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In the last decade, the works of black American novelists of the "second renaissance" such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have become widely appreciated. The critics and readers' attention nowadays makes it difficult to believe that, their first works were received with "intense hostility".
These American women novelists tried to bring along something new, to develop a new type of novel that encompasses the historical memories, the hopes and ideals of black women. In their attempt, they had to confront two major problems: the racial prejudice and a male-centered society. As the black men, novelists wrote about the former, it was their duty to analyze all the aspects of the latter.
As a black writer or editor, they had to deal with two major burdens: that of discrimination and that of exclusion. That is why they were always in a continuous search: they sought to bring something new to their novels, something different from what already was. That was the only way to have their works promoted and sold.
Toni Morrison is one of the African-American writers that fought and raised the main issues affecting the Black women. For example she sustained than women should not have to chose between working and nurture because they have always done both.
She understood all this aspects of being a Black woman because she also dealt with the common experience of living in a society that denigrates the women of African origin. Her writings show her own theoretical interpretation of the reality she lived.
Interestingly enough is the fact that she did not intend to become a writer. She started to write during a period when she was stressed, "driven by loneliness," she thinks.
"I have never planned to be a writer. I was in a place where there was nobody I could talk
to and have real conversations with. And I think I was also very unhappy. So, I wrote
then for that reason. And then, after I had published, it was sort of the compulsive thing
because it was a way of knowing, a way of thinking that I found really necessary.
" (Conversations with Toni Morrison p.30)
It was in the '60 when she started writing fiction. She joined to an unofficial group of poets and writers who organized monthly meetings for discussing their works. Once, she came with a story about a black girl who wanted blue eyes. Later, this story evolved in her first novel The Bluest Eye published in 1970.She describes a black girl's painful growing in a white society.
This novel was a whole experience for her. Before writing it, she felt that she had done anything in his world, and life had passed by her. Nevertheless, as far as her characters were getting live, she realized the greatness of the creative act, "I was everybody and I felt in love with myself. I reclaimed myself and the world". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.1). She kept on writing due to her personal motivation, having as a guide those feelings.
Her second novel Sula published in 1973 brought Morrison national recognition. It is a novel about the friendship between two women. Two years later Sula, nominated to the National Book Award in Fiction.
The next book was The Song of Solomon. This novel brought her the status of an outstanding writer. It is her first novel with a male hero. This book received a great attention and brought Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Even in New York Times Book Review was on the front page. It was the first book written by an African-American chosen, the Book of-the-Month Club, since Richard Wright's Native Son.
In 1981, she published Tar Baby. This book focuses on white people, as central actors. She also spoke about the unique roles that African women played, as a tar- holy element. She considered them to be the "ship and the safe harbor" in the voyage of life.
Six years later, in 1987 it was published Beloved, the book that in 1988 brought her two important prizes; Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Robert F. Kennedy Award. The book presents the story of a runaway slave who prefers to cut her daughter's throat rather than see her growing up in slavery. In 2006, the survey made by New York Times designed Beloved as one of the best American Fiction work of the previous twenty-five years.
In 1992 Jazz, "a truly brilliant post-modern book" published. It is about a couple from the South that is living in Harlem. This book was partly inspired by the stories that her parents told her about the 1920s.
In 1993, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, being the first black woman who received this award. It was "a great day for African-Americans and Americans in general .Just two centuries ago, the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer won the Nobel Prize.," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard University and the co-editor of a collection of essays on Morrison's work. He also added, "She's as great and as innovative as Faulkner and Garcia Marquez and Woolf. That's why she deserved the Nobel Prize" (Toni Morrison Is '93 Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature William Grimes, New York Times).
Although she wrote in the '70 and '80, the influence of these modern writers is noticeable, especially in her style, "modern works with experimental form". The feature that makes them unique, but what unites them is the fact they are all "Morrisonian".
Her last two novels published in 1998 Paradise and in 2003 Love. She also wrote a short story Recitatif published in 1938 in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women and a drama Dreaming Emmett.
Meanwhile she wrote literary and social criticism Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, The Nobel Lecture in Literature, The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Finally, as an editor, she edited Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essay on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and the Construction of Social Reality.
These two literary criticism works Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature illustrate Morrison's significant contribution to the debate of the American Literature's canon.
There were voices, which suggested reading her novels in a chronological order corresponding to certain periods in history. This suggestion was mainly because she was an author who wrote about the black history: the rural slave-holding South, the Great Migration to the North, post-World War I and the Harlem Renaissance, The Great Depression, World War II, The Civil Rights period, The Vietnam War and the "Age of Greed", which was an evident return to the "scientific racism".
