Baby for Callaloo. He began his review by describing the “stunning show" that greeted the novel’s release:
For a book that promised to be not just a good read for this season but Literature of Lasting Value, the Madison Avenue machinery spun into highest gear. Certain book stores displayed signed advance copies: trade edition and the illustrated Franklin, leather-bound; key publications featured front page coverage, full reviews…. And—never mind that nobody in the subway seemed to have put down the usual romances and mysteries for Tar Baby—the books were selling: by August Tar Baby was selling out of its sixth edition. When it appears in paperback, it will, one supposes, take the next step toward permanence in the Lasting Value market place of Faulkners and Ellisons: it will be taught in universities; it will attract scholarly attention.
All this hyping puts pressure on the scholar in the field of black literature. But what is the book’s real value? I found it to contain a sheaf of images and scenes not quickly to be forgotten. Like a pretty and intricate geometric design and proof, Tar Baby is often very intriguing. Yet I also found Tar Baby deeply flawed: somehow it has all the makings of a good novel; what’s missing is the spark of life that makes a good novel not a formula but vibrant art.48
O’Meally followed his none-too-careful summary of Tar Baby by directing his readers to “Morrison’s better novels: Sula and the masterful Song of Solomon,” which he considered “utterly uncontrived and lively" examples of Morrison’s gift for “sheer storytelling.”49
Perhaps because he is a well-respected scholar in the field of African American literature, O’Meally showed restraint in his review, whereas Anatole Broyard, writing for The New York Times, was blunt. After offering a brief summary of the novel, Broyard criticized Morrison’s excessive use of descriptive terms, which he felt were void of meaning, and her representations, especially of her white characters. He wrote,
Some readers may ask what ’Tar Baby’ means. They may feel that black folks should sit down with white folks for a frank exchange about the reading and writing of fiction. Though Tar Baby’ may be described as a protest novel, the reader may have a few protests, too. He may wonder why the black characters in Tar Baby’ have all the passion while the white ones are fit only for sitting in greenhouses, manufacturing candy and sticking pins into their babies. He may question those unqualified fields that are spongy and those pavements that are slick with the blood of the best people. He may be puzzled by reined-in dark dogs with silver feet and by dreams of ice houses. He may not understand why the black girls are crying in New York City and why their men don’t look to the right or left. And, finally, the reader may ask himself why Miss Morrison, who won an important award with her last novel, has written so poorly in this one.50
John Irving made similar remarks about what he calls Morrison’s “dramatic exaggeration" in Tar Baby. He criticized her for the lavishness of her descriptions of nature, although he found them more tolerable than did Broyard.51 What he couldn’t tolerate was her “excessive use of dialogue,” examples of which are the arguments between the black characters, which Irving found “lengthy” and “tedious.” Irving tempered his critique by drawing parallels between Morrison’s excessiveness and that of Thomas Hardy. He ended his review by writing, “This judgment is as sympathetic as it is severe. Thomas Hardy, full of his own instructions to damaged mankind, would have loved this book.”52
Morrison did not seem particularly disturbed by the negative reviews, and for good reason. Tar Baby remained on The New York Times hardcover best-seller list for weeks. She explained to Jacqueline Trescott what she tried to accomplish with her fourth novel: “I got very ambitious, very avant-garde and used the world of natural things. It caused some a great deal of misadventure among the critics, all of whom hate it.”53
Whereas Tar Baby was greeted with relief by some reviewers and caused others consternation, Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, was upon its publication in 1987 almost universally praised as a major literary achievement. An executive editor for the Book-of-the-Month Club, Joseph Savago, wrote about Beloved in his reader’s report to the Club’s editorial committee six months before the book was published:
I don’t want to throw around the word “masterpiece,” not just yet anyway (even though I’ve waited over a week, since finishing BELOVED, to write this report) (a whole week), but I will declare that this is the most extraordinary, mesmerizing, soul-provoking thing I’ve read in a long, long time, the closest thing to “genius” I’ve run across in a long, long time.54
The novelist and critic John Leonard, admitting that Morrison “seemed to falter with Tar Baby,” described Beloved as a “masterwork,” a “splendid novel” that “belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off. The thing is, now I can’t imagine American literature without it. Without Beloved, our imagination of the nation’s self has a hole in it big enough to die from.”55 A. S. Byatt, whose headline for a 16 October 1987 London Guardian review announced “An American Masterpiece,” wrote of the title character, “If Beloved represents the terrible pain and suffering of a people whose very mother-love is warped by torture into murder, she is no thin allegory or shrill tract. This is a huge, generous, humane and gripping novel.”56 Byatt placed Morrison in the ranks of Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe, each of whom “wrote riddling allegories about the nature of evil, the haunting of unappeased spirits, the inverted opposition of blackness and whiteness. Toni Morrison has with plainness and grace and terror—and judgement—solved the riddle, and showed us the world which haunted theirs.”57
Morrison’s “unappeased spirits” did not fully satisfy a few of her critics. Ann Snitow, in a long review for the Village Voice Literary Supplement, admitted to having difficulty with the appearance of a ghost in a novel that “staggers under the terror of its material”—slavery.58 She called the novel “airless” and wondered, “How could this happen to a writer this skillful, working with material this full and important? In the reading, the novel’s accomplishments seem driven to the periphery by Morrison’s key decision to be literal about her metaphor, to make the dead baby a character whose flesh-and-bone existence takes up a great deal of narrative space.”59 Snitow also commented on Morrison’s “unconvincing reliance on the supernatural” in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby. Her preference for Morrison’s first two books The Bluest Eye and Sula, in which she claimed Morrison works her “best magic,” strongly suggests that she favors fiction that is more realistic. However, Snitow was able to put aside her biases and concede that “If Beloved fails in its ambitions, it is still a novel by Toni Morrison, still therefore full of beautiful prose, dialogue as rhythmically satisfying as music, delicious characters with names like Grandma Baby and Stamp Paid, and the scenes so clearly etched they’re like hallucinations.”60
In a 13 September 1987 review for New York Times Book Review, Margaret Atwood compared Morrison’s treatment of the supernatural to that in Wuthering Heights. She argued that it is not the Amityville Horror kind of supernatural but that of a “magnificent practicality” that is consistent with the characters’ belief in ghosts.61 Rather than the airlessness that Ann Snitow found in Beloved as a result of Morrison’s use of the supernatural, Atwood focused on the ways it is integrated into this story of the horror of slavery:
Morrison blends a knowledge of folklore—for instance, in many traditions, the dead cannot return from the grave unless called, and it’s the passions of the living that keep them alive-with a highly original treatment. The reader is kept guessing, there’s a lot more to Beloved than any one character can see, and she manages to be many things to several people. She is a catalyst for revelations as well as self-revelations; through her we come to know not only how, but why, the original child Beloved was killed. And through her also Sethe achieves, finally, her own form of self-exorcism, her own self-accepting peace.62
Stanley Crouch wrote a hostile review of Beloved for The New Republic. He labeled it a “blackface holocaust novel” and called the principal character, Sethe, “Aunt Medea.” He wrote that the book “is designed to placate sentimental feminist ideology, and to make sure that the vision of black woman as the most scorned and rebuked of the victims doesn’t weaken.”63 He accused Morrison of lacking “a true sense of the tragic” and argued that “nothing is more contrived than the figure of Beloved herself, who is the reincarnated force of the malevolent ghost.”64 He gave Morrison credit for having “real talent” but felt she should rid herself of the sentimentality that he finds so objectionable in her work if she is to achieve that of which he thinks her capable.65 Then, as an afterthought, he asked, “But why should she try to achieve anything? The position of literary conjure woman has paid off quite well.”66
Despite Morrison’s achievements, the overwhelmingly positive articles and reviews about Beloved, and her stature as an internationally renowned novelist—by 1987 her novels had been translated into several languages and increasingly were being taught in colleges and universities in the United States and abroad—the novel was nominated but not selected for two prestigious American literary awards: the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Beloved also was nominated along with Toronto novelist Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and South African novelist Nadine Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature (1987) for the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, the largest international cash award for a novel in English.67 The 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award went to Philip Roth for The Counterlife (1987); Larry Heinemann won the National Book Award for Paco’s Story (1986).
After the National Book Award was announced on 9 November 1987, many people asked the question that Michiko Kakutani raised in a 16 November 1987 New York Times article titled “Did ’Paco’s Story’ Deserve Its Award?”68 She started her article by asking, “What happened?” Why did the three-member jury select a novel by this relatively unknown novelist over that of the “widely regarded” Toni Morrison and Philip Roth, whose The Counterlife also was considered a “strong contender” for the award? Kakutani surmised that the judges wanted to give less well-known novelists a chance. They also may have been swayed by the growing interest among Americans in the Vietnam War, which is the theme of Heinemann’s novel. In her assessment, Kakutani felt that although Paco’s Story is “a well-crafted, often admirable novel,” it does not succeed as well as other novels about Vietnam and certainly does not measure up to Beloved. Conceding that it may be unfair to compare a novelist’s second work with that of a writer of Morrison’s stature, Kakutani argued that a great flaw in Heinemann’s novel is that the title character “never emerges as a distinct individual; he comes across as much a vague representative soldier as the generic voice that tells us his story. At the same time, Mr. Heinemann’s writing is insufficiently powerful, his vision too myopic, to effectively turn” Paco “into the sort of mythic Lazarus-like figure that might otherwise engage our passions. ’Beloved,’ on the other hand, remains a work of mature imagination…. the novel shakes up all our preconceptions, makes us grapple with the moral chiaroscuro that shades each of the characters’ decisions. It does not merely give us a portrait of one individual’s loss of innocence, but also reveals the myriad ways in which families and strangers and families can hurt and redeem one another.”69
While some critics similarly questioned the National Book Award jury decision, others, following the African American poet June Jordan, protested. According to Elizabeth Kastor, a Washington Post staff writer, Jordan decided, after having a lunch with Morrison during which they discussed the National Book and National Book Critics Circle Awards, to do something about the two awards committees’ oversights. What Jordan did was write a tribute to Morrison that included criticism of the literary establishment for not recognizing Morrison. The statement, which was signed by Jordan and forty-seven other writers and scholars, also paid tribute to the recently deceased novelist James Baldwin, who, “celebrated worldwide and posthumously designated as ’immortal’ and as the ’conscience of his generation’… never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never.”70
John Leonard, upon hearing that the statement was about to be published in The New York Times, wrote in the 21 January 1988 Newsday,” Forty-Eight black writers and critics, all of whom think Toni Morrison has been so far stiffed in the dispensation of literary prizes, wrote a letter of collective protest that will be published on Sunday in the Times Book Review, and I wish they hadn’t.”71 He listed among his reasons the fact that Beloved had become a political issue, “a hot potato in race relations” among the American literati rather than a novel that could stand on its own merits. His greater concern was with the “forthcoming Pulitzers” and the impact the letter might have on its panelists. Leonard’s fear was that as a result of the statement, everyone would be “arguing everybody’s politics instead of the novel.”72
In an article published in the 14 February 1988 Los Angeles Times, one of the three jurors for the National Book Award, Richard Eder (the others were the novelists Gloria Naylor and Hilma Wolitzer), defended the jury’s decision by stating, “No oversight was involved when we chose five finalists, including Heinemann and Morrison, and none of us felt whimsical when two of us then chose Heinemann and one of us chose another of the five as winner. The final vote involved neither compromise nor lobbying. Whatever uncertainties any of us had about who should be No. 1—there were some—these were resolved by each of us alone, and on the night shift.”73 Eder accused John Leonard of spreading a rumor in his Newsday article that Naylor had not voted for Beloved. Jordan, who was then teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, reportedly wrote Naylor suggesting that “it would be ’embarrassing and morally elliptical’ for her to take up the month’s residency in creative writing at Stony Brook that had been arranged. Naylor replied, in effect, that she would not go where she was not welcome.”74 The often turbulent waters of the New York literary establishment were becoming muddy indeed as other people had their say about the awards and what some felt was a serious game of racial politics played in the field of literature.
