“124 was spiteful.”
With that enigmatic opening line of “Beloved,” Toni Morrison, who died Monday at the age of 88, placed her indelible stamp on American literature.
That a black woman should write the greatest novel of the 20th century is a glorious rebuke to our long history that denigrated women and African Americans. From the furnace of her genius emerged a book that melded America’s past into a work of enduring art — gothic, magical, magisterial. And the passage of more than three decades has done nothing to diminish the power of that masterpiece. It remains, like the world’s most famous monuments, both familiar and astonishing, as capable of inspiring awe as it did when it first appeared in 1987.
Most authors are silenced by death. But a few — Shakespeare, Austen, Twain — grow more amplified by each new generation. We had the blessing of reading Morrison as she was writing. Others will have the blessing of rediscovering her.
The granddaughter of a slave, Morrison wrote the novel that definitively dismantled a century of Southern romanticism. Arguments about states' rights or fantasies of antebellum gentility were scythed by her storytelling. With "Beloved," she dared to expose not just the injustice of slavery, but the full spectrum of its obscenity. She uncovered the ghastly metal devices wrapped around black necks and crammed into black mouths. She explored the sickening abuses of "science" to justify racial hierarchies. She blasted the myth of the benevolent plantation.
And most dramatically, she called forth the spirit of trauma that still haunts this nation, what she once called “the tenacity of racism.” Recalling the true story of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow her to be dragged back into slavery, Morrison presented America’s “peculiar institution” in terms so visceral and intimate that no reader could endure it unshaken. It was the greatest love wrapped in the greatest horror.
The scope of Morrison’s accomplishments is impossible to exaggerate. She published her first classic, “The Bluest Eye,” at the age of 39, at a time when books by black authors — no matter what their subjects or genres — were usually ghettoized in bookstores and rounded up in newspaper book sections like so many curiosities. The initial response to “The Bluest Eye” was, in her own words, “slight, even hostile,” but fame came, and she went on to write 10 more novels — including “Sula,” “Song of Solomon” and “Paradise” — stories that placed black women at the center, in the full complexity of their lives. In 2008, she returned to the earliest days of American slavery to write “A Mercy,” a short, feverish novel that reminded us of her stylistic sorcery. And just four years ago, at the age of 84, she published her last novel, “God Help the Child,” which brought her back to the tragic themes of “The Bluest Eye.”
As a professor at Princeton and elsewhere, she encouraged generations of students and future writers to reimagine American literature and remake it. Before that, as an editor at Random House — the first female African American editor in the company’s history — she broke down old racial barriers and welcomed new authors into the canon. And she remained an insightful cultural and literary critic who published a new collection of her essays and speeches just a few months ago in “The Source of Self-Regard.”
Some of those pieces are decades old, but none of them feel dated. As this summer has demonstrated so horrifically, the rhetoric of racial hatred maintains its currency in America, even from the highest realms. The words of Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech from 1993 still ring with relevance:
“Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge,” she said. “It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”
The ferocity of that wisdom didn’t dampen the joy of her spirit. In 2015 when she accepted a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle in New York, she radiated delight — not in herself but in the remarkable possibilities of this nation.
It’s that twining of brutal insight and determined hope that generates such energy in “Beloved.” The novel is packed full with devastating moments, but one quiet one sticks in my mind. It takes place in 1874. A black man named Stamp Paid is tying up his boat on the bank of a river when he catches sight of what he thinks must be a cardinal’s feather. “He tugged,” Morrison writes, “and what came loose in his hand was a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp.” After all the lynchings, the school burnings, the property thefts, it’s this tiny scrap of atrocity that finally exhausts Stamp Paid. “What are these people?” he asks. “You tell me, Jesus. What are they.”
America is still struggling to answer that question.
“We die,” Morrison said in her Nobel acceptance speech. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
We’re still plumbing the dimensions of hers.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.