I had the pleasure of starting this essay when my life was falling apart, which is the best time, I think, to return to the author who taught you who you are. My first experience with Toni Morrison was by accident: My sisters and I played the DVD of Beloved at our aunt’s house, thinking it to be something different from what it was because Oprah Winfrey was in it. Back then, I was busy searching for normal in the likes of Junie B. Jones or Abby Hayes; only now do I see that the lives of these white girls fashioned a fantasia, when really my world was our world was Toni’s world: sick, sad, and keeping on regardless.
One of the first grown-up novels I read was The Bluest Eye. It was the summer before university, and I found an old copy at a thrift store and stayed up until 4 a.m. chugging through Pecola Breedlove’s heartbreaking elegy. Four years later—a few weeks ago—I bought Jazz, Love, and Song of Solomon, after checking out God Help the Child at the local library. I’ve since finished Song of Solomon and God Help the Child; Jazz is proving to be a labor of love.
Toni Morrison writes prose the way Dizzy Gillespie carried a tune or Ernie Barnes paints a life. They create art that imbues with heat those who let it in. Still, Barnes’s heat emanates from the hot and heavy space between lovers; Gillespie’s within the boiling blood of dancers in Village Vanguard. Morrison derives hers from tension.
Morrison’s new book of essays, The Origin of Others, shows that the sick, sad world in which her novels are set is an old one—one that she yearns to lean out of, one we’re falling right back into instead.
The Origin of Others is, at once, a critique, memoir, and writer’s notebook; the Nobel Prize-winning author explicates the observations and inspirations behind some of her most prized novels. The book draws from her Norton Lectures, in which she discusses race, borders, history, and other literary heavyweights such as Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway. Readers could consider this book a companion to her Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, if they want a pellucid look at the racial minefield throughout American literature. Morrison spans the essays asking what it is to Other others, to mark the color line between them and us. What I found in this discourse was a generational rift between Morrison and us.
Who is “us”? Ta-Nehisi Coates opens Origin with a foreword that claims it “impossible to read [Morrison’s] thoughts on belonging, on who fits under the umbrella of society and who does not, without considering our current moment.” He is correct in that the book envokes our collective, Trump-era anguish with almost clairvoyant clarity, but he seems to overlook how zeitgeist is geared towards winning the right to exist as Others in peace.
Miles Davis once said that “sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” In that vein, Chloe Ardelia Wofford, born February 18, 1931, became Toni Morrison with time. While the name itself was a gradual invention—she was nicknamed “Toni” in college and picked up “Morrison” when she married—the Morrison we read today was conceived in the lifelong Othering either described or hinted at in The Origin of Others; her first essay, “Romancing Slavery,” opens with a representative scene. In the early 1930s, when Morrison and her sister “still played on the floor,” her great-grandmother Millicent MacTeer visited the family and provided her with a brief lesson about race and power:
Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.
Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.”…My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.
This scene sets the tone for the rest of the book. She remarks on how she first considered the phrase “tampered with” exotic, until her mother rejected the assertion. “[I]t became clear that ‘tampered with’ meant lesser,” she writes, “if not completely Other.” And thus, lit the spark of apprehension that grew as I continued the book.
The second essay, “Being or Becoming the Stranger,” provides us with an astute analysis as of the ways we draw the boundaries between one another. “Culture, physical traits, religion were and are among all precursors of strategies for ascendance and power,” Morrison explains. She opens the argument by analyzing Flannery O’Connor’s “Artificial Nigger,” in which a poor white man with delusions of grandeur teaches his nephew how to view black folk as lesser. She recounts the characters’ journey to Atlanta, and how Mr. Head teaches his nephew to read color. There’s one scene that stuck out, while on the train, where the two spot a large well-to-do light-skinned man who prompts the nephew to say, “You said they were black…You never said they were tan…”
Morrison highlights this scene to illustrate the fluidity of racial identity, how loosely we define blackness. This scenario either posits that race always trumped class or that race cannot be confined by color or, likely, both, an argument that can lend itself to colorblindness had one taken it at face value. Today, race and class have become entangled like a ratking: dozens of outcomes fighting for recognition but none quite standing out on its own. It is true that you can be an NBA superstar who’s still likened to a gorilla, or a footballer still manhandled by the police, but it also remains true that wealth provides enough mobility within the American social stratosphere to feed one’s delusions that they don’t have to care about blackness or, at the very least, are no longer affected by the racism us working folk are. Wealthy black folks don’t have to put up with Mr. Head’s chauvinism on the train when they can book a private plane for themselves, their non-black partners, and their pretty mixed children in the achromatic utopias often afforded to them. Simply put, they don’t have to care about our problems, and they know it.
