Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning

Adrienne Lanier Seward
Justine Tally
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 320
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    Toni Morrison
    Book Description:

    Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaningboasts essays by well-known international scholars focusing on the author's literary production and including her very latest works--the theatrical productionDesdemonaand her tenth and latest novel,Home. These original contributions are among the first scholarly analyses of these latest additions to her oeuvre and make the volume a valuable addition to potential readers and teachers eager to understand the position ofDesdemonaandHomewithin the wider scope of Morrison's career. Indeed, in Home, we find a reworking of many of the tropes and themes that run throughout Morrison's fiction, prompting the editors to organize the essays as they relate to themes prevalent inHome.

    In many ways, Morrison has actually initiated paradigm shifts that permeate the essays. They consistently reflect, in approach and interpretation, the revolutionary change in the study of American literature represented by Morrison's focus on the interior lives of enslaved Africans. This collection assumes black subjectivity, rather than argues for it, in order to reread and revise the horror of slavery and its consequences into our time. The analyses presented in this volume also attest to the broad range of interdisciplinary specializations and interests in novels that have now become classics in world literature. The essays are divided into five sections, each entitled with a direct quotation fromHome, and framed by two poems: Rita Dove's "The Buckeye" and Sonia Sanchez's "Aaayeee Babo, Aaayeee Babo, Aaayeee Babo."

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-041-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Carolyn C. Denard

    In the summer of 1969, I was a hardworking and supremely happy rising high school junior, who had remained in the all-black high school despite the “freedom-of-choice” options offered to us in the late ’60s. That summer, I was waiting for the start of my junior year to reap the “golden girl” benefits of a high school life well lived: district Tri Hi-Y president, class officer, prom committee, drum majorette, mixed octet . . . and then my high school closed. Closed—doors locked, lights out, no more, finished—almost overnight, it seemed, and without warning or time to prepare...

    (pp. xv-2)

    Toni Morrison writes “with a prose so precise, so faithful to speech, and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry.” These words are as appropriate today as they were in John Leonard’s 1970New York Timesreview of her first novel,The Bluest Eye. Nine novels later this remarkable author continues to be an imposing presence in world literature and to wield an almost uncanny influence on scholars, and on serious readers beyond those professionally committed to literary studies. Witness, for example, the ease with which Morrison converted a socially and culturally diverse audience into an...

    (pp. 3-4)
  7. Part I. “This is where I belong”

    • “DANGEROUSLY FREE”: Morrison’s Unspeakable Territory
      (pp. 7-18)

      In an interview onFresh Air(September 9, 2010), Terry Gross asked Jonathan Franzen how he could tell when his writing ofFreedomwas going well. His answer (paraphrased) was that it was going well when it hurt to do it. The writing of his that mattered (in bothFreedomandThe Corrections) did so because it cut close to the bone. It mattered because it made its way past his defenses and said something disturbing—and painful to say—about his sense of himself in the world. Franzen added that, for him, such moments were never directly political, since...

    • MODERNITY AND THE HOMELESS: Toni Morrison and the Fictions of Modernism
      (pp. 19-32)

      It is both dangerous and irresistible to discuss Toni Morrison in relation to other writers. Despite her famous denials of influence—“I am notlikeJames Joyce; I am notlikeThomas Hardy, I am notlikeFaulkner” (Taylor-Guthrie, 152)—Morrison is one of the most widely and deeply read of writers, and her fiction, even if it resists the conscious influence of other writers, certainly participates in their broader cultural dialogue. Morrison’s work especially involves itself in the dialogue about modernity. Her work emerges from and points us toward modernity, provoking two central questions: What is modernity? And what...

    • RESURRECTING THE DEAD GIRL: Modernism and the Problem of History in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise
      (pp. 33-41)

      In her afterword toThe Bluest Eye, written twenty-four years after the book’s initial publication in 1970, Toni Morrison offers a critique of her first novel about an unloved black girl: “The shattered world I built (to complement what is happening to Pecola) . . . does not in its present form handle effectively the silence at its center: the void that is Pecola’s ‘unbeing.’ It should have had a shape—like the emptiness left by a boom or a cry” (215). In articulating the aesthetic desire “to shape a silence while breaking it” (216), Morrison offers a clue to...

