Saturday, September 09, 2006

Another View: Toni Morrison's Beloved

Actually, JVS in MS sent in her review first, but I was holding it back until I got Flicka's because I wanted to run them both at about the same time. Without further ado...

In a May 21, 2006, article, the NY Times calls Beloved by Toni Morrison the best work of American fiction from the past 25 years. In an unscientific survey taken of 125 hand-chosen literary ‘sages,’ the winning book garnered 15 votes. That’s how divided the choices were, among those whom agreed to make a choice. According to the Times article, Beloved was the clear choice for many of the critics, even if they did not concede an opinion. To reference the article, look here.

In an equally unscientific fashion, Mr. Bethke invited me to give my perspective on the Times’ choice of Beloved. Rather than write an analytical essay through one of many choices of critical lenses, my effort was to find some consensus on the value of the book, based on a sampling of a few others’ views. (I have to admit that when Bethke’s initial blog about Beloved arose, I confused the story with Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The stories are strangely similar, but I won’t go into that now.)

In the 1990’s, I worked in the English department of a Northern university, where I also attended grad school. There, I observed the interpretive styles and maverick egos of a wide variety of literary critics. Under the banner of academic freedom, few faculty can agree on anything at one given time. In fact, they can all be saying the same essential thing in a meeting, but disagree by using their own rhetoric just for argument’s sake. (I’m sure that never happens in other disciplines or work forces, right?) That helps to explain the slim-edged agreement among the above-mentioned literary sages. Much to its credit, my university faculty one year chose Beloved as the common text which all freshmen would read and discuss in their first semester of college English. For the first and perhaps only time, the entire faculty agreed that this was a good choice, which allowed for varied levels of discussion and revelations about the Reconstruction and Emancipation following the War Between the States. On soil where no blood spilled from this war, this was a good choice of text, especially in the Great White North.

As a college literature text, Beloved provides a wealth of practice in literary analysis. Here is a link to an interesting essay using psychoanalysis as a lens to understanding the text. For an in-depth look at the black cultural aspects of Beloved, I would be remiss if I didn’t provide this link to the African American Review’s article.

But the NY Times bestowed Beloved with “best American fiction,” – literary acumen with a wide berth. Choosing “the best of” anything is like the old question of; ‘if you were stranded on a desert isle, which one book would you take?’ For me, it’s a not tough choice, and it’s something quite different! Yet, Beloved is an important novel which will stand the test of time. It’s already standard on most college English class reading lists. When it was first published in 1987, it won resounding praise and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Toni Morrison weaves many layers of slave narrative, African American culture, spirituality, and struggles of emancipated blacks after the Civil War. This rich tapestry is given life through the eyes of one woman who finds salvation on many levels in her particularly tragic life. For these elements, I have to agree with the NY Times’ choice, for the way Morrison illuminates, via historical fiction, an ugly (and still haunting) part of the American fabric. Believe me, I did not want to agree that Beloved is the best, but I must maintain that it is vitally important for many reasons -- not the least of which that it was written by an African American woman. For me, it is also important to note the epigraph at the beginning of the book, which quotes the one book I would take with me to a desert island.

Margaret Atwood wrote a review of Beloved in the NY Times (September 13, 1987), and called it a “triumph.” Atwood makes clear for readers the connection of the epigraph (from Romans, in the Bible) to the overarching theme of the book. The depth of this fiction is notable. Beloved is not pulp fiction -- it is the kind of literature in which you will continue to find meaning in every chapter, every reading. If you have not read the book, you will find this review helpful for plot overview, character introductions, and thematic metaphors.

So, let’s have a little reality check. How much credence does the NY Times have about literature? For one thing, the paper has a bevy of hot critics writing reviews of new books every week! It can make or break a book and its author. I remember the “Sex and the City” episode in which Carrie hangs on every word of the Times’ review of her new book. If it is the center of American Cultural Intelligence, as evidenced in its own egocentric view, it carries a lot of clout in its sphere of readers and writers. How much influence does the choice by the NY Times for the ‘book of the quarter century’ have?

Beloved is not making literary waves in the Deep South at this moment, it seems. (That the story is set in Ohio may have some influence; after all, that’s a “Yankee State.”) In checking my local library, there are three (of three) copies of Morrison’s novel on the shelf. None are checked out, none are reserved. The regional library system for the entire southern half of Mississippi shows three copies available. Perhaps Hurricane Katrina swept some away.

The other day I was outraged, or at least a little reflective, when I found that the movie, Beloved, is not at our local Blockbuster, and not even at the local library. The closest available copy is 60 miles away. Here I am, in the Deep South, in a town held siege by the Yankees, and there is not one copy of an ‘important’ Oprah Winfrey movie available! (I am not an Oprah fan, so this movie may have been one exception where I would give her any credence.) This is not to say that the movie version of Beloved is true to the novel (since I haven’t seen it); few movies are. It would have been nice to see the movie, to compare and contrast! The movie received mixed reviews: Boston Tech clearly did not like the movie. However, the reviewer has no business doubting the book’s Pulitzer Prize, since he admits to not reading it. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News did like the movie: clearly, in popular culture, there is not only a lack of interest in Beloved, but also symptoms of apathy for what it represents.

Everyone has their own favorite stack of books of mixed genres, and to choose just one is nearly impossible. I agree that Beloved is an important novel, but reserve the right to say that the “best” may be in the eyes of the beholder.