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Questia Online Library

Untitled Document

Toni Morrison: Solo Flight Through Literature into History,
Journal article by Trudier Harris
(get the full version of this research and other sources for your paper on Toni Morrison at Questia Online Library by clicking here)

By any standard of literary evaluation, Toni Morrison is a phenomenon, in the classic sense of a once-in-a-lifetime rarity, the literary equivalent of Paul Robeson, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Chris Evert, or Martina Navratilova, the superstar whose touch upon her profession makes us wonder if we shall ever see her like again. The indelible word portraits she has created, the unforgettable mythical and imaginary places, the exploration of the psychological trauma of slavery, racism, and war, and the sheer beauty of prose that frequently reads like poetry have assured Morrison a place in the canons of world literature. Her impact upon our world and her recognition as one of America's greatest writers have exceeded the sum total of six novels, a play, a short story, a collection of critical essays, and several edited volumes.1 America, she has brought new life to American literature classes, new energy to traditional convention sessions, and new directions for study to hundreds of scholars and students writing books, theses, and dissertations. Around the world, she has offered a new lens through which to view American literature and African American experience. Morrison's is the rare case in which popularity and quality are commensurate.

As early as 1982, long before Beloved or the Pulitzer Prize, Morrison's works were available in Japanese. I saw the advertisements when I was in residence at the Mary Ingraham Bunting Institute at Radcliffe/ Harvard just as I was beginning to focus on my book-length study of Morrison's novels. I had plans that, if I could complete the work in a timely fashion, it would be the first published study of the author and her works. Few scholars, it seemed to me then, were recognizing the extraordinary genius of this woman, who, in four novels by that date, had offered such dramatically different portraits of black communities and black women that it was impossible not to notice her talent. Although Morrison had appeared on the cover of Newsweek when Tar Baby was published in 1981, she was not generally a household name. When my Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison appeared in 1991, it had missed being the first booklength study of her works, but it fit solidly into the establishment of a body of critical commentary on a much-deserving writer.

By 1990, when Italy awarded Morrison the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore literary award, its highest literary honor, there were few scholars, students, or general American readers who were unfamiliar with her work. It was the first time the Italian prize, the equivalent of the American Book Award, was granted to a black person or to a woman. By 1990 Beloved had been translated into Norwegian, and in March of 1993 Morrison was in Barcelona for the publication of the Spanish edition of Jazz; one of her hostesses, Angels Carabi, was the Spanish professor who had recently published a critical study of Morrison's fiction. I charted this international appreciation of Morrison's work from my position as Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where, in 1990, a Fulbright scholar from Algeria undertook a directed reading on Morrison with me. A student from New Delhi came to interview me about the dissertation work he was completing on contemporary black American women writers, Toni Morrison among them. Graduate students in South America requested that I forward critical commentary on Morrison's works to them in 1992. In July of 1993, after my move to Emory University, two well-known French scholars, Claudine Raynaud and Geneviève Fabre, sought permission to reprint a section of Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison in an anthology of criticism on Beloved, for that text had just been selected for inclusion on the syllabus for the agrégation, "a national competitive examination which helps the French government recruit college teachers"--which means that the novel will be taught "in all French universities. "2 More recently, a Polish friend of mine wrote to inquire where he should begin in the reading of Morrison's works. If my small encounters with people from around the world are duplicated in the lives of other Morrison scholars, I can only begin to imagine the impact her works are having.

Morrison's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature, therefore, was the official inscripting of a worldwide recognition and appreciation of the intellectual stimulation and awesome power of her writing. As probably the most well known of African American writers and perhaps even of all contemporary American writers, Morrison has provided for international readers an entree into American culture and specifically into African American culture. Readers testify that it is because of her treatment of slavery in Beloved that they became interested in reading about that period in American history. Or they find the beauty of the writing in Sula, along with the title character, too compelling not to know more of Morrison. Or the power of Morrison's writing led them to more expansive explorations of African American and/or American writers.