By most accounts, the most prestigious of the American awards for literature is the Pulitzer Prize. It was established by Joseph Pulitzer, an American journalist, as an “incentive to excellence" in journalism, letters and drama, and music. Pulitzer made provisions for the prizes in his 1904 will. The first prizes were awarded in 1917, six years after his death.75 According to Edwin McDowell, one of the reasons the Pulitzer i s such a coveted award is that it “is regarded by publishers as the one book award that can actually help sell books.” McDowell reported that Beloved was on The New York Times hardcover list for more than thirty-one weeks after it was announced that Morrison had won the prize for 1988.76 Morrison told a Los Angeles Times writer that she was “terribly happy that the merits of the book surfaced, that things outside the book did not interfere with the judgment of the committee. It was too upsetting to have my work considered as an affirmative action award.”77 Members of the Pulitzer panel insisted that the controversy did not affect their decision. Likewise, Walter Chafe, a judge for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Awards, insisted that their committee’s choice of Morrison for their award, which was presented to her on 13 May 1988, had nothing to do with the controversy. He admitted, however, that this instance was the first time the award had been given for a work of fiction. Chafe explained, “We felt her book was such an eloquent and vivid portrayal of the interior experience of the black community, it helped all of us understand better the black experience.”78
At the Kennedy Awards ceremony, Morrison received a $2,500 cash award and a bronze bust of Robert Kennedy. She reportedly explained why the awards are so important for black writers: “Black literature needs the authentication of the establishment in order to be taken seriously by people who are keepers of the flame…. It has nothing to do with what’s personal. No writer in the world could write for a prize. I began by saying, ’I will write as powerfully and as seductively as I can,’ and I never in my wildest dreams ever expected large numbers of people to share my vision.”79
Equally important as prizes for such authentication are the amount and quality of scholarship generated by a writer’s work. The amount of serious scholarship on Morrison continues to grow. In 1977, the year Song of Solomon was published, the Modern Language Association International Bibliography included two items on Morrison.80 In 1981, there were eight entries for Morrison. The 1988 index listed thirty-four scholarly articles and essays and one dissertation.81 In 1990 five dissertations were devoted exclusively to Morrison’s work, and countless articles and essays were listed that dealt with Morrison’s fiction in relation to works by other writers. By 1992, when Morrison published Jazz and Playing in the Dark, there was much speculation that she might become the first African American to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
Arguably her most difficult novel stylistically, Jazz received mixed reviews, although it stayed on The New Yorh Times bestseller list for weeks. Michael Wood, in a review-essay of Jazz and Playing in the Dark for The New York Review of Books, and John Leonard, writing for The Nation, placed Jazz within the context of Morrison’s other novels to show the extent to which she had begun to experiment with narrative voices and points of view.82 Henry Louis Gates Jr. compared Morrison’s use of several narrators and points of view in Jazz to William Faulkner’s narrative devices in As I Lay Dying (1930) and proclaimed her “one of the truly original novelists at work in the world today.”83 Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature.
Most people—literary scholars and general readers alike—rejoiced when the award was announced. A few expressed the opinion that she did not deserve it. The dissenting views were mainly lined up along the gender divide, judging from the negative comments that made it to the mainstream press. A former high-school English teacher from Houston who described himself as a bald black man proclaimed, “I wept when I found out that Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yep, there I was at a subway station in Boston, clutching the ’New York Times’ and weeping like a big baby.”84 Other African American men questioned the choice, thereby reigniting ongoing debates between African American male and female writers about issues of the representations of African Americans, especially African American men, in recent literature by African American women writers. The African American novelist Charles Johnson reportedly told a Seattle Times reporter, “I think Morrison has been the recipient of a tremendous amount of good will by readers and academics who wanted to see a particular race and gender represented in what we call the American literary canon.” He is quoted as having said that Morrison is “a remarkably talented and hard-working prose stylist,” but that “intellectually (her works are) middle-brow fiction; intellectually, there are no breakthroughs.”85
The 20 October 1993 London Guardian article titled “Nobel Backlash,” written by Steven Moore, an assistant professor of English at Vassar College, generated “many letters” according to a Guardian article that was published ten days later. In his article Moore suggested that Johnson “was right when he charged that granting the prize to Toni Morrison is ’a triumph of political correctness.’” He argued that Morrison, by creating “images of black people who seem to court self-destruction as a means of escaping horrible conditions” perpetuates negative stereotypes of blacks—particularly of black men—that “blacks once found menacing in works by white writers.” Those images allow the reader “to take comfort in her character’s self-mutilation” rather than to challenge negative perceptions of black people in the minds of whites. With regard to the Nobel Prize, Moore expressed concern that by offering it to writers such as the playwright Wole Soyinka and the poet Derek Walcott (who once took a course with Morrison while studying at Howard University), “and now novelist Toni Morrison,” rather than Chinua Achebe, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire, or George Lamming, all of whom, in Moore’s opinion, represent “writers and poets of genuine accomplishment,” the Nobel Committee was playing it safe so as not to “offend European sensibilities.”86 Moore’s article and the exchange between him and Cheryl-Ann Michael, and Ato Quayson, are examples of how politically charged the debates about Morrison, her work, and her prizes had become, both nationally and internationally.87
The African American playwright Pearl Cleage wrote a response to the charges against Morrison of “male-bashing” in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution:
I was stunned when I heard that the words “male bashing" had even come up with Toni Morrison. At a time when celebration should be the order of the day, not only for black women writers but for anybody who values the complex, mysterious, fragile, incendiary nature of good writing, why were some black men using the moment for rehashing charges of inappropriate male critique in the work of their sister writers?88
Throwing down the gauntlet, she stated, “I am tired of this discussion. Dignifying with debate the whole idea of ’male bashing’ in the work of African-American women writers gives it a weight and importance it does not deserve. So this is the last time I will focus my writing on defending myself and my sisters against charges of ’male-bashing, creating negative images, stirring up trouble, making a disturbance’ or generally behaving in a way that can only be described as ’free womanish.’”89
Despite the discordance raging across the African American male/female gender divide and on both sides of the Atlantic about Morrison and her work, sales of her books soared after she won the Nobel Prize. On the day the prize was announced, three hundred thousand copies of Jazz reportedly were sold in Germany alone.90 Sales of Morrison’s books again rose dramatically in 1996 when Song of Solomon was picked as the second selection of Oprah Winfrey’s television book club. Much to Morrison’s astonishment, the sales of Paradise and The Bluest Eye continued to rise after Winfrey’s announcements.
Among the many reviews of Paradise, Patricia Storace’s “The Scripture of Utopia" stands out as exemplary.91 Storace presents an historical overview of the “Redemption,” as the period right after the Civil War was known in the South. She also discusses an 1880 report on African American migrations during that period. Her careful reading of Paradise reveals the extent to which Morrison in this particular novel revises the history of the Oklahoma territory in the post–Civil War era. Regarding Morrison’s choice to confine her novel to a small, provincial African American community, Storace wrote, “Paradise subverts a kind of unspoken literary class distinction, the assumption that a story told with African-Americans or women in the foreground will necessarily be a story of impenetrably special experience and concerns, its subject somehow provincial, confined exclusively to itself, or to its response as a community to the power of the dominant community, a shadowy adjunct to the ’real’ normative story of national life.”92 Obviously making a reference to Sara Blackburn’s 1973 review of Sula in which she argued that Morrison, in order to “take her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working,” needed to move beyond “the black side of provincial life,”93 Storace concluded her essay by praising Morrison for “relighting the angles from which we view American history" and for creating work that allows her readers “to witness something unprece-dented, an invitation to a literature to become what it has claimed to be, a truly American literature.”94
ART IMITATING LIFE
Toni Morrison is fiercely protective of her privacy. She shares little personal information about herself in her novels or in the many interviews she has given over the years. As she has stated time and again, her life is not what interests her as a novelist. Neither is she interested in writing about the lives of people she knows. She considers it an intrusion, “an infringement” of the “copyright” that each person holds on his or her life.95 What interests Morrison is imaginative invention, the creation of a fictional world that is not a carbon copy of the real one. This belief, however, does not prevent Morrison from using the autobiographical information she stores in her mind. Most novelists write from what they know. Their writing therefore is likely to include autobiographical moments that might not immediately be apparent as such.
Morrison’s autobiographical moments are strongest in her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The novel, set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, takes place in the neighborhood in which Morrison lived until she left for college at age seventeen. She told Robert Stepto in a 1976 interview that Lorain is the one place she did not invent; she re-created it from her childhood memories of that neighborhood.96 The people inhabiting that fiction are drawn from the fragments of her memories of people she knew. What she takes from those fragments, or “pieces,” as she calls them in “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” is whatever she needs “to evoke a character.”97 More often than not, that character is far removed from its referent in reality. That is, with the possible exception of Mr. MacTeer in The Bluest Eye, he or she is not easily identifiable with someone in Morrison’s life. The scene in The Bluest Eye that comes closest to art imitating life occurs in the section titled “Spring.” After Frieda tells her parents that their roomer, Mr. Henry, molested her, Mr. MacTeer throws a tricycle at him and knocks him off the porch.98 That scene is based on an actual event that, as Morrison explained in a 1983 interview, left a very strong impression on her about what her father would do to protect his family:
I do remember a white man following my sister and me into our house, and up the stairs. We lived in an apartment on the second floor. My father was there, and he picked him up and threw him down the stairs, and then picked up our tricycle and threw the tricycle down after him.
My father was not a tall man and this man loomed large. All he knew was that this man was behind his girls and he was, you know, defending the household and all of that. But for me, it was interesting because I had not seen abusive, physically abusive white people as many people have in the United States, so the first racial encounter I had as a child was one in which my father was triumphant, physically triumphant, and it’s important that what I first saw was that kind of assertion on the part of my father.”99
Other characters in the novel derive from the bits and pieces of Morrison’s recollections of the movements, gestures, habits, and names of people she knew during her childhood.
Morrison explains in “Memory, Creation, and Writing” that by knowing, she does not mean that she has personal knowledge of the people from whom she draws those pieces.100 She uses as an example a woman named Hannah Peace who lived in her town when she was about four years old. Morrison knew her in the sense that the woman was around her long enough to leave an impression—a memory—on her mind. The purplish color of the woman’s skin, the aloof manner in which she carried herself, her half-closed eyes, and the way people pronounced her name, “never Hannah or Miss Peace. Always Hannah Peace,” is what Morrison knew about the woman. That memory, captured by her four-year-old mind, was enough to evoke many years later a character in Sula: the title character’s mother, Hannah Peace.101 In contrast, the physical qualities—the body—of the young girl who told her that she “prayed” for blue eyes was less important for Morrison than the emotions that confession aroused in her at the time. The Pecola who appears in The Bluest Eye is not the same little girl. She has been transmogrified, through Morrison’s imagination, into one of the most pitiable and memorable little girls in African American fiction.
Likewise, other characters in the novel are composites rather than representations of distinct and identifiable people from Morrison’s life. Mrs. MacTeer undoubtedly emerged from Morrison’s memory of her
mother and the many other African American mothers in her neighborhood who “meddled in your lives a lot” because they felt they had the right to “raise everybody’s child.”102 It is interesting to note that in the 1981 hardcover edition of Tar Baby one of the names in Morrison’s dedication is Mrs. Millie MacTeer.103
MORRISON AND THE MOVIES
Shortly after Song of Solomon was published in 1977, Morrison mentioned to a reporter for The Washington Post that the “movies” were interested in it. She said that “Nobody had bought the book” yet, “But all the right people have called.” For a while she had lunch with some of them. After two of those people on different occasions told her that the book reminded them of “King Lear,” she figured that others on the West Coast had that same feeling and decided to let her agent handle “that stuff.”104 The novel was never adapted for film, and by 1983, Morrison seemed to have no interest in seeing her books made into movies. In her 1983 interview with Claudia Tate she said, “My students ask me when I’m going to make my books into movies. I tell them I’m not terribly interested in that because the film would not be mine. The book is my work. I don’t want to write scripts; I don’t want artistic ’control’ of a film. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t be done, just that I don’t have to do it. What’s alarming to me is the notion that the book is what you do before the film, that the final outcome is the film.”105
A year later, Morrison was talking about working on the screenplays for TarBaby and for Song of Solomon. The former book reportedly had been sold to Brooksfilm, a production company established in 1979 by Mel Brooks to produce good low-budget movies as an alternative to the usual Holly-wood fare. The Brooksfilm projects got as far as the selection of Joseph Strick as director for Song of Solomon and Howard E. Rollins Jr. as “the leading contender for the starring role in ‘Tar Baby.’”106 Strick had directed several adaptations of literary works, including The Balcony (1963), Ulysses (1967), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1979). Rollins, who died of cancer in 1996, received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Ragtime (1981). From 1988 to 1994 he played the role of Detective Virgil Tibbs in the television series In the Heat of the Night. Morrison does not say in her interviews what happened with these projects, although she has mentioned that she isn’t interested in screenwriting because she doesn’t know how to do it and doesn’t want to take time from writing “interesting and compelling novels” to learn.107
In 1987 Oprah Winfrey read Beloved. Winfrey finished the book on a Saturday afternoon and immediately tried to contact Morrison to discuss turning it into a movie. None of the people Winfrey knew had Morrison’s home phone number, so Winfrey called the local fire department and enlisted them to help her contact Morrison. They did and Morrison agreed to “talk about it.” Winfrey then called her attorney and told him, “whatever she asks for, give it to her. I don’t want negotiations or to get lawyers involved. Whatever she wants, let’s just sign the check. And he said, ’That’s not the way it’s done.’ But I said that’s the way this will be done. I signed the check and was thrilled to do so. The day I signed it was one of the happiest days of my life.”108
In a 1998 feature article by Richard Corliss for Time titled “Bewitching Beloved,” Morrison recalls receiving the check from Win-frey: “She said, and this is kind of charming, ’I am going in my pocket-book and write a check.’ I wasn’t talking to a studio or a lawyer but to another human being. … it reminded me of myself. A single, black woman who said, ’Well, I’m doing this. It’s going to be hard for me, but that’s beside the point.’ This was a big project and, for her, a big deal. And she was deadly serious about every aspect of it.”109 The project, which took almost a decade to accomplish, was big for Winfrey, both financially and personally. She produced the movie and cast herself in the starring role of Sethe. Her costars were Danny Glover as Paul D; Kimberly Elise as Denver; and Thandie Newton as Beloved. The legendary actress Beah Richards played Baby Suggs. Jason Robards made a cameo appearance as Mr. Bodwin. The movie was directed by Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar in 1991 for best director for The Silence of the Lambs. The screen-play for Beloved was written by Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks.
