Twenty-five years ago this fall the most important American novel since Huckleberry Finn was published. Or, at least Toni Morrison’s Beloved must be considered the most important American novel in over a century if critical and academic attention is the gauge. It has been the subject of more than 700 items listed in the MLA International Bibliography—reviews, essays, chapters, monographs, Ph.D. dissertations, books. Its next closest rival, The Great Gatsby, has yet to reach 700 almost nine decades after its first edition.
“When a writer is supported by a sufficient body of scholarship,” wrote the critic Yvor Winters, “a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.” And that is pretty much what has happened with Morrison. Professors have taken up Beloved like a cause and have elucidated it so profusely—along with Twain’s great work, only The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Walden have amassed larger bodies of scholarship—that its place among the handful of American classics is assured.
The novel’s status as a masterpiece was treated as a given even before Beloved was released to the general public in September 1987. “If there were any doubts about [Morrison’s] stature as a preeminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation,” Margaret Atwood burbled in the New York Times Book Review, “Beloved will put them to rest.” John Leonard joined the chorus in the Los Angeles Times: “Beloved belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off,” he said. “The thing is, now I can’t imagine American literature without it.”
Precisely because the novel’s canonicity has never been in dispute, though, Beloved is almost never read to be enjoyed. It is studied. Nearly everyone who encounters it now does so in the classroom. It is the occasion of grand lectures and intense seminar discussions. Its text is rapidly coated with thick layers of critical terminology and historical background. It is portioned out and rearranged in the form of an interpretation—not “a story to pass on,” in the words of its last chapter, but an elaborate and intimidating apparatus of meaning.
Beloved actually seems to have been designed to serve as a course text. Its story line is chopped up and disjointed and fragmentary. The novel makes regular use of devices like flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness monologues that are catnip for English majors. The reader must work to find the story, as if Morrison’s novel were a highbrow Where’s Waldo? The author is proud of the difficulty, however. “Sometimes people complain that they have to go back in my books,” Morrison acknowledges. “I regard this as a compliment.”
Morrison’s ambition is to tell the entire history of slavery, its every indignity and horror, by encompassing it within the life story of one woman. Sethe, a slave on a Kentucky plantation known ironically as Sweet Home, escapes to Cincinnati with her four children in 1855. Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act, she can be returned to slavery, along with her children. When she is tracked to her mother-in-law’s house within weeks of her escape, Sethe goes wild with desperation. She tries to murder her children (“to keep them away from what I know is terrible,” she explains later), but she succeeds in killing only her nameless infant daughter. The sheriff arrests her, but cannot hold her. Sethe returns to her mother-in-law’s house on Bluestone Road and buries her baby girl with the bare word BELOVED on her tombstone.
Eighteen years later, a “young coloredwoman” arrives at the house on Bluestone Road. She announces that her name is Beloved. Nearly half the novel must go by before it “clicks” with Sethe (the anachronistic word is Morrison’s) that the strange young woman is the ghost of her murdered child.
As a ghost story, Beloved has neither of the “two ingredients most valuable in concocting a ghost story,” according to M.R. James, the genre’s best-known practitioner: It has neither flesh-creeping atmosphere nor the “nicely managed crescendo.” Instead, it is a monument to the slave experience, an imposing permanent marker of what Morrison calls “rememory,” on which Beloved asserts its claim to greatness.
Once Sethe realizes that Beloved is her daughter returned from the dead, the novel abandons all pretense of narrative and becomes a series of set pieces on the horrors of the past, recited in the “mythic” and “poetic” prose for which Morrison is so often praised, as if she were writing a 16th-century masque and not a novel at all. Here, for example, is Beloved recalling the Middle Passage, a newly enslaved African’s journey in the hold of a slave ship:
some who eat nasty themselves I do not eat the men without skin bring us their morning water to drink we have none at night I cannot see the dead man on my face daylight comes through the cracks and I can see his locked eyes I am not big small rats do not wait for us to sleep someone is thrashing but there is no room to do it in if we had more to drink we could make tears we cannot make sweat or morning water so the men without skin bring us theirs one time they bring us sweet rocks to suck we are all trying to leave our bodies behind
Powerful stuff. But what exactly is this description doing in the novel? How is it possible that a slave child, born in Kentucky half a century after Congress banned the importation of slaves, murdered by her mother before she started to walk, is familiar with the experience of the Middle Passage in horrifying detail? True, in fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to prepare the possibility, to make it plausible. She merely introduces the passage with an allusion to the Song of Songs (“I am Beloved and she is mine”), which seems to imply that Sethe has merged with Beloved after living with the guilt of her murder for so long. So Beloved, a victim of slavery, embodies the collective consciousness of racial suffering, or Sethe achieves mystic oneness with the race’s memory, or something. Beloved requires the assistance of interpretation to be even minimally intelligible. It is an invitation to scholars and critics to display their learning and ingenuity. No wonder they like it so much.
Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993 and cited for her “visionary force and poetic import,” but none of the novels she has published since then has received much love from the critics. Her new one, Home (Alfred A. Knopf, 160 pages), is the sort of book that raises questions about just how good its author ever really was.
Her descriptive catalogues once seemed evocative and radiant, as in this passage from Sula (her second novel and perhaps her best):
They are going to raze the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene’s Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair. Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba’s Grill, where the owner cooked in her hat because she couldn’t remember the ingredients without it.
Now, however, her excessive debt to William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez is all too obvious, and her thin lyrical talent is played out. Here is her description of Lotus, the rural Georgia village that is the setting of Home:
There were no sidewalks, but every frontyard and backyard sported flowers protecting vegetables from disease and predators—marigolds, nasturtiums, dahlias. Crimson, purple, pink, and China blue. Had these trees always been this deep, deep green? The sun did her best to burn away the blessed peace found under the wide, old trees; did her best to ruin the pleasure of being among those who do not want to degrade or destroy you. Try as she might, she could not scorch the yellow butterflies away from scarlet rosebushes, nor choke the songs of birds.
Has Morrison’s prose always been this shallow, shallow commotion?
Home’s protagonist is Frank Money—Smart Money to his friends—a Korean War veteran on his way to Georgia, where his sister Cee is dying. “Come fast,” he is instructed by letter. “She be dead if you tarry.” At loose ends for a year in Seattle after being discharged from the Army, Money was arrested and locked up in a “crazy ward” for doing something he can’t remember. When he receives the letter, he breaks out of the hospital and depends upon the kindness of black strangers to reach Atlanta.
Cee is working there for a “gentlemanly” white doctor whom “everybody calls” Dr. Beau. His genial exterior conceals the monster within. Unbeknownst to anyone, he has hired Cee to be the human subject of his experimental attempts to improve the speculum, “to see farther and farther into [women].” Dr. Beau’s maid notices Cee’s bleeding, fatigue, and weight loss. She writes to Money, who rescues Cee and takes her back to Lotus, where the black women in the neighborhood nurse her back to health. “The women handled sickness as though it were an affront,” Morrison writes, “an illegal, invading braggart who needed whipping.” The folk wisdom of black women saves Cee’s life, and by the end of the novel Money has become devoted to his sister. He learns to love again by loving her.
Every other chapter is an italicized interlude in which Money addresses the novelist herself, correcting her impressions and criticizing her for knowing so little about love—or about him, for that matter. Remove these exercises in “metacommentary,” though, and what remains is a long story (at most, a novella) told by her usual method of chronological disruption and modernistic flourishes. Morrison has never had much patience for exposition. Her latest novel suggests that perhaps she has always resorted to the mannerisms of experimental fiction to compensate for a lack of narrative energy. What accounts for the absence of joy in her novels, though, is another question.
By her own confession, Morrison inhabits a “wholly racialized world.” And this may explain why nearly all her fiction is set in the past. The more complicated social reality of the present does not readily lend itself to the racial melodrama of her “mythic” and “poetic” protest novels. Family breakdown is the tragedy facing blacks today, not white racism in the form of evil Dr. Mengele’s experimenting on unsuspecting black women, but you could never learn that from one of her novels.
Morrison’s career almost perfectly coincides with the emergence of race, class, and gender as the holy trinity of literary scholarship in America. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The next year, Lillian S. Robinson and Lise Vogel introduced the familiar terms in their familiar order with an article in New Literary History. “To be conscious of race, class, or sex with respect to high culture,” they wrote, “is to be conscious, first of all, of exclusion.” Although some scholars tried to recalculate the criticism of classic American authors to take notice of their exclusions, the more popular approach was to demand that the canon be “opened up” to new minority writers. Toni Morrison was the perfect candidate for inclusion. She is, after all, a three-tool star—black, female, a child of the working class (daughter of a welder and domestic worker). She was ideally positioned to catch the winds of literary doctrine as they suddenly changed direction in the 1970s and 1980s. Other American writers have seemed to capture the Zeitgeist—James Branch Cabell, Zona Gale, Louis Bromfield—only to disappear under the waves. Given the massive amounts that scholars have invested in her, Morrison is unlikely to disappear. But that she represents a moral fashion rather than lasting art becomes clearer with each new book.