    • TO MAKE A HUMANIST BLACK: Toni Wofford’s Howard Years
      (pp. 42-50)

      “Quiet as it’s kept,” Toni Morrison, during her tenure as a senior editor at Random House, shepherded in the publication of over fifty books—among them books of poetry and fiction, autobiographies and memoirs, cookbooks and cultural texts. That her editorship beyond her work withThe Black Book, which began in 1965, reached its apex in the 1970s, and ended in 1983, has gone largely uninvestigated is not especially surprising.¹ Typically, literary scholarship is guilty of focusing more on the author as producer of a text and then on the text as finished product than on the journey to publication...

  8. Part II. “Regrets, excuses, righteousness, false memory and future plans mixed together or stood like soldiers in line”

    • TRYING TO GET HOME: Place and Memory in Toni Morrison’s Fiction
      (pp. 53-65)

      FromThe Bluest EyetoHome, Toni Morrison’s novels take up the subjects of place and displacement, home and homelessness, belonging and exile, memory and loss. Lorain, the Bottom, Not Doctor Street, Iles des Chevaliers, Sweet Home, the City, Ruby, Cosey’s Resort, Vaark’s Farm, Lotus: these places have left indelible impressions on our memories. What Robert Stepto almost thirty years ago called “this extraordinary sense of place” remains a hallmark of Morrison’s fiction (213). Yet the difference in representational strategies between Lorain in the first novel and Lotus in the most recent is substantial. Lorain is a place we imagine...

      (pp. 66-79)

      Memory—in GermanGedächtnisandErinnerung—is central to creation in Morrison’s work. Indeed, remembering shapes the narratives that espouse the ceaseless returns to the not-so-distant past, the comings and the goings between now and then, and ultimately the circular motion of the production of memories. One can consequently shed light on the workings of Morrison’s writing starting from a reflection on memory. What she calls “rememory” inBelovedhelps us understand the extent to which the staging of the workings of memory is akin to phantasm (“Memory,” 385–90). Derived from the Black English “to memory” or “to remember,”...

      (pp. 80-92)

      Toni Morrison has given the world a body of work that examines on the local and particular level what it means to be human. She exposes us, as readers, to the innermost recesses of our souls and our darkest hours as well as our moments of triumph. Her characters, drawn from historical events or everyday communities, search for a meaningful place in the world, succeeding or failing through personal and cultural memory. Attaining a positive sense of self occurs when personal memories can sustain subjectivity. However, traumatic memories often keep characters from achieving such fulfillment. Morrison’s great gift to her...

    • LOVE: An Elegy for the African American Community, or The Unintended Consequences of Desegregation/Integration
      (pp. 93-104)

      I am being driven along Dowling Street, once a major artery of culture, commerce, and entertainment for Houston’s African American community. My driver, a contemporary and a Louisiana native, has lived in Houston since the late 1950s. She has invited me to seeherHouston. Her Houston turns out to be an erstwhile “magnificent mile” along Dowling Street,¹ once lined with churches, offices, retail shops, private clubs, parks—an area where she lived and worked until 1981. She points with verve toward boarded-up buildings, vacant lots, litter hugging curbs, and new upscale townhomes sprouting menacingly close to Dowling Street and...

  9. Part III. “Her garden was not Eden; it was so much more than that”

    • FROM EDEN TO PARADISE: A Pilgrimage through Toni Morrison’s Trilogy
      (pp. 107-118)

      That Toni Morrison’s novels treat issues of religion and spirituality is such an immense understatement that one might argue the claim to be tautological. With novels titledSong of SolomonandParadise, characters named Pilate, Rebekka, and Grace, and multiple ministers engaging in agonistic struggle with their God(s), it is challenging to engage with a Morrison text without some recognition of her position on Christianity. However, it is in her trilogy (Beloved, Jazz, Paradise), I would maintain, that Morrison most deliberately undertakes an investigation of the implications of that religion in the lived experience of her characters and, by extension,...