Winfrey, who has always “dreamed of acting,” made her acting debut in 1985 as Sophia in the movie version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, for which she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.110 In 1986 she played Bigger Thomas’s mother in a movie adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, Native Son. Her made-for-television movie credits include the role of Mattie Michael in a 1990 adaptation of Gloria Naylor’s novel, The Women of Brewster Place (1982). These movies gave Winfrey the opportunity to gain the experience and training she needed to fulfill the more emotionally demanding role of a woman—a fugitive slave—whose committing of infanticide is motivated by her deep and abiding love for her children and her memory of the horrors of enslavement. Winfrey documents her experiences with the filming of Beloved in her book Journey to Beloved (1998).111
The movie opened on 16 October 1998 to much fanfare and the high expectation that it would be an Oscar—winning production. Early reviews of the movie generally were good. Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, praised it and called Demme and Winfrey brave for having faced “this difficult material head on” and for not trying “to dumb it down into a more accessible, less evocative form.”112 New York Times writer Margo Jefferson gave Beloved a favorable review and singled out Elise and Newton for giving “the most fascinating performances.”113
Quentin Curits’s review for the London Daily Telegraph was less enthusiastic. He pronounced the movie a failure. He felt that it was both a mistake to play Morrison’s 275-page text as an epic that lasts almost three hours and to have Winfrey in the starring role—as a condition of hiring a director— when there were more capable actresses from which to choose. He wrote, “Competent though Oprah is, I couldn’t help wonder-ing—and wishing for—what a great actress such as Angela Bassett would have made of Sethe.”114 Curits concluded his review by commenting on what became a theme in reviews of Beloved written after its opening week: the movie cost $53 million to make,$30 million to market, but earned only $8.5 million during its first weekend.115
By Thanksgiving week, most reviewers were calling Beloved a failure based mainly on its poor box-office receipts. Carrie Rickey’s review for The Buffalo News is typi — cal. She wrote, “In the five weeks since its Oct. 16 release, the $65 million picture … earned a disappointing $22.5 million. Its failure, just 10 months after the fast fade of Steven Spielberg’s ’Amistad,’ another harrowing film about the slave experience, has prompted a rethinking of the market for prestigious black-theme films.”116 Rickey’s review also included comments from African American filmmakers and producers, in which they objected to the death knell the media had begun to ring for movies by and about African Americans dealing with serious topics such as slavery. In a review in Newsday, Gene Seymour tried to put things into perspective. Similar to many critics whose concern was with artistic merit, Seymour felt that “the movie was so faithful to the book (or, more accurately, to the experience of reading the book), that its characters, instead of connecting with each other, seemed to be speaking at each other from their respective outposts of solitude.”117
Seymour also pointed out that “in a time when financial success is more conspicuously—and thoughtlessly—linked to artistic success …numbers don’t lie: A $55 million movie, coming in with all the hype and hoopla that its ubiquitous and powerful producer-star can muster on its behalf, makes only $21 million in a month” is a failure. However, he cautioned against letting the “success or failure of any one movie … set the table for what comes afterwards.”118 On 24 December 2001, an abbreviated version of the movie aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). It received mixed reviews.
Morrison seems to have been undaunted by the fact that the movie did not rise to the expectations of reviewers and audiences. In a 1 November 1998 radio conversation between Michael Silverblatt and Morrison, Morrison was diffident about the movie and the discussions it generated in the media about the state of African American filmmaking. After making several observations about the limitations of movies when it comes to literary adaptations, she dwelled on her book, Beloved, and on what she hopes to achieve for herself as a writer and for the many mil-lions of people who continue to read her novels.119
1. Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” Thought, 59 (December 1984): 387.
2. Ibid., p. 388.
3. The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 5.
4. Ibid, p. 27.
5. Ibid., p. 115.
6. Ibid., p. 205.
7. Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” p. 387.
8. Sula (New York: Signet, 1978), p. 89.
9. Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” p. 387.
10. Sula, p. 73.
11. Ibid., p. 74.
13. Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” p. 387.
14. “Song of Solomon,” in The New Schofield Reference Bible, edited by C. I. Schofield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 705-710.
15. Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Man Evans (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984), p. 342.
16. Tar Baby (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 298.
17. Ibid., p. 305.
18. Beloved (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 6.
19. Jazz (New York: Plume, 1993), p. 3.
20. Ibid., p. 6.
21. Ibid., p. 7.
23. Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1998).
24. Ibid., p. 13.
25. Ibid., p. 292.
27. Ibid., p. 305.
29. Jerry H. Bryant, untitled review in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), p. 9.
30. Ibid., p. 8.
31. Ibid., p. 9.
32. Barbara Smith, “Beautiful, Needed, Mysterious,” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay (Boston: Hall, 1988), p. 22.
33. Roseann P. Bell, untitled review in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 26.
34. Ibid., p. 26.
35. Ibid., p. 27.
36. McKay, “Introduction,” p. 5.
37. Reynolds Price, “The Black Family Chronicle,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 11.
38. Susan Lardner, “Word of Mouth,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 13.
39. Charles Larson, “Hymning the Black Past,” Washington Post, 4 September 1977, p. El.
40. Samuel Allen, untitled review in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 31.
41. Melvin Dixon, “If You Surrender to the Air….” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 28.
42. Karen De Witt, “Toni Morrison’s Saga Praised in All the Proper Places,” Washington Post, 30 September 1977, p. C3.
43. Jean Strouse, “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” Newsweek, 97 (March 1981): 52.
44. Maureen Howard, “A Novel of Exile and Home,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 18.
45. Ibid., p. 18.
47. Ibid., p. 20.
48. Robert G. O’ Meally, “Tar Baby, She Don’ Say Nothin’,” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 33.
49. Ibid., p. 37.
50. Anatole Broyard, “Books of The Times,” New York Times, 21 March 1981,1: 10.
51. John Irving, “Morrison’s Black Fable,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 22.
52. Ibid., p. 25.
53. Jacqueline Trescott, Washington Post, 8 April 1981, p. Bl.
54. Joseph Savago, quoted in Janice A. Radway, A Feeling For Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 114-115.
55. John Leonard, “’Beloved’ by Toni Morrison,” Los Angeles Times, 30 August 1987, p. 1.
56. A. S. Byatt, “Books: An American Masterpiece/Review of ’Beloved’ by Toni Morrison,” Guardian Unlimited (16 October 1987) <http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,6121,9... >.
58. Ann Snitow, “Death Duties: Toni Morrison Looks Back in Sorrow,” in Toni Morrison:Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 26.
59. Ibid., p. 28.
60. Ibid., p. 29.
61. Margaret Atwood, “Haunted by Their Nightmares,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 33.
62. Ibid., p. 35.
63. Stanley Crouch, “Aunt Medea,” in Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 205.
65. Ibid., p. 209.
67. Anonymous, “Book Contest Undecided Money Goes to Charity,” Toronto Star, 25 March 1988, p. E22.
68. Michiko Kakutani, “Did ’Paco’s Story’ Deserve Its Award?” New York Times, 16 November 1987, p. C15.
70. Elizabeth Kastor, “’Beloved’ and the Protest: Why Black Writers Decried Book Award ’Oversight,’” Washington Post, 21 January 1988, p. Bl.
71. Leonard, “In Person,” Newsday, 21 January 1988: II: 6.
73. Richard Eder, “Endpapers: Black Prizes, Black Protests,” Los Angeles Times, 14 February 1988, book review: p. 15.
75. Seymore Topping, “Joseph Pulitzer and The Pulitzer Prizes."
76. Edwin McDowell, New York Times, 3 June 1988, p. C28.
77. John J. Goldman, “Charlotte Observer Tops Pulitzer List for PTL Coverage,” Los Angeles Times, 1 April 1988,1: 1.
78. Kastor, “Eyes on the RFK Prizes; Author Toni Morrison Picks up Another Award,” Washington Post, 14 May 1988, p. Cl.
80. Chikwenge Okonjo Ogunyemi, “Order and Disorder in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” Critique, 19 (1977): 112-120, and Robert Stepto’s interview with Morrison titled “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977): 473-489.
81. Anne Elizabeth Berkman, “The Quest for Authenticity: The Novels of Toni Morrison.”
82. Michael Wood, “Life Studies, New York Review of Books, 19 November 1992, pp. 7-11;John Leonard, “Her Soul’s High Song,” in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, pp. 36-49.
83. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 55.
84. James Withers, “Enough to Make a Man Weep Like a Baby in a Boston Subway Station,” Houston Chronicle, 7 November 1993, “Outlook” section, p. 5.
85. Donna Fry, “Nobel Prize for Morrison Is a Bolt From the Blue,” Seattle Times, 7 October 1993, p. El.
86. Steven Moore, “Nobel Backlash,” Guardian (London), 20 October 1993, “Features” section, p. 4.
87. Cheryl-Ann Michael and Moore, “Prize and Prejudice,” Guardian (London), 30 October 1993, “Features” section, p. 30.
88. Pearl Cleage, “Male-Bashing? Toni Morrison?” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 24 October 1993, p. G5.
90. Anonymous, “Racism’s ’Avenging Angel’ Soars with Nobel Prize,” Toronto Star, 17 October 1993, p. Dl.
91. Patricia Storace, “The Scripture of Utopia,” New York Review of Books, 11 June 1998, pp. 64-69.
92. Ibid., p. 65.
93. Sara Blackburn, untitled review in Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, p. 8.
94. Storace, p. 69.
95. Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV,” Paris Review, 35 (Fall 1993): 105.
96. Stepto, “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p. 10.
97. Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” pp. 385-390.
98. Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 100.
99. Rosemarie K. Lester, “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany,” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 50.
100. Morrison, “Memory, Creation, and Writing,” pp. 385-386.
102. Stepto, in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 11.
103. Morrison, Tar Baby (New York: Knopf, 1981). In the 1994 Knopf hardcover edition, the name is spelled “Mrs. Millie McTyeire.”
104. De Witt, p. Cl.
105. Claudia Tate, “Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 170.
106. Janet Maslin, “’Footloose’ Sets off Furor,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 23 March 1984, p. A21.
107. Morrison, “Oprah On-Line,” Oprah.com (23 May 2000) <http://oprah.com/com/chat/transcript/obc/chat_trans_tmorris... >.
109. Richard Corliss, “Bewitching Beloved,” Time, 152 (October 1998): 76.
110. Oprah!, 1 (April 2000): 43.
111. Oprah Winfre, journey to Beloved (New York: Hyperion, 1998).
112. Roger Ebert, “Grand Oprah,” Chicago Sun-Times, 16 October 1998, p. 29.
113. Margo Jefferson, “Revisions; Slavery Echoes in the Prism of a Film,” New York Times, 19 October 1998, p. El.
114. Quentin Curits, “The Arts: Oprah’s Great Movie Mission,” Daily Telegraph (London), 22 October 1998, p. 27.
115. Ibid. See also Bernard Weinraub, “’Beloved’ Appeals Mainly in Big Cities,” New York Times, 19 October 1998, p. E2.
116. Carrie Rickey, “After ’Beloved,’ What Next for Black-Theme Films?” Buffalo News, 29 November 1998, p. F3.
117. Gene Seymour, “On Movies/Black Films Affected by Color of Money,” Newsday, 22 November 1998, p. 5.
119. Michael Silverblatt, “The Writing Life,” Los Angeles Times, 1 November 1998, p. 3.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7366
- From The Bluest Eye (1970).
- From “Race Relations; On to Disneyland and Real Unreality” (1973).
- From “Behind the Making of The Black Book” (1974).
- From “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison” (1976).
- From “I Will Always Be a Writer” (1976).
- From “Toni Morrison’s Saga Is Praised in All the Proper Places” (1977).
- From “Cinderella’s Stepsisters” (1979).
- From “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic” (1981).
- From “A Conversation with Toni Morrison” (1981).
- From “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany” (1983).
- From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1983).
- From “Toni Morrison” (1983).
- From “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1984).
- From “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison” (1985).
- From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1985).
- From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1986).
- From “Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved” (1987).
- From “In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison”(1987).
- From “Toni Morrison’s Work Needs No Lobbying” (1988).
- From “The Pain of Being Black” (1989).
- From “An Inspired Life: Toni Morrison Writes and a Generation Listens” (1992).