Toni Morrison, a well-known author, for her writings about gender and race issues in a unique way. She was interested, as she declared, in the men's education, in the relations between women, in the balance that existed between political and personal forces, about people that were able to survive in certain situations and those who cannot, and in many other universal issues related to African-Americans. However, "The search for love and identity runs through most everything I write". Love is also a recurring theme found in all her works: "I'm writing about love or its absence," Morrison said. " (Conversations with Toni Morrison p. 278).
There is no doubt that Toni Morrison is a major twentieth century, African-American writer. She was also a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and an active member of the National Council on the Arts. Beside this, she was also teaching, lecturing nationally and internationally, and a single mother with two sons. When asked how she managed to do all things she answered, "Well, I really do only two things. It only looks like many things. All of my work has to do with books. I teach books, write books, edit books or talk about books. And the other thing that I do is to raise my children which, as you know, I can do only one minute at a time".
Unlike other writers, she labels herself as a "black woman writer", "I have decided to define that rather than having it be defined for me" (New York Times p. 3).Her background, as a black woman had a major influence upon her work.
Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio on her real name Chloe Anthony Wofford. She was the second of four children and the first woman, in her family, who attended college. Her father became a racist because of the racist atrocities that he had suffered during his years in Georgia, his homeland. He believed that he had sufficient reasons to hate the white people. Different from her father's view, was her mother's, who was much more optimistic. She believed that changes make only by faith and individual effort.
Similar to her parents were her grandparents, they came to Lorain with the hope for a better life. It was the period of the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, they saw with their own eyes their aspirations, hopes destroyed. They lost their land and her grandfather forced to become a sharecropper. Although, her grandmother continued to believe that only religious and personal faith could lead to progress. Both her parents and grandparents agreed with the fact that education, based on "strong sense of value and personal worth" lead to a better life. Furthermore, this view, they passed to Morrison. She remembered that her family was racist and advised her not to trust white people.
She was also very much influenced by the powerful characters of her parents, but mostly by her grandmother."They could always do something about a difficult situation. They never tucked tail. I felt much endowed by their tenacity. My father always took it for granted that I can do anything, and my mother and grandmother never entertained fragility or vulnerability" (Conversations with Toni Morrison p. 267). Although her models were her grandmother and her mother, she reminded being "utterly devoted "to her father. He is the person who gave her one of the most valuable ingredients of success: self-confidence.
Folk music was one of the elements that defined her family. Her mother enjoyed singing and her grandfather played very well the violin. They were also interested in folk rituals, superstitions and lore, as an important part of their lives. Her grandmother kept a book dream. Her parents used to tell them stories, mostly about ghosts. They were truly gifted storytellers, who made their children understand the importance of family history and that of black people language. All these elements were a source of inspiration for her future novels.
As a little child, she was encouraged to read. Therefore, when she entered the first grade she was the only child who was able to read. She continued to be an ambitious and studious student. By the time, she graduated Lorain High School with honors, she had already read Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen and the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century.
In 1953, The Howard University in Washington gave her a Bachelor degree and in 1955, she received a master degree in English from Cornell University. Here she wrote her thesis treating from her perspective the theme of suicide in William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf works'.
After she left Cornell, she started teaching English at Texas Southern University in Houston and Howard. From her experience as a teacher, she pointed out the importance that universities should have in shaping their students' future. She offered us her personal example leaving a deep imprint not only on her students but also on three "young luminaries": Stokeley Carmichael, Houston Baker, and Claude Brown. Then, she married a Jamaican architect Harold Morrison and she had two children: Harold and Slade. In 1964, they divorced.
Furthermore, she worked as a textbook editor for the subsidiary of the Random House in Syracuse. In 1967, she worked as a trade-book editor at Random House in New York City. During the time she worked, she also taught at the State University College at Purchase, New York, and at the State University at Albany. Her career was in a continuous evolution and in 1987, named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Council at Princeton.
Her previous experience at Random House helped her understand how people received fiction. She was also aware of the strong connection between the intimate life and the act of writing, "Writing is about danger for me: it's like life- you can go under". " (Toni Morrison, The Essential Guide p.6). Nevertheless, she was ready to take risks, as she did with her first novel.
After publishing her first novel "writing became a way to be coherent in the world" (Conversations with Toni Morrison p 119).She continued writing as she called it "village literature, fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe. Peasant literature for my people, which is necessary and legitimate but which also, allows me to get in touch with all sorts of people". (Conversations with Toni Morrison p 120).
