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Critical Essay by Gail Caldwell
SOURCE: "Author Toni Morrison Discusses Her Latest Novel Beloved," in Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, pp. 239-45.
The essay excerpted below was originally published in The Boston Globe in October 1987 and was based on an interview with Morrison in which Caldwell questioned her about the sources for Beloved, the difficulties Morrison faced in writing it, and its major themes.
If The Bluest Eye and her next novel, Sula found eager audiences, Song of Solomon, published in 1977, found an exuberant one, going on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Tar Baby followed in 1981; by then, Morrison had been at the crest of a new wave of Afro-American literature for more than a decade. An editor at Random House since 1967, she resigned in 1983 to write full time; at 56, she lives in Rockland County, N.Y., with the younger of her two sons.
Morrison spent two years thinking about the story of Beloved and another three writing it; she says now that she was so frightened by the effort that she hit a writing impasse in 1985. She had conceived of the novel as a three-volume work; when she gave the manuscript to her editor, Bob Gottlieb (formerly of Knopf, now of the New Yorker), she was already convinced that she had failed.
"I had decided that I was never going to meet the deadline, and I would just have to live with it. But I gave Bob what I had, and said, 'I'm sorry, because I really and truly have only a third of a book.'
"And he read it and said, 'Whatever else you're doing, do it, but this is a book.' I said, 'Are you sure?'"
Morrison laughs. "I was happy that, after all these years, what I had done could be published. I was not sure for a long time. I mean, I trust Bob a lot, but I kept saying, 'What do you think?' Not meaning, 'is it any good?' but 'are you sure this is IT?'"
This was most certainly it, as Gottlieb realized immediately, for Morrison had given him Beloved in its entirety, save the page-and-a-half coda at the end. The novel is extraordinary, even by Morrison standards, with a lyricism equal to the sadnesses it plumbs. Set in Ohio in 1873, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave who fled the South with her children 18 years earlier. She now lives alone with her youngest daughter, Denver, but their isolation is threatened by a presence in the house: the ghost of her other girl, Beloved, who was murdered as an infant. How that tragedy came about—and just who was responsible—is the mystery at the center of Beloved, which is as much about the mother-daughter bond as it is the crimes of slavery.
Morrison says she works from the ground up, conceiving of "the smaller details, the images," before the entire architecture of a novel appears. But unlike her four previous books, the idea for the plot of Beloved came from an actual event—gleaned from a 19th-century newspaper story she'd discovered while editing The Black Book (an overview of black American history) at Random House. The woman in the news story became Sethe, and Morrison began to write.
"What was on my mind," says Morrison, "was the way in which women are so vulnerable to displacing themselves, into something other than themselves. And how now, in the modern and contemporary world, women had a lot of choices and didn't have to do that anymore. But nevertheless, there's still an enormous amount of misery and self-sabotage, and we're still shooting ourselves in the foot.
"It occurred to me that I'd read these stories about black women … because we were at the forefront of making certain kinds of decisions, modern decisions that hadn't been made in 1873.
"The past, until you confront it, until you live through it, keeps coming back in other forms. The shapes redesign themselves in other constellations, until you get a chance to play it over again."
Morrison still views Beloved as the first of three works, and that, she says, has helped counteract the melancholy that usually accompanies a book's completion. The struggles she encountered along the way paid off: Beloved is driven by a voice so pure that it half-seems as though its narrators are gathered around the reader's kitchen table. Its shifting narration builds to a crescendo of voices at the end of the novel, particularly that of Beloved—who has come back as a young woman looking to reclaim her past.
"I couldn't get Beloved's voice," says Morrison, "I just couldn't get there. I wrote around it: She was there, but she couldn't say anything … I could get Denver's and Sethe's voices, but I just couldn't get that girl to say where she had been."
Paul D, the former slave from Sethe's past, has his own way of saying where he's been, a poetry of lament that seems written from the inside looking out. "I'll tell you," says Morrison about capturing his voice, "you know how actresses do? You just get in there, and see what the world looks like in there. I can even write dialogue when he's talking and I'm inside him, and then I have to come out and get in the other person. Rewriting was that constant shifting, and trying to do him justice. I don't want to shortchange anybody. It has something to do with honorably rendering another life.
"Paul D's like a lot of other black men I used to know, and listen to—my father, my uncles, and the way they used to talk."
It's not the only time Morrison's family had a hand in Beloved. As a child, she listened to the ghost stories her parents told; all her novels are rich with supernatural lore; from the dream imagery of Sula to the flying metaphors of Song of Solomon. When Beloved's flesh-and-blood manifestation shows up at Sethe's house one day—no lines on her palms and no history to speak of—her presence seems as ordinary as an afternoon visit from the local preacher.
