Nearly twenty-five years ago, the literary critic Irving Howe and the novelist Ralph Ellison engaged in a heated debate on the options of the black writer in America. In an article that appeared in Dissent in 1963, Howe suggested that, given the nature of the Negro experience in this country, black writers would find themselves inescapably drawn in their work to the expression of “plight and protest.” “How could a Negro put pen to paper, how could he so much as think or breathe, without some impulsion to protest. . . ?”
In Howe’s judgment, the work of James Baldwin provided an instructive negative instance of the rule. Baldwin’s hopeful aesthetic intention was to present (in Howe’s words) “the Negro world in its diversity and richness . . . as a living culture of men and women who, even when deprived, share in the emotions and desires of common humanity.” But although there was something to be said for self-consciously going against the grain of social protest set by such classic works as Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin had failed in his own purposes as a writer. Even Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man, which “astonishes” with “the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country,” faltered when it came to “the sudden, unprepared, and implausible assertion of unconditioned freedom with which the novel ends,” when the black hero abandons politics and asserts that “my world has become one of infinite possibilities.” As Howe put it, “The unfortunate fact remains that to define one’s individuality is to stumble upon social barriers which stand in the way, all too much in the way, of ‘infinite possibilities.’”
Ellison’s reply was published in the New Leader later that year, and a subsequent issue of the same magazine offered Howe’s response with yet another rejoinder by Ellison. To Ellison, the possibilities of “personal realization,” both for the Negro and for the Negro writer, were greater than Howe had allowed. For one thing, Howe “seems never to have considered that American Negro life . . . is, for the Negro who must live it, not only a burden (and not always that) but also a discipline—just as any human life which has endured so long is a discipline teaching its own insights into the human condition, its own strategies of survival.”
Moreover, Ellison observed, there is “an American Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s own anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.”
Finally, said Ellison, for the writer, “no matter how strictly Negroes are segregated socially and politically, on the level of the imagination their ability to achieve freedom is limited only to their individual aspiration, insight, energy, and will.” As for “the question of how the ‘sociology of his existence’ presses upon a Negro writer’s work,” that “depends upon how much of his life the individual is able to transform into art.”
To Howe’s direct response (“In what ways can a Negro writer—indeed, any Negro—achieve ‘personal realization’ as long as the American Negroes remain oppressed? To what extent can he achieve ‘personal realization’ apart from the common effort of his people to win their full freedom?”), Ellison suggested that Howe “ask himself in what way shall a Negro writer achieve personal realization (as a writer) after his people shall have won their full freedom? The answer appears to be the same in both instances: He will have to go it alone! He must suffer alone even as he shares the suffering of his group.”
It may seem at first glance that the black-power movement of the late 60’s and 70’s settled the question as to which type of black literary expression would gain ascendancy, and settled it in favor of “plight and protest.” But the fact is that the debate continues, perhaps not so much among black writers as within each of them. Howe ended his original essay by noting that “One generation passes its dilemmas on to the next, black boys on to native sons.” A decade or so later, he might have added, “and on to native daughters.” In certain crucial ways, the terms and implications of the Howe/Ellison standoff—the tension between protest and transcendence, between suffering and strength, between determinism and personal will, between collective and individual identity—inform and structure the work of the much celebrated black woman novelist, Toni Morrison, whose latest book, Beloved,1 is now high on the best-seller lists.
Toni morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, the second of four children, in Lorain, a small northern Ohio town. Her grandfather, a boy at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, was “an unreconstructed black pessimist,” as Miss Morrison has told it, who “was . . . convinced that there was no hope whatever for black people in this country.” By contrast, his wife “believed that all things could be improved by faith in Jesus and an effort of the will.” These contrasting attitudes persisted with Miss Morrison’s parents. Both “assumed that black people were the humans of the globe” but “differed about whether the moral fiber of white people would ever improve.” (Her father felt no, her mother yes.) Thus, Miss Morrison admits, “I grew up in a basically racist household with more than a child’s share of contempt for white people,” and she has asserted on at least one occasion that “my hatred of white people is justified and their hatred for me is not.”
Miss Morrison speaks eloquently of the “resistance, excellence, and integrity that were so much a part of our past,” and in doing so she is clearly speaking from the treasured experience of her own childhood. Her father was a skilled shipyard welder who held three jobs simultaneously for seventeen years, her mother a spirited woman who dealt honorably with bill collectors and once wrote President Roosevelt to obtain better-quality food during a period when the family had to go on relief. (She got it.) Miss Morrison was the only black child in her first-grade class and the only one who could read. In adolescence, she devoured the great Russian novelists, Madame Bovary, Jane Austen, and was to say of them years later: “Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway—they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity . . . when I wrote my first novel years later I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in.”