Toni Morrison's work was often compared with that of William Faulkner's, due to the fact, they both use the "oral quality". Another common feature is the fact they specialize in what Morrison called "village literature", which focuses on a particular person and her/his isolated place. Her attention drew on black people who lived in their communities. These were the people from her hometown. This not made her fiction autobiographical. She used her memories only as a starting point. Then, she frees her imagination, in order to create communities that reflect the essential experience of her "tribe".
It is remarkable how she succeeded to create the "specificity of place" for such communities. In an interview, she explained that she supposed that this "strong sense of place", might be a knack that women naturally have it, because they usually link to a house or a particular place. More important for her is to visualize in both the metaphorical and specific way the place. As she suggested sometimes she could not continue writing, even she was sure on the action and dialogue. She needed an impulse "the scene, the metaphor to begin with. Once I can see the scene all happens". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.12).
These scenes are detailed; not only the colors and numbers of the houses are presented, but also "the finest shades and shadows" of our day to day live. Clear enough is the fact that she observed all her characters attentively. Each character was a complex individual and different from the others. Her characters, created in such a way that the reader can realize how the community where they live perceives them and how they see things, directly through their own eyes.
In order to do this, she does not identify with them, but she prefers to use the same procedure as actors do: this helps her to imagine how her characters would express or what their main concern is. Anyway she draws attention on the fact that each of her" characters must speak his or her own language, has an individual set of metaphors, and notices certain things different from other people." (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.12).No matter how they are like, she says she loves them all. However, two "recurring types" of characters that appear in all her novels.
The first type is a character, around whom "Morrison gathers her story". This kind of character usually suffers a "process of becoming, of maturing, of finally reaching the point of necessary self-realization or self discovery". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.12).
The second type is very different from the traditional ones. Morrison likes to call these characters "the dangerous free people" or "the salt tasters". These characters that are very important to her fiction, often disregarded or misunderstood, mainly because of their "controversial nature".
To have a clear image about them Morrison, herself, defines them: "The salt tasters â€¦express either an effort of the will or a freedom of the will. It is all about choosing. Though granted there is an enormous amount of stuff one cannot choose. But if you own yourself, you can make some types of choices, take certain kinds of risks. They do, and they are misunderstood. They are the misunderstood people in the world. There is a wildness that they have, a nice wildness. It has bad effects in society such as the one we live."(Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.12).
Another feature of these characters is the fact they all go in the same direction as tragedies do .At the end of her works, beside the common ambiguity, there is a strong sense regarding the "seriousness of life". There is a "climatic emphasis on the enduring chill of human suffering". The end reveals two ways; in a positive note is has been realized, what the Greeks called catharsis and "a revelation of the shared condition of existence", in a less positive note is the certainty that as long as the "pain of human anxiety" is present, the innocence is lost. The way the novels end make us think that it is necessary to lose our belief in human innocence as he next step "toward redemption, and the suffering precedes the essential knowledge that must be acquired".
Similar to Greek tragedies, her novels have quite "simple outlines", with complex characters. At the same time, these central characters stand for ideas and issues that are significant for Morrison. All her work poses intellectual questions. As she declared, first her stories and characters appear in the shape of ideas.
These ideas considered "old", mainly because, thinkers and writers mentioned and discussed about them for countless times. Despite this fact, she called them "clichés". She added that "a cliché is a cliché because it's worthwhile and a good cliché can never be overwritten: it's still a mystery". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.14).For example, Morrison wrote about well-known concepts such as: love, death, beauty or ugliness.
Although, they are "old" they still have their own mystery. Nevertheless, people will continue to write and discuss about them, revealing their own views. Thus, by using these "old" ideas Morrison explained that she tried to go "underneath them", to see their meaning and understand the impact they had upon people. She added that she tried to write "about something" that was important for her, and about the subjects that are and will always remain important for the world.
A prominent theme in American literature is that the "problem of survival". At the end of every book, Morrison intends to let the readers think about whom the characters are that managed to survive "the strains and stresses of the story's tension" and why. However, her characters are not "literary puppets" or characters that reach heaven. Moreover, they end up in a trap. They are often in this position because Morrison's major interest is in "the complexity of how people behave under duress". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.15).
Her first novel is built around this theme. Pecola Breedlove, an eleven years old girl that has to deal with the beauty conventions imposed by the society. How is to live in a community that repudiates you? After the rape of her father, after she gives birth to a stillborn child, finally this innocent girl drives mad.