Morrison then wraps up Mr. Head’s racial anxiety, that way she does so well: “Without the glue of racial superiority there seems to be no possibility of forgiveness or re-union. When, finally, they enter an all-white neighborhood, their fear of not belonging, of becoming, themselves, the stranger, destabilizes them.” This latter portion seems not to have aged at all, especially following a read of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof; as blackness expands, white resentment remains static, transfixed in its original state until catalyzed by violence.
The book continues like this, wherein there are prescient analyses of the cultural moment followed by claims bordering on diminutive, as though Morrison has grown tired of discussing race—which would be reasonable—and yearns for the Obama-era headway that we millennials have grown accustomed to. This is especially apparent in “The Color Fetish,” the third essay, where Morrison briefly touches upon how dark skin is utilized as imagery for anything from menace to hopelessness to sexual depravity. She highlights a few popular examples, such as how in To Have and Have Not (The Tradesman’s Return), Hemingway must point out that an otherwise-named black character, Wesley, is constantly referred to as “the nigger” to “pinpoint the narrator’s compassion for a black man” and render the white protagonist sympathetic. Any keen cultural consumer will recall a similar trope used in Deadpool (2016) and Baby Driver (2017). We haven’t changed that much.
However, while she references “color-ism” once or twice, she entirely defangs and de-genders the issue, glossing over the preference for light-skinned characters—especially women—throughout American literary history, as well as the way this colorism has also been used by ostensibly black texts to alienate light-skinned protagonists from their dark-skinned antagonists, furthering Charles Chesnutt’s tradition of writing blacks with proximity to whiteness as more human. (Ann Petry’s The Street, Justin Simien’s Dear White People and—while I hesitate to list this as such—Jean Rhys’s polemical Wide Sargasso Sea come to mind.)
It is entirely possible that after 40-odd years of ruminating on blackness, racism, and womanhood, Morrison has become fatigued. We’re sitting in an era where 20-something bloggers need monastic practices of self-care just to keep up with the news. A philosophy major I know recently posted a diatribe against critical theory on Facebook, noting that he’d read 50 books a year for four years only to find that the Black conundrum, the why, only expanded the deeper you went, as if he were searching for the center of the universe. Oppression is exhausting and Morrison ends The Bluest Eye’s prologue by admitting this: “There is really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Every day, black folks are forced to parse how we’re seen, how we’re not, and how we’re to rectify these regular affronts in hopes to, one day, untie the Gordian knot that is our existence in a world designed away from us.
The world Toni Morrison grew up in and immortalized in her fiction was diseased. It’s a world of fathers drunk on hate, seeking love in innocence and turning it to rot; a world of little colored girls trapped in mahogany palaces, sewing roses out of red velvet for parties they’ll never go to. It’s a world rife with ghosts of bygone traumas manifesting in cruelty. Throughout her career, she took that world and turned it into doleful prose to try to make the pain a little more beautiful. This was likely why I returned to her like a ghost back to her grave: She presented us with Negresses who were mobilizing forces in their own lives. But it wasn’t empowering; in fact, it could be incapacitating, seeing your suffering in the mirror.
There was a part in “Being or Becoming the Stranger” that shed a little light on my experience with Beloved. Morrison recalls the time she met an “outrageously dressed fisherwoman” outside of her home. They chat for a few minutes and decide to chat again at some indistinct point in the future. But once the fisherwoman is gone, she never returns, and nary a soul knew she even existed, prompting minor heartache for Morrison:
I immediately sentimentalized and appropriated her. Fantasized her as my personal shaman. I owned her or wanted to (and I suspect she glimpsed it). I had forgotten the power of embedded images and stylish language to seduce, reveal, control. Forgot too their capacity to help us pursue the human project—which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization and estrangement of others.
