If Toni Morrison were to draw a map of her journeys of personal and creative exploration, the result would show many overlapping trajectories. Although Morrison has lived most of her life in the Northeast and Midwest, her parents' origins in the South, particularly Georgia and Alabama, have deeply influenced her cultural awareness. After growing up in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison attended college in Washington, D.C.; had an extended stay in the Caribbean (her former husband's home); did graduate work and editing in upstate New York; taught for a time in Houston, Texas; and even traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the Nobel Prize—yet she has lived in New York City or its vicinity for the bulk of her adult life. Likewise, her literary works span the country and even the hemisphere, the settings frequently drawn from her own experiences in the Midwest, the South, the Caribbean, Florida, New York City, and Oklahoma.
Morrison's real life landscapes permeate her fictional works, with characters exploring their geographic possibilities simultaneously with their personal and emotional treks. The characters often search for self through physical relocation when what they really need, Morrison demonstrates, is to take a serious look inside themselves, to take the essential journey within. This literary emphasis on the metaphysical quest seems also to apply to Morrison herself. An intensely private person, she only occasionally reveals any personal details about her life, such as when, in her published 1985 conversation with fellow African-American woman novelist Gloria Naylor, she stated that she has rarely felt a need for travel: “My interior life is so strong that I never associate anything important to any other place.” Two years later, in an interview appearing in Essence magazine, Morrison said something similar in the context of her intense focus on her work—which she found eminently satisfying—and her accompanying absence of need for an “elaborate social life.” She stated simply, “I don't go anywhere to be happy.” In other words, Morrison's emotional journeying has been extensive enough that she feels little need to search for her place externally. Apparently because she is comfortable inside herself, she is at home wherever she is. Nevertheless—or perhaps consequently—homelessness is a major theme in her novels, ranging from the Breedlove family being put “outdoors” in The Bluest Eye (1970), to the land-grabbing in Song of Solomon (1977) and Jazz (1992), to the denial of sanctuary suffered by the migrants in Paradise (1998). Throughout Morrison's works, a sense of place is profound, with search for home a frequent theme. This focus seems to spring simultaneously from her own deep roots in her Ohio hometown as well as her parents' acute awareness that they needed to leave the South for safer possibilities in the North. A southern sensibility pervades her work and accounts for her characters' sometimes bifurcated points of view about the South: it is home, but it is also the site of profound oppression.
Morrison's novels also include a deep awareness of history and culture, and their time frames range from the bleakest days of slavery and its aftermath, the mid- to late 1800s, as in Beloved (1987); to the era of her own childhood, the 1930s and 1940s, as in The Bluest Eye; to the late 1970s in Tar Baby (1981). Although not engaged in a decade-by-decade treatment of African-American history as August Wilson is for drama, Morrison still writes novels set in some of the most momentous eras of U.S. history. In addition to covering enslavement, she writes of World War I in Sula (1974); of the influence of the civil rights movement on Middle America, as in Paradise; and about Reconstruction and the Great Migration in Paradise and Jazz, respectively.
Early Life and Education
Surrounded by family, Chloe Anthony Wofford grew up in Lorain, Ohio, a midwestern steel town on Lake Erie, west of Cleveland, where she was born at home on 18 February 1931. The second-oldest child, she shared her home with her parents, George Wofford and Ramah Willis Wofford; three siblings, Lois, George, and Raymond; and her maternal grandparents.
Her mother's parents, John Solomon Willis and Ardelia Willis, provided a vibrant southern link for Morrison, in part through their background as sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, where they lost their land around 1900. In approximately 1912 they joined other African Americans in the Great Migration, seeking greener pastures further north. Initially stopping over in Kentucky, where John Solomon Willis worked in a coal mine and Ardelia Willis washed clothes, the family later continued on to Lorain, mainly to find improved educational opportunities for their children.
As a young man, Morrison's father fled his home in Cartersville, Georgia, where he and his family had also been sharecroppers and where he had suffered terrible racial oppression that left him with an eternal antipathy for whites. Well into adulthood, he retained a negative impression of his Georgia roots, although he returned regularly to visit family members. Ironically, as Morrison described it in a 1998 interview with Carolyn Denard, his behavior was the opposite of her mother's, as Ramah Wofford spoke positively and nostalgically of her early years in the South but never returned, presumably out of fear.
As part of an apparently nurturing environment, Morrison's childhood was saturated with stories of and from the South, and she has said in several interviews that ghost stories, jokes, tales, music, and other elements of African-American folk culture were staples in her household. Additional influences came from Morrison's Roman Catholic upbringing, as well as from her grandmother's keeping a dream book in which she recorded and interpreted the symbols of dreams for “playing the numbers.”
Also influential on Morrison's development was the fact that the community where she grew up was multicultural. Lorain was not large enough for a segregated educational system; her neighborhood and schools were integrated and included immigrants of many origins. And so at the beginning of her first-grade year, Morrison had the distinction of being not only the lone African American but the sole reader in the classroom. She has said that she did not personally experience racism in a disturbing way until she was older, when dating separated the races more clearly.