She has no intention to write her novels with a didactic purpose. Whereas, at the same time, she intends to present stories that offer us lessons, which might help in our future social and personal life.
Another important theme that we often meet both in American Literature and in Morrison's work is the theme of self-discovery. Thus, it is one of her overriding themes. When, asked what her basic themes were, she mentioned that of survival, love and freedom. If we take into account all her writings', it is obvious her grand theme, even though she does not mention it, is self-discovery.
Morrison never stops creating characters that are lost in a way or another, characters that are trying, or at least attempt, to find their way in the world they live, or understand themselves as both participants that are involved and private human beings.
Her characters, usually, realize that if they want to discover themselves fully they must return to their African heritage. Sometimes they find others way during the process. This not means that she preaches that the return to original roots is a "panacea" for black people.
Due to this way of writing critics misunderstood her. They credited her that she wrote about her character's experience only from the perspective of an African-American. She showed the influence, in a direct or indirect way, that folklore, African myths and popular wisdom had upon her characters. Nevertheless, she used in her texts, influences that came from the myths and folklore specific to Western area, but also fables, classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
Her belief is that human truth, best reveals by the combination of myths and stories. The actions that each individual does and cultural behavior are influenced by these tensions. She focused most on how these tensions affect the African-Americans' sub-conscious level.
She presented their dreams, aspirations, their collective legends and rituals, because all these revealed their truly character. This also represents the best answer to the question that a critic named it "The ubiquitous question: What makes black folk act this way?" (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.16). The answer could be that largely their roots, but also other sources that one should take into account.
Her heritage mainly influenced her vision and style. However, her use of the "tragic mode", emphasized in her endings mighty be a partially influence came from the classics, that Morrison learnt during her high school training.
The role of the writer, in her opinion, is that of a "witness bearer", an idea that she will sustain all along her career. This ability to "bear witness" linked to her "concept of prophecy" that has "sacred undertones" and to her "evolving concept of language" where she wishes to reveal the "parabolic" tones of Black people speech. This concept is essential in her work because she believes that is a strong bond between future and past.
An interesting technique that characterizes her work is the use of image, an influence that came from painters. In order to write she creates an image of a certain scene in her mind and then she describes it using the language. Her goal is to make readers create pictures in their minds. This is one of the reason why language is so important, but also as she declares "the language, only the language" makes her fiction good, that is the language of her fellows.
"The language must be careful and appear effortless. It must not sweat. It must suggest and
be provocative at the same time. It is the thing that black people love so much- the saying
of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them, playing with them. It's a
love, a passion. Its function is like a preacher's: to make you stand up out of your seat
make you lose make you lose yourself and hear yourself. . The worst of all possible things
that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I cannot say
without recourse to my language". (Conversations with Toni Morrison p 123).
Her Nobel Lecture focused on language, on the importance of language for to all human societies. The woman who represents the writer may be as well the "keeper of a tradition", of what T.S. Elliot called "individual talent". The old woman points out that the language "is in your hands", meaning that language engages in human behavior. Her language is a door to the reader's mind. The end of this lecture about language draws attention to the social nature.
Although, sometimes, labeled as an author with a "poetic" style, Morrison did not agree with this idea, of being a kind of poet. In her opinion, a "poetic style" tends to take each word as connoting, ornamental, in order to illustrate the richness of the language. This approach is not the one that can be associated to her use of language. However, if the word "poetic", refers that she has a poet's sense to use the pure language than it is the right one.
When asked about the source of inspiration of her language, she answered that her intention was "to restore the language that black people spoke to its original power". Having this goal in mind she wanted to ""give words back their original meaning". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.8).
Morrison, also, declared that she wanted that her language had the same function as music had for black people, living in America. Music, offered them the major means to be a culture different from any other. Morrison believed that black culture is about to disappear. African-American people used to live in villages as either slaves or compounds. In this communities music was the essential mean of communication. This safe mean kept them away form the dangers of the white people. Music expressed the unique of their character, their beliefs and aspirations.
Furthermore, she used or the music of black people to accompany her narratives. When her characters deal with intense feeling, either they are in great pain or they are extremely happy, they start to sing folk songs, blues, popular tunes or they simply prefer to hum them.
This way of writing, accompanied with musical moments, illustrate once more her desire to write in "black style" that can be compared with the purpose of black musician. Her focus is on black jazz musicians. The main features of black jazz music are expressive range, rhythmic patterns, intimacy and spontaneity. These features, she adapted to her novels, together with others that are similar to jazz. However, in general, her novels begin with a "sounded motif', which is repeated and re-sounded in a "circular and reverberating way", which lead to a dominant theme.