I recall now why we ever thought Beloved was a family-friendly film: We had projected onto Oprah a benignity she’d likely wanted to escape from. Oprah, a woman whose success was often extrapolated from the Mammy archetype. We had fallen victim to the way the world perceived her: supplement to whiteness.
Black American history has been unforgiving. From chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to our current neoliberal dystopia—black art has always been produced as ripostes to the black condition of a given era. For poor black folk, those who can’t cull hundreds of dollars for passports that’d go largely unused anyway, their horizons extend to what’s right before them. Hopeful blacktivists open bookstores to shrink that sea of dissonance between poor folk and the diaspora, but America’s anti-intellectualism too often prevails.
Morrison resists. Her prose is poetic in its simplicity and as lush with imagery as a hilltop forest. She makes a conscious effort to keep her books accessible to help black booksellers push cachet literature to the masses. “I thought to myself,” she writes, “what if I published a book good enough, attractive enough to demand black people’s attention?” She’s since reached that goal and then some, I think, but the fatigue still wins sometimes. She explains how, for example, Paradise was written as “a reverse dystopia—a deepening of the definition of ‘black’ and a search for its purity as defiance against the eugenics of ‘white’ purity…” In “The Color Fetish,” she also details how God Help the Child displayed color as “both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring,” how the beauty in Bride’s sable skin and silky hair was not enough to make her “a sympathetic human being.” And her acclaimed short story, “Recititaf,” could be declared a colorblind masterwork—in fact, it was. This time last year, a white classmate construed the story’s meaning to be that the race of the characters didn’t matter. The real meaning? It may have gotten lost in the process of writing it:
I first tried this technique of racial erasure in a short story…It began as a screenplay that I was asked to write for two actresses—one black, one white. But since in the writing I didn’t know which actress would play which part, I eliminated color altogether, using social class as the marker…Later I converted the material into a short story—which, by the way, does exactly the opposite of my plan (the characters are divided by race, but all racial codes have been deliberately removed). Instead of relating to plot and character development, most readers insist on searching for what I have refused them.
At the end of the day, Morrison loves her people, as discussed in that famous New York Times Magazine interview with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah back in 2015:
What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze…In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people—good, bad, indifferent, whatever—but that was, for me, the universe.
And yet she appears resistant to carry on this discourse, likely because for a moment there it did feel like we were out of the woods. Imagine spending 40 years writing the brutal mores of race hatred only for it to make a comeback—immediately following the first black presidency, at that. Toni Morrison’s world—the world of Beloved and Song of Solomon, Jazz and The Bluest Eye—is an old world she yearns to abandon forever. The Origin of Others glosses over so many things that at this point should be non-factors. But alas, here we are on the bend of time’s spiral, mirroring the same shit in new clothes, all in the twilight of her life. It is not Morrison’s job to bear new burdens like colorism or misogynoir or, ironically, Nazism; it’s up to us to pick them up and smash them against the concrete, just to let her breathe.
Like most other art forms, fiction has undergone many configurations over the years, but its core has remained, as always, the aesthetic pleasure of reading. When we read, we connect to the immaterial source of the story through its outstretched limbs. The “limb” or variants of it are what the writer has deemed fit for us to see, to gaze at and admire. It is not often the whole. But one of the major ways in which fiction has changed today — from the second half of the 20th century especially — is that most of its fiction reveals all its limbs to us all at once. Nothing is hidden behind the esoteric wall of mystery or metaphysics.
The writers who do well to divvy up their fiction into fractions of what is revealed to the reader are the writers who tend to achieve transcendence, which, according to Emmanuel Levinas is recognized “in the work of the intellect that aspires after exteriority.” In fiction, a form of art expressed through letters, exteriority in this sense approximates meaning. For the writer endures himself to turn that which is interior inside out for the reader to see. Writing, then, is an act of turning out that which is in. The triangular writer then is he who projects meaning relentlessly yet systematically to the reader, and in the process of which readers glimpse something else. And then, something else. They see a man standing on the top of a cliff about to descend to his death, but they also see a cause — perhaps a nation’s communist past — standing there, about to plunge to its end.