- From Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).
- From Jazz (1992).
- From “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV” (1993).
- From Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1994).
- From “Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison” (1994).
- From “Great Minds Come Together in Atlanta” (1995).
- From The Dancing Mind (1996).
- From “The Salon Interview: Toni Morrison” (1998).
- From Paradise (1998).
- From “Toni Morrison AOL Live Chat” (2000).
- From “The Dead of September 11” (2001).
Toni Morrison values her privacy. She does not care to discuss her personal life. She insists that it is not interesting. Her comments on writing in the many interviews she has given over the years and her essays on literature reveal much about the extent to which her lived experiences help to shape her fiction.
From The Bluest Eye (1970).
My mother’s fussing soliloquies always irritated and depressed us. They were interminable, insulting, and although indirect (Mama never named anybody—just talked about folks and some people), extremely painful in their thrust. She would go on like that for hours, connecting one offense to another until all of the things that chagrined her were spewed out. Then, having told everybody and everything off, she would burst into song and sing the rest of the day. But it was such a long time before the singing part came.1
From “Race Relations; On to Disneyland and Real Unreality” (1973).
I have to go to Disneyland. For years when my children begged me to take them, I gave them a nice round of “uh huh” designed to shut them up. I couldn’t explain to them that I saw Snow White and the Cowardly Lion and the alligators every morning. That there were no fantasies in California that I had not seen in New York.
It was a mistake. This year especially I have regretted it. For this year fantasy itself lost its genuineness. The normal lines of communication between sham and reality had broken down. The world’s best known black writer discussed his relations with his publisher in the same terms slaves used to describe their owners. Two of the most liberated and intelligent women I know talked about their abortions with the same verbs, the same adjectives, the same narcissism, the same fond recollection with which women of another generation discussed childbirth. I spent months doing (with 24 times the money) what my father did in 1935: anguish about how to put meat on the table. I smelled famine in the world’s richest country, and was told by the privileged to tighten my belt. A 10-year-old French mulatto responded to being called a dirty black with “I’m not black, I’m Parisian.” Apparently Fanon had never lived; I hallucinated him.
Nine years after a white boy spit at my son and accused him of being black, this year a white boy accused him of not being black. He was confused. “Well,” I said, “white people complain a lot. They use blackness for lots of things—for whatever is going on in the world. Please don’t let them define you. And please don’t try to please them. Whatever they want you to be, chances are they want it for themselves, not for you.”
He didn’t know what I was talking about and, like not going to Disneyland, I couldn’t explain. But I’m going. The reason I had refused to go is no longer valid.
Too tired? I’ve never been more exhausted in my life. Not just the weight of old anger, but an inability to contain the new. Mine is a tiredness of perception, of strafed ganglia. Anchors float. Bread won’t mold. Children’s brains splatter on the walls of “very good” homes.
So I want to go to Disneyland where the deceptions are genuine, where I can see constant unreality, steady illusion. 1 want to see the real Snow White dancing among the dirty old men. I want to see the plastic teeth of real alligators snapping at the hull of my boat. I want to watch real cowboy murderers kill the same number of people at the same time every day.2
From “Behind the Making of The Black Book” (1974).
Being older than a lot of people, I remember when soul food was called supper, and when the complete failure in the neighborhood was not the drunk who sat in the alley, but the pimp who sat on the bannister. Society, or whoever, may have driven them both to extremes, but the drunk had responded with awesome (and manly) feats of consumption, endurance and imagination, while the pimp had surrendered to a view of the flesh-as-property identical to the one the old slave-master had. Both the drunk and the pimp lacked dignity, but one had forgotten his history.
It was a curious time, the Thirties, Forties and on, made more curious to me now because it seems to have no relation to the new Black history being propounded in the streets, in the classrooms and in the gatherings of Black people in this country. It is strongly hinted that we have come ’up’ from ignorance; that aside from Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois, we were illiterate worshipers of white people; a nonreading people who understood only the spoken word and learned the little we did by molecular displacement. A people who didn’t know enough, hate enough or love enough. The assumption about our reading habits is based on the fact that few Black people had more than a few years of primary schooling and that reading at the sixth-grade level is not reading at all. (In spite of the fact that the New York Times is written at the sixth grade level—most other newspapers at the fourth grade—and that going to school for Black people had nothing to do with the ability to read.) My grandfather went to school for one day: to tell the teacher he would not be back. Yet all his adult life he read greedily, as did his uneducated friends.3
From “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison” (1976).
Though I live in New York, I don’t relate easily to very, very large cities, because I have never lived in a huge city except this one. My tendency is to focus on neighborhoods and communities. And the community, the black community—I don’t like to use that term because it came to mean something much different in the sixties and seventies, as though we had to forge one—but it had seemed to me that it was always there, only we called it the “neighborhood.” And there was this life-giving, very, very strong sustenance that people got from the neighborhood. One lives, really, not so much in your house as you do outside of it, within the “compounds,” within the village, or whatever it is. And legal responsibilities, all the responsibilities that agencies now have, were the responsibilities of the neighborhood. So that people were taken care of, or locked up or whatever. If they were sick, other people took care of them; if they needed something to eat, other people took care of them; if they were old, other people took care of them; if they were mad, other people provided a small space for them, or related to their madness or tried to find out the limits of their madness.
They also meddled in your lives a lot. They felt that you belonged to them. And every woman on the street could raise everybody’s child, and tell you exactly what to do and you felt that connection with those people and they felt it with you. And when they punished us or hollered at us, it was, at the time, we thought, so inhibiting and so cruel, and it’s only much later that you realized that they were interested in you. Interested in you-they cared about your behavior.4
From “I Will Always Be a Writer” (1976).
When I describe the editor’s job, it will sound simple but very packed. An editor’s functions vary from house to house. One thing that we all have in common is editing manuscripts and seeking work we’d like to buy. I look for manuscripts from agents and/or people. Then I talk to the writer or the agent. If that works out and there’s a manuscript on an idea available, I have to convince my editor-in-chief that it’s a good idea to buy and publish it. Then we negotiate the contract and work with the author. When that’s done, we turn it over to the many people inside the company: the copy editors, the design department, subsidiary rights people, printers and book binders and so on. Once the book is completed one waits to see what the response will be. … If you’ve published the author’s work before, you try to direct his or her career; pace them; build it; help them.5
From “Toni Morrison’s Saga Is Praised in All the Proper Places” (1977).
I knew my great-grandmother … She was a black woman, a very dark lady with white hair. And I remember my grandmother sitting on a bureau, swinging her feet like a little girl in the presence of this woman, it seemed strange to me. And the men, they were interesting, very, very competent, very resilient. And roomers, you always had a roomer in those days.
In the heart of the Depression, [her father] had Florsheim shoes, wore natty clothes, even gambled. He was the kind of man who was at home anywhere … Even in joints. He knew the kind of men that didn’t belong to my mother’s church, but he mellowed and eventually became a church member. And I remember one tale. You know how the churches sell dinner, for years … to build a new church. Well, if the church didn’t sell all the dinners, my father would take the leftover plates and go sell them in the joints. It was in one of
these joints that my father went to sell some barbecue dinners, a joint on Vine Street in Lorain, and these two dudes were getting ready to shoot one another. My father walked in and said, “You niggers, put those guns down and you buy this barbecue.” As so they did. Bought the plates and proceeded to eat the barbecue.6
From “Cinderella’s Stepsisters” (1979).
I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women. 1 am alarmed by a growing absence of decency of the killing floor of professional women’s worlds.7
From “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic” (1981).
My grandfather had left Greenville for Birmingham to earn money playing the violin. He sent money back, but my grandmother began to get nervous, all alone in Greenville, because her daughters were reaching puberty and that was dangerous business in the South, in the country, because white boys began to circle. So my grandmother decided to leave. She sent her husband an oral message: “We’re heading north on the midnight train. If you ever want to see us again, you’ll be on that train.”
She didn’t know if he got the message, but with $18 to her name she packed up her six or seven children and got them all to the train in Birmingham. It was the first city my mother had ever seen… . My grandfather was nowhere in sight. As the train left the station the children began to cry—then about an hour later, he showed up. He’d been there all along, hiding, for fear somebody would recognize him and stop him for owing money.8
From “A Conversation with Toni Morrison” (1981).
Since it was possible for my mother, my grandmother and her mother to do what they did, which to me is scary, really scary—snatching children and roaming around in the night; running away from the South and living in Detroit, can’t read or write; in a big city trying to stay alive and keep those children when you can’t even read the road signs—now, these are hard things to do. And if they can do that, surely 1 can work at Random House and cook—I mean, what is it after all? You know, the worst that can happen is that I get fired and have to do something else.
1 know I can’t go to those women and say, “Well, you know, my life is so hard. I live in New York and it’s just.…” They don’t want to hear that! They were boiling sheets and shooting pheasant and stuff, then they got married to people and had children and fights. And the world was different then—white people were not punished for killing Black folks.
That’s all history means to me. It’s a very personal thing—if their blood is in my veins, maybe I can do this little part right here. I don’t want to meet them people nowhere—ever!—and have them look at me and say, “What were you doing back there?”…
I feel no success with my sons, I feel no success as an editor—because nothing has been completed. Anything may happen at any moment. If I’m a hundred and they are 70,I would still go to them if they break a hip. And with the editing thing, there is so much to be done, and I can only do so little. I should have—I would like to have—my own line. It should be done. Somebody in a major publishing house should do it. I can’t—it requires more days and more energy than I have.
… When I publish Toni Cade Bambara, when I publish Gayl Jones, if they would do what my own books have done [in sales], then I would feel really fantastic about it. But the market can only receive one or two [Black women writers]. Dealing with five Toni Morrisons would be problematic. I’m not talking about quality of work—who writes better than I do and stuff. I’m just talking about the fact that, in terms of new kinds of writing, the marketplace receives only one or two Blacks in days when it’s not fashionable. That’s true of literature in general, but it’s particularly true for Black writing.
I can’t rely on a huge, aggressive Black buying audience. But I think that will all change. You see, Black people don’t just read, they have to absorb something. I’ve tried to write books so that whoever reads them absorbs them—so that the process of reading them means you have to take it in. That’s a slower way to do it, but people participate in the books heavily. Two thousand people bought The Bluest Eye in hardback and maybe 12,000 or 15,000 bought Sula. Then it tripled for Song of Solomon. And maybe it will triple again for Tar Baby.
But the point is that once there can be a commercial success of a book that is clearly, relentlessly Black’and I don’t care if they handle it as just “this one little colored girl up here today”’it opens a door. So no one can ever say again it can’t be one.9
From “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany” (1983).
I was not prepared for what appears obvious now: the differences between men and women, or boy children and girl children. I had two brothers who were younger than I and I thought I was very adept, but I had some other notions about what one has to deliver to the children’especially as a single parent. 1 thought that I should be mother and father, but that did not work at all. I was not a good father’I was a good head-of-household, in terms of my earning ability, and then I discovered (maybe a little late for them), that you can be only what you are, and deliver what you have, and that you can’t provide the other things. They’ll have to learn them elsewhere. As boys, my sons were attracted to danger and risk in a way that I was not. They had different spatial requirements than girls, or I ever had. And part of that may be education and socialization, but nevertheless, there they were’these male children who tended to eat up the house. They related to architecture and space differently. Their demands on a mother were very primitive; they didn’t really care what I was about, they wanted service and attention and, at different points in their lives, conversation. They wanted me as a base line from which they operated. They wanted different kinds of intimacy’it was all very strange. I don’t have girl children, and perhaps if I did, I’d say something equally astonishing about them. It was curious’I found the boys useful when I was doing Song of Solomon, because having watched them grow up, I was able, I think, to enter into a male view of the world, which, to me, means a delight in dominion’a definite need to exercise dominion over place and people. My upbringing was very strict, we were passive girls and we took orders well. We did not issue orders with a great deal of ease, the way my children can do. This is all stereotypical and general, obviously there are variations in men and women, but if you think of the classic definition of masculinity versus femininity, then there is the question of dominion. I watched them in their play and in that desire to control, and when 1 was writing Song of Solomon, which is driven by male characters (it’s the only book that has that focus), and I had to change the language a lot, the metaphors, so having children was helpful.10
From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1983).
My life seems to be dominated by information about black women. They were the culture bearers, and they told us what to do. But in terms of story-telling, 1 remember it more as a shared activity between the men and the women in my family. There was a comradeship between men and women in the marriages of my grandparents, and of my mother and father. The business of story-telling was a shared activity between them, and people of both genders participated in it. We, the children, were encouraged to participate in it at a very early age. This was true with my grandfather and grandmother, as well as with my father and mother, and with my uncles and aunts. There were no conflicts of gender in that area, at the level at which such are in vogue these days. My mother and my father did not fight about who was supposed to do what. Each confronted whatever crisis there was.11
From “Toni Morrison” (1983).