After graduating with honors from high school, Miss Morrison attended Howard University, where she changed her name to Toni, and met LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Andrew Young. She then took her M.A. at Cornell, where she wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. When she returned to Howard as an instructor in 1957, she numbered among her students Stokely Carmichael and Claude Brown, the latter of whom asked her to read the 800-page manuscript that was to become Manchild in the Promised Land. During her years at Howard she also married Howard Morrison, a Jamaican architect; the marriage ended before the birth of her second son. She began working as an editor for Random House, first in textbooks in Syracuse, then in trade in New York City, where she published many black, mostly female, writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayle Jones, as well as the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. She also edited The Black Book, a scrapbook of 300 years of black American life.
After the dissolution of her marriage, Miss Morrison began to write seriously, and in 1970 published her novel, The Bluest Eye, to respectful reviews. Her second novel, Sula, appeared in 1973 and gained her national recognition. Song of Solomon, 1977, was received with wild enthusiasm, became a best-seller, and entered its author in the lists of noted contemporary novelists; it was the first black novel since Richard Wright’s Native Son to become a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and also won the National Book Critics Circle Award. A fourth novel, the best-selling Tar Baby, was published in 1981, and landed its author on the cover of Newsweek; it was followed by this season’s Beloved. Miss Morrison has also written a play, Dreaming Emmett.
Miss Morrison calls her novels “village literature,” “peasant literature,” and they do indeed portray an exotic, fantastical world, derived from her childhood, in which even the everyday black life of ordinary Midwestern towns comes alive in folklore, magic, superstition, fable, poetry, song, and myth; in odd, quirky characters colorfully nicknamed or named from the Bible; in vibrant, flavorful, and frequently humorous dialogue and bizarre, extraordinarily conceived situations; and in Miss Morrison’s clear, seamless language.
In classic plight-and-protest style, Miss Morrison’s novels do also present the “trauma” (in Howe’s word) of black life, with blacks as much the victims of black cruelty as of white, and by no means always in the male-upon-female pattern that has been much noted of late. To be sure, the trauma is implicitly or explicitly set within the oppression of a racist society, but the picture that emerges of black life is nevertheless frequently “harrowing” (as Diane Johnson has observed).
The Bluest Eye attempts to show the terrible consequences for blacks of internalizing the values of a white culture that both directly and indirectly rejects them. The novel is set in the years just before World War II in Lorain, Ohio. Eleven-year-old Pecola is a poor ugly black girl who prays to have blue eyes in the poignant, wistful hope that this will bring her the love she longs for and also somehow alleviate the multiple miseries of her hate-filled, quarrelsome, violent family, ironically named Breedlove. Pecola becomes the victim of one after another in a chain of black people in this book, including her own mother and father, who have been twisted and perverted by the false, empty, and often vicious standards of the white world. (The “humiliations, defeats, and emasculations” of her father are described in one long, almost expressionistic sequence that culminates in his rape of Pecola, an act described as a manifestation both of hatred and of a love horribly distorted by inchoate wretchedness.)
Much of the novel is narrated by another black child, Claudia MacTeer, whose family is poor, harried, and struggling, but basically stable and loving. The voice of this sassy, bright black girl renders the texture and details of her existence with curiosity, freshness, astringency, and humor. But at the end of the novel, a more mature Claudia indicts the entire black community for its part in Pecola’s degradation, for failing to love her and instead despising her for her extreme poverty and ugliness.
The strengths of The Bluest Eye—purity of language, economy of structure, strong narrative voice, and a sensitive yet surgical delineation of some of the miseries of black life—in some measure compensate for many of its weaknesses, which include an insistence on an ethic of total victimization and a sometimes relentless pathos. But the virtues cannot overcome the flaws in the novel’s vision. Miss Morrison crudely manipulates the assignment of judgment and blame in this book, refusing to transcend black and white as categories of good and evil. The icy scorn she levels at the black middle class, especially exemplified in a certain type of black woman who destroys her natural “funkiness” in the interest of “thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners,” is itself but a variant of her scorn for the white world, whence such falsely “good” values supposedly derive. Instead of exploring the universal theme which she herself has set into play—the fatal and terrifying lapses of love in the human heart—Miss Morrison sticks doggedly to her shallow dichotomies.
