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Critical Essay by Marilyn Judith Atlas
SOURCE: "Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Reviewers," in Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. XVIII, 1990, pp. 45-57.
In the following essay, Atlas discusses the differences between various reviews of Beloved and suggests that the novel's subject and design pose unusual difficulties for most critics.
Even before the publication of Beloved, Toni Morrison was clearly a writer's writer. Toni Cade Bambara, author of Gorilla, My Love and The Salt-Eaters, herself an impressive crafter of fiction, wrote of Morrison's fourth novel, Tar Baby: "That voice of hers is so sure. She lures you in, locks the door and encloses you in a special, very particular universe—all in the first three pages." Outrage among black writers was so great after Beloved failed to win the National Book Award during the fall of 1987 that forty-eight black writers, among them, June Jordon, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Paule Marshall, John Wideman and Alice Walker signed an open letter in January, published in the New York Times Book Review [28 January 1988], protesting that Morrison had never won that award or the Pulitzer.
Walter Goodman saw this letter as lobbying: "Literary lobbying goes on all the time: the form it takes, perhaps just a friendly telephone call or some cocktail party chitchat, is generally more discreet than a salvo in the Times Book Review, but the intent is the same" ["The Lobbying for Literary Prizes," New York Times, 28 January 1988]. Others, such as one of its signers, novelist John Wideman, whose "Sent for You Yesterday" won a PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, explained that the purpose of the letter was "not to mount a public relations campaign for Toni Morrison, but merely to point out that sometimes the pie doesn't get shared equally" [Kathy Hogan Trockeck, "Black Writers Protest Lack of Recognition for Morrison," Journal, 20 January 1988]. The letter, penned by June Jordan, whatever else it was, was also a letter of respect and admiration acknowledging the power of Morrison's writings:
Your gifts to us have changed and made more gentle our time together. And so we write, here, hoping not to delay, not to arrive, in any way, late with this, our simple tribute to the seismic character and beauty of your writing. And furthermore, in grateful wonder at the advent of Beloved your most recent gift to our community, our country, our conscience, our courage flourishing as it grows, we here record our pride, our respect and our appreciation for the treasury of your findings and invention.
Toni Morrison did win the Pulitzer for Beloved in March of 1988. Although this was a very important literary honor, it was not her first: her third novel, Song of Solomon, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977; her second novel, Sula, is excerpted in a major American literary anthology, Random House's The American Tradition in Literature; and her first novel, The Bluest Eye, is excerpted in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. She is a writer of international status: although there was no winner in 1988, she was one of three contenders for the Ritz Hemingway prize in Paris.
To review Morrison for an important publication is to take risks, the risk that you will be read by people who know her work, that you will be publicly perceived as wrong—wrong because your view is clearly political, or wrong because it is not; wrong because the importance of her issues make artistic assessment difficult, or wrong because her artistic brilliance may make her ideas, her psychological insights, seem more original, more true, than they are. One is afraid of being seduced by rhythmic prose, provocative images, and easy, warm, answers. And yet all types of reviewers take the plunge and respond to a work like Beloved.
In the London Review of Books [15 September 1988], Mary-Kay Wilmers wrote, and correctly so, "… while there have been many great books, there are few great book reviews." One can learn much from them, however, because they are important reflectors of politics and culture and, like books themselves, they help shape the ideas and art of a particular culture's values.
I collected approximately twenty reviews of Beloved, all published before the results of the Pulitzer Prize were announced in March of 1988. Winning such an important award under any conditions does not make the book reviewer's job any easier. There is even more pressure than before to see the novel as Morrison's best. But even before the Pulitzer committee honored the book, assessment was complicated by the novel's subject—the horror of slavery and its fallout—reminding both reviewer and reader not only of the existence of past atrocities, but that these atrocities can never be totally annihilated. Between Morrison's prestige, her race and her subject, Beloved was difficult to evaluate with even a semblance of objectivity.