    • “AND THE GREATEST OF THESE”: Toni Morrison, the Bible, Love
      (pp. 119-131)

      While the subject of love takes a variety of forms in Morrison’s work from her first novel,The Bluest Eye(1970), to her latest,Home(2012), I propose here to look at her meditation(s) on love in light of her readings and (re)readings of the Christian Bible, the book Northrop Frye has described as “the Great Code” of Western art and literature. In what sense is Morrison playing with the implications of the Johannine edict that “God is love” (John 4:8) as an absolute equivalence, in both its New Testament form and its inverse (love is god)? How might we...

    • PALIMPSEST: Reading John Winthrop through the Morrison Trilogy
      (pp. 132-143)

      Although Toni Morrison has herself indicated, and critics agree, that the nature of love and community is one underlying theme of her trilogy, the influence of John Winthrop’s much-celebrated sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” (more commonly referred to as “The City upon a Hill”), delivered aboard theArbellain 1630, has to date not been addressed as a possible inspiration for her musings on the beloved. On the face of it, Winthrop’s subscription to the prevalent contemporary doctrine that God created different orders of people to his greater glory poses a contradiction in terms, for how can a society...

    • MAGICALLY FLYING WITH TONI MORRISON: Mexico, Gabriel García Márquez, Song of Solomon, and Sula
      (pp. 144-156)

      I want to reflect on two religious dimensions in Morrison’s language of catching, of doing, and of togetherness in a hybrid essay mixing fragments from journals with interpretations of magical flight and sacred place inSong of SolomonandSula. I kept the journals during two trips to Mexico with the author and her son Ford, during both of which she met with Gabriel García Márquez. Toni Morrison and García Márquez first met in 1996 at the home of the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, and we returned to Mexico again in 2005 for a second meeting with him. The sacred...

  10. Part IV. “Now it seemed both fresh and ancient, safe and demanding”

      (pp. 159-171)

      Beloved(1987) is part of a collective intertext that provides African America’s perspective on racialized discourse and practice in American history, particularly as it relates to race and the rights and privileges associated with citizenship. This essay is part of a larger project that explores the relationship between property ownership and American identity. Property includes “not only external objects and people’s relationships to them, but also all of those rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being, including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties”...

    • AESCHYLUS, EURIPIDES, AND TONI MORRISON: Miasma, Revenge, and Atonement
      (pp. 172-184)

      In its determined confrontations with the past, Toni Morrison’s oeuvre repeatedly portrays an America characterized by both black and white recourse to vengeance. At the same time, it represents the process of revenge as a flawed means to moral purification. My specific purpose here is to demonstrate and analyze the ways in which Aeschylus’sOresteiaand Euripides’Bacchaeinform Morrison’s exploration of the themes of vengeance and atonement. The close readings fromSong of Solomon, the trilogy (Beloved, Jazz, andParadise) andLovethat follow also consider Richard Schechner’s controversialDionysus in 69(1970) and Wole Soyinka’sThe Bacchae of...

    • TONI MORRISON’S PERFORMANCE OF THE WORD IN SONG OF SOLOMON: The Folkloric, the Fantastic, and “Some Old Folk’s Lie”
      (pp. 185-193)

      The characteristic “response trait” of black performance, the convention of running assents by audience or listener to what is being said by speaker or performer, is observable in a number of creative expressions by African Americans and viewed as a notable feature of African and African diaspora cultures. Identified by Melville Herskovits as a “reworking” of African polite behavior (52), this affective participatory relationship between speaker and listener, audience and performer, reader and writer, is a defining feature in Toni Morrison’s fiction. InSong of Solomon, Morrison’s third novel, this feature is actualized as textual performatives of “make-believe,” which sustain...

