"Peace Which Passeth Understanding"
By Gabriel Blanchard
Morrison re-presents a perennial theme in our literature: the mystery of iniquity, of not only suffering but active evil. She also hints at one response to it.
The CLT Author Bank includes only a small number of near-contemporary writers. This is deliberate. Our “rule of thumb” for evaluating whether to consider a work a classic—and thus germane to our test, so to speak—is the question, Has this withstood the test of time? Has it triumphed over marketing cycles, political fads, and (worst of all) academic literary analyses, and stuck around to engage generation after generation of readers? There’s a certain amount of inevitable subjective judgment in such a rule, to be sure, but it does help us pin our idea of the Western canon to something more universal than our personal likings.
It does, however, also leave us with a slightly ragged latter “edge” on our list. For material published within, say, the last fifty years, the test of time has not had time to be applied. This leads to a more historical character in our Author Bank, which we have always considered appropriate: even setting aside the fact that the past shapes the present (whereas we can only guess what is now shaping the future), the context of the distant past is often difficult to understand and interpret, and there is quite simply far more of it. It therefore requires a great deal of effort and time to impart the great books of the past to our students. But we do want to give them some impression of the last fifty years of history as well; if material from five centuries ago is still important enough to read today, then five decades surely qualifies! And so we have a few authors whose floruit* begins right up near the brink of the fifty-year “cutoff”—our best-educated guesses at who will prove to be a classic writer.
The latest of these best guesses of ours, born in 1931, was named Chloe Ardelia Wofford. Raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she converted to Catholicism at the age of 12, adopting a Christian name after St. Anthony of Padua; she then took her husband’s surname when she was married in 1958. Together, these produced the name we know her by: Toni Morrison.
Like all the twentieth-century American writers on our Bank, Morrison grew up in a country that was largely segregated. We tend to think of the South when this topic comes up, but President Woodrow Wilson had introduced segregation to the federal government, and the North, though certainly a stronghold of Abolitionism, did not necessarily want integration, either.** The Wofford family had roots in Alabama and Georgia, but migrated northwards to avoid terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan and similar movements; they settled in Louvain, Ohio, an integrated town. Here, when Morrison was only two years old, their landlord chose a bold and original manner to express his displeasure with their inability to pay the rent ($4 per month in 1933—still only a little over $90 today): setting fire to the house with the family inside. Neither boldness nor originality, however, guarantee the success of arson any more than of literature. No one seems to have been injured, and Morrison, recounting the story decades later as told to her by her parents, said that all they could do in the face of this ghastly yet also bizarre act of malice was to laugh at him. This indomitable self-possession may have been one of the chief gifts the Woffords gave their daughter: though she came of age and spent much of her career in a country that did much to inspire hatred, rage, despair, or scorn from its Black citizens, Morrison showed neither these qualities nor any lack of spirit in speaking and writing, whether as a teacher of literature or as a creator in her own right.
As many of our readers doubtless know already, much of this literary output was fiction, usually historical fiction, sometimes with touches of magical realism. Many themes and plot elements in Morrison’s work are highly disturbing; most deal extensively with the long-term effects of growing up in a society whose members consider you inferior (which is quite a different question from whether they like you or not). The Bluest Eye, her 1970 debut novel, revolves around a young Black woman who is convinced as a child by neighbors that her race makes her ugly, and desperately wishes that her eyes would turn blue. In 1977, her third novel was published, called Song of Solomon; it recounts the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of Macon Dead III, who is known chiefly by the oddly-acquired nickname of “Milkman.” Both books feature families that have been warped and shattered by the agonies of poverty, addiction, abuse, and insanity.
But Morrison’s most celebrated novel is doubtless 1987’s Beloved. She drew the plot partly from the tragic and horrifying case of Margaret Garner. Beloved is set in the 1870s; its main character is a woman named Sethe†, who spent much of her life on a plantation in Kentucky. She now lives with her younger daughter in Ohio; her two sons ran away, and the locals shun her. She believes the house is haunted by her elder daughter’s ghost. A man named Paul who once lived on the same plantation comes to visit, expels the ghost, and begins to court Sethe. He persists in his suit despite the appearance at the house of a mysterious, demanding young woman calling herself only “Beloved.” However, the local people explain to Paul that they shun Sethe not due to occult misfortune, but because it was she who killed the girl—for though the Civil War was now over and emancipation was law, Sethe had escaped from the plantation before the war. When slave-catchers surrounded her household, she resolved to kill both her children and herself rather than go back, but she had succeeded in killing only one daughter. Despite the continued survival and freedom of Sethe and her other three children, she is not remorseful, maintaining that she had attempted to do what was right: “to put my babies where they would be safe.” Paul, horrified, tells Sethe that her love is “too thick”; she retorts hollowly that “thin love is no love.”
This brings us only about halfway through the novel’s plot, and some of its most disturbing and captivating passages alike still lie ahead. Obviously, novels like these are not the sort to suit everyone’s palate! (Even a happy conclusion, if one is possible with such a gutting setup, would risk feeling like a mockery.) And certainly not every novel dealing with the issue of race, in a historical setting or not, needs to be quite this intense.
But if plots like these seem far-fetched or uncalled for, and more especially if they seem somehow inappropriate to the heights of wisdom the Western canon is meant to teach—think for a momentof that canon. What would remain to it if it were purged of the gruesome, the shocking, and the sacrilegious? Certainly not the Oedipus Rex Aristotle declared the perfect tragedy, nor the Inferno, and there presumably goes the Divine Comedy entire. And plainly that many more are similarly ill-fated: Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello, all but some scattered lines of the Iliad and the Æneid, Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (surely the products of a sickly mind). Not even the Bible; or rather, especially not the Bible!
Morrison did not include these horrors for mere shock value, any more than Dante or Shakespeare—or, to offer more pertinent examples, Tubman or Douglass. These works are seeking to process, accept, and on some level reconcile the past. They must therefore deal frankly with that past, in all of its ugliness. Though she did not condemn anger in the face of injustices and agonies, she also chose in some way to forsake anger—not in favor of complacency, but in favor of keeping her eyes on her chosen work, work she chose because she believed it was worth doing, no matter what. Perhaps it was her parents’ light-hearted poise under attack; perhaps it was the influence of her friends and allies in the civil rights movement, like Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., Huey P. Newton, and Muhammad Ali; perhaps it was the influence of the brilliantly eloquent and peace-loving Franciscan whose name she chose as her own.
*The stock phrase floruit circa means “flourished around,” indicating an approximate date when a historical figure was active; floruit is thus sometimes used as a shorthand for the period during which an artist or scholar produced most or all of their work.
**The state of Oregon, for instance, was admitted to the Union as a free state that outright banned Black residents by force of law. The last of the Black exclusion laws was not repealed until 1926.
†Pronounced See-tha, as if to half-rhyme with the name “Aoife.”
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy our podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by CLT founder Jeremy Tate. Or, if you’d like to see more about the great men and women of our Author Bank, check out these profiles of St. Augustine, Lady Julian of Norwich, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Ida B. Wells.
Published on 6th February, 2023. Page image of The Modern Medea by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1867), inspired by the historical case of Margaret Garner as Morrison’s novel Beloved was; Noble fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but after Appomattox he moved to the north and completed several celebrated Abolitionist paintings.