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  • Blackwell Publishing 2005

    Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    Reading Toni Morrison Critically

    Jennifer

    Terry

    University of Durham

    Abstract

    This article offers an overview of the contemporary novelist Toni Morrisonsliterary career and of the critical response to her fiction. It also considers recentshifts in American and African American studies that allow for intersections withpostcolonial studies and transatlanticist approaches. Finally, questions are raised

    regarding future directions in our reading of black U.S. literature.

    Introducing the Author and the Critical Field

    The African American novelist and critic Toni Morrison is one of the mostwidely known and highly respected writers working today. The authorof eight novels and one book of essays as well as the editor of several othercritical collections, Morrisons literary career began with the publicationof

    The Bluest Eye

    in 1970 and continues to the present. Her novels are

    TheBluest Eye

    (1970),

    Sula

    (1973),

    Song of Solomon

    (1977),

    Tar Baby

    (1981),

    Beloved

    (1987),

    Jazz

    (1992),

    Paradise

    (1998) and

    Love

    (2003). Other majorpublications include

    Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on AnitaHill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality

    (1992),

    Playingin the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

    (1993),

    Birth of aNationhood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case

    (1997) and

    The House that Race Built: Original Essays on Black Americans and Politicsin America Today

    (1998).Morrisons fiction, the object of my focus here, addresses issues of African

    American history, experience and identity, often also engaging questionsof gender and patriarchy, and, to a lesser degree, class. Once writing in anenvironment where all but a few black authors struggled for recognition,now the subject of much acclaim at home and abroad, Morrison was therecipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, this award indicatingand reflecting the respect that her creative output has earned. During thelast fifteen or so years since the publication of

    Beloved

    in 1987, scholarshiptreating the Morrison oeuvre has burgeoned, making her surely one ofthe most critically examined authors of the contemporary period. Herunquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful fiction hence occupiesa distinctive, and privileged, position within current cultural and literary

  • 2 Reading Toni Morrison Critically

    Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    studies.

    1

    As I will go on to suggest, it also lies at a juncture significant interms of changing approaches to reading black U.S. writing and tensionsand shifts within existing academic fields.

    The authors early publications establish concerns with racial alienationand deracination, economic disempowerment, childhood trauma, communaldynamics and forms of transgression as well as exploring oppressive genderideology through exposing pernicious modes of both femininity andmasculinity. Stories of displacement and belonging are unequivocallysituated within socio-historical contexts whilst geographical settings helpto evoke a black diaspora centred on North America, but also encompassingEurope and the Caribbean. The interest in the negotiation of difficultfamilial, communal and national pasts is continued by what has beendescribed as Morrisons trilogy. This unit emerged when the author wasable to realize only part of her vision for

    Beloved

    in the publication of thatname. Although

    Beloved

    ,

    Jazz

    and

    Paradise

    do not work together to forman explicit narrative sequence, common preoccupations, themes and motifscan be traced through them and combined they span one hundred yearsof African American history. These texts confront the terrible legacies ofslavery, play out the complex operation of memory, explore black identi-ties and choices within various modernities and celebrate affirmativerecoveries, connections and forms of expression. Morrisons most recentpublication,

    Love

    , once more figures a kind of haunting, raising issuesof class, dispossession, patriarchy, rape and racial integration through thetale of a contested and unravelling African American dynasty.

    In researching Toni Morrisons fiction one enters an already denselyinhabited arena. Her writing is the subject of many essay collections, oneof the earliest being

    Critical Essays on Toni Morrison

    , edited by Nellie Y.McKay (1988). This was followed by publications edited by HaroldBloom (1990) and by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah(1993). More recent collections include

    Toni Morrisons Fiction: Contempo-rary Criticism

    , edited by David Middleton (1997),

    New Casebooks ToniMorrison

    , edited by Linden Peach (1998) and

    The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison:Speaking the Unspeakable

    , edited by Marc Conner (2000). Monographs havealso been forthcoming, two of the most insightful being

    Circles of Sorrow,Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison

    by Gurleen Grewal (1998) and

    ToniMorrison Contemporary World Writers

    by Jill Matus (1998). By the late 1990spublications focused on individual Morrison novels were appearing. Theseinclude collections on

    Song of Solomon

    edited by Valerie Smith (1995) andby Harold Bloom (1999), and on

    Beloved

    edited by Barbara Solomon(1998) and by William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay (1999). Also of noteare

    Toni Morrison Beloved

    by Carl Plasa (1998) and

    Paradise Reconsidered:Toni Morrisons (Hi)stories and Truths

    by Justine Tally (1999). In addition,there have been several special issues of periodical publications devoted toMorrisons work.

