Toni Morrison

American novelist Toni Morrison has celebrated her 86th birthday. Toni Morrison's politics are not necessarily mine (it would be an understatement to say that I do not share her admiration of the Clintons), but I am a great admirer of her work.

I've read (and am now re-reading) all of TM's eleven novels to date, from 'The Bluest Eye' (1970) to 'God Help the Child' (2015). You can read my reviews of the first four at my LiveJournal page:

The Bluest Eye

... The book begins with a flash-forward to the fall of 1941, when marigolds failed to grow; how those marigolds came to be planted is revealed in the story. This is our first hint of TM’s non-linear narrative style. The narrative voice alternates between a third-person voice and Claudia, who is 9 years old at the time of the story and would have been the same age as TM; her name phonetically evokes TM’s birth name, Chloe. Later in the book, some of the back story is filled in by Pecola’s mother Pauline (“Polly”).

The Breedloves’ perception of their own “ugliness” is intimately tied to their awareness of their dark skin in a racist environment, and to the tragedy of Pecola’s story. As TM explains in the foreword,

The novel [written during the height of the ‘Black Is Beautiful’ movement] tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then try to soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty.

When I first read ‘The Bluest Eye’ as a young adult, I did not understand the centrality of Pecola’s baby to the story. This baby is the reason for the marigolds mentioned cryptically at the beginning of the story and not explained until near the end. It is concern for this baby - conceived in an act of rape and incest - that draws Claudia and her older sister Frieda out of their shells and propels them toward emotional maturity.


... Where youth sees “hypocrisy”, maturity often sees pragmatism. Where youth sees the “unconventional”, maturity may see the dysfunctional. I think Toni Morrison succeded in conveying a great truth in ‘Sula’, but perhaps not the one she intended. “Outlaw women are fascinating,” Morrison writes in the foreword, but the consequences of irresponsible acts are painful and exceedingly dull. If there is a moral insight to be gained from reading ‘Sula’, it is the danger of romanticizing the ‘rebel’ - both in literature and in life.

Song of Solomon

’Song of Solomon’ (1977) is Toni Morrison’s third novel, and it’s the one that put her on the literary map, winning the National Book Critics award, getting chosen for Oprah’s book club, and inspiring at least two collections of critical essays and the name of a punk-rock band. Written following the death of Morrison’s father, it is her first book to feature male leading characters. The first part of the book is set in an unnamed city in Michigan. The part of the city called ‘Southside’ - i.e. away from the desirable lakefront property to the north - is implied to be the black neighborhood. (The geography is somewhat ambiguous, as some of the landmarks named in Chapter 1 are consistent with Morrison’s native Ohio.) And like Pecola Breedlove in ‘The Bluest Eye’, its chief protagonist, Milkman Dead, is born in the same year as Morrison herself - in fact, one day after TM’s own birth date. The main action of the story takes place in September 1963, in the days following the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. ...

Tar Baby

Who or what is the 'Tar Baby' of the title?

Apparently it refers to Jadine, whom Son calls a "tar baby" (along with a string of other colorful terms) during a fight in their New York apartment. As TM explains in the Foreword, the tar baby legend implies a love story: "Difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman and clever, anarchic male, each with definitions of independence and domesticity, of safety and danger that clash."

I wonder, though, if there is another level to the role of the tar baby - the feminine, irresistible image that first seduces, then traps the rabbit. Both Son and Jadine are drawn toward the island by inexorable, almost supernatural forces: Son by the ocean's current in the prologue, Jadine by the mysterious figure of the African woman in the yellow dress. And it is Jadine who becomes trapped in the island's black, tarry mud in chapter 5. So I wonder if the 'Tar Baby' of the title also refers to the island itself.

I want to come back to politics for just a moment. There are some ideologues, on both the right and the left, who feel they need to read everything through a political filter. I am not among them. I'm a registered Republican and I vote Republican, but I don't submit my favorite writers to a litmus test, and I don't require that my books be on Dennis Prager's or Hugh Hewitt's reading list.

Good literature is a braid woven of three strands: the universal, the cultural, and the individual. What good writers do well is to observe human relationships: between a person and society, or between individuals, or between a person and himself. I don't have to admire Toni Morrison's diatribe against Donald Trump to respect her talent in doing what she does best: creating vivid, memorable characters that help us understand ourselves.