My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The other day, someone trying to sell a gimmicky book Tweeted the boilerplate provocation that “no novels by white men” should be taught in American high schools for “the next 20 years.” She then predictably pitted Ernest Hemingway against Toni Morrison to sharpen her point. Such tedious outrage-bait merits nobody’s attention, on the one hand; if I believed in #cancellation at all, I would believe that opportunists who manipulate worthy causes by sowing needless social hatred for personal gain are the ones who would deserve it.
Moreover, Morrison’s evident admiration for Hemingway—she digresses from her argument in Playing in the Dark to assure readers “there is strong evidence” he was not personally racist, a favor she does not grant even to Faulkner—is surely amusing in this context. On the other hand, it is worth stating and restating, until people get the point, how badly social media’s odious misery-machine distorts Morrison’s mission, and that of the broader literary tendency whose laureate she was.
In her essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken,” she wrote, in response to the conservative charge that she was an anarchic canon-smasher, “I, at least, do not intend to live without Aeschylus or William Shakespeare, or James or Twain or Hawthorne, or Melville.” And for the benefit of another social-media fool, who recently proposed the removal of Sophocles from curricula to combat “white supremacy,” we might refer to the Paris Review interview in which she claimed always to have taught Oedipus Rex to beginning or disadvantaged students, because, she said, “You have to give them the best there is to engage them.” The major premise of white supremacism in literary studies, she would have reminded the Twitterati, is not that Sophocles is great—she certainly thought he was—but that it makes any sense at all to call him white.
Likewise with the luminaries of American Romantic and modernist literature: she believed they should be read, to borrow Edward Said’s musical term from a book she praised, Culture and Imperialism, “contrapuntally”—with attention to all aspects of social and cultural reality they bound inextricably into their texts, including that of African-American history. That this involves reading African-American literary works alongside them and as their equals—and that it perhaps more importantly mandates a universal conception of African-Americans as subjects, not objects, of literary discourse—should go without saying, but it has nothing to do with the Twitterati’s ignorant zero-sum game of how to read less while also appearing enlightened.
Furthermore, and with the glorious self-assertion that I have always treasured in great writers, Morrison designates herself and her work the legitimate heir of her predecessors. Morrison was not the type of writer who wanted to overthrow her precursors in a violent gesture of disavowal like, say, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot in their dismissals of the 19th century; she wished, instead, to read and to rewrite their works in such a way that they led inevitably to her own—to make her corpus the sum of American literary history. Hence Newsweek‘s ubiquitous blurb dubbing Morrison “the last classic American writer.” So far, she has succeeded in this self-coronation, but to appreciate the achievement we have to appreciate what she’s doing and how to the canon.
No better example of this contrapuntal writing exists than Beloved, often hailed as Morrison’s masterpiece, her classic 1987 novel about a postbellum black woman in Ohio haunted by the ghost of a baby daughter she killed so that she would not be taken back into slavery. I think it is insufficiently appreciated that Beloved belongs to the same late-20th-century genre as novels like Wide Sargasso Sea and Foe: the feminist and postcolonialist re-writing of a classic from the viewpoint of its marginalized characters. Morrison’s innovation is to revise a whole period rather than a single text, but consider how we might plot Beloved according to her specific quarrels with certain 19th-century classics. Beloved is:
- a ghost story, but one whose revenant is not a German import; rather she is a specter of the specific modern American curse of slavery (compare Poe’s Gothic tales, such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia”);
- a tale of a woman alone with her daughter, punished and exiled by her community, but not a Puritan settlement punishing sexual transgression; it is rather a community, both white and black, that condemns a black woman’s maternal sovereignty (compare The Scarlet Letter);
- a novel in which an enslaved black woman crosses a river to save her children, but not one written according to the dictates of middle-class norms of Christian sentiment (compare Uncle Tom’s Cabin);
- a novel that narrates an ocean crossing rife with black and white imagery, but one whose shipboard protagonist is a female captive rather than a male captain, and in which whiteness is not the terrifyingly sublime allure of the infinite but the grotesque absence of all life (compare Moby-Dick);
- a novel in which a poor white person helps a black person escape slavery, but one where both are women, and where the white character is not the black one’s intellectual superior, nor is the white character’s drive for individual freedom obviously lauded over any longing for society (compare Huckleberry Finn);
- a story whose heroine may or may not be seeing a ghost, but not because she is driven mad by sexual repression; rather because her whole community is haunted by their own—and their dead forebears’—tremendous suffering (compare The Turn of the Screw);
And Morrison doesn’t only recast 19th-century fiction—isn’t she wrestling with what Emerson’s self-reliance and Thoreau’s naturalism might mean for black people in the aftermath of slavery? Nor only white-authored texts of the period—isn’t she adding her own modernist, psychoanalytic sense of the inner life to the classic slave narratives of Douglass and Jacobs, too caught as she must have thought they had no choice but to be in 19th-century sentimentalist polemics and respectability politics to give actual voice to the roiling, tormented psyches of the enslaved?