    Southern Review

    offered one in 1985, a double issue of

    Modern Fiction Studies

    , published in 1993, was later developed into an essay

  • Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    Reading Toni Morrison Critically 3

    collection edited by Nancy Peterson (1997) and in 1998

    Studies in theLiterary Imagination

    published an issue about the relation of Morrisonswritings to the American South. Surprisingly few studies have approachedher fiction through comparative reference to that of other authors. Perhapsthe most intertextual analysis has been completed on Morrison and WilliamFaulkner, two worthy examples of this activity being

    Unflinching Gaze:Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned

    , edited by Carol A. Kolmerten,Stephen M. Ross and Judith Bryant Wittenberg (1997) and

    Balancing theBooks: Faulkner, Morrison and the Economies of Slavery

    by Erik Dussere(2003). One further important publication in terms of Morrison scholar-ship is the collection of twenty-four of her interviews conducted between1974 and 1992,

    Conversations with Toni Morrison

    , edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie (1994).

    Criticism has tended to situate Morrisons novels within a black U.S.literary tradition and/or feminist fields of enquiry. Some studies read herwork in terms of the concerns of a broader, cross-racial tradition of NorthAmerican literature. Whilst several scholars have chosen psychoanalyticapproaches, few have so far employed theories of class or of postcoloni-alism.

    2

    Indeed, despite the plurality of responses already formed, manyaspects of Morrisons fiction remain under explored, meaning that thedebate still can be, and should be extended. Although helpful and originalarticles and book length projects have been published, much writingabout Morrisons work remains within familiar perimeters. Some of italso leans towards the purely celebratory, lacking, like a proportion ofother scholarship on African American women writers, a suitably criticalintellectual rigour.

    3

    In addition, attention has, thus far, been distributedunevenly across the oeuvre,

    Beloved

    understandably stimulating the biggestresponse, but other novels such as

    Tar Baby

    ,

    Paradise

    and

    Love

    still rarelybeing discussed. All of this, it seems to me, leaves plenty of scope forfuture developments and directions in Morrison criticism.

    Critical Intersections and New Directions

    I will now turn to consideration of some of the tensions and shifts evidentin contemporary American and African American studies. Key to theseare approaches which seek to explore intersections with postcolonialtheory and/or models of transnationalism. Useful discussions and surveysof such developments can be found in Malini Johar Schuellers PostcolonialAmerican Studies and Laura Stevenss Transatlanticism Now, both ofwhich review essays appeared recently in

    American Literary History

    .

    4

    As anacademic field, cultural studies traditionally has been associated withdelimitations along regional or national boundaries but across disciplinarypractices. American studies, for example, is typically concerned with theanalysis of U.S. history, society and culture. In areas such as AfricanAmerican studies a particular ethnic group becomes the object of focus,

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    Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    although here too a nationalist position is often a defining feature. Suchapproaches have proved highly productive, but they can also operate in anabsolutist and restrictive manner. Investigation of shared or, indeed, dif-fering experiences and cultural formations, not tied in a reductive way tothe unit of the nation state, permitting of intercultural perspectives andentangled histories, provides one way forward. Transnationalist paradigmsinclude Marxist theories of the historical formation of capitalism and itsreach, postcolonial theories concerned with the spread and effects of, andresistance to colonialism and empire and frameworks suggesting particularspaces or sites that supersede national borders, such as the Atlantic, asnexuses for study. Such models complicate and, to some extent, threatenthe integrity of established academic fields and understandings of identityand culture.

    Deploring how in the past American studies remained remarkablyinsular, thus reinforcing the idea of the nations exception from Westernimperialism and colonialism, Schueller probes the debate about theinclusion of the U.S. into postcolonial studies.

    5

    Asserting, [c]learly, U.S.culture has complexities that we should analyze through postcolonialreading strategies, Schueller also flags the dangers involved and the needfor consideration of specificity and historicity. She asks what are theimplications of seeing U.S. minority cultures as postcolonial? Would apostcolonial perspective foreground diasporas consequent upon coloniza-tion? How would the connections between slavery and colonization betheorized? Should African American culture . . . be seen as part of a blackdiaspora?.

    6

    And later [w]hat texts should be read as colonial discourse?What are the cultural and political differences between European coloni-zation and U.S. colonization? What constitutes postcolonial resistance inU.S. culture? Should the post be periodized? Are all racial minoritiespostcolonial? Do we need to establish differences among these minorities?.

    7

    This line of questioning engages with the problems of meshing postcolonialand American studies given the U.S.s particular history and position inglobal politics, yet, at the same time, reveals the benefits of adopting suchtriangulations in terms of new perspectives and enquiries.

    Associated with postcolonial studies, but not always operating in con-gruence with its political concerns and discourses, is the contemporarycritical turn towards transnationalism. Of particular relevance to advancingresearch into African American literature and culture is trans- or circum-Atlanticism, Paul Gilroys theory of the black diaspora as set forth in his1993 publication

    The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness

    presenting a significant and most influential example.

