Toni Morrison, a giant of American literature, perfected a confluence of lyricism and no-nonsense truthtelling
Beloved, Jazz and 1997’s Paradise form Toni Morrison’s ‘black history’ trilogy, and are basically required reading for students of American literature.
The year was 1987. Toni Morrison, for those in the know, was already one of America’s most important novelists — but not if you asked the (mostly) white men tasked with awarding the country’s most prestigious literary awards. Nearly two decades ago, Morrison had taken a flamethrower to the American literary establishment with The Bluest Eye (1970), which drew upon her Depression-era Midwestern upbringing to tell the story of three young black girls growing up in an atmosphere of deeply internalised racism. And now, Beloved had been released to glowing reviews from the likes of Margaret Atwood and John Leonard. However, despite its universal acclaim, it failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1987 — prompting 48 black authors and critics (including Maya Angelou) to take an extraordinary step. In January 1988, these writers, frustrated with the lack of domestic attention Morrison’s writings received, wrote to the Pulitzer committee, noting that the legendary James Baldwin had died recently without ever having won the Pulitzer, and that a very similar “oversight and harmful whimsy” was to blame for overlooking Morrison. The letter was published in the New York Review of Books.
Something snapped and the floodgates opened — in March that year, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer for Beloved. The following year, she received an honorary degree from Harvard. A few years later, shortly after the publication of Jazz, Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. Not too bad for Chloe Ardelia Wafford (her given name), the quiet schoolgirl poring over well-worn copies of Madame Bovary and Emma in the little steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio.
“Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio,” Morrison said in an interview, years later, “but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway — they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity.”
This emphasis on specificity and a childhood filled with Southern black folklore and mythology, led to Morrison’s inimitable style, especially in books like Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and of course, Beloved. One incident from her upbringing in Lorain made a big impression on young Chloe, and Morrison would refer to it afterwards in more than one interview — like a German radio spot she did in 1983. Chloe and her older sister were followed on their way back home by a white man who, while he did not do or say anything imminently threatening, did not let up either. Eventually, when the man started climbing up the stairs of the building the Woffords lived in, Chloe’s father, George, threw him downstairs — and flung the kids’ tricycle after him for good measure. Morrison would later tell her biographer George Century about the impact this had on her.
“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 where 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.”
It’s only fitting, then, that for generations of readers and especially millions of young black readers, Morrison’s books would represent the kind assertion that struck her so powerfully as a child. Jazz, arguably an even greater achievement than Beloved, represented both past (portions of the novel were set in the mid-19th century American South, which Morrison’s ex-slave grandparents had fled in favour of Ohio) and present lived realities of the black man in America. In this dazzling, freeflowing novel, inspired by the call-and-response structure of blues music, Morrison achieved as perfect a confluence of lyricism and no-nonsense truthtelling as you are likely to come across in 20th-century literature. Beloved, Jazz and 1997’s Paradise form Morrison’s ‘black history’ trilogy, and are basically required reading for students of American literature.
In her later years, Morrison’s stature as one of the giants of American letters was underlined by further recognitions, like Barack Obama (a fan, and later a friend) awarding her a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. After Morrison’s death was confirmed yesterday, Obama tweeted, “Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
As is so often the case with great writers, there are any number of iconic scenes from Morrison’s oeuvre, scenes that resonate with frightening intensity even today. But the scene that I’ll remember for a long time was actually one from her biography, a relatively straightforward description of Morrison at work on The Bluest Eye, as a single mother working at a publishing house by day. Obama, while introducing her onstage before giving her that Presidential Medal, paraphrased it in his speech. “Toni Morrison is used to a little distraction. As a single mother working at a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time to write, often with her two sons pulling at her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once a baby spit up on her tablet, so she wrote around it. The circumstances may not have been ideal but the words that came out were magical.”
Think about it — Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sophia typed out no less than seven drafts of War and Peace, Fyodor Dostoevsky dictated the entirety of his novel The Gambler to his wife Anna, while Vera Nabokov was her famous husband’s typist, editor and literary agent all rolled into one. While assessing the legacies of these writers, however, these pertinent facts are somehow tucked away into the margins. On the one hand, there are these literary blue-eyed babies — on the other, there’s Morrison dealing with literal baby spit on her notebook, even as she was writing one of the most remarkable novels of her time.
Rest in peace, Toni. There will never be another like you.
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