When, in a text written more than 2,000 years ago, a character says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” the percipient reader hears at least two things: (a) In keeping with His miracles to this point, the said temple could be destroyed and this man, Jesus, can raise it up again with his miraculous power; (b) Once one has read to the end of the gospel of Matthew, one understands that “the temple” in fact means the man himself. It is he who will be killed, and he who will be raised again. This multi-layered meaning is, in the biblical concept, necessary because of the spiritual property of the book, and hence deemed “exegetic.” But the writers of triangular fiction achieve this in their fiction too. This is because the “divvying up” into fractions or parts that eventually become one and whole often works to more than one level of interpretation. The works of fiction that achieve transcendence are those works that lend themselves to this multi-layered interpretation.
I believe that fiction should work on at least three levels of interpretation: The personal, the conceptual, and the philosophical. In other words, the shape of the core of great works of fiction must be triangular — it must be emotional, cerebral, and sublime.
The personal level of interpretation is that basic level where the story meets the reader at his most human level. I will prop up three novels by some writers of this kind of fiction, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart).
A young black girl in Jim Crow America who desires blue eyes. We know such a child has existed, and probably still does, and we cringe at the futility and even folly of such a desire. But we cannot deny its unvarnished humanness. A middle-aged man who has a crushing desire for a young pubescent girl whom he names his “nymphet.” We appreciate the humanness of his lust, and are disturbed/moved by it. Or a pre-colonial strongman of an Igbo village who has risen through hard times and established himself, his small kingdom, his traditions, and all that exist within the boundaries of his compound — and even beyond — “with a strong hand,” and then an encounter with a group of foreigners destroys all of that and brings him to become the lowest among his kinsmen, an akalaogoli, who cannot be accorded the common honor of a burial.
We can understand these characters and their stories as the writers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Chinua Achebe have created them on this personal level. But we can see, too, that much more lies behind these personal stories. The marigolds blossom, desire the bleak sun, and die, and in their protracted destinies share equivalent fate with Pecola. We see that the lust that fuels and drives Humbert Humbert, the lust in which he is imprisoned, is revealed in the thickets of language in which he is caught. But the aggregate meaning of the entire enterprise stretches beyond the page to the authorial intention expressed in the account of the monkey who, on being given a paper and pencil and taught the human art of drawing, draws the first thing in its mind: the bars around its cage. From this bar, its existence is enclosed and constrained. It cannot leave it. Its desire to leave comes and dies, unfulfilled, in futility, until it again surrenders to the reality that it will remain imprisoned. This is the distinct quality of the lust that possesses, and eventually destroys, Humbert Humbert and Lolita.
In Things Fall Apart, we can see, too, the ascension and power that Okonkwo acquires, and its flourishing when, at its peak, he receives various titles, and even has his daughter wedded. Then, an internal crisis erupts within him and slowly tears him apart. As he breaks down because Nwoye, his first son, has joined the ranks of the enemy, we also see — simultaneously — the villagers of Umuofia trying to understand what to do with their own brothers who have joined the white man’s religion and ways, causing the tribe to fall part. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Okonkwo isn’t merely an individual; he is Umuofia, he is an entire civilization, and it is not he alone but everything that falls apart.