The Bluest Eye is hardly the only place where Miss Morrison has registered her objection to the “push toward middle-class respectability” in which blacks have “abandoned the past and a lot of the truth and sustenance that went with it.” To be sure, such sentiments often go hand-in-hand with complaints of a different nature against the black-is-beautiful idea—which is to say that Miss Morrison’s feelings on this matter are somewhat complicated, if not downright contradictory. There is, for example, a strain in her thought which seems not only not to condemn but even to endorse certain pathological elements in black life, in an echo, ironic to say the least, of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro.”
Thus, remarking on the “tremendous possibility for masculinity among black men,” Miss Morrison concedes that “They may end up in sort of 20th-century, contemporary terms being also unemployed. They may be in prison.” But, she insists, “they are adventuresome.” Of what is “described as a major failing of black men—they do not stay home and take care of their children”—she observes that “that has always been to me one of the most attractive features about black male life . . . the fact that they would split in a minute just delights me. It’s part of that whole business of breaking ground.” And in general, she observes:
This special lack of restraint, which is a part of human life and is best typified in certain black males, is of particular interest to me. It’s in black men despite the reasons society says they’re not supposed to have it. Everybody knows who “that man” is, and they may give him bad names and call him a “street nigger”; but when you take away the vocabulary of denigration, what you have is somebody who is fearless and who is comfortable with that fearlessness. It’s not about meanness. It’s a kind of self-flagellant resistance to certain kinds of control, which is fascinating. Opposed to accepted notions of progress, the lock-step life, they live in the world unreconstructed and that’s it.
An ingrained repugnance for the “lock-step” life and a steady if formless fascination with the “unreconstructed” are a frequent motif in Miss Morrison’s work, and they inform the structure of her second novel, Sula. Here she traces the lives and families of two black women, from their close childhood friendship to their estranged maturity.
Nel Wright is the offspring of a black woman who has ironed out all the wildness of her nature and of her part-Creole background in order to achieve a tight, starched refinement. Sula Peace comes from a “woolly house” of many rooms in which the restraints of the civilized world are very thin. Sula’s grandmother, Eva, abandoned with three small children years before by her young husband, is an ambiguous figure who is shown to be capable of devotion but who sets her grown son Plum afire in his bed rather than witness his drug-induced deterioration. Eva’s daughter and Sula’s mother, Hannah, is a beautiful, sensuous widow who keeps a steady sequence of lovers, “mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors.” Sula’s own life is cut loose from any moorings when she overhears her mother’s remark to friends that she loves her daughter but does not like her, and when she herself carelessly but unintentionally causes the drowning of a local boy. “The first experience taught her that there was no other that you could count on; the second that there was no self to count on either.”
Nel takes the traditional route of marriage and family while Sula goes on to college, travel, sex, and a quest “to make myself.” When she returns to town years later she puts her grandmother Eva in a wretched old folks’ home, indulges in casual promiscuity, and offhandedly seduces and discards Jude, Nel’s husband, thereby wrecking the marriage. Sula begins to feel the pull of possessive love herself when she falls for the smooth, sexy Ajax, but he departs the moment he detects the “scent of the nest.” Nel never remarries but lives a dry, lonely, duty-filled existence until, years later and long after Sula’s death at the age of thirty, she realizes that her unhappiness stems from missing not Jude, with whom she had a relationship of mutual dependency, but Sula, who alone aroused in her the “sparkle or splutter” of her nature, the richer, deeper potential of her unfulfilled character.
Some critics have balked at the sensational level of physical and emotional violence in Sula, but what is really disturbing is the author’s determination to take no clear stand on the appalling actions she depicts. Sula turns into a parody of Wuthering Heights, especially of its ultra-intense Latinate rendition in the film version by Luis Buñuel. Both works oppose the tamed complacencies of civilization to the raw, fanged passions of nature, but Sula never achieves the genuine resolution of Wuthering Heights. It would seem that Miss Morrison wants things both ways: although we have in Sula some of the trappings of a feminist novel—a matriarchy of women alone, two young black girls who have to face life in the realization that they are “neither white nor male,” a sketch of Sula as a frustrated artist, a deliberate effort to portray female friendship—in Sula’s doomed search for unconditioned freedom the novel also appears to criticize feminist doctrine. Similarly, when Ajax leaves Sula, there is a perceptible feeling of sadness at the failure of love, one of Miss Morrison’s usual themes, and yet also a kind of endorsement of his right to roam and remain unattached.