Some reviewers, such as Charles Larson, writing for the [Chicago Tribune, 30 August 1987], and Helen Dudar for the Wall Street Journal [30 September 1987], seemed to have no difficulty declaring that Beloved was Morrison's masterpiece. Larson found the work as original as anything that had appeared in our literature in the last twenty years and an understandable culmination for Morrison: "Beloved is the context out of which all of Morrison's earlier novels were written. In her darkest and most probing novel, Toni Morrison has demonstrated once again the stunning powers that place her in the first ranks of our living novelists."
But the judgments of reviewers are certainly not written in stone. In an introduction to her own book review on Tar Baby, Barbara Christian in Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers discusses the nature of book reviews, particularly about books written by black authors:
Book reviews are an immediate, succinct response to a writer's work, quite different, it seems to me, from essays in which one has the time and space to analyze their craft and ideas. They are necessary to the creating of a wider, more knowledgable audience for the writer's work—an important responsibility of the critic. Often, however, book reviews of works by Afro-Americans are written as if the reviewer is not aware that an Afro-American intellectual tradition exists, that certain ideas may, at the time, be under critical discussion, or as if the writers had not written anything else.
This was not usually a problem in the reviews of Beloved. Morrison is too famous a novelist for that to occur. The majority of reviews responded to it in context to her previous work and to an Afro-American intellectual tradition. And they assumed that their job was not to convince others to read her. Rosellen Brown when reviewing Beloved for The Nation [17 October 1987] begins her essay making some assumptions in exact opposition to Christian's concerns: "Can we not assume that most people interested in new fiction will want to read Toni Morrison's latest book, drawn to it not by rave reviews but by an understanding that she is a gifted novelist who always has something to say?" Most reviewers did seem to begin with this assumption and to focus their attention not so much on whether the novel deserved to be read, but how it fits into the world of modern American literature, how it connects the past with the future and whether or not it was one of Morrison's best novels. Many reviews were actually review essays, trying to analyze as well as describe the nature of Morrison's writing and ideas. Most would agree with Thomas R. Edward who wrote in the New York Review of Books [5 November 1987], "A novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved makes the reviewer's usual stereotypes of praise and grumbling seem shallow."
In reviewing Beloved, a few critics noted that in this book Morrison is turning the tradition of autobiographies and slave narratives into a complex piece of work which is both historical and mythic. Morrison attempted in this novel to recreate the era of Reconstruction, using the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who actually killed her child in order to prevent the child's capture, but who unlike Sethe, was herself returned to slavery. Unlike nineteenth century slave narratives which avoided horrifying details so as not to discourage middle class abolitionists by overwhelming them, Morrison mentions terrifying events in all their disgusting cruelty and horror. As a writer who understands the power of myth, Morrison skillfully created a novel in which archetypal quests and archetypal errors are presented. Without apology, Morrison weaves her characters' stories from both this world and one inhabited by the dead. Realistic and mythic techniques are intertwined and Morrison does not explain or apologize: the eponymous Beloved, the child slaughtered by her mother with a handsaw, is a restless ghost, self-reflective enough to tell part of her own story. Believing in that ghost, accepting a black folk-world where ghosts exist, is as necessary in Beloved as accepting human flight was in Song of Solomon, and believing in the plague of robins was in Sula.
Reviewers far from agree about Morrison's use of the supernatural in Beloved. Paul Gray, writing for Time [21 September 1987], found it problematic both in conception and language:
The flesh-and-blood presence of Beloved roils the novel's intense, realistic surface. This young woman may not actually be Sethe's reincarnated daughter, but no other explanation of her identity is provided. Her symbolic significance is confusing; she seems to represent both Sethe's guilt and redemption. And Morrison's attempt to make the strange figure come to life strains unsuccessfully toward the rhapsodic.
Rosellen Brown of The Nation, however, found Morrison's methods, her unwillingness to explain the walking dead, a successful ploy allowing an intimacy with her reader that explanations would shatter: "Saints and spirits routinely walk the roads of the black South; to explain would be to acknowledge that outsiders were listening." Anita Snitow of The Village Voice [September 1987] also found the character of Beloved a "drag" on the narrative, and Carol Rumens of Times Literary Supplement [22 October 1987] found the ghost a failure: "The travails of a ghost cannot be made to resonate in quite the same way as those of a living woman or child." But Margaret Atwood, in her New York Times [17 September 1987] book review, found the magical world of Beloved successful. Atwood had no problem with the ghost: "In this book, the other world exists, and magic works, and the prose is up to it. If you can believe page one—and Ms. Morrison's verbal authority compels belief—you're hooked on the rest of the book."
