N EARLY EVERYONE, including the author, was startled, when in October the Swedish Academy awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature to the American novelist Toni Morrison. The last two winners also wrote in English, and Morrison’s name had not appeared in speculations. Once the surprise wore off, though, the recog-nition that Morrison was the first African American, and only the eighth woman, to receive literature’s most prestigious award, worth $825,000, provoked wide-spread elation, Inevitably, some people privately suspected that Morrison won be-
cause she was a black female. Had the prize gone to Thomas Pynchon, of course, the same skeptics would not have assumed it was because he was a white male. No one could understand, and probably laugh at, this double standard better than Morrison. She had dealt with it, triumphantly, throughout her life and through her fiction.
The two are closely akin. Although her six novels contain few autobiographical traces, they constitute intensely imaginative responses to the specific historical and social pressures she has experienced as a black woman in the U.S. The imagination is all hers; the pressures have been the inheritance of millions, including, now, those who have read her books.
Her parents were onetime Alabama sharecroppers who moved north to Lorain, Ohio, a small steel-mill town just west of Cleveland, in search of a better life. The second of four children, Chloe Anthony Wofford was born in 1931, in the teeth of the Great Depression. Her father took whatever jobs he could find and nurtured, as his daughter once recalled, an angry disbelief in “every word and every gesture of every white man on earth.” He apparently had good reason. As the daughter grew older, she heard family tales about an incident that occurred when she was only two, and too young to remember. Her parents had fallen short of their $4-a- month rent, and the furious landlord had tried to torch the house, with the family inside. That someone would intentionally destroy his own property or burn people alive for a pittance seems implausible. The young girl believed it, and her writing would later be etched with the incommensurability between what hatred intends and what it achieves.
From age 12 on, she took jobs to help her struggling family’s finances. She graduated with honors from high school and went off to Howard University in Washington, at that time an all-black institution. Next came Cornell, where she did graduate studies in English and, after writing a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, earned an M.A. degree in 1955. Her degree qualified her to teach English, which she did, first in Texas and then back at Howard. Her familiarity with Faulkner’s work proved invaluable when she later began to write fiction: incantatory Faulknerian cadences crop up in all her novels. While an instructor at Howard, she married a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison and had two sons. As the marriage turned sour Morrison began to seek privacy and consolation in writing, like, as she later remarked, someone with a dirty habit.” For many years, though, her writing was confined to the off-hours when she was not being a mother or a breadwinner. Alter her 1964 divorce and resignation from Howard, Morrison and her children moved to in Syracuse, New York, where she edited textbooks at a subsidiary of Random House. Three years later she was transferred to the publisher’s Manhattan headquarters.
Morrison moved easily and successfully through the overwhelmingly white provinces of publishing and academe. At the same time, while working to improve other people’s manuscripts, she had territories of her own in mind. Where in contemporary American literature were the black girls and women she had known and been? Where were the fictional counterparts of her relatives back in Lorain, portrayed in all their loving, feuding, straitened complexity?
The novels she proceeded to write constitute provisional and consummately artful answers to these questions. Sula (1973) examines the stormy friendship of two black women and the opposing imperatives to obey or rebel against the mores of their beleaguered community. Song of Solomon (1977), her only novel with a male protagonist, proved a critical and commercial breakthrough for Morrison; the phantasmagoric saga of a black man in pursuit of his past won the author rapturous praise and a greatly enlarged circle of readers.
Those who do not find Song of Solomon Morrison’s best book almost invariably choose Beloved (1987), an intricate, layered, harrowing story about what an escaped slave did to save her child from bondage and the rippling effects of this act through many years and lives. When it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, after some black authors protested that Morrison had never won a major award, the honor could hardly fail to be perceived, in some quarters at least, as tainted.
No such reservations should attend Morrison’s Nobel. The Swedish Academy cannot be lobbied. It made an honorable correct choice in awarding her the Nobel, but probably for at least one wrong reason . Explaining Morrison’s selection, the academy wrote, in part, “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” This was wrong, as were the many critics over the years who praised Morrison for “transcending” the blackness of her characters and bestowing on them a universality that everyone can understand.
In practice—and this is the great lesson that her fiction has to teach—Morrison does just the reverse. White authors are seldom praised for transcending the whiteness of their characters, and Morrison has demanded, through the undeniable power of her works, to be judged by the same standards. She has insisted upon the particular racial identities of her fictional people—black women and men under stresses peculiar to them and their station in the U.S—because she knows a truth about literature that seems in danger of passing from civilized memory. The best imaginative writing is composed of specifics rather than platitudes or generalities; it seeks not to transcend its own innate characteristics but to break through the limitations and prejudices of those lucky or wise enough to read it. Madame Bovary is not Everywoman; she is a living complex of new knowledge and experience in the lives of all who have met her. Sethe, the tormented former slave in Beloved, is not Everywoman either; she is Toni Morrison’s gift to those who desperately need to know her.
1993: The Year in Review
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