During this time, part of which covered the era of the Great Depression (from roughly 1929 to 1939), Morrison's hardworking parents sometimes struggled to make ends meet. One poignant example is that when one month they were unable to pay the rent on their house, the hostile landlord tried to burn it down with the family inside. All along, her father held a variety of jobs, often three at a time, including welding in a shipyard and a steel mill, working in building and road construction and even washing cars. Her mother—who was active in her church and sang in the choir—mostly worked in the home while her children were of school age. When Morrison was in college and graduate school, however, her mother often took menial jobs to help support her daughter financially. Her father died in 1975, her mother in 1994.
From childhood, Morrison was fascinated with books, even working as a student helper at the Lorain Public Library. She also earned money by doing jobs such as cleaning the houses of some of the white families in town, which, she has said, was not always a pleasant task for her. In addition, for a time she aspired to become a professional dancer. That did not happen, but she did manage to become the first person in her family to attend college.
After Morrison graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949, she moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically black universities. Intending to become a teacher, Morrison majored in English and minored in classics. In addition, while at Howard she adopted the name Toni from her middle name, Anthony. She has explained on several occasions that she dropped her given name, Chloe, because her classmates found it difficult to pronounce. While in college, Morrison also joined the Howard University Players, an acting troupe, and traveled throughout the South, getting a firsthand look at the region her parents and grandparents had told her about. She graduated with a B.A. degree from Howard in 1953.
Morrison then continued her education by pursuing her master's degree in English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she relocated shortly after graduating from Howard. She received her M.A. degree in 1955; her master's thesis was on the theme of suicide in the literature of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
Personal Adulthood and Professional Career
After leaving Cornell, Morrison moved to Houston to take a position teaching English at Texas Southern University. She stayed there two years, learning more, she has said, about southern African-American perspectives. In 1957 she returned to Washington, D.C., and Howard University, where she became an English instructor, a position she retained until 1964. During this time she met such future famous African Americans as Andrew Young (eventual mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations) and Amiri Baraka (future poet). In addition, her students included the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown, who would later write Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). She also became involved with a writers' group while at Howard, which she has credited with starting her on the road to becoming a novelist.
Also at Howard, Toni Morrison met her future husband, Harold Morrison, whom she married in 1958. Originally from Jamaica, Harold Morrison had a career as an architect. The couple had two sons, Harold Ford, born in 1961, and Slade Kevin, born in 1964. During their marriage, they traveled to the Caribbean where, she has said, they had a long-term stay at one point. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964, while she was still pregnant with her second son, and Morrison generally declines to speak further of it. Around this same time, she took a trip to Europe.
After her divorce Morrison left Washington and returned with her sons to her parents' home in Lorain, Ohio, where they stayed for almost a year and a half before relocating to Syracuse, New York. There, Morrison began her editing work with Random House, first as a textbook editor and then as a senior editor at the New York City offices. She was an editor with Random House for almost the next twenty years, not leaving until 1983, and there she worked with such notable African-American writers as Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Leon Forrest, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, and Muhammad Ali. It was also during her early years in editing that Morrison became more serious about her own writing, which she has said came about in part because of her solitary existence as a single parent living away from her extended family. After many rejections, she finally managed to publish The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1970.
Morrison's work as a Random House editor included The Black Book, an anthology of African-American culture, almost a scrapbook, which was published in 1974. Although Morrison does not get formal editing credit—her name is not on the book, which was officially edited by Middleton Harris—she was greatly involved with its compilation. This experience exposed her to important and, for her, influential, relics of black history, including the story of Margaret Garner, which would inspire Beloved many years later.
While employed full time by Random House, Morrison also had several part-time teaching positions in English and creative writing. These ranged from a post at the State University of New York at Purchase in the early 1970s; to Yale University in the mid-1970s; and to Bard College, Rutgers University, and Stanford University thereafter. After her resignation from editing in 1983, she took a full-time teaching position as the Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany, where she stayed for the next five years. Since 1989, Morrison has been the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she is affiliated with the programs in creative writing and African-American studies. She also directs the Princeton Atelier, a collaborative, interdisciplinary program focused on artistic creation that emphasizes connecting visiting artists with Princeton faculty and students.
Since 1970 Morrison has written and published seven novels—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise—as well as a book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). Her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech appeared in a single volume from Knopf in 1994. Upon her receipt in 1996 of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Morrison delivered a speech, The Dancing Mind, also published in a slim separate volume by Knopf in 1996.
In addition, she edited a collection about Anita Hill—Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992)—and co-edited, with Claudia Brodsky Lacour, a work about O. J. Simpson, Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case (1997). In 1998 she edited two volumes of James Baldwin's collected work for the Library of America. In 1996 and 1999 she edited a posthumous collection and a novel by Toni Cade Bambara.
Morrison also wrote a racially ambiguous short story, Recitatif, published in 1983, as well as a play about the life of Emmett Till, Dreaming Emmett, performed in 1986 but never published. Morrison wrote the lyrics for two choral works, one in 1992 for Kathleen Battle, Honey and Rue, composed by André Previn, and one in 1997 for Jessye Norman, Sweet Talk, composed by Richard Danielpour. She also has written book chapters and magazine and journal articles for periodicals ranging from The New York Times Magazine to the Michigan Quarterly Review. In another direction, she co-wrote, with her son Slade Morrison, two children's books—The Big Box in 1999 and The Book of Mean People in 2002—with an agreement with Scribner to produce six more works for children, all inspired by Aesop's fables. The first of these, Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper?, appeared in 2003. Finally, in an on-line interview in May 2000 conducted by the Oprah show, Morrison stated that she had just begun to write a new novel, which is expected in the fall of 2003.