The reviewers also disagreed about the quality of Morrison's realism. While some found her style perfect, others found it cloying. As Rosellen Brown of The Nation noted, Morrison rarely mentioned anything once. But for Brown, this repetition across an "increasingly familiar psychological field" ends in the coherence of the whole deadly scene. For her, the novel is a successful opera: "Beloved brings us into the mind of the haunt as well as the haunted. That is an invitation no other American writer has offered, let alone fulfilled with such bravery and grace."
Stanley Crouch of The New Republic [19 October 1987] refused to be moved by the novel. He found it nothing more than another "blessed are the victims" novel, a tradition in Afro-American literature begun, he asserts, by James Baldwin, but one that is shabby, unrealistic and which should not be emulated. He found her folk material "poorly digested," her feminism "rhetoric," and her use of magic realism "labored." While he acknowledged that she has "real talent," "an ability to organize her novel in a musical structure, deftly using images as motifs," he found that she "perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials." He felt distant from the horrors of slavery as presented in the novel: "In Beloved Morrison only asks that her readers tally up the sins committed against the darker people and feel sorry for them, not experience the horrors of slavery as they do." In summary, Crouch found her work "melodramatic," containing too many attempts at "biblical grandeur," showing no courage to face the ambiguities of the human soul, a sentimental text. He found Morrison "American" in a cheap sense, "as American as P. T. Barnum."
Crouch's review was angry and, it seemed to me, self-protective. While other reviewers found flaws, none found the ideas and sentiments as cheap as he did. Most found the book extremely valuable. Hope Hale Davis of The New Leader [2 November 1987] found the drama ringing inescapably true and Judith Thurman of The New Yorker [2 November 1987] found the novel not only realistic, but originally so in its depiction of the differences between male and female hardship, how women's pride is damaged by the world on an even more intimate level than men's. Thurman found the risks taken by the characters to honor their own autonomy realistic and impressive and the choice they made between the claims of past grief and potential happiness, universal. In essence, Thurman focused on what she learned from the text: that the illusion of autonomy may be more debilitating in the long run and more cruel than a full consciousness of servility. For her Beloved is psychologically realistic. She is hooked: "But if you read Beloved with a vigilant eye, you should also listen to it with a vigilant ear. There's something great in it: a play of human voices, consciously exalted, perversely stressed, yet holding true. It gets you."
Beloved also "gets" Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor of Essence, and reviewer for Ms. Gillespie noted that Morrison succeeded in this novel to give voice to pain by exploring the parameters of maternal love and human understanding. For Gillespie, the characters of this novel "soar off the page into our blood." Gillespie believes Morrison is asking important questions concerning power, love, the cost of living, control, compromise, self-acceptance, individual and cultural progress. And she, like the majority of reviewers, found Morrison "an impressive explorer of the psyche and spirit of a people" [Ms., November 1988 and January 1988].
Charles Johnson, director of creative writing at the University of Washington, believes that this is her best book despite its flaws: "In novelistic terms, there isn't much of a plot, and Toni has a real problem with dramatic scenes … [also] the characters are not given the full, three dimensional development that we might see in other writing." He adds, however: "Nevertheless Beloved is the book that every black cultural nationalist writer has been trying to write for the last 20 years" [Seattle Times, 22 January 1988].