In short: good luck trying to comprehend Beloved if you want to practice an ignorant form of identity politics and cut books from your reading list.
I will make one concession to the canon-smashers: Beloved accomplishes the above critical work almost invisibly. It can be read with pleasure—because it tells a curiosity-arousing, sensational story in vividly sensory and metaphorical prose—before the texts to which it responds. I nevertheless insist that knitting herself indisseverably into the fabric of classic American literature, rather than tearing herself from it to live in an isolation her own novel depicts as self-destructive and unendurable, was key to her intention. Particularly in this novel, which strikes me as much more invested in speaking back to the canon than such other Morrison works, early and late, as Song of Solomon or Paradise, which emphasize by contrast cultural traditions outside “the west” (West African myth, gnosticism, Candomblé).
Where does Beloved begin? A concentric narrative, spiraling out from a violent center, it begins anywhere and everywhere. When its heroine tries to tell her lover the novel’s animating incident of infanticide, she is “spinning,” “[c]ircling him the way she was circling the subject.” The book has much the same structure. It starts in medias res, and its narrative present is 1873-5 in a black neighborhood in Cincinnati, but its characters’ memories drop them and us at will into a Kentucky farm called Sweet Home in the 1850s, when and where they were enslaved. Their first master was the seemingly merciful Garner, a childless man who prided himself on being “a real Kentuckian,” “tough enough and smart enough” to mold his male slaves into “men.”
But when Garner dies, perhaps murdered by a resentful neighbor, his wife summons her brother-in-law, an intellectual referred to in the novel only as “schoolteacher” to manage the property. Schoolteacher and his nephews institute a vicious reign of overt oppression coupled with investigations into racialist pseudo-science. He punishes his captives with brutal whippings and with a brake or bit, a bar of iron that stops their mouths. Meanwhile, he measures their bodies and has his nephews tally their human and animal characteristics in service to creating some calculus of innate inequality. These outrages inspire our heroine, Sethe, and the “Sweet Home men” to escape.
This escape is only partially successful, however. Sethe makes it with her children to the home at 124 Bluestone Rd., Cincinnati, where her already manumitted mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, has set up a household under the auspices of a Quaker abolitionist brother and sister, the Bodwins. (Sethe has delivered a fourth child on the road, helped by a poor-white runaway named Amy Denver, and has called her new daughter Denver in tribute to the girl.) The Sweet Home men, however, are scattered and missing, including Sethe’s husband and Baby Suggs’s son, Halle.
Sethe lives at 124 with her children and with Baby Suggs, an “unchurched preacher” who delivers sermons on communal self-love in a nearby forest clearing, for 28 days of peace and freedom before schoolteacher arrives to reclaim his absconded “property” under cover of the Fugitive Slave Law. Refusing to allow her offspring to be taken back to Sweet Home and subject to schoolteacher’s pseudo-scientific researches into their humanity or his nephews’ brutal abuses of their bodies, Sethe begins to murder her children. She succeeds in cutting her oldest daughter’s throat with a hacksaw before she is stopped and taken to prison.
