From The New York Times:
What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison was chosen as the best American fiction of the last 25 years. Runners up were: Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and Don DeLillo.
Toni Morrison on Beloved:
The novel is not about slavery. ”Slavery is very predictable,” she said. ”There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.”
”There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,” she said, ”and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you’re writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.”
For those who haven’t read it, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who has resettled to the outskirts of Cincinnati with her daughter, Denver. Near the beginning of the book, the two are joined by Paul D, once Sethe’s fellow slave on a Kentucky plantation called “Sweet Home.” (After years of thankless yearning, Paul D has at last become Sethe’s lover.) It’s 1873, the Civil War has been fought, and though slavery as a legal institution is over, it has only started its haunting of the African-American psyche. This Morrison dramatizes with the actual haunting of Sethe’s house by Sethe’s deceased baby daughter. We never learn that baby’s given name, but in exchange for sex, Sethe has had a headstone carved for her girl, bearing the single word “Beloved.” Paul D exorcises the house of the ghost, but later, upon returning from a carefree day spent at a carnival, Sethe, Denver, and Paul D discover a young woman sleeping near the front door of their house. The young woman goes by the name Beloved, and from all appearances she is a revenant, the embodied spirit of Sethe’s dead daughter.
Morrison presents Sethe’s turbulent inner life through a process both Morrison and Sethe herself call “rememory,” a kind of psychic haunting in which the specifics of a traumatic incident are told and retold, even as the teller tries to block their full emergence into the conscious mind. The central traumatic episode of Beloved, to which the narrative returns again and again, is an infanticide: Twenty years earlier, Sethe beheaded her baby Beloved with a handsaw rather than allow her return to slavery. In Beloved, Morrison perfected a mode of narration, entirely her own but with roots in everything from the African griot to As I Lay Dying, built out of compulsive repetition, in which the onion, as it were, is constantly being both peeled and reconstituted; in which memories are constantly being both exhumed and buried; and in which the mind of the storyteller is both imprisoned and set free in the act of retelling. And so, like the return of Beloved, and the enduring curse of slavery itself, rememory is both a reconciliation and a vexation, both a healing and a wounding.
Beloved is indeed a work of genius. No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader.
In her work Toni Morrison has explored the experience and roles of black women in a racist and male dominated society. In the center of her complex and multilayered narratives is the unique cultural inheritance of African-Americans. Morrison has been a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
‘”Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”‘ (from Nobel Lecture, 1993)
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, where her parents had moved to escape the problems of southern racism. Her family were migrants, sharecroppers on both sides. Morrison grew up in the black community of Lorain. She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read voraciously, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison’s father, George Wofford, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., America’s most distinguished black college. There she changed her name from “Chloe” to “Toni”, explaining once that people found “Chloe” too difficult to pronounce. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Morrison wrote her thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, receiving her M.A. in 1955.
During 1955-57 Morrison was an instructor in English at Texas Southern University, at Houston, and taught in the English department at Howard. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor. After eighteen months she was transferred to the New York headquarters of Random House. There she edited books by such black authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also continued to teach at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany, where she nurtured young writers through two-year fellowships.
While teaching at Howard University and caring for her two children, Morrison wrote her first novel, THE BLUEST EYE (1970). With its publication, Morrison also established her new identity, which she later in 1992 rejected: “I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That’s who I am. I have been writing under this other person’s name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye“. The story is set in the community of a small, Midwestern town. Its characters are all black. The book was partly based on Morrison’s story written for a writers’ group in 1966, which she joined after her six years marriage with the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison broke up. Pecola Breedlove, the central character, prays each night for the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple. She believes everything would be all right if only she had beautiful blue eyes. The narrator, Claudia MacTeer, tries to understand the destruction of Pecola. Until 1983, Morrison did not publish short stories. ‘Recitatif’, about cross-racial friendship, appeared first in Imamu Amiri and Amina Baraka’s Confirmation (1983), an anthology consisting of black women’s writing.
