Reading Toni Morrison Critically

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<ul><li><p> Blackwell Publishing 2005</p><p>Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9</p><p>Reading Toni Morrison Critically</p><p>Jennifer</p><p>Terry</p><p>University of Durham</p><p>Abstract</p><p>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</p><p>regarding future directions in our reading of black U.S. literature.</p><p>Introducing the Author and the Critical Field</p><p>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 </p><p>The Bluest Eye</p><p> in 1970 and continues to the present. Her novels are </p><p>TheBluest Eye</p><p> (1970), </p><p>Sula</p><p> (1973), </p><p>Song of Solomon</p><p> (1977), </p><p>Tar Baby</p><p> (1981),</p><p>Beloved</p><p> (1987), </p><p>Jazz</p><p> (1992), </p><p>Paradise</p><p> (1998) and </p><p>Love</p><p> (2003). Other majorpublications include </p><p>Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on AnitaHill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality</p><p> (1992), </p><p>Playingin the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination</p><p> (1993), </p><p>Birth of aNationhood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case</p><p> (1997) and</p><p>The House that Race Built: Original Essays on Black Americans and Politicsin America Today</p><p> (1998).Morrisons fiction, the object of my focus here, addresses issues of African</p><p>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 </p><p>Beloved</p><p> 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</p></li><li><p> 2 Reading Toni Morrison Critically</p><p> Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9</p><p>studies.</p><p>1</p><p> 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.</p><p>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 </p><p>Beloved</p><p> in the publication of thatname. Although </p><p>Beloved</p><p>, </p><p>Jazz</p><p> and </p><p>Paradise</p><p> 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, </p><p>Love</p><p>, 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.</p><p>In researching Toni Morrisons fiction one enters an already denselyinhabited arena. Her writing is the subject of many essay collections, oneof the earliest being </p><p>Critical Essays on Toni Morrison</p><p>, 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 </p><p>Toni Morrisons Fiction: Contempo-rary Criticism</p><p>, edited by David Middleton (1997), </p><p>New Casebooks ToniMorrison</p><p>, edited by Linden Peach (1998) and </p><p>The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison:Speaking the Unspeakable</p><p>, edited by Marc Conner (2000). Monographs havealso been forthcoming, two of the most insightful being </p><p>Circles of Sorrow,Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison</p><p> by Gurleen Grewal (1998) and </p><p>ToniMorrison Contemporary World Writers</p><p> by Jill Matus (1998). By the late 1990spublications focused on individual Morrison novels were appearing. Theseinclude collections on </p><p>Song of Solomon</p><p> edited by Valerie Smith (1995) andby Harold Bloom (1999), and on </p><p>Beloved</p><p> edited by Barbara Solomon(1998) and by William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay (1999). Also of noteare </p><p>Toni Morrison Beloved</p><p> by Carl Plasa (1998) and </p><p>Paradise Reconsidered:Toni Morrisons (Hi)stories and Truths</p><p> by Justine Tally (1999). In addition,there have been several special issues of periodical publications devoted toMorrisons work. </p><p>Southern Review</p><p> offered one in 1985, a double issue of</p><p>Modern Fiction Studies</p><p>, published in 1993, was later developed into an essay</p></li><li><p> Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9</p><p>Reading Toni Morrison Critically 3</p><p>collection edited by Nancy Peterson (1997) and in 1998 </p><p>Studies in theLiterary Imagination</p><p> 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 </p><p>Unflinching Gaze:Morrison and Faulkner Re-Envisioned</p><p>, edited by Carol A. Kolmerten,Stephen M. Ross and Judith Bryant Wittenberg (1997) and </p><p>Balancing theBooks: Faulkner, Morrison and the Economies of Slavery</p><p> 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, </p><p>Conversations with Toni Morrison</p><p>, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie (1994).</p><p>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.</p><p>2</p><p> 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.</p><p>3</p><p> In addition, attention has, thus far, been distributedunevenly across the oeuvre, </p><p>Beloved</p><p> understandably stimulating the biggestresponse, but other novels such as </p><p>Tar Baby</p><p>, </p><p>Paradise</p><p> and </p><p>Love</p><p> still rarelybeing discussed. All of this, it seems to me, leaves plenty of scope forfuture developments and directions in Morrison criticism.</p><p>Critical Intersections and New Directions</p><p>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 </p><p>American Literary History</p><p>.</p><p>4</p><p> 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,</p></li><li><p> 4 Reading Toni Morrison Critically</p><p> Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>5</p><p> 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?.</p><p>6</p><p> 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?.</p><p>7</p><p>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.</p><p>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 </p><p>The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness</p><p>presenting a significant and most influential example.</p><p>8</p><p> In TransatlanticismNow Stevens pointedly notes, [f ]ew terms have spread across the aca-demic landscape with the speed and thoroughness of </p><p>transatlantic</p><p> . . . it hasbecome the descriptor of choice for recent scholarly projects of almoststartling quantity and variety.</p><p>9</p><p> This development, in which the AtlanticOcean becomes an organizing concept, is said to have transpired [i]n</p></li><li><p> Blackwell Publishing 2005 Literature Compass 2 (2005) AM 147, 1 9</p><p>Reading Toni Morrison Critically 5</p><p>tandem with an expanded awareness of the histories of colonialism, slaveryand nationality.</p><p>10</p><p> 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.</p><p>11</p><p> Indeed, in</p><p>The Black Atlantic</p><p> 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.</p><p>Toni Morrisons work itself is of considerable significance in suchdebates. </p><p>Beloved</p><p>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, </p><p>Midnights Children</p><p>, something of a touchstonefor postcolonial theorists. Indeed, Schueller goes as far as to describe it asthe ur-postcolonial text.</p><p>12</p><p> All the more surprising therefore that criticalresponses to the body of fiction have not further employed postcolonialreadings.</p><p>13</p><p> 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.</p><p>14</p><p> 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.</p><p>15</p><p>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 developmen...</p></li></ul>

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