    • “A KIND OF RESTORATION”: Psychogeographies of Healing in Toni Morrison’s Home
      (pp. 194-204)

      While dissenting with itself over the possibility of reliable narration and interpretation,Homeis stabilized by two principles that span Morrison’s relationship to fiction: valuing black diasporic literacies and identifying black vernacular culture as a space of knowledge and healing. Using African diasporic spiritual archetypes along with black vernacular communal sensibilities, Morrison constructs an alternate imaginative landscape, or “psychogeography” (Debord, 1). InHomethe author’s mapping of this restorative psychogeography serves as a template for healing in the midst of trauma. The landscape of black vernacular culture inHomeis structured by the liminal space of the crossroads archetype and...

  11. Part V. “You can keep on writing but I think you ought to know what’s true”

      (pp. 207-217)

      In considering the relation of meaning to memory in the work of Toni Morrison, it is well worth recalling, from the outset, that few celebrated writers of this century have been as dedicated as Morrison to the proposition that the reader of her worklives. This simple yet powerful conviction is often aligned with the political dimension of Morrison’s prose, and indeed,politicalis as good a word as any for fiction that assumes the reading public also lives public lives, and that forming a reading public forms those lives, as nothing else can. Such a conviction, as obvious as...

    • “‘THERE IS THE POWER,’ HE THOUGHT, ‘RIGHT THERE’”: Dramatizing Entropy in Tar Baby and Paradise
      (pp. 218-230)

      I begin with the assertion that Toni Morrison’s fiction often portrays the lives of characters and communities that can be understood in terms of fluctuation, turbulence, and entropy.¹

      These terms come to us from the realm of systems or chaos theory, and they can serve us well as instruments of critical inquiry. Such an assertion finds validity, first, through the identification of recurring tropes, but subsequently the argument must move beyond mere identification in favor of elucidating how chaotics inform Morrison’s overall critique of human endeavor, particularly in terms of how it has moved from modernity to postmodernity. As Philip...

    • TELLING STORIES: Evolving Narrative Identity in Toni Morrison’s Home
      (pp. 231-242)

      Structure is meaning, according to Toni Morrison. Plot is information aboutwhathappened, she says. The structure, what lies underneath plot activity, manifests the writer’s intention and shapes readers’ experience of the text. Morrison “work[s] very hard” at this “sort of deep structure” (Silverblatt, 218).Jazz’s (1992) narrative hipness—improvisational story, syncopated first-person voice, 1920s vernacular—captures the energy, possibility, and adolescent self-regard of transplanted blacks in New York City’s jazz scene, for example.Love’s (2003) crystalline accretion of polyphonic narrative voices reveals characters’ delusions of isolation. “They may feel separate,” Morrison points out, “but everything they do and think...

    • “NEWNESS TREMBLES ME”? Representations of White Masculinity in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy
      (pp. 243-254)

      Toni Morrison’s ninth novel,A Mercy(2008), provides an account of the nature of slavery in late-seventeenth-century America by exploring the myriad ways in which indentured servitude was still raceless but already delineating the contours of the so-called New World. Tackling issues such as class and religious allegiances, Morrison depicts a primitive society in which material wealth and possession are deeply and inextricably intertwined with notions of power and the establishment of rigid hierarchies.A Mercyconjures up a description rich in interpretive potential, in which readers are eagerly invited to witness the coming into being of a profoundly racist...

    • THE SOUND OF CHANGE: A Musical Transit through the Wounded Modernity of Desdemona
      (pp. 255-268)

      The persistence of the past into the present through song is a consistent theme of Toni Morrison’s work. The two temporalities refer to and enrich each other, as when a jazz player or singer of spirituals reanimates an old standard even while reworking it. This creative principle guides Morrison’sDesdemona, which she created with the African singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré and the American opera and theater director Peter Sellars.¹ In a provocative experiment, they reimagine Shakespeare’s tragic representation of the legacies of gender, race, and class domination inOthello(1603) as these issues reverberate in our global present.

      Many crises of...

    • AAAYEEE BABO, AAAYEEE BABO, AAAYEEE BABO (Praise God) (Praise God) (Praise God)
      (pp. 269-272)
    (pp. 273-278)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 279-279)