There’s a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises, and you might not ever be able to uncompromise yourself. If you write for life, you’ll work hard; you’ll do it in a disciplined fashion; you’ll do what’s honest, not what pays. You’ll be willing to say no when somebody wants to play games with your work. You’ll be willing to not sell it. You’ll have a very strong sense of your work, your self development.12
From “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1984).
There is a conflict between public and private life, and it’s a conflict that I think ought to remain a conflict. Not a problem, just a conflict. Because they are two modes of life that exist to exclude and annihilate each other. It’s a conflict that should be maintained now more than ever because the social machinery of this country at this time doesn’t permit harmony in a life that has both aspects. I am impressed with the story of’ probably Jefferson, perhaps not, who walked home alone after the presidential inauguration. There must have been a time when an artist could be genuinely representative of the tribe and in it; when an artist could have a tribal or racial sensibility and an individual expression of it. There were spaces and places in which a single person could enter and behave as an individual within the context of the community. A small remnant of that you can see sometimes in Black churches where people shout. It is a very personal grief and a personal statement done among people you trust. Done within the context of the community, therefore safe. And while the shouter is performing some rite that is extremely subjective, the other people are performing as a community in protecting that person. So you have a public and a private expression going on at the same time. To transfer that is not possible. So I just do the obvious, which is to keep my life as private as possible; not because it is all that interesting, it’s just important that it be private. And then, whatever I do that is public can be taken seriously.13
From “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison” (1985).
I was really in a comer. 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 1 was thrown back on, luckily, the only thing I could depend on, my own resources. And I felt that the world was going by in some direction that I didn’t understand and I was not in. Whatever was going on was not about me and there were lots of noises being made about how wonderful I was’ “black woman you are my queen.” I didn’t believe it. I thought it sounded like something I had heard when I was eleven, but the vocabulary was different. There was something in it I just didn’t trust. It was too loud. It was too grand. It was almost like a wish rather than a fact, that the men were trying to say something that they didn’t believe either. That’s what I thought. And so it looked as though the world was going by and I was not in that world. I used to live in this world, I mean really lived in it. I knew it. I used to really belong here. And at some point I didn’t belong here anymore. I was somebody’s parent, somebody’s this, somebody’s that, but there was no me in this world. And I was looking for that dead girl and I thought I might talk about that dead girl, if for no other reason than to have it, somewhere in the world, in a drawer. There was such a person. I had written this little story earlier just for some friends, so I took it out and I began to work it up. And all of those people were me. 1 was Pecola, Claudia. … I was everybody. And as 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’a real revelation. 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. Although I still didn’t belong. I was working hard at a job and trying to be this competent person. But the dead girl’and not only was that girl dead in my mind, I thought she was dead in everybody’s mind, aside from my family and my father and mother’that person didn’t exist anywhere. That person. Not the name, but the person. I thought that girl was dead. 1 couldn’t find her. I mean, I could see her on the street or the bus, but nobody wrote about her. Which isn’t entirely accurate. People had done that. But for me at that time that was them, that was not me. People ask, “Is your book autobiographical?” It is not, but it is, because of that process of reclamation. And I was driven there, literally driven. I felt penned into a basement, and I was going to get out of it. I remembered being a person who did belong on this earth. I used to love my company and then I didn’t. And 1 realized the reason I didn’t like my company was because there was nobody there to like. I didn’t know what happened. I had been living some other person’s life. It was too confusing. I was interested primarily in the civil rights movement. And it was in that flux that I thought … I guess it was right there. It was my time of life also. The place where those things came together. And I thought that there would be no me. Not us or them or we, but no me. If the best thing happened in the world and it all came out perfectly in terms of what the gains and goals of the Movement were, nevertheless nobody was going to get away with that; nobody was going to tell me that it had been that easy. That all I needed was a slogan: “Black is Beautiful.” It wasn’t that easy being a little black girl in this country’it was rough. The psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through’and nobody said how it felt to be that. And you knew better. You knew inside better. You knew you were not the person they were looking at. And to know that and to see what you saw in those other people’s eyes was devastating. Some people made it, some didn’t.14
From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1985).
But the consciousness of being Black I think happened when I left Cor-nell and went to teach at Texas Southern University. … I had never been in a Black school like that. 1 don’t mean my awareness was all that intense, but even at Howard University where I went to school, I remember I asked once to do a paper in the English Department on Black Characters in Shakespeare, and they were very much alarmed by that’horrified by it, thought it was a sort of lesser topic, because Howard wasn’t really like that. It was very sort of middle class, sort of upwardly mobile and so on. But when I left Cornell and went to Houston, even though I was only there a year and a half, in the South they always had Negro History Week; I’d never heard of it. We didn’t have it in the North… . But then I began to think about all those books my mother always had in the house’J. A. Rodgers and all those people’and all those incredible conversations my grandfather had and all those arguments that would just hurt my head when I listened to them at the time suddenly had a different meaning. There was a difference between reading the Call and Post when it came or the Pittsburgh Courier and all the Black papers and then going someplace when there was something called the Black press. So I think it was as a novice teacher, and that was in 1957 or 1958, that I began to think about Black culture as a subject, as an idea, as a discipline. Before it had only been on a very personal level’my family. And 1 thought they were that way because they were my family.15
From “An Interview with Toni Morrison” (1986).
We do read books quite differently. I mean we’re taught to read them like you open a medicine cabinet and get out an aspirin and your headache is gone. Or people are looking for the “how-to” book’you know, thirty days and you’ll have a flat stomach, or three days as the case may be. So that they are looking for easy, passive, uninvolved and disengaged experiences’television experiences, and I won’t, I won’t do that.16
From “Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved” (1987).
People give a lot of credence to the intelligence, the concentration, the imagination necessary for listening to music, but never for listening to stories. That somehow seems like a dumb thing that people who can’t read do. And I know how hard it is to listen, and what’s engaged when you listen.17
From “In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison”(1987).
I was sitting in a radio station somewhere and the man who was interviewing me said, “What are you saying about Black women in this book, when Sethe survives and gets across the river and her husband doesn’t?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Are you saying that the women are stronger?” I said, “They’re not stronger. What about Halle? You couldn’t ask for a stronger man. He sold his life so that the women and the children could be free.” This man wanted to engage me in a fake argument, a divisive controversy. I said, “Sethe makes it, she’s tough, but some things are beyond endurance and you need some help. So she has some finally from the women and then from Paul D.”18
From “Toni Morrison’s Work Needs No Lobbying” (1988).
I had some dark thoughts about whether [Beloved’s] merits would be allowed to be the only consideration of the Pulitzer committee … The book had begun to take on a responsibility, an extra-literary responsibility that it was never designed for.”19
From “The Pain of Being Black” (1989).
Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million. There were travel accounts of people who were in the Congo’that’s a wide river’saying, “We could not get the boat through the river, it was choked with bodies.” That’s like a logjam. A lot of people died. Half of them died in those slave ships.
Slave trade was like cocaine is now’even though it was against the law, that didn’t stop anybody. Imagine getting $1,000 for a human being. That’s a lot of money. There are fortunes in this country that were made that way.
I thought this [Beloved] has got to be the least read of all the books I’d written because it is about something that the characters don’t want to remember, I don’t want to remember, black people don’t want to remember, white people don’t want to remember. I mean, it’s national amnesia.20
From “An Inspired Life: Toni Morrison Writes and a Generation Listens” (1992).
My rank in terms of writing is of no interest to me. The truth is that you have to face blank paper, and labels don’t help you much.
I am happy if I can serve as an inspiration to others and to women who want to write. But it’s not right for people to transfer their own internal responsibilities to a role model. My job is to be a morally responsible human being. And that’s a private struggle.21
From Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).
Writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer. Both exercises require being alert and ready for unaccountable beauty, for the intricateness or simple elegance of the writer’s imagination, for the world that imagination evokes. Both require being mindful of the places where imagination sabotages itself, locks its own gates, pollutes its vision. Writing and reading mean being aware of the writer’s notions of risk and safety, the serene achievement of, or sweaty fight for, meaning and response-ability.22
From Jazz (1992).
I lived a long time, maybe too much, in my own mind. People say I should come out more. Mix. I agree that I close off in places, but if you have been left standing, as I have, while your partner overstays another appointment, or promises to give you exclusive attention after supper, but is falling asleep just as you have begun to speak-well, it can make you inhospitable if you aren’t careful, the last thing I want to be.23
From “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV” (1993).
I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different. Because what strikes me about African-American culture is its variety. In so much of contemporary music everybody sounds alike. But when you think about black music, you think about the difference between Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet or Satchmo or Miles Davis. They don’t sound anything alike, but you know that they are all black performers, because of whatever that quality is that makes you realize, “Oh yes, this is part of something called the African-American music tradition.” There is no black woman popular singer who sounds like any other. Billie Holiday does not sound like Aretha, doesn’t sound like Nina, doesn’t sound like Sarah, doesn’t sound like any of them. They are really powerfully different. And they will tell you that they couldn’t possibly have made it as singers if they sounded like somebody else. If someone comes along sounding like Ella Fitzgerald, they will say, “Oh we have one of those… . It’s interesting to me how those women have this very distinct, unmistakable image. I would like to write like that. I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine, but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and second of all, this whole thing called literature.24
From Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1994).
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties, replacing them with 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.”25
From “Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison” (1994).
I regard the fact that my house burned down after I won the Nobel Prize to be better than having my house burn down without having won the Nobel Prize. Most people’s houses just burn down. Period.
When I think about the fire, I think I may not ever, ever, ever get over it. And it isn’t even about the things. It’s about photographs, plants I nurtured for 20 years, about the view of the Hudson River, my children’s report cards, my manuscripts. There were some months when I wouldn’t talk to anybody who had not had a house burn down.26
From “Great Minds Come Together in Atlanta” (1995).
We tend to discredit the child or the adult who values solitude … but that state is important.27
From The Dancing Mind (1996).
There is a certain kind of peace that is not merely the absence of war. It is larger than that. The peace 1 am thinking of is not at the mercy of history’s rule, nor is it a passive surrender to the status quo. The peace I am thinking of is the dance of an open mind when it engages another equally open one-an activity that occurs most naturally, most often in the reading/writing world we live in.28
From “The Salon Interview: Toni Morrison” (1998).
I really have very few friends who are writers. I have some close friends who are writers, but that’s because they’re such extraordinary people. The writing is almost incidental to the friendship, I think. It was interesting to me that when books by black women first began to be popular, there was a non-articulated, undiscussed, umbrella rule that seemed to operate, which was: Never go into print damning one another. We were obviously free to loath each other’s work. But no one played into the “who is best.” There was this marvelous absence of competition among us. And every now and then I’d see a review’a black woman reviewer take another black woman writer, a critic usually, on’but usually it’s in that field of cultural criticism. Because it was always understood that this was a plateau that had a lot of space on it.29
From Paradise (1998).
The evening had turned chilly but still not cold enough for snow. The lemon mint had shriveled, but lavender and sage bushes were full and fragrant. No wind to speak of, so the fire in the oil barrel was easily contained. One by one she dropped cardboard files, sheets of paper-both stapled and loose’into the flames. She had to tear the covers off the composition notebooks and hold them slant with a stick so they would not smother the fire. The smoke was bitter. She stepped back and gathered clumps of lavender and threw it in as well. It took some time, but finally she turned her back on the ashes and walked into her house trailing along the odor of burnt lavender.
… .“Dear God,” she murmured. “Dear, dear God. I burned the papers.”30
From “Toni Morrison AOL Live Chat” (2000).
I have just begun to write a new novel. Most of the novels I have written have taken four to six years so I expect to be finished in 2002 or 2003.31
From “The Dead of September 11” (2001).
To speak to you, the dead of September, I must not claim false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say—no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become.
1. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1994), p. 24.
2. Morrison, “Race Relations; On to Disneyland and Real Unreality,” New York Times, 20 October 1973, 4A: 1.
3. Morrison, “Behind the Making of The Black Book,” Black World, 23 (February 1974): 86-87.
4. Robert Stepto, “Intimate Things in Place: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994), p. 11.
5. Jessica Harris, “I Will Always Be a Writer,” Essence, 7 (December 1976): 56.
6. Karen De Witt, “Toni Morrison’s Saga Is Praised in All the Proper Places,” Washington Post, 30 September 1977, Cl.
7. Morrison, “Cinderella’s Stepsisters,” Ms., 8 (September 1979): 42.
8. Jean Strouse, “Toni Morrison’s Black Magic,” Newsweek, 97 (30 March 1981): 53.
9. Judith Wilson, “A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrisonx, pp. 131-134.
10. Rosemarie K. Lester, “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany,” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay (Boston: Hall, 1988), pp. 47-48.
11. McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, pp. 140-141.
12. Claudia Tate, “Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 170.
13. Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984), p. 339.