A prolific and flexible writer, Morrison is best known as a novelist. Her seven works of fiction cover a wide range of topics, emotions, characters, and settings. However, they share a number of thematic approaches, most notably a stress on the essential qualities of community connections, including family relationships, as well as on the importance of history. Each novel is also geographically oriented, as Morrison creates characters constantly on the go, exploring their physical worlds while also learning how crucial it is to venture into the internal landscape, into what she has called their “interior lives.”
Awards and Recognitions
After having some difficulty in finding a publisher for The Bluest Eye, her first novel, Morrison has found gradually increasing success as a writer, including strong critical acclaim and increasing attention from scholars. This first novel was itself well received, with overall positive reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. Sula met with an even more encouraging response and greater sales when it was published in 1973. It was excerpted in Redbook, named as an alternate for the Book-of-the-Month Club, received the Ohioana Book Award in 1975, and was nominated for the National Book Award the same year.
In 1977, Morrison's stock rose further as Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. It also was named as a main selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club, making Morrison the first African-American author to receive that honor since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. The following year, a PBS documentary appeared focusing entirely on Morrison. In 1980 she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts.
After Tar Baby was published in 1981 and appeared on The New York Times best-seller list, it sold well but was not reviewed as positively as expected, apparently in part because of its experimental and lush writing style. Nevertheless, it propelled Morrison to the cover of Newsweek magazine for 30 March 1981, which made her the first African-American woman to be so featured since Zora Neale Hurston in 1943. Also in 1981, Morrison was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1985 she received the New York State Governor's Arts Award.
The publication of her fifth novel, Beloved, in 1987, resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison. Although nominated for the National Book Award, it did not win, and nearly fifty African-American writers and critics signed a letter of protest, which was published in The New York Times. Yet Beloved did receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, the Melcher Book Award, the Lyndhurst Foundation Award, and the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award.
Also in 1988, Morrison received the National Organization for Women's Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award, as well as the Before Columbus Foundation Award. The following year she won the Commonwealth Award in Literature from the Modern Language Association of America. In 1990 Morrison received the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Literary Prize. Jazz's arrival in 1992 was warmly received, and it appeared on The New York Times best-seller list simultaneously with her nonfiction work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Some readers were less enthralled with Jazz than they had been with Beloved, although the critics were generally positive.
Then, in December 1993, Toni Morrison reached the capstone of her career, attaining the highest literary accolade possible: the Nobel Prize in literature. This distinction was made even sweeter by the fact that Morrison was the first African-American recipient and only the eighth woman in the world honored in this way. Morrison has said in interviews that she was especially pleased to have received this award while she was able to enjoy it with her mother, Ramah Wofford, who was still living—although she died a short time later, in February 1994. In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose on the Public Broadcasting System, Morrison said of receiving the Nobel that she “felt weak, representative, patriotic,” as well as seeing herself (in now familiar geographical-cultural terms) as powerfully emblematic of Ohio and African-American culture.
In 1996, Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Her seventh novel, Paradise, was published in January 1998. This work also received positive reviews and earned high sales, made even stronger by its participation in Oprah's Book Club shortly after its publication. In 2000 Morrison received the National Humanities Medal from President Bill Clinton.
The Bluest Eye
Morrison's first novel focuses on a forlorn young African-American girl, Pecola Breedlove, who believes that her devastating world will improve substantially if only she can wish and pray hard enough to make her eyes turn blue. The novel (whose germ came from someone she knew in childhood) originated from a short story Morrison had written during the early 1960s in a writing group, to which she has said she sought refuge from her troubled marriage. Told primarily from the points of view of two other young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, The Bluest Eye is set in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison's hometown. Through the narration, which is primarily Claudia's, the novel creates startling contrasts between the sometimes bleak but always loving MacTeer household and that of the Breedlove family, which is quickly unraveling. Framed by the Dick and Jane story of an elementary primer, this novel examines the tensions between the ideal and the real in American culture.
Although the MacTeers have financial hardships of their own, their relatively stable environment becomes a brief haven for Pecola when her family loses its home. During Pecola's stay at the MacTeer home, she displays her fixation with blue eyes, in part through her fondness for drinking milk from a cup with a picture of Shirley Temple. While there, eleven-year-old Pecola begins menstruating, a circumstance that makes a great impact on Claudia and Frieda. Thereafter, Pecola returns home to her parents, Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, along with her older brother Sammy, who frequently runs away.
Pecola's family life is desolate and violent, and every member of the Breedlove family is utterly convinced of their own worthlessness and ugliness. Such despair causes Pecola to wish to disappear or die—or to have blue eyes, which, she believes, will prevent such terrible occurrences as her parents' brutal fighting from taking place in front of her. In addition to worshipping Shirley Temple, Pecola loves blue-eyed Mary Jane candies, again clearly indicative of her sad internalization of a warped white value system.