The marigold, the monkey, the village of Umuofia — these become philosophical images on which these writers have constructed the personal stories of individual characters. On these things and on the vested characters, these triangular writers make profound philosophical statements while carrying through with strong, engaging plots. They are able to achieve this synchrony of vision because of the conceptual layer of their narratives. Morrison’s introspection into the head of her primary character is matched with an unblinking gaze from the outside through a girl her age, in Claudia. Thus, we are looking into Pecola, and looking at her at the same time. Humbert Humbert’s story is itself caged in bars. The writer within the story has died by the time the story is being published, and thus cannot change or touch anything in the manuscript. He cannot answer for anything that has been said, nor make restitution for anything that may require restitution. And within the precincts of the story itself, he is enslaved by an effusive, unguarded language as fecund as a wasteful forest, within which he himself gets lost. It is an imbroglio that yields, nonetheless, affecting flights of lyricism and ambient prose. And on the man on whom a poor beginning had been bequeathed, his rise is chronicled through a third person voice that intermittently strays into the omniscient. We see the knife that tears him within as it slides through the civilization of the Igbo people.
It is thus too difficult to not say, most definitely, that these three novels — The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Things Fall Apart –were conceived because their writers had diligently set themselves “the design of rendering the work universally appreciable” according to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe provides in that seminal essay that he had hoped to achieve this by seeking to “contemplate” the “beautiful,” a literary esotericism reached only by focusing on the effect of that which inspires beauty, and not the commodity of the beautiful itself. This is because “when indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect — they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul…”
This is the trajectory by which writers of triangular fiction approach literary truth. For, in their works, that which is personal is at the same time a philosophy, and at the same time a conceptual/artistic conceit. And as we read, we can not help but notice the transcendent power of triangular fiction.
American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness — in books and just about everything else — was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack.
But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe.
At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written — and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story.
This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…”
Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity — and since Talese insists on using real names — the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson.
Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos.
Then in 2013 — 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels — Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.”
When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s — after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written.
At the age of 88 — “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it — Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood.
One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away.
The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud.
Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes — particularly slavery and its unending repercussions — and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”
While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work — how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? — it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year:
I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.”
Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young.
At the age of 97 — which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe — the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95.
So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it.
In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85).
As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work.
Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
My number one book this year was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I’d never read anything by her before and was just floored at how great this one was. It’s a tragic story of poor black families in Ohio, and all sorts of awful things happen to them. The plot centers around a little girl named Pecola who thinks all her problems would disappear if she were white, with pale blue eyes. The plot’s nothing but a downer, but not indulgent or wallowing, and never boring. I give it an A+.
The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis was a surprising and interesting story of the (unknown number of) Americans who were lured to Stalin’s Russia during the depression with the promise of work and prosperity in accordance with “The Five Year Plan.” I remember one man saying something like “I should have known it was too good to be true when I stepped off the boat and a banner read ‘2 + 2 = 5’.” Of course it didn’t work out, and as their passports were immediately confiscated, the ex-pats were disowned by their own (former?) government, and ignored by a particularly naive and/or complacent American Ambassador (whom Tzouliadis just trashes). I’ve never known all that much about Soviet History…basically what I maybe remembered from high school history (nothing?), and Martin Amis’s excellent Koba the Dread, so maybe it wouldn’t be as enlightening to someone who already knows more, but this book does a great job of portraying the crazed but patient and systematic mass murder Stalin inflicted on Russia for well over a decade. Interesting details about Henry Ford, Paul Robeson, and many others are highlights. Definitely worth checking out.
Morrissey’s Autobiography was a quick and entertaining read all the way through…far past the point where I started losing interest in the records. It’s funny how someone known for being so difficult can come across as so reasonable. Maybe there’s another side to the stories, but I liked his. He’s funny and charming throughout. I disagreed with so much of the praising and trashing of his own records, but it was fun to hear his take. I’ve always liked the Smiths, and a good amount of Morrissey’s solo stuff, but I know there’s an army of devotees who would consider me a peripheral fan. After this book I must say I’m all the more onboard.
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Every year, like clockwork, a few brave administrators ban a classic book in time for the opprobrium of Banned Books Week. This year, the brave administrators in question work in Randolph County, NC, where Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison will no longer be on the curriculum. Why? Real quote: it’s a “hard read.” (Related: Kelsey McKinney on banning The Bluest Eye.)
Some books are meant to bring chills of discomfort, tears built of disappointment, and tension created by problems that will never be solved. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye isn’t a happy book, and that is what makes it honest.
