Toni Morrison the Realist

By: Paul Elie

August 12, 2019

“I think that every writer, when he speaks of his own approach to fiction,” Flannery O’Connor observed, “hopes to show that, in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist.”

In the days since her death, Toni Morrison has received a full range of characterizations. She has been described as a pioneering artist of the African-American experience; as a Nobel laureate, as the first African-American woman so recognized; as a teacher of formidable skill and sensitivity; as a novelist who attained both critical acclaim and a wide and varied readership; as a model for women artists, emerging from family responsibilities and office work (she was an editor at Random House) to come into her own as a writer in her fifties and sixties; as the conversational bulwark of Oprah Winfrey’s book club; and as the protagonist in the most effective act of literary brinksmanship in memory, in which critics and novelists rose to protest that her 1987 novel Beloved had been denied the National Book Award—and the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize soon followed. She has been remembered as the “last Great American Novelist,” in that her command of a broad public may not be repeated because the public for literary novels is no longer broad. 

Myself, I think of Morrison and remember her as a realist, with the radiance that surrounds the term in my mind’s eye. Like William Faulkner, like Gabriel García Márquez, like Philip Roth, and yes, like Flannery O’Connor, Morrison depicted a world whose reality depended principally on the authority of the author—and that paradoxically seems all the more real as a result. Her intense, outsize characters and their grand, fully human, even epic sense of themselves; their strange nicknames—Milkman, Beloved—used with loving familiarity; the “blind” references to a world that extends far beyond the page; and of course the rolling thunder of Morrison’s prose: all these render a world whose existence, set into being in words, doesn’t depend on the assent of the reader, and one whose creator is so confident in her command of her craft that she doesn’t throw out rope bridges to the reader’s presumed expectations or experience. 

Here’s a sketch of that world—Harlem, from Jazz:

“Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the violence of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It’s the bright steel rocking above the shade that does it.”

And here’s a sketch of one of the people in it—Morrison’s grandfather, from the foreword to Paradise:

“We called him Big Papa. He stood in the vegetable garden peeling a yam with his pocketknife. Then he ate the raw slices slowly, carefully. If he wanted the chair you were in, he stood there, silent, looking at the sitter until you got the message and got up. He was too religious for any church. He drew pictures of my sister and me and gave us the gift of chewing gum. Wherever he was—on the porch, at the kitchen table, in the garden, in the living room reading—that’s where the power and deference were. He didn’t exert power; he assumed it.” 

Morrison the novelist had Big Papa’s authority—assumed, not exerted—and her account of life made the reader, like Jazz’s protagonist, dream tall and feel in on things…while in the world of her novels, at least.

Because she was singular in so many ways—defined, on the one hand, in terms of her precursors Faulkner and García Márquez, and on the other, through her descendants, from Randall Kenan to Ayana Mathis—it is easy to overlook the fact that Morrison belonged to a literary generation or cohort. And what a generation it is! Flannery O’Connor, born 1925 (and dead of lupus at 39); William Kennedy, 1928; Derek Walcott, 1930; Morrison herself and John McPhee, 1931; John Updike, 1932; Susan Sontag and Philip Roth, 1933; Joan Didion, 1934 – and of course there are others. What has bound these writers together is their assumption of the tools and techniques of modernism and their confident application of them to enlarge the territory of American literature, so-called—at once its subject matter, its interior country, and its range of literary approaches and effects. All of these writers are, in their different ways, realists. We are only beginning fully to appreciate the large and complex sense of reality they have left us. 

In the same way, we are only beginning to comprehend the religious dimension of Morrison’s work, such as it is. Raised in a Bible-reading household, Chloe Wofford became a Catholic late in her girlhood, and she later took the nom de plume Toni after her patron saint, Anthony of Padua. The religious accent is struck repeatedly in her work: from the title of Song of Solomon, to the echoes of Abraham and Isaac in the mother Sethe’s act of infanticide at the center of Beloved, to the image of a disused convent that becomes a home for “wayward” women in Paradise. Morrison spoke of religion as a resource for her characters, and of the supernatural as a key to her artistic method, which involved the author “speaking” to her characters and “listening” to them. The one time I interviewed her, for an article about García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, she spoke of the supernatural in that novel as a presence she recognized as familiar from her own upbringing. Emboldened by Garcia Marquez’s example, she told me, she gave it a greater presence in her own fiction. 

Patrick Giles and John A. McClure, among others, have written persuasively about the religious dimension of Morrison’s work, and that is a literary-critical conversation that needs carrying forward—if only because Morrison’s openness to the religious dimension of her characters’ lives is one reason that her realism, like O’Connor’s, is broader and deeper than most.

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