"As a child, everybody knew there were ghosts," says Morrison. "You didn't put your hand under the bed when you slept at night. It's that place that you go to [in Beloved], right away … a shared human response to the world. And that's where I had to go to, with Beloved's voice, because I couldn't confuse it with my own." Morrison laughs. "It starts getting crazy, you know, trying to do that."
With its lush, Gauguin-like imagery and commonplace mysticism, Beloved draws from a wellspring not unlike that of the Latin American fabulists. Morrison nods at the comparison between black American folklore and magic realism, though she says she was well into Song of Solomon before she discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
"Their stuff was so readily available to them—that mixture of Indian and Spanish. Whereas I felt the preachers, the storytelling, the folklore, the music was very accessible to me, but I felt almost alone. It wasn't only mine, but I didn't have any literary precedent for what I was trying to do with the magic.
"So I thought, boy, those guys—they've got it. Everybody understood the sources of their magic right away. Whereas mine was discredited, because it was held by discredited people. 'Folklorists!' Now it's sort of a little subject in the academy, but it did not have any currency … it's perceived of as illiterate.
"People give a lot of credence to the intelligence, the concentration, the imagination necessary for listening to music, but never for listening to stories. That somehow seems like a dumb thing that people who can't read do. And I know how hard it is to listen, and what's engaged when you listen."
If Morrison's early work quickly became required reading in Afro-American literature courses around the country, it was [on] lists of standard English courses, Afro-American or otherwise. Still, the embrace of "ethnic" and "women's" literature in the last 15 years—read: non-white-male—is viewed by some as a ghettoization of literature, more stifling than liberating. And while Morrison herself has received superlative-laden praise for her work, the words "black" and "female" almost always preface such claims.
"Well, I get unnerved by all of it," says Morrison. "When they say I'm a great American novelist, I say, 'Ha! They're trying to say I'm not black.' When they say I'm a wonderful woman novelist, I think, 'Aha, they think I don't belong.' So I've just insisted—insisted!—upon being called a black woman novelist. And I decided what that meant—in terms of this big world that has become broader and deeper through the process of reclamation, because I have claimed it. I have claimed what I know. As a black and a woman, I have had access to a range of emotions and perceptions that were unavailable to people who were neither.
"So I say, 'Yes, I'm a black woman writer.' And if I write well enough, then maybe in about five years—or 10, or 15—it'll be like, 'Do you write for the Russians, or do you write for the French?' I mean, that kind of question, you can't put to anyone other than women and blacks."
Morrison laughs. "I've always had a secret desire to write reviews of white people's books from that point of view, and make all these observations. I think that would be a scream. I'd say, 'This is a better book because that's the way white people really are.' I mean, what does that mean?"
The color and gender demarcations of contemporary fiction have begun to blur in the last decade, in part due to writers such as Morrison, whose contributions stand tall against any literary standard. And while she underplays her own participation in that change, she says she's witnessed its effects, particularly in the schools and universities.
"The black kids [where I lectured], when they would ask questions, they used to say—vis a vis Song of Solomon or Sula—they'd say, 'I don't know anybody like that.' Or, 'wear shoes.'
"And I would say, 'I don't know anybody like that either.'
"They were always disassociating themselves from the class of blacks to which they did not belong. And they weren't talking to me anyway; they were talking to their fellow [white] students. All of the time, at least one person would make sure that I understood that a wine-maker like Pilate [in Song of Solomon] they loved, but that was not part of their experience.
"They were at great pains to let me know that they were literate. That doesn't happen anymore.
"Painful as it is, there was a void before, and now there's something in it. And you know, I'm not the first black writer. So that it means that the cumulative effect of all those writers who went before—the Zoras [Neale Hurston] and the [Ralph] Ellisons—in its real sense, it means it is there now."
The difficulties Morrison encountered with Beloved came from the heights and depths she tried to conquer: The girl Beloved's voice at the end of the novel is wrenching testimony, not just her private suffering but of all the ravages of slavery. For Morrison, it was more than a personal triumph.
"When I had problems, I thought: If they can live it, I can write about it. I refuse to believe that that period, or that thing [slavery] is beyond art. Because the consequences of practically everything we do, art alone can stand up to. It's not the historians' job to do that—you know what I'm saying? You will get some truth out of it that is not just the province of the natural or social sciences.
"I said, then the slaveholders have won if this experience is beyond my imagination and my powers. It's like humor: You have to take the authority back; you realign where the power is. So I wanted to take the power. They were very inventive and imaginative with cruelty, so I have to take it back—in a way that I can tell it. And that is the satisfaction."
This section contains 1,998 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)