    8

    In TransatlanticismNow Stevens pointedly notes, [f ]ew terms have spread across the aca-demic landscape with the speed and thoroughness of

    transatlantic

    . . . it hasbecome the descriptor of choice for recent scholarly projects of almoststartling quantity and variety.

    9

    This development, in which the AtlanticOcean becomes an organizing concept, is said to have transpired [i]n

  • Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    Reading Toni Morrison Critically 5

    tandem with an expanded awareness of the histories of colonialism, slaveryand nationality.

    10

    Although Stevens identifies the recent upsurge of interestin transatlantic relations as concentrated on the years between 1500 and1800, when cultures surrounding the Atlantic were most dramaticallyaltered through their connections with each other, I would suggest thatsuch a frame can also constructively inform analysis of nineteenth, twen-tieth and twenty-first-century writing, thinking and culture.

    11

    Indeed, in

    The Black Atlantic

    Gilroy ranges from discussion of earlier journeys, intel-lectual exchanges and narratives to a consideration of contemporary popularmusic and the fiction of Morrison and others, such as Charles Johnson,Sherley Anne Williams and David Bradley, who also treat the legacies ofslavery. An Atlanticist optic permits African American experience, identityand representation to be situated in a wider diasporic matrix, movingbeyond black U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism and ethnic absolutism inproductive ways and revealing exciting new conjunctions, intersectionsand opportunities for investigation.

    Toni Morrisons work itself is of considerable significance in suchdebates.

    Beloved

    s powerful confrontation with the history of racial slaveryin the New World has made it, along with Salman Rushdies novel of pre-and post-Partition India,

    Midnights Children

    , something of a touchstonefor postcolonial theorists. Indeed, Schueller goes as far as to describe it asthe ur-postcolonial text.

    12

    All the more surprising therefore that criticalresponses to the body of fiction have not further employed postcolonialreadings.

    13

    Whilst a few have acknowledged Morrisons engagement witha broader sense of black diaspora, within the field of scholarship probingher writing, this too remains an under developed avenue of enquiry.As already noted, studies have tended to locate her novels within a feministschema and/or a black U.S. literary tradition.

    14

    Yet we might see theauthors depiction of the disruptions and entanglements engendered byslavery and colonization in the Americas as a more encompassingimaginary of displacement. Her work, in addition, presents processes ofevolution, affirmation and remembering as well as those of dislocation,devastation and loss, so offering a complex vision of African Americanmodernity that merits analysis using multiple frameworks and wide rang-ing points of comparison.

    15

    In looking at how Toni Morrisons fiction is read, and asking andsuggesting how it might be read, we enter into much larger discussionsabout academic preserves and critical approaches. Undoubtedly theauthors novels have had a profound and far reaching effect, both in termsof popular reception and scholarly and theoretical developments. Itperhaps should be noted that a significant minority of the reviews ofMorrisons two most recent publications,

    Paradise and Love, have taken amore interrogatory turn, finding fault with, among other things, theireditorializing tendency.16 Although I disagree with some of thesecommentaries, we might see them as illustrative of a new, more rigorous

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    Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

    stance that is to be welcomed. It seems to me that we need to open up,deterritorialize further the ways in which we view Morrisons, and otherAfrican Americans, writing. Whilst recognizing differences and specifici-ties, critical lines of convergence can and should be drawn, triangulationsmade, as we aim to discover and then navigate fresh perspectives.17