14. Gloria Naylor, “A Conversation: Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, pp. 198-199.
15. Bessie W. Jones and Audrey Vinson, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 174.
16. Christina Davis, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, pp. 232-233.
17. Gail Caldwell, “Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 243.
18. Marsha Darling, “In the Realm of Responsibility: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 250.
19. Maria D. Vesperi, “Toni Morrison’s Work Needs No Lobbying,” St. Petersburg Times, 3 April 1988, D3.
20. Bonnie Angelo, “The Pain of Being Black,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 257.
21. Dana Micucci, “An Inspired Life: Toni Morrison Writes and a Generation Listens,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, p. 279.
22. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. xi.
23. Morrison, Jazz (New York: Plume, 1992), p. 9.
24. Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour, “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV” Paris Review, 35 (Fall 1993): 117-118.
25. Morrison, Lecture and Speech of Acceptance, upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (New York: Knopf, 1994), pp. 15-17.
26. Claudia Dreifus, “Chloe Wofford Talks About Toni Morrison,” New York Times Magazine, 11 September 1994, p. 74.
27. Eric Harrison, “Great Minds Come Together in Atlanta,” Los Angeles Times, 28 April 1995, E8.
28. Morrison, The Dancing Mind (New York: Knopf, 1996), p. 7.
29. Zia Jaffrey, “The Salon Interview: Toni Morrison,” Salon.com (2 February 1998).
30. Morrison, Paradise (New York: Knopf, 1998), pp. 216-217.
31. “Toni Morrison AOL Live Chat,” Oprah.com (25 May 2000) <http://oprah.com/com/chat/transcript/obc/chat_trans_tmorris... >.
32. “Morrison, “The Dead of September 11,” Vanity Fair, special edition insert, 495 (November 2001): 48.
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A writer’s place in history is determined more often by the amount and quality of the scholarship his or her work generates than by the number of literary prizes he or she receives. Even Nobel laureates in literature fall out of fashion. In the 1930s, two American novelists—Sinclair Lewis in 1930 and Pearl S. Buck in 1938—won the Nobel Prize in literature. Their novels are rarely included on the current reading lists of college courses in American literature.
Prior to the publication in 1977 of Song of Solomon, Morrison’s novels received little attention from literary scholars. The Bluest Eye (1970) was out of print by 1974, making it difficult for teachers to include it in their course requirements. Inclusion in such course requirements is an important first step in generating scholarly writing on a work. Although Sula (1973) was more widely reviewed, it was on the reading lists of only a handful of black and women’s studies courses. The earliest essays about The Bluest Eye and Sula were published in journals such as Studies in Black Literature and Black American Literature Forum. These journals were in their infancy during the 1970s and did not circulate widely. Joan Bischoff’s “The Novels of Toni Morrison: Studies in Thwarted Sensitivity,” was published in 1975 in Studies in Black Literature.1 Similar to most of the essays on African American literature written prior to the more advanced theorizing of the 1980s, Bischoff’s approach is thematic. She discusses the themes of The Bluest Eye and Sula in relation to the development of the characters Pecola and Sula. She argues that both characters suffer from a “thwarted sensitivity” that causes them to retreat into solitude, the former through madness, the latter through her decision to face alone her illness and death. Phyllis R. Klotman’s 1979 article for Black American Literature Forum, “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,” is also thematic.2 Klotman analyzes the novel in terms of the Dick-and-Jane primer, and the image of the famous child star Shirley Temple. Her reading of the novel reveals the extent to which the characters are
affected—and in one case destroyed—by images that have nothing to do with the reality of their existence as black girls in the United States.
By 1980 the number of published essays had increased considerably, as had the different approaches to the study of Morrison’s fiction. The Modern Language Association International Bibliography includes ten essays for 1980 alone, a publication total that was more than the previous five years together. According to the 1983 bibliography, Morrison’s work had begun to receive much more attention in dissertations, book-length studies, and collections of essays about novelists in the Americas. The new scholarship also reflected a growing interest at the college and university level in the work of black women writers.
One of the most influential books on black women writers from that era is Barbara Christian’s Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (1980).3 Christian wrote in her preface that the idea for Black Women Novelists came to her while she was working on curriculum development with the Berkeley, California, school district. As she was trying to devise a curriculum that would “engage black girls,” she realized that although she had read and studied African American literature, she was not familiar with literature by black women. In 1974, while developing a course on black women writers at the University of California at Berkeley, she began to notice certain recurring images in their writing. Further investigation showed that “little work had been done on the black woman in literature and that she seldom appeared in a focal position in the black novel.”4 Those positions generally were occupied by men. Christian’s research soon revealed that there were few novels written by black women. Of those who managed to get a novel published, even fewer published a second novel. Since she believed that novelists need to write at least two novels in order to clarify their vision and understand their craft, Christian chose three contemporary writers who had written more than one novel—Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker—for what she admitted was the beginning of the documentation of a tradition of black women writers.
In the chapter on Morrison titled “The Contemporary Fables of Toni Morrison,” Christian shows how, in The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison works from relatively simple themes to explore the myths that structure the systems of belief governing the communities in which the characters struggle toward self-definition. In each novel the theme of black girls growing up in insular communities is what Christian calls a “chord” that is played and repeated with variations in tone and timbre, much like improvisations in jazz music. Christian pays special attention to the structure of each novel, describing in detail the aesthetic effects of Morrison’s nonlinear narratives. Although Morrison presents a chronological structure in terms of the way she divides Sula, the circularity of the narrative is similar to that of The Bluest Eye. Christian’s discussion of Morrison’s narrative techniques is similar to what Morrison later claimed she tried to achieve with her most experimental novel, Jazz (1992).
Another point Christian deals with in her discussion of Sula is the extent to which Morrison’s representations of black women disrupt familiar stereotypes. Women such as Eva, Hannah, and Sula Peace never before had been portrayed in African American fiction. They are different. Christian’s explication of the two novels is a good starting point for readers unfamiliar with Morrison’s narrative structures and with the importance of popular folklore and myth for the development of her characters and their fictional lives.
Whereas Christian refrains from imposing an extraliterary framework onto her readings in order to more fully illuminate the artistry of the writers under consideration, Karla E C. Holloway and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos approach their topic from a feminist perspective in New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (1987) a book-length study of Morrison’s first four novels. The study reveals as much about them—the nature of a friendship between a black woman and a white woman, and the impact Morrison’s novels have had on their lives and their developing feminist consciousness—as it does about the novels.5 The authors are at times extremely self-reflective as they enter into a dialogue with each other about their different responses to Morrison’s fiction. In some instances, their commentaries are so personal that readers may feel as if they are eavesdropping on a private conversation. In the concluding chapter, “Life is Art is Culture: The Politics of Collaboration,” Holloway comments about the problems and rewards of cowriting a study such as this one, especially with a friend from a different racial background. She writes that as their readings and interpretations grew farther apart, they often wondered if one of them was wrong, and if, in the process of writing about such racially specific fiction as Morrison’s, they were not risking their friendship. They seemed to have agreed when the project was completed that, although it was not always the most comfortable collaboration, it was personally and professionally enriching.6
Among the things they learned, however, is that such a collaboration can be a risky professional undertaking. Holloway and Demetrakopoulos were “consistently denied financial support” for their project.7 Holloway writes that readers not only questioned the validity of the project as the co-authors conceived it—a collaborative study focusing on the social and political aspects of Morrison’s novels—but that readers wondered if Morrison was worth the attention of a book-length study. According to Holloway, the more their requests for financial support were denied, the more fiercely loyal they became to their project, to each other, and to the women’s groups that supported their work.
We learned to hold very dear the wonderfully supportive and encouraging responses of the women’s groups who listened, sometimes with tears, to the readings we gave during the book’s development. We learned to understand the many kinds of cultures that provoked certain responses to our text. The cultures of sexism, racism, literary snobbishness, and ignorance generated a whole host of reactions to our study. What but male insecurity, we decided, would question the validity of feminist scholarship? What but racial insensitivity would deny that there was any significant enough difference between Blacks and whites to deeply influence literary investigation? We were denying the “human community,” we were told. What other than racism, ignorance, and incredible shortsightedness could fail to recognize the stature of an author like Toni Morrison? Questions like these gave us the energy to pursue our project when common sense might have called for its conclusion.8
Holloway concludes the study with her reflections on the importance of collaboration as a “source of creative power” and as an important feature of feminist studies. Many feminists believe that through collaboration with other feminists scholars and critics they will make meaningful changes in the male-dominated literary canon.
That kind of collaboration frequently came in the form of edited work, such as Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, the 1988 collection of essays on Morrison edited by Nellie Y. McKay. According to McKay, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison was the first volume of its kind on Morrison.9 It includes previously published reviews of Morrison’s first four novels and new essays, written specifically for the volume, that show a range of interests and critical approaches to Morrison’s work. Notable among them is Deborah E. McDowell’s essay, “’The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Black Female Text.”10 McDowell begins her essay with an overview of critical commentaries about African American literature such as W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1921 Crisis magazine article, “Negro Art,” Addison Gayle’s 1977 “Blue-print for Black Criticism,” and reviews in the 1980s that share similar concerns about the negative portrayals of fictional characters in the works of black women writers. She argues that although new developments in critical theory offer opportunities to broaden the theoretical framework of Afro-American literary studies, resistance from mainly male critics and debates about the negative images of male characters in black women’s fiction threaten to reduce that fiction to merely “racial representations.”11 McDowell argues for, and tries to demonstrate in her reading of Sula, the necessity of moving beyond “an almost exclusive focus on race in Afro-American literary discourse, which is often tantamount to a focus on maleness,” to a feminist criticism that would “lead us beyond the descriptions that keep us locked in opposition and antagonism” toward reading strategies that encourage the imaginary transcending of boundaries that have held the idea of a black self in check.12
As black feminists during the 1980s publicly defended Morrison, Alice Walker, and other black women writers from claims of “male-bashing” and negative representations, Morrison rejected the category “feminist” for her work. She told Rosemarie K. Lester during a 1983 interview that she writes “without gender focus” and out of the “sensibility” of being a black woman. But she denies writing “women’s literature as such,” an idea she finds “confining.” She explained, “I don’t dislike the writing of women who write for women and about women exclusively, because some of it is quite powerful and quite beautiful. I just don’t do it myself because it is a narrowing. It’s like putting blinders on. When I write I want to feel as though all things are available to me.”13 Morrison has little control, however, over the way her work is read and interpreted. The 1990 Modern Language Association International Bibliography includes twenty-seven scholarly works on Morrison. Most of them are feminist readings of her texts. Feminist readings of her novels have contributed enormously to Morrison’s success.
MORRISON’S LITERARY INFLUENCES
Even more telling of the extent to which novelists—and artists in general—have litde or no control over interpretation of their work is the interest among scholars and critics in the literary relations between Morrison, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and particularly William Faulkner, who, along with Woolf, was the subject of Morrison’s M.A. thesis. Morrison would rather not be compared to them. She told McKay in a 1983 interview, “I am not like James Joyce; I am not like Thomas Hardy; I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense. I do not have objections to being compared to such extraordinarily gifted and facile writers, but it does leave me sort of hanging there when I know that my effort is to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music, or in some other culture-gen that survives almost in isolation because the community manages to hold on to it.”14 Morrison’s objections probably have to do with her reaction to the tendency of white critics to impose on African American literature standards that have little or nothing to do with the cultural milieu from which that literature derives and with her desire to be read on her own terms and not as a by-product of white male writers. Still, it is difficult for careful readers of Morrison and Faulkner not to see connections between the two writers and their works.
The tension between the cultural specificity Morrison insists is crucial to her work and the often inevitable and unaccountable influences from other writers and traditions is evident in a 1997 collection of essays titled Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned.15 The editors write in their introduction that the idea for the collection came out of a 1991 classroom experience during which two of them team-taught an undergraduate course that paired works by Morrison and Faulkner. From their description of it, the class was intense for students and teachers alike, as issues of race and gender were discussed:
nowhere had they (or we) been prepared for the explosive discussions of race that followed our readings of the paired Faulkner and Morrison texts. Students wept openly; one ran out of the room. White students felt threatened; black students felt threatened; we felt threatened; but we kept returning to our discussion from different angles, brought back by Morrison’s and Faulkner’s own refusal to look away, to let us fall back on easy stereotypes or conventional plot structures.”16
The editors decided to put together their collection after students tried but failed to find articles in the library dealing with both Morrison and Faulkner. Each of the fifteen essayists addresses the tension generated by Morrison’s insistence on being not like Faulkner and on the problem of influence studies. In the opening essay, “Toni Morrison and the Anxiety of Faulknerian Influence,” John N. Duvall states the problem succinctly:
Any discussion of Toni Morrison’s work in relation to modernism (or post-modernism) in general or to William Faulkner in particular is fraught with the possibility of misunderstanding. To speak of a possible Faulknerian influence on Morrison’s work runs the risk of calling up memories of racial and sexual abuse in the American past. Does not positing such an influence imply that, without a white Southern man’s seminal texts, those of the African-American woman would never have come to fruition? But arguing for an intertextual relationship between Morrison’s and Faulkner’s fiction does not require granting Faulkner’s the status of master text. In fact, my purpose here is less a discussion of Faulkner’s influence on Morrison than it is an examination of Morrison’s apparent anxiety that Faulkner may have influenced her writing.17
Intertextuality, as Duvall and others in Unflinching Gaze discuss it, assumes that writers engage with other writers by virtue of the acts of reading and writing. That does not mean that their work is directly influenced by a particular writer. For example, some critics have found similarities between Morrison’s early novels and those of Zora Neale Hurston, whom Morrison had not read when she began writing. Yet, they share an intertextual relationship through their depictions of small African American communities and unconventional heroines. Likewise, the incest scene with Jim Trueblood in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) shares an intertextual relationship with Cholly Breedlove’s incestuous act in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, although Ellison and Trueblood might not have been at the forefront of her consciousness when she wrote that scene.