When the Breedlove family deteriorates even further, Cholly, in a moment of tragic, twisted, drunken tenderness, rapes Pecola. This horrific act results in her pregnancy, although the baby dies after arriving prematurely. Astonishingly, the way that Morrison presents this unimaginable behavior provides a light into the remnants of Cholly's humanity. As Claudia says at the end of the novel: “He, at any rate, was the one who loved her enough to touch her, envelop her, give something of himself to her. But his touch was fatal, and the something he gave her filled the matrix of her agony with death.”
In her complete withdrawal from the hell of her life, Pecola believes that, with the help of an odd man named Soaphead Church, she has achieved her goal of changing her eyes to the bluest ones of all. This utter break with reality leaves Pecola broken and unreachable, and she is thereafter seen wandering lost around town. Claudia realizes that her and others' willingness to go along with the widespread mistreatment of Pecola, as well as their endorsement of white values, makes the whole community complicit in the downward spiral of this sad young girl.
The Bluest Eye found a new, and perhaps wider, audience when Oprah Winfrey chose it in April 2000 as one of the Oprah's Book Club selections on her television show. In an interview from that time, Morrison explains that she still sees the novel as relevant, as contemporary girls and women are inundated with frequently negative messages about their appearances, with damaging repercussions for their self-images.
Most often hailed as one of the earliest works of fiction to focus on the friendship between African-American women, Sula the novel breaks rules much as Sula the character does. The friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright is the centerpiece of the work, with the two women representing varying perspectives on conventionality and values. At some points in their lives, the two balance each other perfectly; at other times, they clash. Likewise, the novel's narrative structure is sometimes linear and at other times more fragmented.
Also important in the novel are Sula's mother and grandmother, Hannah and Eva Peace. In her unorthodox house of disarray, Sula learns of the casual pleasures of sex from her mother Hannah's example and of how to be feisty, tough, and independent from Eva. Sula's father Rekus dies when she is three, yet Hannah still manages almost always to find “some touching every day.” After Eva's husband BoyBoy, Sula's grandfather, leaves her with three children—Hannah, Pearl, and Plum—Eva disappears from town briefly and returns with one leg and a more stable financial status, a mystery never explained further. When Plum returns from World War I, he brings with him what appears to be a heroin addiction. Eva eventually decides that enough is enough and—in an act of brutal love that echoes similar events in Morrison's other novels (Cholly to Pecola in The Bluest Eye, Sethe to her daughter in Beloved, Joe to Dorcas in Jazz)—she kills him.
With a very different approach to life, Nel's mother, Helene Wright, holds sway over her daughter and husband, a cook on a Great Lakes ship. As she was born to a prostitute mother and raised by a staunchly religious grandmother in New Orleans, Helene is obsessed with order and propriety. She subdues Nel's imagination, just as she straightens her daughter's hair and puts a clothespin on her wide nose. Helene keeps her home spotless and tidy, and she does not tolerate any deviation from these norms in Nel.
Coming from these vastly differing influences, Sula and Nel learn to appreciate each other's lives and to learn about other possibilities for how to behave in the world. As Morrison writes of their shared perspectives: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.” Their unique friendship brings a welcome sense of completion to each other, as together they explore the depths of their previously lonely identities, particularly their growing interest in men.
As prominent as the characters in Sula is the Bottom, an African-American neighborhood of Medallion, Ohio. The novel is set in this outlying neighborhood, high up in the hills above the town, back when that land was considered undesirable. Morrison opens the novel with the genealogy of this place, delineating its unique history within a racist society. As we know from the opening, this community no longer exists, having been replaced with a golf course once the whites grew to appreciate the terrain. But Sula flashes back to when the Bottom was a lively place, long before ostensible progress has overrun it.
Presiding in a way over this town is another eccentric, Shadrack, a shell-shocked veteran of World War I who returns to Medallion mentally deranged and behaving inappropriately. Yet Shadrack fills a role in that society so that he is not a complete outcast, although he is laughed at. While he sells the townfolk the fish he catches, he also provides them with an other, someone they are not, as he exposes his genitals and invites them to march with him on National Suicide Day. Shadrack feels a kinship with Sula, as they both defy societal norms, something he recognizes in part through the stemmed-rose or tadpole-shaped birthmark above her eye.
Shadrack and Sula first interact while she is still an adolescent when he witnesses a scene of playfulness that results in tragedy. One summer day when they are twelve, Sula and Nel are cavorting near the river with a young boy named Chicken Little, when he flies from Sula's hands into the river and drowns. The girls are most concerned about whether or not they have been observed, implying that being caught matters more than trying to save Chicken Little or feeling regret over the loss of his life. In her concern that he has seen what happened, Sula visits Shadrack's cabin, where she says nothing but looks at him in wonder. His pleasant but inscrutable response, “Always,” confounds Sula but seals a link between them.
As Sula and Nel grow up, they stay close for a while, although their opposing views on conventionality place pressure on their friendship. Nel marries young, to a man named Jude, and Sula goes away to college and to travel. After Sula's return, her place as the community's pariah becomes more pronounced. The breaking point between Sula and Nel occurs when, in the spirit of sharing everything with her close friend, Sula has sexual relations with Jude. When Nel discovers them together, Jude leaves forever, the women's friendship is broken, and Sula wonders what the problem is. Many years later, after self-righteous Nel visits the dying Sula, Nel realizes that what she has missed all of these years is not her wayward husband but her bosom friend, their lost closeness being the void at the center of her life.
