Toni Morrison: An Introduction

Monday, March 6, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Thirty-three years ago, Toni Morrison labored in relative obscurity: She was the author of one novel, "The Bluest Eye" (1970), an editor at Random House, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York in Purchase. She was in her early forties, the divorced mother of two boys, slowly gaining respect in the scholarly and literary worlds but almost entirely unknown to the general public.

Certainly, she was unknown to me. I was a relatively young man, working as editorial writer and book editor for a newspaper in North Carolina, doing freelance reviewing on the side for various publications, one of which was The Washington Post's Book World. When in 1973 its editor, William McPherson, invited me to review a new novel titled "Sula," I had absolutely no idea what I was in for but accepted the assignment because I trusted Bill's judgment.

The rest of the story -- Morrison's, not mine -- is history. "Sula" was enthusiastically reviewed (with, on my own part, certain reservations), found a decent number of readers and was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction. Thereafter, Morrison's career took off. "Song of Solomon" (1977), "Tar Baby" (1981) and "Beloved" (1987) made Morrison a best-selling author and the winner of numerous prizes: a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Pulitzer Prize and, most important, the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. She became this country's most famous literary novelist -- not least because of occasional appearances on the television show of Oprah Winfrey, her most sedulous booster -- and an international figure as well. Now in her mid-seventies, Morrison is leaving the prestigious chair she has occupied for two decades at Princeton but shows no sign of reducing her literary activity.

In choosing to revisit "Sula" for this series, I had a couple of things in mind. My memories of the novel were admiring and fond but vague; I wanted to see how it had held up over more than three decades. I also had been troubled by Morrison's work since "Beloved," which upon publication I praised for the power and grace of its prose but lamented that "it is a novel in which themes are more important than people, with the predictable consequence that the people never really come to life." I had been especially vexed by "Love" (2003), which I found "clotted, tedious, uninviting . . . oracular and ponderous." I wondered whether Morrison's penchant for Delphic pronouncements was something I had overlooked in "Sula" or whether it was a consequence of subsequent fame and the bully pulpit it offered her.

The answer appears to fall somewhere in between. There are, indeed, oracular touches in "Sula" that I missed 33 years ago, and in her foreword to the 2004 Vintage International edition, Morrison goes out of her way to defend herself -- and, by extension, "Sula" -- as deeply political. Yet, now as in 1973, "Sula" seems most remarkable for its humor, its dialogue, its deftly realized title character and, in particular, its portrait of "the Bottom," the black community of an Ohio town called Medallion where the novel is set. In other words, "Sula" can -- and in my view should -- be read not as a political tract but as a "mere" novel, a human story, a statement that cannot so easily be made about Morrison's later work.

In that foreword to the 2004 edition, Morrison quite disarmingly describes the circumstances of her life as she began writing the book:

"I was living in Queens while I wrote 'Sula,' commuting to Manhattan to an office job, leaving my children to child-minders and the public school in the fall and winter, to my parents in the summer, and was so strapped for money that the condition moved from debilitating stress to hilarity. Every rent payment was an event; every shopping trip a triumph of caution over the reckless purchase of a staple. The best news was that this was the condition of every other single/separated female parent I knew. The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory -- and daring. . . . We were being encouraged to think of ourselves as our own salvation, to be our own best friends. What could that mean in 1969 that it had not meant in the 1920s? The image of the woman who was both envied and cautioned against came to mind."

This image in Morrison's mind metamorphosed into the character of Sula Peace: granddaughter of Eva Peace, daughter of Hannah Peace, closest friend of Nel Wright. They all live in the Bottom, the ironic name given to the "hilly land" above the "rich valley floor in that little river town," leaving blacks only "small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks." Here, as in all her fiction, Morrison writes with affection for the tight black communities of the past, and toward the end of the novel, as this particular community begins to disintegrate, she chants what amounts to a dirge for it:

"The black people, for all their new look, seemed anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place. These young ones kept talking about the community, but they left the hills to the poor, the old, the stubborn -- and the rich white folks. Maybe it hadn't been a community, but it had been a place. Now there weren't any places left, just separate houses with separate televisions and separate telephones and less and less dropping by."

That is in 1965. In the 1920s, when all but a few pages of "Sula" are set, the Bottom is full of life -- shaped, to be sure, in great measure by white bigotry and discrimination, but also by its own culture and sustained by its own institutions. As I wrote 33 years ago, "The most fully realized character in the novel . . . is the community of the Bottom. Toni Morrison is not a Southern writer, but she has located place and community with the skill of a Flannery O'Connor or Eudora Welty." There is no reason to alter that judgment today; Morrison's portrait of the Bottom remains superb.

The lives of all four of the women mentioned above are contained within the Bottom. The themes that Morrison explores through them, she describes as follows: "What is friendship between women when unmediated by men? What choices are available to black women outside their own society's approval? What are the risks of individualism in a determinedly individualistic, yet racially uniform and socially static, community?" All four women confront these issues in one way or another, but it is in Sula that they are most forcefully brought home.

As a girl Sula is "heavy brown with quiet eyes, one of which featured a birthmark that . . . gave her otherwise plain face a broken excitement and blue-blade threat." Nel by contrast is "the color of wet sandpaper" and in other ways is Sula's opposite, yet from the age of 12 "their friendship was as intense as it was sudden. They found relief in each other's personality. Although both were unshaped, formless things, Nel seemed stronger and more consistent than Sula, who could hardly be counted on to sustain any emotion for more than three minutes." Sula is sassy and independent, Nel cautious and conventional, yet "they never quarreled, those two, the way some girlfriends did over boys, or competed against each other for them."

About the time she turns 20, Nel is courted by and marries Jude, a decent man who "needed some of his appetites filled, some posture of adulthood recognized, but mostly he wanted someone to care about his hurt, to care very deeply." Flattered, and encouraged by what she interprets as Sula's support, she accepts Jude's proposal. While they have children, form a happy family and lead quiet lives, Sula leaves town for adventures unknown but generally assumed to be of a scandalous nature. When she suddenly returns 10 years later, Nel springs to life: "It was like getting the use of an eye back, having a cataract removed." As to the rest of the Bottom, it quickly accords Sula the status of pariah:

"Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace."

The people of the Bottom may not know it, but Sula's misbehavior -- which, when she turns it against Nel, seems unspeakably cruel and gratuitous -- is as essential to their being as the verities they claim to worship. Sula is an outlaw, and, Morrison seems to argue, the community defines itself as much by the outlaw as by the paragon. Beyond that, the question is whether the friendship of two women -- who in this case also, importantly, happen to be black -- can survive the pressures that the outlaw's behavior places upon it.

Morrison's answer to that question, as offered in the closing pages of "Sula," is interesting and convincing. This, though, seems to me of less moment than the novel's success as fiction, pure and not so simple.

"Sula" is Toni Morrison before she became grand, before she garbed herself in the robes of spokeswoman, before she became more interested in politics than in people. It is also -- different strokes for different folks -- the Toni Morrison I much prefer.

"Sula" is available in a Vintage International paperback ($13).

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