Canonized alive

booksthumbicon When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she was 62 years old—no spring chicken, but still a writer with a long career ahead of her. After receiving the Nobel, Morrison experienced literary deification, and in the sixteen long years since, she has been routinely accorded the same kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for long-dead writers whose canonical position is beyond dispute. Most critical discussion of her fiction now takes an assumption of greatness as its starting point. When a new Toni Morrison novel arrives, the question for reviewers and scholars is never, “Is it good?”—its quality is a given. Rather, the task is to fit the new work into the context of Morrison’s previous accomplishments and of great literature more broadly. Morrison, in short, has been canonized alive.

Given this fact, Morrison no doubt makes a tempting target for critics in search of an exalted literary reputation to deflate—the harder they come, the harder they fall. But actual attempts at Morrison takedowns are quite rare. The reason? Part of it might be her status as a beloved living legend within American literature. More fundamentally, though, I think it’s simply that her books are fully worthy of the extraordinary acclaim they’ve received. Also, despite having completed an apotheosis at such an early age, Morrison has never rested on her laurels. Her new novel, A Mercy, published late in 2008, is yet another worthy entry to an astoundingly rich body of work.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In the novel, Morrison interweaves the stories and voices of several characters—a slave girl; an Anglo-Dutch trader; his wife; and their orphaned Native American servant, among others—who are attempting to forge lives for themselves in the New World in the 1680s. At 167 pages, the novel is slim and dense, finding room for several involving storylines while also making nuanced, intelligent, and morally powerful arguments about the nature of freedom and bondage, the formation of the American character, and the American relationship to the land. All the while, Morrison’s language is intoxicating in its sounds and rhythms, routinely achieving beautifully poetic effects without sacrificing story or sense.

Here’s one brief illustrative passage, in which Jakob, the trader, ponders making a move to Barbados in the hope of achieving greater fortune and success:

Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.

What I love about this passage is not only its surface gorgeousness, but also the ways in which Morrison uses it to breathe new life into an old, overfamiliar metaphor. This is far from the first time that the stars have been used as a metaphor for hope; the conceit is so familiar that it found its way into Disney movies generations ago, and even then it was far from fresh. But here Morrison does something remarkable: the stars become “cream” for “the tasting,” and Jakob’s hope becomes an embodied hunger, rather than an abstract gaze heavenward. This idea forges a connection with the metaphor’s ancient heart, reconnecting the dots between the hungry, restless, unsettled feeling in Jakob’s gut and the milky splash of stars above. At the same time, Morrison quietly achieves some distance from Jakob’s perspective, noting the vulgarity of the stars, and thus calling into question both the ethics of his hopes and the fact that he has no real reason to believe that he might succeed. And so Morrison also uncovers another aspect of the metaphor that contemporary readers rarely give any thought: the idea of the heavens as existing on an altogether different scale than human hopes, and the idea that the stars reveal just how small a man who wishes upon them can be.

Earlier on the same page, Morrison achieves a very different, and startling effect, using a far more novel metaphor. Jakob has suffered the deaths of several young children, and when he finds his way to the seashore in a contemplative, hopeful mood, this is how Morrison describes it:

He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves.

The vast possibilities of the ocean (and of the New World for which he has crossed it) reach Jakob only in the form of “infant waves” dying in his hands. It’s a grim, startling passage, and one made all the more sad by the fact that Jakob seems scarcely aware of the fragility of his hopes, and even less aware of how the life he dreams of forging for himself might ruin the lives and hopes of those under his power.

Morrison is also capable of imbuing her writing with intense and beautifully evoked sensuality. Here’s a passage coming only a few pages later, from the point of view of Florens, a slave who has fallen for a free black blacksmith:

There will never be enough time to look how you move. Your arm goes up to strike iron. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop to pour water first on the iron then down your throat. Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break.

Passages like these defeat my critical faculties completely—all I can do is sit back and admire them. Morrison is an engrossing storyteller and a prose stylist of the first order, and she writes with both great sensitivity and thunderous moral authority. I know this is news to precisely no one, but here I’ll say it again: Toni Morrison is a great writer, and she has fully earned her early induction into the canon.


1 Response to “Canonized alive”

  1. 1 David H. Schleicher April 12, 2009 at 7:27 PM

    I love the passages you took from A MERCY to use as examples here. Morrison is truly deserving of her exalted status and she is one of a kind in today’s literary world.

    It will be a long time before I wrestle A MERCY from my mind. JAZZ still lingers there nearly seven years after having first read it, and I imagine lits bits of this one, too…phrases or images will pop into my head at the oddest of times. That’s great writing.

    For those interested, I also posted a review of Morrison’s latest:

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