The novel opens 18 years after these events, in the summer of 1873. Baby Suggs has been dead for eight years, Denver has grown to young adulthood in a stunting isolation, and Sethe’s sons have fled, because 124 is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter, “full of a baby’s venom.” Into this dire situation walks Paul D. Garner, “last of the Sweet Home men,” “the kind of man who could walk into a house and make the women cry” because “in his presence, they could.”
Sethe’s love affair with Paul D and the possibility that she will begin family life anew incite the novel’s actual crisis: the coming of a mysterious young woman named Beloved who appears to be Sethe’s murdered daughter in the flesh, though other possibilities, both more and less earthly—that she has escaped from sexual enslavement to a white man or that she is the embodied collective consciousness of the suffering black diaspora, “the people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood”—are intimated throughout the text.
Beloved runs Paul D out of the household (in part by supernaturally seducing/raping him) and even alienates Denver, who only wishes to be her sororal protector. She draws Sethe into an airless relationship of dependence that excludes all others, an unending atonement for Sethe’s murder that threatens to bury her in her past and consume her life, unless Denver, Paul D, and the black community that has shunned the infanticide in their midst can rouse themselves to save her.
As with so many great novels, Beloved‘s plot sounds overwrought when baldly summarized, but Morrison conveys it with absolute authority. Because her memory-based narrative, marked by interior monologue or free indirect discourse, always roots its storytelling in the grounded perspectives of individualized characters, its occurrences are credible. The sensory appeal of Morrison’s fleshy style, its emphasis on physicality, moreover makes the novel’s world an immersive medium. Finally, the circuitous narrative method may feel alienating at first—almost every chapter begins with a near-inexplicable sentence whose meaning only becomes clear a few sentences or a few pages later—but it eventually presses the story far more thoroughly into our minds, partly by giving us so many different angles from which to view it, and partly by making us assemble much of it ourselves.
As for the novel’s confrontational unpleasantness, its often abrupt forcing us to imagine scenes of unthinkable degradation, Morrison seems to think both writer and reader, who have very likely suffered much less than the characters or their real-world historical corollaries, owe this painful attention to the subject.
The last point brings us to the novel’s themes and purposes. Morrison, who believes the novel to be a socially functional (though not a didactic) form, has given several reasons for composing Beloved. First is the memorialization of slavery:
There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves…There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist…the book had to
This might at first seem uncontroversial but has actually been the main source of ideological dispute over Beloved. Her less sympathetic readers have understood Morrison to place slavery in competition with the Holocaust. The novel’s dedication reads, “Sixty Million and more,” about which Stanley Crouch famously and bitterly quipped, “sixty is ten times six, course.”
More measured but still skeptical, D. G. Myers judged Morrison’s novel to usurp “the Holocaust paradigm, which includes the claims that the destruction of European Jewry was the worst that had ever happened in human history and that it was therefore unique” for the legatees of American slavery in a gesture of (somewhat rarefied) leftist anti-Semitism. As a counterexample to Beloved, Myers cites Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer on the grounds that its metafiction is more circumspect than Morrison’s “presumptuous invention.” But given Morrison’s overwhelming intertextuality—see my bulleted list above—I think she is as metafictional as anyone could want.
Morrison differs from Roth most decisively when she portrays a group’s collective trauma as foundational to the identity of its individual members, even those who did not experience that trauma. About the Holocaust, Nathan Zuckerman cries out to his mother, “We are not the victims of that crime!” whereas Sethe assures Denver that memory (or “rememory,” the neologism Morrison uses to imply the processual and ineluctable character of memory) is communal and, as it were, supernatural:
“Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else.”