Why such contradictory responses? Why does Thomas R. Edwards of the New York Review of Books find "wisdom" and D. Keith Mano of the National Review [4 December 1987] find that Morrison successfully avoids melodrama by being mistress of what he calls the "theatrical retard" while Stanley Crouch thinks the novel is nothing more than New York glitz and cheap thrills Afro-American style? Perhaps the contradictions reflect the novel's emotional atmosphere—perhaps Beloved simply makes some reviewers extremely uncomfortable, forcing confrontations not usually required by literature. These critics do not want to reflect upon these particular human issues and they are unable to see how exploring these new details from new perspectives permanently expands the tradition of American literature, and allows valuable characters into the world, ones they can see no value in examining. Not every reviewer wants his or her consciousness transformed by these particular insights, and Morrison's prose in this novel is pushy: for me, as for Marsha Jean Darling of Women's Review of Books [March 1988], Beloved seeks to transform the consciousness of the reader through the telling of the tale. Morrison, in an interview with Darling, puts the responsibility back on the reader, an uncomfortable position for some:
They always say that my writing is rich. It's not—what's rich, if there is any richness, is what the reader gets and brings him or herself. That's part of the way in which the tale is told. The folktales are told in such a way that whoever is listening is in it and can shape it and figure it out. It's not over just because it stops. It lingers and it's passed on. It's passed on and somebody else can even alter it later. You can even end it if you want. It has a moment beyond which it doesn't go, but the end is never like in a Western folktale where they all drop dead or live happily ever after.
Perhaps the fact that the novel did not stop for me is what initiated this study. I wanted to, but could not, go further into what Morrison set up as a possible, positive life for Sethe with Paul D. and Denver. For the novel to have integrity, I needed to believe in Sethe's ability to begin a new life and get past her relationship to Beloved and Sweet Home, something it seemed Morrison wanted me to be able to accomplish. At first, because I could not believe in the novel's positive continuation, potentially positive ending, I looked for reasons to defend my disbelief. I was a milder version of Stanley Crouch: the scene in which Sethe was suckled by the nephews annoyed and offended me because the characters were destroyed by it, and at first I preferred to think inappropriately destroyed. Why couldn't Halle or Sethe get over it? Why was this, after so many humiliations, so pivotal? I argued with myself, then a nursing mother, that the nephews couldn't even get the milk—that a nursing woman's body would shut down, but came to realize that this was Morrison's point and that shutting down itself was a privilege, one that Sethe's body was unable to provide because she was too vulnerable. Overwhelming personal humiliation was the point, being treated like a cow and having no alternative but to accept one's treatment was the point, a point I was as unwilling to face because it deeply frightened me, as Crouch was somehow unwilling to face that the holocaust is more than a sentimental symbol of hell, that being a victim is not always a choice.
A fan of Toni Morrison ever since my first reading of Song of Solomon—I read The Bluest Eye and Sula shortly after—my anger, my inability to suspend my disbelief, to be stuck on such a detail, surprised me. I had not felt so personally, so intimately, threatened reading her other four novels.
I had found The Bluest Eye elegantly symbolic, extraordinarily beautiful, unusually musical, the characters very human and the ending appropriate for the novel: while The Bluest Eye ended with sorrow—the marigolds would not grow, Pecola Breedlove was mad, and Cholly was dead, I trusted that Claudia would survive because she was the subject, the actor, the lover, the judge, and even while she narrated that it was "much too late" on the edge of town for anything to grow, one never sensed that this included her. Reading The Bluest Eye, I never questioned the details, or the depth of my response. Where the narrator and characters led, I was able to follow.
Sula also ended with partial destruction, but with enough insight so that I trusted a certain community healing. Nel was the center of this healing because she realized that Sula, the destructive and brilliant artist without the proper art object, was part of her, immortal, and that their bond was indestructable, and beyond measurable value. Nel's final cry of intimacy was a fine cry—loud and long—without top or bottom—a connecting cry from which one could continue. Sula saddened but satisfied me. I believed in Sula, and in the town, and in the robins, and in the art of the novel and the world, and in the future.
Song of Solomon also worked for me. Even when I disliked the characters, I believed in their existence. I had no problems with the magic realism and none with the characters' veritability. The novel, examining magic, history, community and responsibility, may have ended with the possible death of Milkman and Guitar as well as Pilate, but I felt, as the narrator seemed to want me to feel, mostly the resurrection, the possibility of a more whole, spiritual, and worthy future.