In April 2002, Sula was the last selection in Oprah's Book Club, which was thereafter discontinued. At the time, Morrison said that she had been inspired to write the book by the incipient feminist movement of the early 1970s.
Song of Solomon
A coming-of-age story about a young man named Macon Milkman Dead, Song of Solomon was Morrison's longest and most fully developed novel when it was published. It covers multiple generations of the Dead family, whose name is an accident that came about when a drunk white man filling out freedom papers for those formerly enslaved wrote in the wrong blanks. The first Macon Dead, Milkman's grandfather, simply accepts this name and then passes it on to his son and grandson.
The novel centers on Milkman's aimless and materialistic life in an unnamed Michigan city on Lake Superior, during which he gradually acquires stronger values. While initial guidance comes from his capitalistic and heartless father, Milkman eventually embraces the more loving and spiritual teaching of his Aunt Pilate, his father's estranged sister. Yet before he gets to that point, Milkman must learn about his family history—including that of his mother, Ruth Foster—much of which takes him on a quest southward, first to Pennsylvania, and then farther south to Virginia. This journey, like the travels in all of Morrison's books, is both literal and figurative, as Milkman needs to scrutinize his own heart before he can begin to understand his family's secrets. The symbolism of these travels is echoed in Pilate's prized childhood possession: a geography book.
The first Macon Dead has a prosperous farm in Pennsylvania, Lincoln's Heaven, where he raises young Macon (Milkman's father) and Pilate after their mother dies in childbirth with Pilate, who is born, inexplicably, without a navel. Envious whites coveting his land kill him. Twelve-year-old Pilate and sixteen-year-old Macon flee, although they have sightings of his ghost thereafter. Pilate and Macon then have a falling out over some gold that they find, and they separate. Years later in Michigan they are reunited—albeit not amicably—just before Ruth conceives Milkman, which occurs with the help of herbal intervention by Pilate.
Years later Macon convinces his now-adult son Milkman to try to steal the gold that he believes Pilate kept after their disagreement in Pennsylvania years earlier. When it turns out not to be gold at all, Milkman heads to Pennsylvania and eventually Virginia in search of it. Having along the way alienated his former—and now a little crazy—friend Guitar, Milkman's life is in danger. However, an even more important development is that as Milkman heads further south and loses more and more of his material belongings, he gains respect for his family, for himself, and for other people. As he embraces less materialistic and more spiritual values, Milkman redeems himself. Most momentous to him is learning that ancestors of his were from the flying African tradition, in that they literally flew out of the fields of Virginia all the way back to Africa. Later, when Milkman returns to Virginia with Pilate, Guitar follows and a violent showdown results in her death. At the very end of the novel, Guitar and Milkman leap into thin air, perhaps dying or, as Morrison intimates, even flying.
This novel also was an Oprah selection, back in the earliest days of her book club in October 1996. That resulted in its return to the best-seller lists almost twenty years after it was first published, much to Morrison's initial surprise.
Morrison's fourth novel is a departure from her earlier works, with its setting mostly on a mythical Caribbean island and its protagonists somewhat less sympathetic, which—although it sold well—may account for its relatively lower critical acclaim. This novel also places more emphasis on white characters than any of the earlier ones, with two of the six main characters a wealthy white couple. Yet Tar Baby reflects Morrison's trademark focus on the essential qualities of community and interpersonal relationships, history, journeying, and geography. Additionally, while Song of Solomon did include a ghost and people able to fly, this novel is thoroughly steeped in magic realism. Nature is sentient: rivers and trees resist real-estate development, and the ocean, a woman, steers a swimmer to a boat.
Set primarily in the vicinity of the whites' vacation home on the Isle des Chevaliers, the novel also takes place on a larger island nearby and in Eloe, Florida, and New York City. The story of three couples is told. Valerian and Margaret Street are the white owners of the Caribbean home, and Ondine and Sydney Childs are their African-American butler and cook. The final couple is Jadine Childs, Ondine and Sydney's Paris-based niece, and her short-term partner, Son Green, an African-American man who appears from nowhere.
Although Tar Baby has varying points of view, Jadine is its central consciousness. A famous and accomplished Paris fashion model, Jadine is not a typical Morrison protagonist. Along with being successful, Jadine is also arrogant, spoiled, and materialistic in some respects while remaining vulnerable and insecure. Although she is cared for by her aunt and uncle, Ondine and Sydney, Jadine's orphanhood rocks her moorings and results in a woman who has, as Morrison states, “forgotten her ancient properties.” Disinclined to forge close ties with anyone, Jadine lacks the fundamental Morrisonian foundation: the essential reverence for and connection to one's ancestors.
Jadine's sometime romantic partner, Son Green, however, knows—to a fault, she would say—where he is from, namely, Eloe, Florida. Son's profound sense of his roots elicits resentment and contempt in Jadine, perhaps out of jealousy (although she has no envy of his lack of sophistication). Their fiery relationship seems to have potential at certain points, but their differences become too great, and by the end of the novel, she has flown back to Paris while he seems headed in the opposite direction. In a creative development that only Morrison seems capable of carrying off, Tar Baby ends with Son merging into the realm of myth through his apparent joining with a group of ancient blind horsemen.