Another feature specific to jazz music that Morrison tries to use it is "its elliptical open-ended nature". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.9). The difference between classical music and jazz music lays in their endings .whereas classical music offers an "enclosed kind of satisfaction", jazz music, deliberately
suggests something left out or "referred to incompletely". This music offers "emotional and responsive freedom". During the songs, there is promised something, but surprisingly or not the audience discovers something else in the "music evocative resonance".
Morrison wanted that her novels work in the same way as music does. Her intention was to create "that feeling of something hold in reserve and the sense that there is more -that you can't have it all right now". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.9).
This stylistic strategy applied to her novels helped her find as she herself declares "fretting". To create the "music of language" she has some tricks. Firstly, she avoids using adverbs, especially in dialogues, when somebody says something. Secondly, her characters use "the oral quality" of language that encompasses all these elements: nuances, intonations, gestures and volume. Finally she purposely "pares the dialogue down", at the beginning the most important words". Then to their appropriate textual sounds", in order that, the reader can hear it.
She relies on her readers, and wants them to participate. In exchange, she waits from her readership a "clear intellectual response" and "a very strong visceral and emotional response". This response is like that of a black preacher in a congregation during a sermon. Due to this responsive relationship, the congregation, not only listens, but also involves in the sermon, by approving, disapproving or just echoing the words of the preacher. Therefore, the ideal readers for her are those who think, "that it is not I who do it, is they do it". (Toni Morrison's World of Fiction p.9).
She used all these procedures with the purpose of going back to a tradition of African-Americans that was nearly dead. That was the traditional African story, whose telling centered on what they called "the griot". Nevertheless, Morrison said she wanted to recreate something "out of an old form". She referred to that something as the element that makes a book "black". The tradition of the griot consisted in creating stories with an "open-ended quality". The stories, told and retold had a particularity: every time the storyteller should bring new elements to it. Morrison had the opportunity to listen this kind of stories during her childhood.
The moment Morrison decided she wants to be a storyteller herself, she remembered about this stories centered on the griot. She wanted to provide her readers, using written words, what storytellers provided their listeners a "kind of cultural life support system".
Looking from this angle, Morrison wants to give the impression that her novels are written by people who are not writers. Therefore, her novels look like that there is no author who tells the story. The action starts and goes on, seeming that it has no defined direction .In fact what seems chaotic it is only on the surface. Morrison Prefers to be a guiding voice, heard throughout the entire book. This voice is not indefinable, as Morrison does not use anything that reveals a subjective point-of-view. She creates the illusion that this voice belongs to her characters. The reality is that the narrator is there, present, but will never reveal this to the reader. Sometimes the voice interrupts and let the characters speak or express their feelings, beliefs. However, the voice that goes "in" and "out" is Morrison herself.
There were numerous attempts to label her work, but she "escapes definition all the time" (Toni Morrison, The essential Guide p.5).What is certain about her work is that "reading one of her novels is a whole experience. It includes everything, every aspect of sensation and experience, every imaginative effort and every constructive effort of will to follow her thread, to listen her music, to feel her characters' feelings, to see her colours" (Toni Morrison, The essential Guide p.5).
Starting from her first novel The Bluest Eye and ending with Jazz, it is obvious her maturation as a writer. In the end, she became aware on the importance of the "written word", as she practiced and experienced it in her novels. She became as wise as an elder man did "I know I can't change the future, but I can change the past. It is the past, not the future, which is infinite. Our past was appropriated. I am one of the people who has to reappropriate it" (Conversations with Toni Morrison p 13).
She focuses more on the past and underestimates her power to change something in the future. In her opinion "as far as the future is concerned, when one writes as critic, as critic or as author, all necks are on the line" (The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison p.1).
Nowadays, as the society is in a continuous evolution, the black communities' evoluate with it: they are more educated, but unfortunately, they tend to forget their past, traditions and customs.
Morrison tried to keep alive in her books those unique elements that defined the black people. They were her fellows that she appreciated and loved them. As a tribute for all their sufferings, she dedicated her writings. Therefore, the reader of all times be aware what meant to be a black people beginning with the time of he rural slave-holding South until 2003, the year of her last novel.
Toni Morrison has offered American Literature something new, her own vision about black people. Her greatness resides not only in the fact that she is a gifted storyteller, but also in the way she built her characters, the "black" language and her perception of the past.