The story focuses on 9-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio who dreams of having blue eyes. While drunk, Pecola’s father rapes her in “a hatred mixed with tenderness.” He flees after leaving her pregnant, and the community of Lorain to pass judgment on her.
This week is “Banned Books Week,” the annual campaign that focuses attention on and celebrates books that have been banned and challenged. A challenge is defined by the American Library Association as a formal, written request for a book to be removed or restricted from school libraries.
There is nothing about The Bluest Eye that is easy, and because of that it is one of the most challenged books in America. It is number 15 on the list of 100 most challenged books released by the ALA.
Parents, teachers, and school administrators have protested The Bluest Eye since its release in 1970. But unlike many controversial books from the 1970s, people continue to try to ban The Bluest Eye. In the past two months alone, the book has been challenged for its status on the 11th grade reading list for the Common Core, a set of national standards that has been adopted by more than 40 states.
The first strike came from Alabama State Senator Bill Holtzclaw who, in late August, bowed to Tea Party pressure and said that he thinks the book should be banned in schools. After being criticized by Republican Party members for opposing the repeal of the federal Common Core standards, Holtzclaw went on to tell the Alabama Media Group that The Bluest Eye “is just completely objectionable, from language to the content.”
The second strike came after the conservative blog Politichicks published a post titled “(WARNING: Graphic) Common Core Approved Child Pornography.” Debe Tehar, the president of the board of education in Morrison’s home state of Ohio, began criticizing the inclusion of the book on the Common Core recommended list. She cited the controversial work as “pornographic.”
To call The Bluest Eye pornographic is simply wrong. Accusing Morrison’s work of containing child pornography both ignores the very important distinction between pornography and rape and displays the weakness of the arguments against the book.
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it,” Tehar said.
Some readers want novelists to fix the lives of their characters. They want simple, clean stories that resolve themselves easily, but that is not what great literature is supposed to do.
Sure, high school dances and finding an identity can make entertaining stories. They can engage young readers and teach them literary techniques and plot development. But that is not the point of literature.
Literature should, on some level, be entertaining, but that cannot be its only intention. Art, be it painted, or written, or shown on the silver screen, is supposed to show us something about the world or about ourselves. Through the stories of those who are similar, we find our own flaws. Through the stories of others, we learn to empathize.
The Bluest Eye is a book made for empathy and sympathy. The characters deal with issues most readers will never face, and some that every reader will face every day. Few will understand personally incest and rape, but racism and a cultural standard of beauty is a human concern. The Bluest Eye hurts to read because it hurts to feel things as deeply as Morrison does.
To be clear, not every book is for every person. Some people will not like The Bluest Eye because of their own personal preferences. Banned Books week is not about reading every book just because it was challenged. Banned Books week is about celebrating books like The Bluest Eye for the beauty that lies between its narrow covers even though that beauty is made of heartbreak and mistreatment.
There is no neat bow for Morrison to tie everything up in at the conclusion of the novel, because most of the time there is no neat bow for life. The people of Lorain, Ohio make mistakes in The Bluest Eye. They are cruel, and selfish, and horrible to Pecola, and that has consequences.
The consequence of The Bluest Eye is the demise of Pecola. Her baby comes too soon and dies. She, as a result, loses her mind and spends her days “jerking her head to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear.”
But what keeps the girls Pecola’s age away from her throughout her insanity is not her absurdity or their own disgust, but a feeling that they had failed her.
Maybe that, ultimately, is what keeps readers away from The Bluest Eye. It is hard to read a story about a girl who feels the pressure of race so strongly that she dreams of blue eyes. It is hard to read a scene where a father rapes his young daughter. And it is hard to read about a society that condemns a girl for those things.
But all of those things are hard because they are true, and truth isn’t supposed to be easy.
January of this year saw the release of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper, an excellent and epic novel that in dealing with the horrors of 20th-century prejudice ingeniously splices together its two main strains: anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. Adam, a historian, is called upon to research and corroborate the hushed-up fact that black U.S. soldiers fighting in segregated units helped liberate Dachau. Their achievement, deemed too heroic or too shameful, was whitewashed over and a more palatable history was written. After fighting Nazism, the soldiers returned home to a new front, their own civil rights battles. Adam amplifies protest voices that have lain muffled over the years, learning that “when black World War Two veterans came home to the Jim Crow South they weren’t going to take it anymore.” He documents their “small acts of resistance” born of a newfound courage instilled in them from the war. On the home front they were up against the same racism from the same oppressor, but one all the more hateful for being severely ungrateful.
Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, is concerned also with war, injustice, and homecoming. We are in the next decade of the 20th-century, with African-American Frank Money returning from the battlefields of Korea, but the racism is just as ingrained in the country he was fighting for. The ingratitude hasn’t changed either. “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs,” Frank is told. Morrison starts her tale and Frank’s odyssey in a hospital: Frank wakes up, bound and sedated, but has no recollection of how he came to be there. He receives a mysterious letter urging him to hurry home to his sister. “She be dead if you tarry.” Frank, bitter and brimming with self-loathing, has been back in America for a year but has been unable to bring himself to head back to his native Georgia. The letter gives him the spur he needs. He breaks out of his “crazy ward” and starts his journey, first barefoot through snow, then shod and fed and with $17 in his pocket from a charitable minister. Soon he is weaving from state to state, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, but finally charged with both direction and purpose.
Morrison interlards Frank’s narrative with those of the other characters in his life. We meet Ycidra, or Cee, the sister in distress. After years of putting up with her grandmother’s malice (Cee, born in the street, was thus tormented with the tag “gutter child”), she ran away from home at 14 with a ne’er-do-well called Prince. When she is left “broken down, down into her separate parts,” she starts again by securing a job from a white doctor called Beauregard Scott. Morrison deftly showcases Cee’s naivety in a short scene where she peruses Scott’s books with titles such as The Passing of the Great Race and Heredity, Race and Society, and then mulls over the meaning of “eugenics.” The other woman in Frank’s life is, or rather was, Lily, his brief romantic interest, before both realize he is too damaged to be tender, too raw to love. Sex is “bed work,” a “duty,” and when he eventually walks out on her, the loneliness she feels gives way to a calming solitude, “a shiver of freedom.”
Frank travels in the present but on the way his troubled mind casts back, conjuring up scarred thoughts and memories from his time in Korea. He witnessed the deaths of his two childhood friends — the three of them joining the army to escape the hometown they loathed and the limited job prospects of work in cotton fields they didn’t own, just like their parents before them. Reliving their deaths goads him on. “No more people I didn’t save. No more watching people close to me die. No more.” Frank’s unswerving loyalty to his sister means he will stop at nothing to complete his quest. War has left plenty of residual cruelty sloshing around in him. He will kill anyone who has touched her. He fights a pimp and keeps punching him when he is unconscious, fuelled by a reawakened lust for blood — “The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar.” Morrison is sparing in detailing the carnage of war, but there is one neat twist that she withholds until the end, which suggests that Frank is so corroded by remorse that his sister-saving op will only grant him so much redemption.
Frank rescues a very mutilated Cee — whose job description of “medical assistant” should instead have read “guinea pig” — and spirits her home to Lotus, the town the pair did everything they could to flee from (presumably based, as in previous novels, on Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison grew up). This is home and hearth, but of the tough, hardscrabble variety. And yet, both seem to have come full circle. Frank finds it hard to believe he once hated the place; Cee goes one step further by declaring “This is where I belong.” Home and belonging have been salient themes throughout Morrison’s long career. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, begins with a description of two homes, the MacTeers’ and the Breedloves’, both humble, but the former full of warmth and love. The latter is less so, and the youngest family member, Pecola Breedlove, craves a safer sanctuary and sense of community. This warped homely ideal is a typical Morrison trope. We see it again in Sula — Nel’s home is clean and orderly whereas Sula lives among chaos and disorder. Home, in Morrison’s fiction, is frequently a dwelling and seldom a haven. Milkman Dead in Song of Solomon comes from a home stuffed with material privilege but the Dead house lives up to its name – an empty shell devoid of life. In Jazz Joe and Violet Trace depart the South for the “City” and discover quickly it is no Promised Land. Morrison saves her most mordant variation on home for Beloved: the Kentucky plantation on which Sethe Suggs is enslaved is called Sweet Home.
