“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
America has lost one of its great writers, Toni Morrison. She was 88. Toni Morrison wrote from the viewpoint of an African American, but her work concerns all humans regardless of color. Morrison earned an MA from Cornell University. The title of her thesis was “Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated.” Stylistically, she is their successor. Morrison was the first black editor at Random House, where she promoted the work of black writers and, at 39, published her novel titled “The Bluest Eye” (1970.) Toni Morrison quickly established herself as a major black writer. “Beloved,” based on the story of Margaret Garner who sacrificed her own daughter rather than let the child grow up a slave, won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize. It is Morrison’s masterwork and became a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Morrison’s style uses dialect and lyrical, complex prose, not unlike William Faulkner who also wrote about the curse of slavery. Here is a description of Sethe recalling the tragic dilemma of a slave-mother:
“The last of her children, whom she barely glanced at when he was born because it wasn’t worth the trouble to try to learn features you would never see change into adulthood anyway” (Beloved, p. 146).
William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936) also touched on racism destroying a family, a theme reflected in “Beloved.” In Faulkner’s novel, Henry Sutpen kills his half-brother, Charles Bon, before he marries their sister, Judith, not because of incest but because Charles is one eighth black, an “octaroon” in the terminology of the time. In “Beloved,” after Sethe slays her daughter, the deceased called Beloved comes back as a ghost made flesh to haunt and terrorize the house.
Margaret Atwood wrote that, “‘Beloved’ is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, and another triumph. Indeed, Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ‘Beloved’ will put them to rest.
In three words or less, it’s a hair-raiser.” (Atwood, New York Times, 1987)
When Toni Morison taught creative writing, she had great advice for students: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
Toni Morison was a strong supporter of Barack Obama.
“I felt very powerfully patriotic when I went to the inauguration of Barack Obama,” she told The Guardian, a British paper. “I felt like a kid. The Marines and the flag, which I never look at — all of a sudden it looked … nice. Worthy. It only lasted a couple of hours. But I was amazed, that music that I really don’t like — ‘God Bless America’ is a dumb song; I mean it’s not beautiful. But I really felt that, for that little moment.”
President Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Medal of Freedom in 2012. Not surprising, Morrison had critical words regarding the election of Donald Trump. For the New Yorker, Morrison wrote “Making America White Again.” Here are excerpts:
“So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.
“On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters — both the poorly educated and the well-educated — embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.” (Morrison, New Yorker, 2016)
To some, these words may seem unfair or unpatriotic, but considering the recent mass shootings of Latinos in El Paso and President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, one can understand Morrison’s point and why activists protested his visit to El Paso.
Ultimately, it is the work of Toni Morrison — “Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved” and “Paradise” (about black racists) — that will endure as the fiction of Melville, Faulkner and Twain has endured.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.