(get the full version of this research and other sources for your paper on Toni Morrison at Questia Online Library by clicking here)

The Nobel Prize in Literature will mean that Morrison's works will, be ever more popular and ever more available. It means that an African American writer who may once have been viewed as writing against the grain of American literature will be more centrally incorporated into it, indeed claimed in a variety of ways. It means that a woman, writing in English, has been recognized as equal to the best writers worldwide. It means that Morrison will become even more the representative artist/spokesperson for African American writers, as Richard Wright was in the 1940s, James Baldwin after him, Ralph Ellison briefly thereafter, and Alice Walker in the 1980s. In the best of worlds, Morrison's success could open doors for young writers following after her, something that she has indicated in interviews is important to her. Most important, her success signals the permanent arrival of the African American literary canon onto the stage of American and world literature, a development that will make it impossible for future exclusion. The recognition of her works is simultaneously a recognition of the cultural nationalism implicit in them, another centering of African American life, culture, and philosophy.

For American literature, viewed perhaps too long as an upstart, derivative tradition, Morrison's success marks the peak of individuality even within the larger national group. Morrison's claim to Southern and Midwestern soil, her focus on African Americans and American history, and her expanding of the boundaries of topics acceptable for inclusion in literary treatments have added dimensions to the emphasis on freedom and democracy that characterizes so much of the national literature. Indeed, Morrison has written a national epic with a twist, firmly rooting black people in the polluted American soil of their slave heritage and transforming that soil to a garden of possibility through the tremendous force of the human will to survive and to thrive. She has thereby reclaimed America for the best of itself.

The literary establishment and the not-so-established have heaped awards upon Morrison like Parisians heaping compliments upon the beauty of Jadine Childs, and the enthusiasm with which she has been greeted would rival that of Milkman's upon the discovery that his great-grandfather could fly. Each time a student expresses wonder at a black man running "lickety split" into the myth of his African ancestry, we owe a debt to Toni Morrison. Each time a reader struggles with the difficulty of passing judgment on Sula and raises issues about his or her own place in a forced scheme of morality, we owe a debt to Toni Morrison. Each time a public library holds a discussion of poverty and rejection in The Bluest Eye, or members of a community reading group or in a senior-citizens' center want to know about ghost stories in Beloved, we owe a debt to Toni Morrison.

Readers appreciate Morrison for a variety of reasons. Some applaud her for daring to explore the complexities of intraracial prejudice, as she did in The Bluest Eye in 1970. Others focus on her unforgettable characters, such as Sula in the 1974 novel of the same title; or Pilate Dead, the conjurer and converser with spirits in Song of Solomon, published in 1977; or the blind Thérèse, whose sight beyond sight enables her to guide Son Green to the land of myth in Tar Baby, which appeared in 1981. Perhaps readers are drawn to the haunted Sethe, the haunting Beloved, or the hauntingly eloquent Baby Suggs in Beloved ( 1987 ), or perhaps the photograph of a teenage girl killed by an older lover in Jazz ( 1992 ) provides the same bone-gnawing lack of release for readers as for Morrison.

In a time when African Americans, in a wonderful surge of historical and racial pride, were moving from their designation as "Negroes" to their designation as "black" or "Afro-American," Morrison maintained that we should pause and focus on a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, for whom that movement had no significance. Believing her blackness is the source of her ugliness, Pecola Breedlove finds no pathway to an inner core of salvation or an outward reflection of acceptance. She can imagine reversing her rejection only by acquiring the bluest eyes of all, bluer even than those of her idol, Shirley Temple. Neglected by her mother, scorned by her peers and teachers, raped and impregnated by her father, Pecola believes desperately that blue eyes will save her. Her journey from self-rejection to ultimate insanity in The Bluest Eye charts the course of the individual who finds herself outside community norms, basically outside community caring. Although the adolescent Claudia, who alternately narrates the tale, and her sister Frieda do care about Pecola, their efforts, exemplified in the "magic" of sacrificing money earned from selling seeds in a childish attempt to alter Pecola's fate, are insufficient to save her.

(get the full version of this research and other sources for your paper on Toni Morrison at Questia Online Library by clicking here)