The older couples, too, undergo changes. After a momentous secret is revealed about Margaret Street's abuse of her and Valerian's son, Michael, the tables turn, and the masters' control of the servants weakens. Too entrenched to go elsewhere, Sydney and Ondine will stay with the Streets, but the balance of power will never return to what it was before the revelation that Margaret, a beauty queen known in her youth as the Principal Beauty of Maine, took pleasure in sticking pins into her infant son's flesh. Now thirty years old, this son, Michael, is a powerful presence in his fraught absence. Supposed to join the family for the Christmas holidays, he never appears. Instead, the truth comes out, a demoralized Valerian yields control to Margaret, Ondine speaks her mind, and the formerly Edenic paradise has irrevocably fallen.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved, Morrison's fifth novel, has brought her the largest amount of praise. Ushering in a long string of even greater accolades for Morrison, this work goes back in time to the mid- and late 1800s, where Sethe and Paul D, now in Cincinnati, seek to reckon with their unmanageable pasts from the hell of slavery in Kentucky. Told in flashbacks—and, as Morrison has said, in the fragmented way that people remember—Beloved divulges its secrets piecemeal, although the linear story is eventually revealed.
Morrison's most supernatural novel thus far, Beloved, invites its readers to accept as its title character a ghostly woman who is the flesh-and-blood reincarnation of Sethe's murdered toddler girl. In having Sethe kill this daughter, Morrison was inspired by the bold decision of a historical enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who chose death over reenslavement when she and her children were about to be captured in Cincinnati after escaping from Kentucky. As Morrison interprets this event fictionally, Sethe's rough actions actually spring from the intensity of her motherly love. Morrison has described this circumstance several times, including a 1987 interview with Alan Benson: “For me, it was the ultimate gesture of the loving mother. It was also the outrageous claim of a slave. The last thing a slave woman owns is her children.” Through this event, Morrison casts Beloved as the first portion of what she has visualized as a trilogy of works on excessive love, with this initial entry embodying overwhelming maternal love.
The novel also charts the entire life course of Denver, Sethe's surviving daughter. Within the province of the novel, she is born, grows up, remains isolated in the home, then breaks free and matures, finally finding a job and a community of her own. Baby Suggs, Denver's paternal grandmother, is a powerful, loving, spiritual leader-healer who later resigns herself to being a physically and emotionally spent, spirit broken old woman. Rounding out the list of main characters is Stamp Paid, the Underground Railroad–style conductor who transports Sethe and her infant Denver across the Ohio River and on to Baby Suggs's home, where they are reunited with Sethe's other children.
Echoing Milkman's travels southward in Song of Solomon, this novel features a remarkable journey in which, after sending her children north by wagon, Sethe—pregnant, recently whipped, and otherwise brutally assaulted—strikes out on foot. Because chaos now reigns at Sweet Home, the farm where she lives in Kentucky, Sethe cannot wait any longer, even though her husband Halle is missing. Yet she makes it to the Ohio River with the eventual serendipitous assistance of a poor white woman fleeing indentured servitude. Once successfully on the bank of that mighty river, Sethe goes into labor, and Denver is born.
Beloved's own journey, however, may be even more momentous, as she traverses the borders between the living and the dead. Emerging from limbo, the realm between life and death, Beloved wills herself into physical form based on her insatiable need to capture and hold Sethe's attention. When she dies she is but a toddler; in the current time of the novel, she is about twenty years old. As Morrison describes her emergence, Beloved materializes from a stream, which consists of that most basic of elements, water: “A fully dressed woman walked out of the water.” And when Sethe first sees this woman, upon returning from a carnival with Denver and Paul D, she experiences a reenactment of her own water breaking in childbirth.
When Sethe eventually realizes that the woman is her lost daughter returned, she shuts out the rest of her life, including Paul D and even Denver and seeks to repay an insurmountable debt to Beloved. Beloved is never satisfied, however, and she will stop at nothing until Sethe has given up her own life. This downward spiral seems destined to end in Sethe's death until Denver becomes courageous enough to leave her house—124 Bluestone Road, itself carrying the import of a character—and seek help from the surrounding community. The citizens respond initially with food assistance and then aid of an even greater sort: they gather to exorcise Beloved's spirit from 124, and from Sethe. This purging succeeds, and by novel's end, Paul D has returned and Sethe and he begin healing in earnest.
The second installment in Morrison's trilogy on excessive love—here demonstrating the consequences of crushing romantic love—Jazz depicts a middle-aged married couple, Violet and Joe Trace, who have migrated from Virginia to “the City” (unnamed but clearly New York City). When Joe shockingly finds himself enthralled in the first adulterous affair of his life, with a much young woman named Dorcas, he panics and ends up shooting her. She refuses to name the shooter and dies shortly thereafter.
This murder—echoing the infanticide in Beloved and anticipating the killing of the Convent women in Paradise—opens the novel and imbues all of its plot developments with a special tone. Joe is so emotionally devastated that Dorcas's family does not seek a prosecution. Violet reacts initially by trying to maim the corpse at the funeral and then by trying to learn everything possible about Dorcas.