Morrison's fourth and most controversial novel, Tar Baby, her tropical novel, too plush, too slick, too mechanical for some, also worked for me, probably because the characters as types have a vitality which separated them from the usual flat characters, much the way Charles Dickens' characters function. When Jadine broke free from Son, I felt relief, because Son belonged to the past and I wanted Jadine, as she herself wanted, to have the future. However flawed civilization was, Jadine needed the physical earth more than myth, and at this point of her life, if one believed the details of the plot, and I did, she really could not have both Son and reality. I was glad when Son joined the horseman, partially to have him safely out of Jadine's way, partially because he was finding his way home, fulfilling what seemed like the only destiny which was his to follow, making peace with his mythical, cultural depth. I was not sure how far Jadine would get in her Parisian world, but I was not without hope. Morrison had not created her as much of a compromiser, but then she also had not forced me to accept that Jadine necessarily would do fine, just that she had been successful in the past and had learned something about herself in her encounter with Son. I trusted Jadine to pull her own weight, more than I trusted the brutalized Sethe to get out of bed and find the energy to create from her experiences a healthy family and a viable future.
My ambivalence toward Beloved, my anger and confusion, surprised me, so I turned to the reviewers. Of course, I knew I would have to return to the text, but I was taking an emotional break. I was comforted when Ann Snitow preferred Sula, but oddly, not satisfied. The reviewers could not and did not solve my problems with Beloved: when others found the ending problematic, it was not for the same reason that I found it so. Perhaps Stanley Crouch, ironically, turned me around. After reading him, I felt compelled to defend Beloved. This novel was not cheap. Morrison, I came to realize, was simply touching new vulnerabilities with a precision so poignant that I was unable to come to terms with its profound impact on me.
As Judith Thurman notes, in Beloved Morrison is exploring the difference between male and female hardship. A woman's pride can be damaged even more than a man's because a woman can be humiliated as a mother: a woman while able to give birth is not necessarily able to see her child through to safety, to spiritual as well as physical viability. Few, not even the generally sensitive Paul D., could comprehend the depth of this damage and the permission it gave Sethe to do outrageous, seemingly inhuman, things such as taking a handsaw to her child to keep it from knowing such humiliation. What I needed to do was acknowledge this vulnerability because I could not imagine surviving it. The ending of Beloved was a beginning, a second chance, named, but not dramatically portrayed, handed to the reader to create, if he or she was able.
Accepting the vulnerability, I was able to accept the possibility of a positive future for Sethe, even for a happy enough family life. After all, Sethe's surviving daughter, Denver, was working, part of the community, independent enough to continue maturing, and Paul D. wanted a life with Sethe and Denver. Although imperfect, he could make the world weep, and open the first steps toward healing. The fact that he used the traditional male excuse for sleeping with Beloved—"I couldn't help it"—did not make him much worse than the average man and his excuse was certainly more impressive. Sethe was weakened, but not alone, and if nurtured might heal, might heal herself, and her support staff, Denver, Paul D. and the remainder of the community, if imperfect, clearly was in place.
As another gesture toward peacemaking with Sethe, I looked her name up in the New English Dictionary. The eighteenth century Indian meaning of Seth is a "leading Hindoo merchant or banker" and its fourteenth century Scottish meaning is "atonement." And of course, Seth is the name of Adam's and Eve's son, the ancestor of Noah and hence of the existing human race: without his survival there is no human history according to the Book of Genesis. A number of Gnostic sects of the second century, according to this same source, held Seth in great veneration, believing that Christ was Seth reborn.
I had at my disposal, after this encounter with the dictionary, some new reasons why it was difficult, but linguistically essential, for me to accept Sethe's future: Sethe is the banker, the subject, the owner, like Claudia, the namer and therefore cannot die if the world is to continue; and she is atonement, the mending and fixing which also accounts for her survival, her second chance; and she is the essential parent whose legacy is the human race itself; and she is Christ, crucified but resurrected. Sethe, Morrison implies, may continue journeying and in choosing her name Morrison shows us that she must. So I, after a good deal of squirming, after studying the reviewers and their complicated responses, made a certain peace with this Pulitzer prize winning novel. My recommendation as a reviewer, as a critic, as a fan of Morrison: read it and grow.
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