With this assertion of a collective unconscious, which the book validates with its Gothic trope of literal haunting by the past, Morrison positions all African-Americans as scarred by slavery, as scarred as if they had been there even if they haven’t—hence Beloved’s channeling of the horrors of the Middle Passage in her stream-of-consciousness monologue in part II of the novel, a passage in which I think subtext too unsubtly becomes text.
Morrison’s arrival at this conclusion is, it should be said, both ironic and ambivalent. In her 2004 Foreword the Vintage edition of Beloved, she claims she was motivated to write the book by her distance from the events it narrates, not her proximity. She recounts that she found herself in the early 1980s wealthy enough to quit her day job. As she sat “in front of [her] house on a pier jutting into the Hudson River,” she writes, she experienced “the shock of liberation” upon realizing she was “free in a way [she] had never been, ever.”
In other words, Morrison began to think about slavery precisely because she did not live it—was even living its opposite, financial freedom from work—though her ancestors did. I read in her motive a sense of separation, not communion, and even a hint of what we might call liberal guilt. The novel perhaps overcompensates for this guilt by closing the gap between a late-20th-century upper-middle-class intellectual and the enslaved and destitute of the mid-19th century a bit too thoroughly when it summons an essential racial consciousness, but it also undermines such collectivism. The familial cocoon into which Sethe retreats with Beloved is plainly a lethal one, and Denver is only able to save her mother and exorcise Beloved when she leaves home and appeals to a broader community of both white and black people.
In her 2004 Foreword, Morrison further contemplates “what ‘free’ could possibly mean to women” and alludes to the familiar debate within feminism over how such rights as reproductive choice and economic equality might pertain differently to the historical experiences of black and white women. Enslaved black women, forbidden to form families, the roles of wife and mother effectively barred to them, and black women after slavery, compelled to a brutal labor market and conscious of the legal and vigilante terror that might claim the men in their lives, may not find radical feminism’s ideological war on maternity and domesticity so rousing. Hence Morrison’s novel about a woman whose most insistent quest is to mother her children, and whose happy ending would seem to be the refounding of the nuclear family (with Paul D’s climactic return to 124 Bluestone Rd.).
On the other hand, Sethe’s choice to kill her children rather than to allow them to be enslaved extends feminism’s advocacy of maternal sovereignty from abortion to infanticide on the grounds that mothers may need to defend their children in spirit as well as in the flesh. Sethe thinks of her baby, “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died,” the inspired illogic of which implies a crucial distinction between body and soul. The novel never settles the ethical question of Sethe’s act, though, and given its extremism probably can’t. The classics major Morrison places her heroine in the realm of myth and tragedy, where merely human ethics may not apply—a risky strategy for a novel meant to have solemn socio-political effects, but one that does guarantee reader interest and literary grandeur.
Beloved posits more normative forms of resistance to oppression than infanticide, however. One is solidarity among the outcast and dispossessed of all peoples. Paul D is helped to escape a nightmare rock-breaking camp in Georgia by a band of Cherokee, while Sethe delivers Denver with the aforementioned help of a poor, abused, spirited white girl:
A pateroller passing would have sniggered to see two throw-away people, two lawless outlaws—a slave and a barefoot whitewoman with unpinned hair—wrapping a ten-minute-old baby in the rags they wore.
Morrison has to romanticize somewhat to create this idyll of the oppressed—relations between African-Americans and Native Americans were hardly untroubled in the period, for instance—but these left-utopian images of universal solidarity, however exaggerated, bely any facile claim that the novel’s politics are wholly race-exclusive. A passage just before the one quoted above suggests a further redemptive image in the novel: that of enchanted nature.
Spores of bluefern growing in the hollows along the riverbank float toward the water in silver-blue lines hard to see unless you are in or near them, lying right at the river’s edge when the sunshots are low and drained. Often they are mistook for insects—but they are seeds in which the whole generation sleeps confident of a future. And for a moment it is easy to believe each one has one—will become all of what is contained in the spore: will live out its days as planned. This moment of certainty lasts no longer than that; longer, perhaps, than the spore itself.