Miss Morrison attempts to resolve the tensions in her novel with what amounts to an aesthetic evasion. Her horrendous portrait of people cutting and bruising and burning each other and themselves in fits and flails of wild, thoughtless willfulness ends with Nel’s sudden belated awareness of her love for Sula. But even if a proper union of their differing temperaments could have occurred, how would that heal, dispel, balance, offset, or even make comprehensible the frightening picture of black life that Miss Morrison has presented? The moral issues the novel raises are left hanging, not so much unanswered as answered in a number of self-canceling or mutually canceling ways.
In Song of Solomon, Miss Morrison at last permits herself to work her material through, and the novel, although more diffuse than the tightly crafted Sula, is more satisfying. Macon Dead II is the richest black man in his Michigan town (“Own things,” is his motto), but so empty is life in his company that his wife gains her pleasure by nursing their youngest child Macon III until he is four years old, thus earning him the nickname Milkman. Macon II has a sister, Pilate, poor but independent, uneducated but wise in the deep things of life, in touch with all that her brother has left behind of their strange, sad, eventful childhood. In her dark, pleasantly odorous, and cluttered shack, where she lives with her daughter Reba and granddaughter Hagar, Milkman begins to discover the richer and more remote dimensions of black life that his father has drained from their home.
Increasingly dissatisfied with his soft, limited life and his dependency on his father (who, as bad as he is, is nevertheless portrayed with a degree of sympathy), Milkman decides to set out on a search through the South for a purported bag of gold that is connected to his father’s and Pilate’s childhood, and which he hopes will make him more independent. He soon realizes that he is really on a search for his family history, which is a far greater treasure, full of strength and joy as well as suffering and pain. This quest in turn becomes a spiritual journey of great energy, depth, and exhilaration as Milkman learns for the first time of the underlying coherence of life, the capacities and contingencies of human existence.
As in classical quest myths, Milkman’s journey requires him to face danger and loss and hardship and progressively to shed the trappings of his former life. He must learn to know and respect a wide assortment of black people, including many he would once have arrogantly overlooked. Through various depredations, he comes to empathize with his mother, his neglected sisters, and his cousin Hagar whom he had carelessly discarded after a twelve-year affair.
In a sense Milkman is like Sula, unable at first to understand or to trust the fitful patterns of love and hate, involvement and abandonment that seem to inform human relationships; but unlike Sula he is allowed to work beyond this, as what he learns of his past gradually illumines and orders his present. Milkman’s ability to see imaginatively into other people’s lives grows greater and greater as his self-regard dissolves. When his aunt Pilate murmurs her last words—“I wish I’d a knowed more people, I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more”—he is able to comprehend at last the nature of such a generous, unconditional love and to be moved by it to the threshold of genuine attachment himself.
Song of Solomon has its flaws—some sections remain flat, and there is some undigested protest—but the line of Milkman’s journey is quite pure. To this point in her career Miss Morrison had not shown much real interest in the spiritual dimension that the Bible has brought to black life, beyond using its bountiful, sonorous names for her characters, or beyond the occasional indictment of Christian values for stunting and distorting lives. And Song of Solomon, despite its biblical title, is itself constructed not as a Christian tale but out of the folklore of slavery. Still, at the end of the hero’s quest he has clearly learned that he who loses his life shall save it—or as Milkman puts it, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
In her next work, Tar Baby, a racist novel designed to show the natural superiority of blacks, Miss Morrison, as if running from the expansive implications of Song of Solomon, returns to all her crabby grievances with a vengeance. Worse, since Tar Baby is the only one of her novels largely set in the present, it is deprived of the narrative energy that is released in her when she is dealing with the more exotic black characters and environments of previous decades.
Set in a splendid house on an isolated Caribbean island, Tar Baby has the trappings of those erotically charged women’s novels in which frigid, raven-haired beauties are surprised in their bedrooms by dark sensual men who pin their wrists together and startle them into a troubled awareness of their unsatisfied longings. In fact, the frigid raven-haired heroine of Tar Baby, appropriately named Jadine, is surprised in her bedroom by a sensual black man who pins her wrists together and startles her into a troubled awareness of her unsatisfied longings. This embarrassing book is hardly worth discussing save to note that it asserts once again the need for blacks to keep themselves unspotted from the white world and leaves its hero, Son, with the choice of chasing after the irredeemably white-tainted Jadine or of returning to his primitive black past, even more amorphously presented here than ever before in Miss Morrison’s novels.
Now, in her latest novel, Beloved, Miss Morrison turns back to the history of slavery. Set near Cincinnati around 1873, Beloved chronicles the fortunes of Sethe, once a slave on the Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky. Sethe and her husband had belonged to a “good” master—one who treated his property well—but on the pattern of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they had come at their master’s death under the charge of a singularly cruel man known only as schoolteacher [sic].
Because of gross mistreatment, a number of the Sweet Home slaves plan to escape. Sethe sends her three children ahead, then gets through herself after great hardship. A child is born to her en route with the assistance of a poor white girl after whom the baby is named, Denver. Sethe’s husband Halle fails to join her; later she discovers that, shortly before he was to leave, his spirit had been broken when he secretly witnessed her being forced by schoolteacher to give her milk to grown white boys. Sethe attempts to make a life for herself with her husband’s mother, Baby Suggs, a strong, bighearted woman who becomes an “unchurched preacher,” telling her fellow blacks that they must learn to love themselves in a world where no one else does. But finally Baby Suggs’s sorrows overcome her; she announces one day that “there was no bad luck in the world but white-folks,” takes to her bed, and begins slowly to die.
Suspended in her own grief, Sethe stays on in the house with Denver, a withdrawn and lonely child. The house is haunted by the ghost of “Beloved,” a baby daughter Sethe had killed one month into freedom in the mistaken belief that she and her children were all about to be dragged back into slavery. When another former Sweet Home slave by the name of Paul D arrives, gets rid of the ghost, and begins to take up life with Sethe and Denver, Sethe almost lets herself believe that happiness is possible. But then the ghost returns in the flesh as a young woman at the age she would have been had the baby lived. The reunion with Beloved is at first joyous, but soon she turns malevolent, destroying whatever life Sethe and Denver have made, and contributing to Paul D’s departure. Finally Denver seeks help, the now-pregnant Beloved is finally exorcised by a group of neighborhood women, Denver begins life anew, and Paul D returns to Sethe in a spirit of love and acceptance.
There are many compelling elements in Beloved, including the delineation of the psychological and emotional effects of being owned—of having no sense of self, of fearing to trust or to love when anything can be taken away at any time. The portrayal of the very limited consciousness of the slaves and ex-slaves, and of their painful slow growth toward damaged self-awareness, is also effective, although sometimes the halt and hesitant nature of their thoughts makes the novel almost catatonic. A couple of scenes in which Sethe begins to feel the rush of life are well and affectingly done.
But the book grows massive and heavy with cumulative and oft-repeated miseries, with new miseries and new dimensions of miseries added in each telling and retelling long after the point has been made and the reader has grown numb. The graphic descriptions of physical humiliation begin to grow sensationalistic, and the gradual unfolding of secret horror has an unmistakably Gothic dimension which soon comes to seem merely lurid, designed to arouse and entertain.
Still, while far from successful as a work of art, Beloved is fascinating to view in the progression of Toni Morrison’s work, in which a tropism for simplistic plight-and-protest has done fitful battle with the more capacious demands of a functioning moral imagination. True, Miss Morrison does not display a really sure hand in her treatment of the moral dimensions of Sethe’s initial act of child murder, yet unlike the almost offhand treatment of similar crimes in Sula, she does make the deed stand as a matter of great gravity and consequence. Sethe is defiant about what she has done, but then later on she must undergo the trial of Beloved’s return and vengeance, must suffer the torment involved in confronting and overcoming the past, before she can be free to live. Interesting too is the way in which Beloved can almost be read as Miss Morrison’s own effort to exorcise the burden of history, to be free in her work of what Howe called the “defining and crippling” violence that has been the subject of the black protest novel.
But Miss Morrison seems simply unsure how much she wants the past, which means both the immediate past and the historical past, to weigh in the lives and behavior of her characters. She cannot quite accept the standard of freedom held out by Ralph Ellison but neither is she satisfied with the determinism of a Richard Wright. And while she is caught between these two stools, the fantastical, sensational elements in her work often come to look like artistic evasions.
Irving Howe wrote in his response to Ellison that James Baldwin “did score a major point: the posture of militancy, no matter how great the need for it, exacts a heavy price from the writer. . . . All one can ask, by way of reply, is whether the refusal of struggle may not exact a still greater price.” But the shape of Toni Morrison’s work suggests that the passage of two eventful decades may have reversed the terms of this formulation. Letting go of protest and militancy exacts a price, but the price of holding on to them may be greater still.
1 Knopf, 275 pp., $18.95.