Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate who died Monday night at the age of 88, was widely considered to be one of the great living American writers. And an enormous part of her literary legacy was the work she did to establish and extend the black American literary canon, both in her own writing and in the work she did as an editor.
Morrison’s status as one of the great American novelists, full stop, developed late in life: When she first came up, she was considered to be one of the great black women American novelists, who was maybe not in the same league as writers who were white and male. She was ghettoized for both her race and her gender.
“I wish that Toni Morrison, a bedazzling writer and a great human being, had won her prize only for her excellence at stringing words together,” said writer Erica Jong when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. “I suspect, however, that her prize was not motivated solely by artistic considerations. Why can’t art in itself be enough? Must we also use the artist as a token of progressivism?”
Morrison herself was ambivalent about the public’s focus on her race and gender. “I’m already discredited, I’m already politicized, before I get out of the gate,” she told the essayist Hilton Als in 2003. But, she added, “I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.”
Morrison believed the black American experience was worthy of sustained aesthetic attention, and not just so that white people could learn valuable lessons about race. “I didn’t want it to be a teaching tool for white people,” she told Als of her work. “I wanted it to be true — not from outside the culture, as a writer looking back at it. I wanted it to come from inside the culture, and speak to people inside the culture. It was about a refusal to pander or distort or gain political points. I wanted to reveal and raise questions.”
And Morrison didn’t only pursue that goal in her work as a novelist. She also spent more than a decade working as an editor at Random House, where she championed the work of black authors. It was there that she helped put in place the raw material for a black American literary canon.
“Before the late sixties, there was no real Black Studies curriculum in the academy — let alone a post-colonial-studies program or a feminist one,” wrote Als for the New Yorker. “As an editor and author, Morrison, backed by the institutional power of Random House, provided the material for those discussions to begin.”
Morrison published Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis. She published the autobiography of Muhammad Ali. But perhaps her greatest legacy as an editor was compiling and publishing The Black Book, a lavishly illustrated primary source collection that documents black American history. It didn’t sell well, but it became a landmark in black studies. And even when it first came out, it was deeply meaningful to those who picked it up — including an incarcerated man who wrote Morrison to thank her for putting it together. “And then he said, ‘I need two more copies, because I need one to pass out to other people, and I need another one to throw up against the wall,” Morrison told Als. “‘And I need the one I have to hold close.’”
The opening paragraph to Beloved captures the lyricism and intellectual force that made Morrison great
In her own writing, Morrison lavished the underdiscussed lives of black women with language. Her prose is lyrical almost as a default; it is rhythmic and vivid; it sings. In her hands, to write lyrically feels like an act of both love and defiance.
But in her most famous novel, Beloved, about an escaped enslaved woman who kills her baby daughter to prevent her from being taken by slave catchers, Morrison had to balance her tendency toward lyricism with the starkness of her subject matter.
“In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout,” she writes in the preface to Beloved; “that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must first get out of the way.”
In Beloved, the ghost of slavery is literal and inescapable. Sethe, the desperate mother based on the historical Margaret Garner, may no longer be enslaved as the novel opens, but she can never forget what slavery as an institution did to her as a person: that it made her kill her infant daughter, Beloved.
When a young woman claiming to be the now-adult Beloved comes to Sethe’s house, Sethe begins to believe that she may at last be able to forget: that if Beloved is truly alive, then what Sethe did to her never happened, and so slavery may be erased, forgotten, papered over. But it rapidly and inexorably becomes clear that forgetting is impossible.
And so Morrison’s every sentence is heavy with dread and grief, a personal grief rendered universal and historical. But what’s astonishing is that it’s still beautiful, still luxurious to read, even when Morrison is making her language “get out of the way” as much as possible.
The opening paragraph of Beloved captures that dread and that beauty as well as anything else Morrison ever wrote:
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old — as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the doorsill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once — the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be born or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn’t have a number then, because Cincinnati didn’t stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.
The ghost of Beloved is everywhere here, with the “venom” and “lively spite” of a murdered baby seething its way through the very house where Sethe lives. This is a house that is haunted by an atrocity, and that atrocity was created by slavery, now rendered domestic and personal and intimate, confined to the “spiteful” house of 124.
But even while that atrocity breathes its way through the language, the prose remains beautiful to read. Look at the way the two parentheticals in the third sentence balance each other as both Buglar and Howard reach their tipping point and leave the house; the way they make the narrator’s voice get slightly mannered for a moment, as though we are at the beginning of a Victorian fairy tale for children. And then notice how the “lively spite the house felt for them” at the end of the paragraph wrenches us out of that cozy fairy tale space, into someplace still a little supernatural — it’s a world where houses can have feelings — but altogether more unsettling and unsettled.
Morrison’s language is always this precise and controlled in its effects, and it is always reaching for a bigger and more indelible story. That’s why her legacy — both as an editor and as a novelist — is going to outlive us all.