The subverted home-sweet-home sentiment is utilized again in Home. Lotus, for Frank, is a town of dead-ends, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefields.” Navigating the town’s transportation system is also “rougher than confronting a battlefield.” Much as she yearns for her own house, poor Lily is thwarted, first because of the “restrictions” regarding race in the neighborhood she desires, and second because Frank isn’t able to share her house-hunting enthusiasm. (The two friends he loses in Korea are his “homeys,” but this is the closest he comes to being a homeboy.) A good home seems to be reserved for the lucky few. In one short section, Morrison makes patently (and poetically) clear who does the real living and who the house-tending:
It was 7:30 a.m. when he boarded a bus filled with silent day-workers, housekeepers, maids, and grown lawn boys. Once beyond the business part of the city, they dropped off the bus one by one like reluctant divers into inviting blue water high above the pollution below. Down there they would search out the debris, the waste, resupply the reefs, and duck the predators swimming through lacy fronds. They would clean, cook, serve, mind, launder, weed, and mow.
Morrison makes no mention of skin color here. The bus travel and the jobs do the work for her. She employed a different, more overt approach in Sula, spelling it out for us that Nel is “the color of wet sandpaper” and Sula “a heavy brown with large quiet eyes” (and both “wishbone thin and easy-assed”). In Home she prefers to leave us to infer, and rightly so, that a doctor is white or a minister is black, guiding us only by denoting a character’s vernacular and social standing.
But for all its strengths, Home still falls short. This is partly due to its length. Marilynne Robinson’s Home, of “real” novel length, was roomier, with more space for the characters to breathe (two of whom were also like Frank Money, turning up unexpectedly in their hometown after considerable time away). Morrison tries to pack just as much into her 140-something pages and the result is a busy cast bursting with potential, but characters who are so hamstrung in their tight confinement, so seldom on the page, that their tales are only half-told. Perspectives shift to give us another character’s insight and history, but ultimately we feel as if we hardly know them. A whole batch of them gestate but never hatch. Instead of honing in on a small, crucial ensemble, Morrison prefers to pan out and mint more secondary characters, even in the closing pages. James Wood has accused Morrison of loving her characters too much. Such mollycoddling “hotly hugs the life out of them” — a case in point being Frank himself, who is severely half-baked, all pent-up rage and muttered threats that never come to anything. He avenges his friend’s death in Korea by shooting an old one-legged civilian; he describes how picking cotton “broke the body but freed the mind for dreams of vengeance;” and, just prior to freeing Cee from the doctor’s clutches, he experiences “Thoughts of violence alternating with those of caution.” Unfortunately, and perhaps improbably, it is that caution that wins the day, despite Morrison’s grandiose build-up. In a dismal display of bathos, he rescues Cee calmly and wordlessly, all that bloodthirsty vengeance evaporating in the process. Nowhere do we witness Perlman’s “small acts of resistance.” Big angry Frank Money is all bluster.
Morrison wraps up the proceedings with a saccharine bow-out, loving Frank and Cee so much as to endow them with peace of mind and even douse them in the soft-focus “glow of a fat cherry-red sun.” Mercifully, the impact from the bulk of the book lingers — the poignant depiction of a sundered family, the unflinching portrayal of war — for us to brusquely write the whole thing off. If only Morrison had concluded it otherwise: keeping Frank enraged, a victim of his own exaggerations (“home” still being akin to a Korean battlefield) not to mention his own worst enemy. When still with Lily, instead of sharing her passion to find a home, he tells her all he wants to do is “Stay alive.” Trudging through Atlanta he is mugged by five “sneaks” and then dusted down by a Samaritan who warns him to “Stay in the light.” We would prefer a compromise: we like Frank alive, but wish Morrison with her too-big heart had kept him in the shade. That, along with swapping her scattershot sketching for broader, splashier, and more daring brush strokes on a wider canvas, and Home would have been up there with Morrison’s best.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.