At the beginning of the book, Sethe can’t appreciate landscape without seeing atrocity, “[b]oys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world,” while at its end, Paul D reflects that “he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his.” With such passages of naturalist lyricism that recur throughout the novel, not to mention its insistent tree motif, Morrison aims to rectify the anti-pastoral sensibility she sees slavery as having imposed on black Americans—to rewrite American Romanticism with a black difference.
The imagery of generative spores and seeds reflects the novel’s theme of family. Morrison’s vision is not a conservative one, however; she understands that family is not always biological, not always nuclear. She does give us in the Sethe-Paul D romance one of the only happy heterosexual couplings in an oeuvre otherwise too preoccupied with antinomian individuals and fractious communities to bother with consummate love stories.
But she also insists on an expansive notion of gender. What makes Paul D such a good and appealing man? Precisely his capacity to nurture and care, alongside his ability to work, fight, and protect. And Sethe, named for her African father, is as much a fighter as a mother. Sethe first perceives even Amy, the novel’s white Samaritan, as a boy. Morrison does not distribute virtues by gender but rather suggests that each complete individual will have a capacious soul.
Ultimately, the novel offers itself as a reparation for the crimes it identifies. While Beloved dwells at times excruciatingly on the physical harms and violations of slavery, it also tends to represent slavery as an atrocity of representation. One of the novel’s most terrible images is the bit, which causes Sethe to reflect on “how offended the tongue is, held down by iron.” Sethe herself is driven to her dangerous escape from Sweet Home by schoolteacher’s measurements and the threat that they will be applied to her children. An intellectual and writer, Morrison works hard to imagine the body’s unending pain in coerced labor and punitive torture, but hardly has to imagine at all the pain of misrepresentation, falsehood, and censorship, or the need to revise the record.
None of her characters can resist schoolteacher’s discourse on its own ground, however. Almost all are illiterate. The sermons of Baby Suggs are a reparative discourse, but they don’t leave the Clearing. It takes a novel of popular power and intellectual intricacy to challenge schoolteacher, to put the revisionist Christian words and values of “Baby Suggs, holy” into circulation against those of race science, and this Morrison can provide:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”
This affirmative, even religious, character of the novel—see also Paul D’s concluding assurance to Sethe, “You your best thing”—has gained it detractors who find it mawkish or overwritten, and not wholly unreasonably. Just contrast Beloved‘s affirmations with the avant-garde nihilism of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora or the pulp fatalism of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
Despite Morrison’s lament that formerly enslaved authors had to make their narratives conform to the standards of the mid-19th-century sentimental novel, Beloved is perhaps an example of the late-20th-century sentimental novel—informed by psychoanalysis and Woolf rather than by Protestantism and Dickens, but sentimental for all that. And Beloved, with its blended family and recovered memories, is increasingly legible as a characteristic work of the 1980s, just as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is markedly a work of the 1860s. None of this, in my judgment, dispels its narrative power or vitiates its overwhelming intelligence.
Perhaps worried that Morrison’s reputation for racial uplift was harming her reputation among literary sophisticates, Namwali Serpell recently compared her to Nabokov, called her a horror novelist, and emphasized her rather amoral hauteur. One quality of Beloved I do admire is its wit amid the ghastly proceedings; Morrison even has the magisterial confidence to let her characters joke about the plot’s operatic excesses: “Every time a whiteman come to the door she got to kill somebody?”
While I have mentioned her horrors, let me conclude with a reminder of how beautifully elaborate her formal inventiveness could be. Beloved quite literally embodies its themes. As Ron David points out, with three sections of 18, seven, and three chapters each, the text is the year of its setting, 1873. Furthermore, as any number of critics have noticed, the novel’s 28 total chapters mimic the menstrual cycle to incarnate its theme of primal maternity. A book like that should not be commended on political grounds; it should be promoted as a rare, strange pleasure.
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