I discovered Toni Morrison in 1987, the year Beloved was published. But rather than jumping straight into that volume, freshly minted as a masterwork by critics, I decided to approach her work chronologically. So I read all of her extant novels in order—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby—each time marveling at the language and the profound way she captured the inner lives of her characters and their very specific worlds. By the time I reached Beloved, I was already in love.
But still, I wasn’t quite prepared. From the unforgettable, mysterious opening line—“124 was spiteful”—I knew I was embarking upon a unique reading experience. Beloved is that rare book that seems written by an unseen hand, as if Morrison were channeling a force as profound as the ghostly character of Beloved herself. If her subsequent books were a bit disappointing, it was only by comparison. Masterpieces like that one have no sequels.
When we talk about the Great American Novel, I think we’re talking about a story that epitomizes an aspect of the American experience—books like The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, Absalom, Absalom! Books like Beloved. These are novels that talk daringly about fundamental truths of the American character, books that make the reader engage with our understanding of what it means to be an American. Hawthorne made us confront our sense of morality—whether it was to be found in religion or more simply, in every human heart. Fitzgerald asked whether the American dream was just a romantic illusion. Faulkner questioned the idea of power, whether any person’s success is worth what he has to do to other people to achieve it.
Like Faulkner, Morrison examined the original sin of America. Slavery is the immediate backdrop for Beloved, and its aftereffects haunt even Morrison’s novels that take place in the 20th century.
But no novel is great simply because of its content. Many people have written about slavery, as well as other classic themes of literature. A great writer brings those themes to life through powerful language. Morrison’s work is so moving and resonant because of the writing itself, the way the words move on the page. She created a language of her own, just as much as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Her neologisms still live in my memory (the “crawling-already baby” of Beloved); the poetry of her sentences and the astuteness of her insights can leave me breathless. Her work is meant to be read aloud, like the words of an oral poet, or the proclamations of an oracle.
I learned of Toni Morrison’s death on the New York Times web page, her majestic profile painfully displayed under an article about domestic terror in El Paso, 22 innocent people murdered by a white supremacist. The juxtaposition was chilling, and telling. So many of Morrison’s characters are the victims of hatred, and the stench of racism permeates her work, in novels spanning from the antebellum period to the present day. Her work celebrates the power of resistance and is grounded in the life and words and music of the African American community, in particular—as American as jazz.
I was shocked by her death, shocked again to learn that she was 88 years old. It hadn’t really occurred to me that she had reached that age. I suppose I thought of Toni Morrison as somehow immortal. She was a giant—for me, the greatest novelist of her time, and mine.
So I’ll take back the shock. She is immortal, as immortal as the ghost of 124, albeit without the spite.
And the books are still on the shelf, speaking to us all.