    Notes

    Jennifer Terry is Lecturer in English Studies at the University of Durham. Her research interestslie in American literature, postcolonial studies and writings of the black diaspora. Her doctoralthesis, completed at the University of Warwick, examined the novels of Toni Morrison andcurrent projects include a comparative exploration of African American and Caribbean fiction.1 These qualities were identified by Morrison herself as distinguishing successful art. T. Morrison,Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation, in Black Women Writers: Arguments and Essays, ed.M. Evans (London: Pluto Press, 1985), p. 345.2 See D. D. Mbalia, Toni Morrisons Developing Class Consciousness (Selinsgrove: SusquehannaUniversity Press, 1991); S. Keenan, Four Hundred Years of Silence: Myth, History, andMotherhood in Toni Morrisons Beloved, in Recasting the World: Writing after Colonialism, ed.J. White (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 4581 for exceptions.3 Maria Laurets acute discussion of responses to Alice Walkers writing might make a usefulpoint of reference here. Lauret observes, the balance in Walker criticism leans heavily towardsuncritical adulation . . . If anything this explains why, despite the sheer amount of commentaryon her work, the quality of it is often disappointing: many of the hundreds of articles producedby the Walker critical industry are merely descriptive or indeed biographical rather thanoffering any analytical insight into the work. Studies of Morrisons fiction, although sometimestoo falling into the same trap, do so less often, a point also made by Lauret: The contrast withMorrison is instructive . . . her and Walkers shared institutional status as favoured black womennovelists, prizewinners and bestsellers has nevertheless produced a very different kind of recep-tion. M. Lauret, Modern Novelists Alice Walker (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 196, 204.4 M. J. Schueller, Postcolonial American Studies, American Literary History 16(1) (2004),pp. 16275; L. M. Stevens, Transatlanticism Now, American Literary History 16(1) (2004), pp. 92102. See also P. Hulme, Including America, ARIEL 26(1) (1995), pp. 11723; C. MacLeod,Black American Literature and the Postcolonial Debate, Yearbook of English Studies 27 (1997),pp. 5165.5 Schueller, Postcolonial American Studies, pp. 1623. MacLeod submit[s] that if the historicalexperiences of rupture, exile, subjugation, social marginality, and linguistic and cultural dispos-session count for anything in the definition of a colonized identity, then it is hard to see howAfrican-Americans can possibly be excluded from the [postcolonial] discussion. MacLeod,Black American Literature, pp. 545.6 Schueller, Postcolonial American Studies, p. 164.7 Ibid., p. 172.8 Gilroy proposes a transcultural, international formation based upon exchanges and circula-tions of various kinds across the Atlantic Ocean. P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity andDouble Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), p. 4. This enabling model reconceptualizes Enlight-enment ideas of modernity and patterns of intellectual and artistic influence whilst also empha-sizing the hegemonic displacements of the slave trade. Indeed, Gilroy attempts to rethinkmodernity via the history of the black Atlantic and the African Diaspora into the Westernhemisphere, positioning capitalist, racial slavery as internal to modernity and intrinsicallymodern (pp. 17, 220). Although a suggestive paradigm, it should be noted that Gilroys TheBlack Atlantic has been criticized for its failure to acknowledge alternative theories of trans-nationalism, its neglect of any sustained or plausible engagement with Marxism . . . the source andinspiration of the most coherent and principled theories both of the advent of capitalist moder-nity and of the universalising propensities and global reach (the systematicity) of capitalism asan historical formation. See N. Lazarus, Is a Counterculture of Modernity a Theory of

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    Reading Toni Morrison Critically 7

    Modernity?, Diaspora 4(3) (1995), p. 332. Despite a focus on the diaspora and transculturalism,it has also been observed that the emphasis of Gilroys modern world remains a western, notglobal, one, the absence of the non-West in his formulations of modernity being a tellingomission (pp. 3334). Hence the lives of New World, slave-descended people come, by default,to represent all modern black experience. L. Chrisman, Journeying to Death: Gilroys BlackAtlantic, Race and Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation 39(2) (1997), p. 58. Andin several Atlanticist studies that follow Gilroy we, in fact, witness a reprivileging of thecultural positions of the U.S. and Britain.9 Stevens, Transatlanticism Now, p. 94. She goes on to warn that very different types ofscholarship . . . can fit under the umbrella of Atlantic literary study. Stevens, TransatlanticismNow, p. 102.10 Stevens, Transatlanticism Now, p. 94.11 Ibid., p. 93.12 This observation is made with reference to the theory of Homi Bhabha. Schueller, PostcolonialAmerican Studies, p. 172.13 Carl Plasa notes, [d]espite the importance of the place that [Beloved ] so clearly occupies inthe theoretical reflections of post-colonial critics such as Paul Gilroy and Homi K. Bhabha,[the] inclusion of Beloved under the rubric of the post-colonial is relatively unusual withincriticism on the novel. C. Plasa, Toni Morrison Beloved (New York: Columbia University Press,1998), p. 117.14 Whilst it is important to describe Morrisons place within an African American literarytradition, this tradition from its very inception can be seen as the product of diverse intercon-tinental legacies. Consider, for example, the early models of the slave narratives. See Pioneers ofthe Black Atlantic: Five Slave Narratives from the Enlightenment 17721815, ed. H. L. Gates, Jr. andW. L. Andrews (Washington: Civitas Counterpoint, 1998).15 The configuration of movement and transformation that Paul Gilroy poses in The BlackAtlantic resonates with the African America that Toni Morrison depicts. His model of oceanictraversal deliberately evokes slave-carrying vessels, but also suggests more hopeful trajectories,mapping a dynamic space of possibility and connection as well as a history of oppression. Inconversation with Gilroy Morrison too has offered a vision of modernity with the black diasporaat its heart. See T. Morrison, Living Memory: A Meeting with Toni Morrison, in Small Acts:Thoughts on the Politics of Black Culture, P. Gilroy (London: Serpents Tail, 1993), p. 178.16 J. Campbell, Dark and Light in the Territory: A Review of Love, The Times Literary Supplement(23 Nov. 2003).17 MacLeod, Black American Literature, p. 65.

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    Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9

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    Reading Toni Morrison Critically 9

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