With an improvisational narrative structure, much like the musical genre of its name, Jazz also flashes back to Joe's and Violet's Virginia childhoods. Here, readers learn of Violet's bereft youth, during which her father disappears and her mother commits suicide, leaving Violet understandably scarred. Furthermore, Morrison explains that Joe's orphaned background in part leads him to become an apprentice to a local man, Henry Lestory, or Hunters Hunter, who teaches him to shoot. This woodsman's skill comes back to Joe many years later when he feels compelled to seek out Dorcas as prey—a circumstance that recollects for him his futile hunting for the mysterious woman Wild, whom he feared was his mother.
A distinct parallel to the eponymous character Beloved, Wild is a naked woman who exists in another realm, outside in the fields and in caves, as well as in the imaginations of local Vesper County, Virginia, residents. To a certain extent Morrison has confirmed this character linkage, as in a 1995 interview with Angels Carabi. Wild's initial appearance—naked and pregnant in a woody setting—closely resembles the way Beloved is last seen. Here, Morrison states, “Wild is a kind of Beloved” and then notes many parallels between them, but her final word on the matter is “I don't want to make all of these connections.”
Wild's appearance also intersects with the other main story line, the journey of Golden Gray, a smug, white-appearing, young man who learns of his biracial parentage at age eighteen. As a consequence he leaves his mother, Vera Louise, in their Baltimore home and travels south to Virginia in search of his long-lost father. In an intricate plot development, Morrison reveals that this man is Hunters Hunter, the later father figure of Joe Trace. Furthermore, Golden Gray and Vera Louise have been coddled for many years by none other than Violet's grandmother, True Belle. And when Golden has almost arrived at Hunter's house, he comes across Wild, who has passed out. Therefore, Golden brings Wild to Hunter's house, and that is where she regains consciousness and subsequently gives birth—to Joe Trace. In these ways Jazz's Golden Gray, Dorcas, and even Dorcas's friend Felice (in some ways like Beloved) serve as catalysts that greatly affect the dominant characters.
By the end of Jazz, Felice has provided the means by which Joe and Violet Trace can reunite. Violet's desolate childhood can finally be left behind, as can Joe's awkward family life, while for both of them, their virtual motherlessness can now be put to rest. The novel ends optimistically, implying that within a loving relationship—like that of Violet and Joe, just as with Sethe and Paul D of Beloved—healing, and even transcendence, are always possible.
In 1998 the final piece of Morrison's trilogy emerged with the novel Paradise, which espouses an extreme love for God, which becomes skewed into blind self-righteousness. Following a place-based trend begun as early as Morrison's second novel, Sula, this work features a town and a building not just as a characters, but as the main characters. Ruby, Oklahoma, a proud and self-satisfied domain, sees itself as the ultimate definer of morality and propriety. Its antagonist, the Convent, a school with much looser standards of behavior, is seventeen miles away. As Morrison's story unfolds, it is the tensions between these two places that form the heart of Paradise.
The modern-day town of Ruby is ruled by the officious offspring of migrants who had fled the South. Again emphasizing a monumental journey, Morrison writes that the townsfolk's grandparents and others had formed a group of itinerant African Americans who fled on foot from the violence of the racist South, especially Louisiana, in hopes that they would be able to create better lives out West. Heeding the call to “Come Prepared or Not at All!” these travelers hope to become homesteaders, new pioneers in a relatively open land. However, the 158 people or so discover that, primarily because of their particularly dark skin, they are turned away from the already-established all-black towns along the way. The travelers cope with this development, which becomes known as the Disallowing throughout the mythology of the novel, by redefining the intended insult so that they see their darkness as a source of pride.
With what appears to be supernatural intervention by means of the apparition of a walking man, the settlers follow the signs they are given and build their first town, Haven, Oklahoma, complete with a central cooking space, the Oven. When soldiers returning from World War II find open racial hostility, most of Haven's residents, taking the Oven with them, move further west, where they establish the town of Ruby. Within the time of the novel, 1973, the leaders of Ruby, particularly Deacon and Steward Morgan, exert their extreme control over the other residents, including their wives, Soane and Dovey.
Yet the Convent—not actually a convent but rather a school for Native American girls run by Roman Catholic nuns—allows for, and even welcomes, creativity, unconventionality, and even outsiders. The Convent women have all traveled circuitous and painful routes to get there, and they all retain devastating memories of the past. Through the evolving leadership of Consolata, by the novel's end the other women—Mavis, Gigi, Pallas, and Seneca—are able to begin the process of healing from their troubles and, therefore, to transcend their limitations.
As in other of Morrison's novels, supernatural occurrences come to bear in the wake of a defining murder. After the Ruby leaders decide that they need a scapegoat for the young people's embrace of the civil rights movement, they choose the Convent women as the offenders, as those who must have led astray the young citizens. Therefore, nine men travel the seventeen miles to the Convent before dawn one morning in July and shoot each of the women. “They shoot the white girl first” is how the novel opens, although which of the women this could be never becomes clear, as Morrison has intentionally stripped away racial markers from the Convent women.