The relationship between Morrison’s work and Faulkner’s is more complicated because Morrison studied his novels for her thesis and continued to read his works. As a modernist, her novels bear the mark, if not the influence, of the modernist writers who preceded her, many of whom in turn were influenced by one of the hallmarks of modernism—jazz music. Morrison’s comments on literature in her interviews and her critical analyses on American literature reveal the vastness of Morrison’s intertextual field. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. remarks in the preface to Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), “Toni Morrison may well be the most formally sophisticated novelist in the history of African American literature.”18 As such, she invites the kinds of comparisons she decries. Her work traditionally has been considered
along with those of a few prominent African American women writers such as Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Gloria Naylor. By the end of the 1990s, the scope of scholarship on Morrison had broadened significantly. Works such as Julia Eichelberger’s Prophets of Recognition:Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty (1999) and Cyrus R. K. Patell’s Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology (2001) place her novels within the context of those by Ellison, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Pynchon.19
MORRISON AND LITERARY CRITICISM
On 7 October 1988 Morrison presented the University of Michigan Tanner Lecture on Human Values. She titled her lecture “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.”20 It has since become a major work of literary criticism. Morrison called for a reexamination of the American literary canon in order to reveal the presence of Afro-American culture that remains unspoken. She stated, “I want to address ways in which the presence of Afro-American literature and the awareness of its culture both resuscitate the study of literature in the United States and raise that study’s standards. In pursuit of that goal, it will suit my purposes to contextualize the route canon debates have taken in Western literary criticism.”21 In doing so, she proved herself to be an outstanding literary scholar, something few novelists achieve. Literary scholarship and creative writing often are not compatible modes of writing.
Morrison summarizes debates over canon formation in terms of what has been omitted—the implications of the concept of race for white writers writing at a time when the real presence of Afro-American literature in the United States was a subject of much debate. She argues that nineteenth-century American writers and critics of Afro-American literature must have had to perform “intellectual feats” in order to effect the erasure of the Afro-American presence in American literature.22 Her challenge to students of literature is threefold: to develop a theory of literature for Afro-American literature “based on its culture, its history, and the artistic strategies the works employ to negotiate the world it inhabits”; to reinterpret the nineteenth-century founding works of the American canon “for the ’unspeakable things unspoken’; for the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure—the meaning of so much American literature”; to undertake a similar study for contemporary literature with emphasis on the role language plays in defining a literary work as “Black.”23 She reiterates many of these ideas in her 1992 collection of essays, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.24
“Unspeakable things Unspoken” and Playing in the Dark had a strong impact on American literary studies during the mid 1990s. As critic Dana D. Nelson put it after hearing a 14 February 1989 lecture Morrison gave at Princeton University on race and American culture, “’We’ have always been absolved of looking to ourselves in this matter, which is precisely the challenge Morrison offered to her Princeton audience.”25 Nelson responded to Morrison’s challenge with a provocative study of American literature, The Word in Black and White: Reading ’Race’ in American Literature 1638-1867 (1992). Another work that responds to Morrison’s challenge to rethink the American literary canon is Henry B. Wonham’s collection of essays, Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies (1996).26 The first essay in the collection is Morrison’s “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.” The essayists in the collection take up where Morrison left off and offer new interpretations of American literature and American literary history that take into account issues of race and racism. On the basis of these and other critical studies that rely on “Unspeakable Things Unspoken” and Playing in the Dark, Morrison has helped to change the way American literature will be read and taught in the future. Her critical essays also have generated even more scholarship about her own fiction. Another event that helped to promote scholarship about Morrison internationally was the founding in 1993 of the Toni Morrison Society.
THE TONI MORRISON SOCIETY
On 28 May 1993, during the annual meeting of the American Literature Association, Carolyn Dehard, then an assistant professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, convened a meeting of scholars interested in establishing the Toni Morrison Society. At this organizing meeting, Denard presented a draft of the Society’s bylaws, which stated its purpose: “to initiate, sponsor, and encourage critical dialogue, scholarly publications, conferences, programs, and projects devoted to the study of the works of Toni Morrison.” Membership was opened to “all persons who have a genuine interest in increasing public awareness and perpetuating the study and appreciation of the writings, career, and life of Toni Morrison.”27 The bylaws were adopted after a few additions and revisions, and the Toni Morrison Society was formally founded as an “official author society of the American Literature Association.” It is the third such society for an African American writer, after the Langston Hughes Society and the Richard Wright Circle, to come under the auspices of the Association.28 Five months later, in October 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The awarding of the prize dispelled any doubt about the timeliness of such a learned society. In just one year the membership of the society more than doubled and included scholars from around the world. Founding members began planning conferences and symposiums devoted entirely to Morrison. The society held its first American Literature Association conference session in 1994, in San Diego, California. In November 1994 Marilyn Sanders Mobley organized a two-day symposium, “Toni Morrison and the Politics of Word-Work,” at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. It was the first such symposium to be held in the United States. In April 1995, Celeste Nichols, a professor in the English department at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky, served as chairperson at a three-day conference on Morrison, during which students had an opportunity to work closely with established scholars of English and African American literature in a “supportive environment.”29 Other founding and charter members of the Society have organized conferences, conference panels, and edited special editions of scholarly journals on Morrison.
On 24 April 1995 the Toni Morrison Society held a formal chartering ceremony at Georgia State University, with Morrison as the “honored witness to the chartering.”30 During that event Morrison spoke with the advisory committee of the society about their programming agenda and suggested that they put together an international annotated bibliography. Morrison’s suggestion was a timely one. Morrison’s novels have been translated into many languages, including Persian. Increasingly, international scholars are publishing in their native languages rather than in English, thereby advancing knowledge about Morrison and African American literature worldwide.
Another important activity is the Biennial Toni Morrison Society Conference. This conference is held in a location that is important to Morrison’s life and work. The first Biennial Conference, “Toni Morrison and the American South,” was held in 1998 in Atlanta, Georgia. It included a trip to Cartersville, Georgia, the birthplace of Morrison’s father. Morrison attended the conference and visited the house in which her father was raised. The second Biennial Conference, “Toni Morrison and the Meanings of Home,” was held in Lorain, Ohio, at the Lorain County Community College. These and other society activities are securing a visible and permanent place in American literary history for Toni Morrison.
1. Joan Bischoff, “The Novels of Toni Morrison: Studies in Thwarted Sensitivity,” Studies in Black Literature, 6 (Fall 1975): 21-23.
2. Phyllis R. Klotman, “Dick-And-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye,” Black American Literature Forum, 13 (Winter 1979): 123-125.
3. Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980).
4. lbid., ix.
5. Karla E C. Holloway and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987).
6. Ibid., pp. 166-170.
7. Ibid., p. 168.
8. Ibid., p. 169.
9. Nellie Y. McKay, Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (Boston: Hall, 1988). McKay admits in an endnote that in 1985 Bessie W. Watson and Audrey L. Vinson published a collection of essays that they wrote in The World of Toni Morrison. The difference, according to McKay, is that their essays are “intended as a teaching tool for Morrison’s novels.” See p. 15, n. 32.
10. Deborah E. McDowell, “’The Self and the Other’: Reading Toni Morrison’s Sula and the Black Female Text,” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, pp. 77-90.
11. Ibid., p. 78.
12. Ibid., p. 79.
13. Rosemarie K. Lester, “An Interview with Toni Morrison, Hessian Radio Network, Frankfurt, West Germany” in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, p. 54.
14. McKay, “An Interview with Toni Morrison,” in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danielle Taylor-Guthrie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), p. 152.
15. Carol A. Kolmerten, Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg, eds., Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).
17. John N. Duvall, “Toni Morrison and the Anxiety of Faulknerian Influence,” in Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned, p. 3.
18. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds., Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993), p. ix.
19. Cyrus R. K. Patell, Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001); Julia Eichelberger, Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999).
20. Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 28 (Winter 1989): 1-34.
21. Ibid., p. 3.
22. Ibid., p. 12.
23. Ibid., p. 11.
24. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).
25. Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading ’Race’ in American Literature 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. xii.
26. Henry B. Wonham, ed., Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996).
27. Word-Work: Toni Morrison Society Newsletter, 1 (January 1994): 2.
29. Word-Work: Toni Morrison Society Newsletter, 2 (July 1995): 4.
30. Ibid., p. 2.
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- What do the different versions of the Dick and Jane story in The Bluest Eye suggest about the idea of the American Dream as it is played out in the novel?
- Morrison has said that one of the things she tries to do is “translate the historical into the personal.” Focusing on the historical events that frame Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, discuss the techniques she uses to make such a translation.
- Morrison has been praised and criticized for her portrayals of women in her novels. One of the reasons she has received praise, especially from feminist scholars, is that she breaks with the way female characters previously have been represented in literature and in popular culture. Trace the development of Morrison’s principal women characters in two of the following novels: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. Discuss these characters in relation to the way African American women are portrayed in either Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, or James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.
- Morrison never lived in the South; yet, most of the communities in which she sets her fiction suggest a rural, African American, southern heritage. Taking examples from at least three of her novels, discuss the extent to which the traditions and mores of the rural South condition the behavior of her principal characters in their northern urban environments.
- Some of the themes of Morrison’s novels are derived from folklore and myths. Give a summary of the dominant myths Morrison incorporates in Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Paradise and discuss the effect they have on the destinies of Milkman, Son, and the Morgan brothers.
- Morrison derives great pleasure from creating the fictional lives of her characters. Most of them are memorable but certainly not flawless. Some of them behave in ways that challenge common ideas of what is moral and ethical. Develop an ethical statement, based on the given circumstances of at least three of Morrison’s major characters, and launch either a prosecution or defense of their actions.
- Morrison generally is described as a modernist writer. What, specifically, are the narrative, stylistic, and thematic techniques that link her to the modernist movement?
- In “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” Morrison discusses what she calls “ancestral figures” in her fiction. What is the relation-ship between those “ancestral figures” and the idea of community as Morrison develops it in Beloved, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon, and Paradise?
- When Morrison was composing Jazz, she consciously was trying to put into writing what she felt had been achieved in music. Keeping in mind the different medium in which she works–written language–how and to what extent does she succeed?
- To what extent has visual imagery—painting, photography, movies—provided themes for Morrison’s fiction?
- Much of the action in Paradise revolves around a “controlling story and motto” created by an earlier generation of homesteaders. Why is it so important for the members of the town of Ruby to keep that story and motto alive?
- Most of Morrison’s fiction is “woman-centered”; yet, she rejects the label “feminist.” What, if any, are the tensions between what she says about feminism in her interviews and the way she develops her female characters in her novels?
- “Synaesthesia” is a literary term referring to a description of one kind of sensation that invokes another sensation; for example, a description of colors that invokes sounds or scents. Some of Morrison’s fiction has a decidedly “synaesthetic” quality. What, specifically, gives The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon that quality?
- What, if any, are the similarities between the narrative points of view of The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Jazz?
- In Playing in the Dark Morrison examines the erasure of the African American presence in the American literary imagination and calls for a kind of reading and interpretation that is attentive to this presence. In her own critical commentaries, is Morrison able to avoid using the kind of language that led to that erasure? Use specific examples to support your answer.
- Keeping in mind Morrison’s remarks about gender-specific writing, did Morrison in Song of Solomon achieve what she has called a masculine point of view?
- Morrison has insisted time and again that her work is not autobio-graphical and that she writes from her imagination, rather than from what she knows about her family and acquaintances. Define the term autobiography and then discuss it in terms of what Morrison says in “The Art of Fiction CXXXIV” about taking “pieces” from her real life and using them to create imaginary characters.
- Morrison has been praised for what many critics have called her lyrical prose. Taking examples from three of her novels, discuss in detail what constitutes the “lyrical” in Morrison’s writing.
- Morrison often ends her novels with ambiguity. The reader is not quite sure how to interpret her characters’ final actions. Morrison’s practice of leaving her novels open-ended are invitations to her readers to actively engage with her texts rather than passively accept whatever she wants to offer as the definitive interpretation. Take the last paragraph of Song of Solomon and, working from the given circumstances of the text, write your own ending.
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Mekkawi, Mod. Toni Morrison: A Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Libraries, 1986. A comprehensive list of Morrison’s novels through Tar Baby. Includes reviews, articles, and essays about the novels and interviews. Also lists audio books and audio and video interviews.
Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1987. Excellent reference for Morrison’s novels, her early articles and essays, and selected critical studies.
Word-Work: Newsletter of the Toni Morrison Society. The annual bibliography issue is the most comprehensive list other than the annual MLA International Bibliography.
Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet as It’s Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany: State University of New York, 2000. Morrison’s novels are read through recent psychoanalytic theories of shame and trauma.
Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison’s Fiction. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. A general overview of Morrison’s novels through Jazz. It includes a chapter on Morrison’s criticism in Playing in the Dark, and an annotated bibliography.
Gutmann, Katharina. Celebrating the Senses: An Analysis of the Sensual in Toni Morrison’s Fiction. Bern, Switzerland: Francke, 2000. One of the few studies that focuses on the synaesthetic quality of Morrison’s fiction.
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. Examines Morrison’s use of folklore and oral traditions in her first five novels.
Holloway, Karla F. C, and Stephanie A. Demetrakopoulos. New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. This work is as much of a personal engagement between two scholars, one African American, one white, as it is an overview of Morrison’s novels.
Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness. London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991. This study traces the impact of African writers and Pan-Africanism on Morrison’s first five novels and on her personal political positions.
Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. Literary Frontiers, no. 33. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. A short, thematic study of Morrison’s early fiction.
Patell, Cyrus R. K. Negative Liberties: Morrison, Pynchon, and the Problem of Liberal Ideology. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Philosophy students and scholars will find this study particularly engaging. Patell examines the work of Morrison and Thomas Pynchon through the work of John Rawls, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other liberal thinkers.
Plasa, Carl, ed. Toni Morrison: Beloved. Columbia Critical Guides. Cambridge: Icon, 1998. A helpful guide to reviews and the most significant critical essays on Beloved. Includes excerpts from interviews with Morrison about the novel.
Rigley, Barbara Hill. The Voices of Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A thoughtful analysis of Morrison’s uses of language in her first five novels.
Samuels, Wilfred D. and Clenora HudsonWeems. Toni Morrison. Twayne’s United States Authors. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A basic introduction to Morrison and her first five novels.
Williams, Lisa. The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Morrison’s essays in Playing in the Dark are brought to bear on this study.
Andrews, William L. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. Beloved: A Casebook. Casebooks in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Most of the essays were previously published. They are especially helpful for understanding some of the complex political issues of the era in which the novel takes place.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A basic study guide. It includes a list of characters, brief thematic and structural analyses, excerpts from reviews, and critical essays about the novel.
Bloom, ed. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. Includes the best of previously published articles and essays on the novel.
Bloom, ed. Toni Morrison’s Sula. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999. A collection of the best of previously published articles and essays on the novel.
Connor, Marc C., ed. The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. This collection shows how studies on Morrison have evolved over the years from political and ideological interpretations to an emphasis on her writing as art.
Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. Includes previously published reviews and new articles on Morrison’s novels through Jazz.
Kolmerten, Carol A., Stephen M. Ross, and Judith Bryant Wittenberg, eds. Unflinching Gaze: Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. Refreshingly clear and thoughtful essays on intertextual relations between Morrison and William Faulkner.
McKay, and Kathryn Earle, eds. Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison. Approaches to Teaching World Literature, no. 59. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1997. Offers several different and useful pedagogical approaches.
McKay, ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Critical Essays in American Literature. Boston: Hall, 1988. A collection of previously published reviews and original essays on Morrison’s novels through Tar Baby.
Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Contemporary Criticism. New York: Garland, 1997. These essays offer several new approaches to studying Morrison’s fiction, including postmodernism and cultural critique.
Paquet, Anne-Marie. Toni Morrison, Figures de Femmes. Paris: Presses de I’Universite de Paris-Sorbonne, 1996. An excellent introduction to Morrison’s novels for French speakers.
Peterson, Nancy J., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. An eclectic and rather uneven collection of essays, it focuses mainly on Morrison’s postmodernism.
Smith, Valerie, ed. New Essays on Song of Solomon. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A basic introduction to the novel for college undergraduates.
Solomon, Barbara H., Critical Essays on Toni Morrison’s Beloved. New York: Hall, 1998. Includes previously published reviews and articles on Beloved.
JOURNALS AND NEWSLETTERS
African American Review, 26 (Spring 1992): 7-76. The first six essays are devoted to works by Morrison.
African American Review, 35 (Summer 2001): 181-248. The first four essays are devoted to works by Morrison.
Callaioo, 13 (1990): 471-525. Special section on Morrison.
Modern Fiction Studies, 39 (1993): 461-859. Special issue on Morrison, edited by Nancy J. Peterson.
Word-Work: Newsletter of the Toni Morrison Society. Toni Morrison Society. Atlanta: Georgia State University.
BOOK CHAPTERS AND ARTICLES
Bell, Bernard. “Beloved: A Womanist Neo-slave Narrative; or, Multivocal Remembrances of Things Past.” African American Review, 26 (1992): 7-15.
Bent, Geoffrey. “Less than Divine: Toni Morrison’s Paradise.” Southern Review,35 (Winter 1999): 145-149.
Bischoff, Joan. “The Novels of Toni Morrison: Studies in Thwarted Sensitivity.” Studies in Black Literature, 6 (Fall 1975): 21-23.
Boesenberg, Eva. Gender-Voice-Vemacular: The Formation of Female Subjectivity in Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag C. Winter, 1999. An excellent example of recent European scholarship written in English on African American women writers. Boesenberg examines Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Morrison’s Sula, and Walker’s The Color Purple.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. Offers a “deconstructive” reading of the “politics of narration” that form the ideological framework of their novels. Chapter 3 deals with The Bluest Eye and Sula (pp. 59-89). Chapter 6 includes a discussion of Tar Baby (pp. 153-162).
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition: 1892-1976, Westport, Conn.: Green-wood Press, 1980. Chapter 5 is a thematic reading of The Bluest Eye and Sula (pp. 137-139).
Cowart, David. “Faulkner and Joyce in Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” American Literature, 62 (1990): 87-100.
Davis, Cynthia A. “Self, Society, and Myth in Toni Morrison’s Fiction.” Contemporary Literature, 23 (1973): 323-340.
De Weever, Jacqueline. “The Inverted World of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula.” College Language AssociationJournal, 22 (June 1979): 402-414.
Eichelberger, Julia. Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. The readings in this study are guided by what the author calls an “ideology of domination,” a term she carefully explicates in the introduction. Chapter 2 is about The Bluest Eye (pp. 58-94).
Horvitz, Deborah. “Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved.” Studies in American Fiction, 17 (Autumn 1989): 157-167.
House, Elizabeth B. “Toni Morrison’s Ghost: The Beloved Who Is Not Beloved.” Studies in American Fiction, 18 (Spring 1990): 17-26.
Hovet, Grace Ann, and Barbara Lounsberry. “Flying as Symbol in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon.” CLA Journal, 27 (December 1983): 119-140.
Hubbard, Dolan. “In Quest of Authority:Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and the Rhetoric of the Black Preacher.” College Language Association Journal, 35 (March 1992): 288-302.
Khayati, Abdellatif. “Representation, Race, and the ’Language’ of the Inef-fable in Toni Morrison’s Narrative.” African American Review, 33 (1999): 313-324.
Klotman, Phyllis R. “Dick-and-Jane and the Shirley Temple Sensibility in The Bluest Eye.” Black American Literature Forum, 13 (Winter 1979): 123-125.
Koolish, Lynda. “Fictive Strategies and Cinematic Representations in Toni Morrison’s Beloved: Postcolonial Theory/Postcolonial Text.” African American Review, 29 (Fall 1995):421-438.
Lane, Bonnie Shipman. “Toni Morrison’s Rainbow Code.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 24 (Spring 1983): 173-181.
McLeod, A. L. Commonwealth and American Nobel Laureates in Literature: Essays in Criticism. New Delhi, India: Sterling, 1998. A collection of essays on works by six Nobel Laureates, including Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Mobley, Marilyn Sanders. Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative. Baton Rouge:Louisiana State University Press, 1991. Focuses on the use of folklore and myth in Jewett’s fiction and in Song of Solomon and Tar Baby (pp.91-167).
Moglen, Helene. “Redeeming History:Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, pp.201-220.
Moses, Cat. “The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” African American Review, 33 (Winter 1999):623-636.
Pessoni, Michele. “’She was laughing at their God’: Discovering the Goddess Within in Sula.” African American Review, 29 (Fall 1995): 439-451.
Peterson, Nancy J. Against Amnesia: Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, pp. 50-97. Chapter 3 is an excellent examination of how Morrison weaves history into her narratives in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise.
Reyes, Angelita. “Ancient Properties in the New World: The Paradox of the ’Other’ in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby.” Black Scholar 17. 2 (1986): 19-25.
Rosenberg, Ruth. “Seeds in Hard Ground:Black Girlhood in The Bluest Eye.” Black American Literature Forum, 21 (Winter 1987): 435-445.
Sale, Maggie. “Call and Response as Critical Method: African-American Oral Traditions and Beloved.” African American Review, 26 (Spring 1992): 41-50.
Sitter, Deborah Ayer. “The Making of a Man: Dialogic Meaning in Beloved.” African American Review, 26 (Spring 1992): 17-30.
Skerret, Joseph T. “Recitation to the Griot: Storytelling and Learning in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 192-202.
Vickroy, Laurie. “The Politics of Abuse:The Traumatized Child in Toni Morrison and Marguerite Duras.” Mosaic, 29 (June 1996): 91-109.
Wilentz, Gay. “Civilizations Underneath:African Heritage as Cultural Discourse in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.” African American Review, 26 (1992): 61-76.
Wilentz. “If You Surrender to the Air:Folk Legends of Flight and Resistance in African American Literature.” MELUS, 16. 1 (1990): 21-32.
Wright, Lee Alfred. Identity, Family, and Folklore in African American Literature. New York: Garland, 1995; pp.75-131. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with The Bluest Eye and Sula, respectively.
AUDIO AND VIDEO RECORDINGS
A Conversation with Toni Morrison. Part 3 of In Black and White. Directed and produced by Matteo Bellinelli. Written by Barbara Christian. San Francisco, Cal.: California Newsree/ RTSI Swiss Television, 1992.
Indentifiable Qualities: A Film on Toni Morrison. Directed and produced by Sindamani Bridglal. New York: Women Make Movies, 1989.
Ordeal of the Woman Writer Audio cassette. New York: Norton, 1974.
Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison. Directed and produced by Alan Benson. Chicago, 111.: Home Vision, 1987.
Toni Morrison. Produced by Harry A. Radliffe II. New York: CBS, 1998.
Toni Morrison Uncensored. Directed by Gary Deans. Produced by Alan Hall &Jana Wendt. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1998.
A World of Ideas with Bill Moyers: A Writers World with Toni Morrison. Parts 1 & 2. Directed and produced by Gail Pellett. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Video, 1990.
Denard, Carolyn, “Blacks, Modernism, and the American South: An Interview with Toni Morrison.” Word-Work: Newsletter of the Toni Morrison Society, 6 (Fall 1999): 4-5, 14-21.
Jaffrey, Zia. “Toni Morrison: The Salon Interview” Salon.com (2 February 1998).
Schappell, Elissa, and Claudia Brodsky Lacour. “Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction CXXXIV.” Paris Review, 128 (Fall 1993): 83-125.
Taylor-Guthrie, Danielle, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson:University Press of Mississippi, 1994.
Adell, Sandra, ed. Dictionary of Twentieth Century Culture: African American Culture. Detroit: Gale, 1996.
Baker Jr., Houston A. Workings of the Spirit:The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Baker and Patricia Redmond, eds.Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Bell, Roseann, Bettye Parker, and Beverly Guy Shiftall, eds. Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1979.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. The Slaves Narrative. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Donalson, Melvin, ed. Cornerstones: An Anthology of African American Literature. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Includes Morrison’s short story,“Recitatif.”
Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984.
Gates. Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. New York: Meridian, 1990.
Hine, Darlene Clark, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, eds. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Volumes 1 & 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. New York: Feminist Press, 1982.
Kerner, Charlotte, ed. Madame Curie und Curie Schwestent: Frauen, die den Noblepreis bekamen. Weinheim, Germany & Basel, Switzerland: Beltz, 1997. Short biographies, in German, of women Nobel Prize winners from Marie Curie (1903) to Wislawa Szymborska (1996).
Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Washington, Mary Helen. Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1980.
Werner, Craig. Black American Women Novelists: An Annotated Bibliography. Pasadena, Cal.: Salem, 1989.
Anniina’s Toni Morrison Page.
This website is the most comprehensive and well maintained for Morrison. It includes links to reviews and essays about Morrison’s novels in scholarly journals such as African American Review, Twentieth Century Literature, and MELUS. It also includes links to recent on-line interviews with Morrison, links to audio excerpts of Morrison reading from The Bluest Eye, and links to other Morrison web pages, including the Random House website, where readers can find a study guide for Paradise. Highly recommended.