SULA (1973) depicted two black woman friends and their community of Medallion, Ohio. It follows the lives of Sula, a free spirit, who is considered a threat against the community, and her cherished friend Nel, from their childhood to maturity and to death. The novel won the National Book Critics Award. With the publication of SONG OF SOLOMON (1977), a family chronicle compared to Alex Haley’s Roots, Morrison gained an international attention. It was the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the first novel by a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1949. Written from a male point of view, the story dealt with Milkman Dead’s efforts to recover his “ancient properties”, a cache of gold.
After the success of Song of Solomon Morrison bought a four-story house near Nyack, N.Y. She was named in 1987 Robert F. Goheen Professor in the council of the humanities at Princeton University. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel BELOVED (1987), after an open letter, signed by forty-eight prominent black writers, was published in the New York Time Book Review in January. However, the novel failed to win the National Book Award in 1987, and writers protested that Morrison had never been honoured with either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.
Beloved was inspired by the true story of a black American slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped with her husband Robert from a Kentucky plantation, and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave masters overcame them, she killed her baby, in order to save the child from the slavery she had managed to escape. Morrison later told that “I thought at first it couldn’t be written, but I was annoyed and worried that such a story was inaccessible to art.” The protagonist, Sethe, tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the unnamed infant, “Beloved.” The name is written on the child’s tombstone, Sethe did not have enough money to pay for the text ”Dearly Beloved.” Sethe’s house, where she lives with her teenage daughter, Denver, is haunted by the dead baby daughter. “Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?” Sethe thinks. Paul D., whom Sethe knew in slavery, comes to visit her, and manages to drive the ghost out for a while. “For a used-to-be slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back, or shoved it in a crocker sack, well, maybe you’d have little love left over for the next one.” Time passes and Paul D. is seduced by Beloved, who becomes more violent. Denver leaves the house. Sethe is found at the farm, with the naked body of a very pregnant Beloved. The spell breaks, and Beloved disappears. Paul D. returns to take care of Sethe. The film version of the book from 1998 was directed by Jonathan Demme, who used much special effects and was interested in the horror aspects. Oprah Winfrey portrayed Sethe; she had optioned the book rights immediately after its publication. Three writers worked on the script: Akosua Busia, Richard LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. “If ever a film was burdened under the strain of its own portentousness, it’s Beloved. Even the music by composer Rachel Portman, dominated by an interminably moaning solo voice, is mired in its own sincerity. As for Winfrey, it was an unabashed labor of love, and she threw all the resources of her television programs and her international celebrity into its promotion.” (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999)
In JAZZ (1992) Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcas in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. Morrison’s first novel since the Nobel Prize was PARADISE (1998). Again Morrison set story in a small community, this time in Ruby, Oklahoma. Nine men attack a former girls’ school nicknamed “the Convent,” now occupied by unconventional women fleeing from abusive husbands or lovers, or otherwise unhappy pasts. Moving freely between eras, Morrison explores the founding of Ruby, an all-black township and the backgrounds of the convent women and the men determined to kill them. “The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who belongs in it,” Morrison said in an interview The New York Times (January 8, 1998). “All paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when we are assaulted.”
LOVE (2003), Morrison’s eight novel, moves freely in time as Paradise. It portrays Bill Cosey, a charismatic hotel owner, dead for many years but not forgotten, and two woman, his widow and his granddaughter, who live in his mansion. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times (October 31, 2003), that “the story as a whole reads like a gothic soap opera, peopled by scheming, bitter women and selfish, predatory men: women engaged in cartoon-violent catfights; men catting around and going to cathouses.” Jonathan Yardley complained in the Washington Post (October 26, 2003) that the novel has “Major Statement written all over it” – a point of view to which the politically conscious author answered already in an interview in 1974. “I don’t believe any real artists have ever been non-political,” she said. “They may have been insensitive to this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political because that’s what an artist is – a politician.”