Toni Morrison: A Full Circle in Motion

[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Abraham Lincoln’s surmising that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin begat the War Between the States is a folkloric salute to the power of language and imagination. Stowe used a lot of sugar to advance the cause of abolition.

Superior to Stowe and members of her liberal tribe, Toni Morrison has avoided traffic in sugar or kindred flavorings. She is a realist. The proof is in the astringent quality of her fiction and nonfiction. From the thick descriptions that lend heft to The Bluest Eye (1970) to the control of perspectives which justify the deceptive “thinness” of God Help the Child (2015), Morrison has challenged her fellow citizens to deconstruct historical process and its consequences. Morrison’s being true unto herself has been no balm from Gilead for the most sensitive, hypocritical, self-deluded nerves of the American body politic. She has earned respect, but not love, for exposing systemic ailments that are beyond cure.

Great writers understand that (re)presenting a truth may require the rejection of love. Contemporary writers understand also that in the 21st century, ingratitude and entrapment have displaced genuine, multicultural communion and civil disagreement. Writers who are smart do not try to walk on the quicksand of fame. Unlike Stowe, Morrison has the literary skill and mother wit to escape being a target for the moral scrutiny of a James Baldwin. And no American Commander-in-Chief shall surmise that she is complicit in promoting military warfare, no matter how much Americans hunger for political fakelore. Morrison knows how best to deal with epic absurdity: by creating Lula Ann Bridewell (Bride),  Booker (an intelligent black man), and Rain, a scared and whitely abused little white girl.

With God Help the Child, Morrison comes full circle back to the core of pain in her first novel, thereby creating space for total reassessment of her work to date. Perhaps her aims are better understood outside the United States than within our country. For some Americans, her work can be read only under the influence of fear associated with a rapid ascent of post-human racism. In short, as far as literary journalism goes, writers for The Guardian trump writers for the New York Times, although the UK is as besmirched by racism and fascism as the USA. British literary politics march to a different drummer.

In an interview with Hermione Hoby published in The Guardian, Morrison asserts: “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old girl from Lorrain, Ohio. I don’t [write about white people]–which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not to have the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”  The location of Morrison’s utterance provokes remembering that she and readers who are some shade of color (psychologically, physiologically, and spiritually) have the option of accepting or not accepting Phillis Wheatley as a literary ancestor. These readers might note a structural kinship between As I Lay Dying and God Help the Child, but they have no obligation to claim William Faulkner as a bastard cousin. It is no surprise that Bernardine Evaristo concludes her Guardian review of God Help the Child with a fine British tone: “Morrison’s characteristically deft temporal shifts and precisely honed language deliver literary riches galore. And while this novel is very readable, the pleasure is in working for its deeper rewards.”

Being obtuse is not the apex of aesthetic achievement. The phrases “while this novel is very readable” and “its deeper rewards” may give us pause. The qualification in the first phrase suggests that a readable text is problematic.  Is Albert Camus’ very readable The Stranger somehow less good than James Joyce’s convoluted Finnegans Wake? Morrison’s novel is loaded with rewards. One is her naming the unjustly incarcerated victim “Sofia Huxley,” a clever allusion to wisdom and science; another, and one of the richest, is Booker’s saying to Lula Ann Bridewell:

Scientifically there’s no such thing as race, Bride, so racism without race is a choice. Taught, of course, by those who need it, but still a choice. Folks who practice it would be nothing without it (GHTC 143).

Booker’s words are a necessary and definitive indictment. They are related to killing a mockingbird and pimping a butterfly because they cast light on the games Morrison’s American reviewers are hired to play.

In the United States, deeper rewards do not go unpunished, especially in the famous review pages of the New York Times and the more august pages of The New York Review of Books. Under the ambiguous title “Growing Up Too Black” (is it possible to grow up too white?), Francine Prose’s TNYRB review is generally positive and correctly “literary.” Nevertheless, she thinks aloud, “Does the heady atmosphere of the mythic free the writer from having to pay attention to the details that, if gotten wrong, can distract the reader and briefly cast us out of the novel?” (13) Prose justifies her question by writing in the next paragraph: “In view of the scope and the gravity of Morrison’s themes and ambitions, why should such points matter? They do, because plausibility depends on the writer’s punctiliousness about just details as these.” (13)

Hold up.

The message Prose sends may be either the color of sickness unto death or a nice turn of the screw in the back. Whatever the case, Prose gives us a hint about critical literary matters at the middlebrow New York Times, which rarely hides its mechanics of cultural manipulation. Michiko Kakutani, who has a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, wrote, quite accurately, that one of Morrison’s great themes “is the hold that time past exerts over time present. In larger historical terms, it is the horror of slavery and its echoing legacy that her characters struggle with.” Kakutani finds God Help the Child to be a “slim but powerful new novel,” one that “has a musical structure reminiscent of” 1992’s Jazz. She assumes, I guess, readers will know that the primary musical referent is Billie Holiday’s and Arthur Herzog’s “God Bless the Child.” She also finds that the novel has “touches of surrealism that may initially seem jarring and bizarre, but that gradually lend Bride’s story a fair-tale-like undertow” and that ultimately the novel is “a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.”

Kakutani’s review is an antidote to the surreal gesture of Kara Walker’s commentary in the NYT Sunday Book Review. It is odd, given the impressive number of Toni Morrison scholars in the U.S. and abroad, that the New York Times overlooked them in favor of a visual artist whose literary achievement is a 2014 installation titled “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby.” I guess the NYT book editors thought the installation was reminiscent of Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981) and that readers needed to be more entertained than enlightened by a woman anointed and ordained by a MacArthur “genius award.” The kicker is Walker’s contention that:

The world of God Help the Child is crawling with child molesters and child killers–on playgrounds, in back alleys–but they remain oddly blurry, like dot-matrix snapshots culled from current headlines. When they join the scene, it’s rarely as full citizens of the narrative, and this is a loss.

The real loss is that Walker seems not to grasp that moralizing is an intimate part of Morrison’s extraordinary storytelling. She should have studied Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) before putting Domino Sugar in the bowl. Had the NYT editors really wanted us to profit from sweetness and light, they would have invited Jessica B. Harris or Mary Helen Washington to write the Sunday review. Such a decision, however, would have endangered their flippant status as guardians of the very culture Morrison critiqued in The Bluest Eye and excoriates, in a new key, in God Help the Child.

At the clichéd end of the day or of the night, our spirits can be rested that Toni Morrison has come full circle in donating her legacy to American and world literatures. Ultimately, it is not literary criticism of Morrison that counts. What counts is reading her words to construct one’s own knowledge of how history revolves.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
April 27, 2015