Toni Morrison historical imagination and remarkable gifts of language made her one of the most influential writers of her generation
In novels spanning several hundred years of history, Toni Morrison used her historical imagination and her remarkable gifts of language to chronicle the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow, and their continuing fallout on the everyday lives of black Americans. Violent, heart-wrenching events occur in her fiction: a runaway slave named Sethe cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw to spare her the fate she suffered herself as a slave (Beloved); a cosmetics salesman hunts down his lover and shoots her dead (Jazz); a woman pours kerosene on her drug-addicted son and sets him on fire (Sula). Such horrifying events are acts of desperation that can be comprehended only in the context of the earlier tragedies these characters or their families have suffered. In fact, if there is one insistent theme in Morrisons novels, its the ways in which the past inexorably shapes the present, erasing innocence, cutting off options of escape, and warping relationships between women and men, parents and children.
As in William Faulkners work, the past is never dead for Morrisons people its not even past. Faulkner was clearly an influence on Morrisons writing, as were Ralph Ellison, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garca Mrquez and African American folklore. But Morrison forged from such disparate sources a voice that was all her own fierce, poetic and Proustian in its ability to fuse time present and time past.
Her 1987 masterpiece Beloved created a harrowing portrait of slavery that possesses all the resonance of a classical myth, while remaining grounded in the awful particulars of American history. Song of Solomon stands as a quintessential bildungsroman the story of one mans coming of age and rebirth, recounted in a narrative that spans allegory, realism and fable. And novels such as The Bluest Eye and Sula attest that Morrison was equally at home chronicling small-town life in the mid-20th century, with its insular dynamics and slowly shifting mores.
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