The supernatural elements occur later, when Roger Best takes his hearse out to claim the deceased and finds that there are no bodies to collect, as they have all disappeared. Morrison explains this circumstance in a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose on the Public Broadcasting System just after the publication of Paradise. Although she says that she knew the first sentence when she began writing the novel, she did not know what would happen to the Convent women after the shooting. “Would they die or escape?” she wondered, then deciding, “Both—why can't they do both?” And that is precisely what happens—the women are killed, but they also are somehow resurrected, each visiting and making peace with the most hurtful elements of her past. When the Reverend Richard Misner and Anna Flood visit the Convent to investigate, another extraordinary experience occurs; they see an apparition of either a door or a window in the sky. Subsequently, some of the townspeople repent as they begin to recognize the errors of their ways and to see that they have become as exclusionary as those who rejected their ancestors in the Disallowing. As an outcast but spiritual character, Lone DuPres describes it: “God had given Ruby a second chance.” In this way Morrison demonstrates the vastness of her vision, as the lines between the living and the dead are not distinct, and the potential for grace is limitless.
In each of her novels, Morrison creates a world where possibilities are wide open and people are able to heal and even transcend horrors. She builds a world where telepathy is commonplace, ghosts are real, and places exert energy. In each of her seven novels, Morrison quite simply gives us everything under the sun: “When I have been accused of making characters that are larger than life,…I realized that what I had in fact done was simply describe characters who were as large as life. Life is that large.”
The Bluest Eye (1970)Find this resource:
Sula (1974)Find this resource:
Song of Solomon (1977)Find this resource:
Tar Baby (1981)Find this resource:
Beloved (1987)Find this resource:
Jazz (1992)Find this resource:
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)Find this resource:
The Nobel Prize Speech (1994)Find this resource:
The Dancing Mind (1996)Find this resource:
The Big Box (1999)Find this resource:
Paradise (1998)Find this resource:
The Book of Mean People (2002)Find this resource:
Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003)Find this resource:
Andrews, William L., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Casebook. New York, 1999. An exceptional resource that includes many essential primary materials, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's poem about Margaret Garner, “The Slave Mother: A Tale of the Ohio.”Find this resource:
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn., 2002. The most comprehensive Morrison resource available, including hundreds of entries on all seven novels.Find this resource:
Bouson, J. Brooks. Quiet as It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Albany, N.Y., 2000. A deeply analytical work, one of the few that is up-to-date enough to include Paradise.Find this resource:
Carabi, Angels. Interview with Toni Morrison: Part Three. Belles Lettres (Spring 1995): 40–43.Find this resource:
Denard, Carolyn. Toni Morrison. In Modern American Women Writers. Edited by Elaine Showalter et al New York, 1991.Find this resource:
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York, 1993. A very thorough book on Morrison that includes insightful contemporary reviews of the first six novels by some of the most renowned Morrison scholars.Find this resource:
Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. A very cogent and clear analysis of the influence of African-American folk traditions on Morrison's first five novels. Especially powerful insights on Tar Baby and Beloved.Find this resource:
Lubiano, Wahneema. Toni Morrison. In African-American Writers. Edited by Valerie Smith. New York, 2001.Find this resource:
McKay, Nellie Y., and Kathryn Earle. Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York, 1997. A perceptive book from the Modern Language Association series, it includes very useful background information on approaching the first six novels inside the classroom. Also useful for advanced students.Find this resource:
Morrison, Toni. Profile of a Writer: Toni Morrison. Directed by Alan Benson. 1987. One of the best and earliest interviews with Morrison about Beloved.Find this resource:
Morrison, Toni. Interview by Charlie Rose. The Charlie Rose Show. Public Broadcasting System, 20 January 1998. Focused primarily on her writing of Paradise, which had just been published, this conversation also emphasizes the other works in the trilogy, Beloved and Jazz, as well as Morrison's response to receiving the Nobel Prize.Find this resource:
Morrison, Toni. Modernism and the American South: An Interview with Toni Morrison. Studies in the Literary Imagination 31, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 1–16. A deep and thorough interview by Carolyn Denard, with particularly valuable ideas about Morrison's views of the South.Find this resource:
Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. A Conversation. In Conversations with Toni Morrison. Edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson, Miss., 1994. A 1985 discussion that provides a valuable peek into Morrison's private and creative lives, with interesting shared experiences between the two African-American women writers.Find this resource:
Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison's Novels. Jackson, Miss., 1995. An excellent study of Morrison's first six works, with both thematic and theoretical approaches. Especially strong on Beloved.Find this resource:
Peach, Linden, ed. Toni Morrison. New York, 1998. As part of the New Casebooks Series, a valuable collection of scholarly essays, including all of the novels through Jazz.Find this resource:
Peterson, Nancy J., ed. Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches. Baltimore, 1997. A very useful collection, with essays covering the first six novels.Find this resource:
Reames, Kelly. Toni Morrison's Paradise: A Reader's Guide. New York, 2001. A helpful, though small, book entirely devoted to Paradise. It also includes the basic biographical material for Morrison.Find this resource:
Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston, 1990. A thematic study of the first five novels, this book is a good starting point for Morrison research.Find this resource:
Taylor-Guthrie, Danille, ed. Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson, Miss., 1994. A collection of over twenty interviews, spanning a wide range of years, this work is useful for finding out what Morrison has said about many topics, particularly her first six novels.Find this resource: