By Marc Conner
Conner is provost at Washington & Lee University and Ballengee Professor of English Among his books is “The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable.”
Toni Morrison once famously remarked, “I am not like James Joyce; I am not like Thomas Hardy; I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense. My effort is to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed in music.” It was an acute self-observation, not just in its truth—American literature has never seen a writer like Toni Morrison—but also in its assertion that Morrison was carving out a space for the black female writer that heretofore had not existed in American culture. There were important predecessors, to be sure — one thinks of Zora Neale Hurston, most obviously. But Morrison was not just seeking to give expression to the African-American female voice. She was also trying to define an audience that had not yet existed, the audience of African-American women whose voice she spoke and whose experience she chronicled. As she remarked of her first novel, “The Bluest Eye” (1970), she was trying to tell a story that she could not find anywhere else, the story of being a black girl growing up in mid-century America. Morrison wrote that first book to create the story that she knew was being lived by her peers, but was not being written.
Her literary career is remarkable. She wrote her early novels while working full-time as an editor at Random House and raising two sons on her own. Doing any one of those things is very difficult; doing all three, at once, is a testament to her abilities and her determined work ethic. As an editor, she shepherded the work of a whole generation of African-American writers, and helped bring crucial works to an American reading public, such as “The Black Book,” a remarkable compendium of African-American history and culture that she brought out in 1974. While working on that project, she came across the incredible story of a runaway slave who killed her own baby rather than allow her to be taken back into slavery. From this story, Morrison created “Beloved,” her landmark 1987 novel and without question one of the signal achievements in all of American literature.
She developed the idea over time of writing novels that focus on the different, essential aspects of African-American history and experience. “Tar Baby” (1981) treated the African diaspora in the Caribbean; “Jazz” (1990) was set in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920s; “Paradise” (1998 — perhaps her most complex novel) treated the all-black Oklahoma towns of the mid-twentieth century; the heartbreaking “A Mercy” (2008) focused on the late 17th century in pre-colonial America, going back to the time before race was institutionalized in the system of chattel slavery and seeking the causes of that fateful direction in American history. In all her 11 novels, Morrison used a highly poeticized, metaphorical, rhythmic language that delighted in its own artistry as well as in its penetrating evocation of time and place.
Her great theme was always love. “Actually,” she once stated, “all the time that I write, I’m writing about love or its absence.” But her engagement with love was never easily romantic or even positive. Mothers in Morrison’s work murder their children; lovers shoot their beloved; fathers brutalize their sons. Love cuts like a knife in Morrison’s work, and she was always fascinated by the elusiveness of love, the pain of love, and our all-too-human insistence on pursuing this thing we call love. She said of her work that she was fascinated with “how to survive — not how to make a living — but how to survive whole in a world where we are all of us, in some measure, victims of something. Each one of us is in some way at some moment a victim and in no position to do a thing about it. In a world like that, how does one remain whole — is it just impossible to do that?”
Morrison’s importance especially to African-American women has been immeasurable. But it is a great mistake to limit her relevance and importance to any one group. Morrison was without question a universal writer, her own insistence on her very local allegiances notwithstanding. For thirty years I have read, written about, and taught her work to my students, and her writing has profoundly affected how I think, relate, and conceive of what Fitzgerald called “the dark fields of the republic.” My own condition as a white male did not diminish my affection for her work, though it certainly tasked me with doing the hard work of understanding, as best I could, the world she evokes in that writing. And I have greatly treasured sharing that work with generations of students for whom Morrison is one of the great, inspiring authors of our literature.
When President Obama recognized Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, he praised the “moral intensity” of her work. It is indeed troubling that she passes away in an era when America’s moral intensity has never been more in need. I am comforted by the great books she has left to continue to guide us in our tragi-comic American journey. But without question, we have lost a great writer of rigorous moral vision, one who has held America accountable for its sins and tried to help us see beyond the ghosts that haunt the American experiment.