An American great: Michiko Kakutani reflects on Toni Morrison’s legacy

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.

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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.

Danny
Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey in the 1998 film adaptation of Beloved. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Strange, surreal events proliferate in her books: there are ghosts and voodoo dolls, people falling out of windows, bags of bones dangling from the ceiling. Girls think that if the marigold seeds they plant actually bloom, a friends baby will be born safely (The Bluest Eye). An insurance agent leaps off the roof of a hospital in a crazed attempt to fly (Song of Solomon). Such fantastical developments are taken for granted by Morrisons people. Given the cruelties of history they have experienced firsthand bodies hanging from trees, 46 men chained together in the blazing Georgia sun the bizarre and monstrous no longer surprise them. Its the ordinary that too often seems out of reach.

In Home, a man named Frank remembers how his family was run out of their home in Texas: You could be inside, living in your own house for years, and still, men with or without badges but always with guns could force you, your family, your neighbors to pack up and move with or without shoes. Residents were told 24 hours or else else meaning die.

This awareness of the precariousness of life haunts Morrisons people. Some feel trapped in a deadening struggle for survival, so beaten down by grief or misfortune that they become resigned to a life in which there was no future, just long stretches of killing time. Others, driven by an avidity for adventure, set off on journeys, in search of identities they can call their own.

Many of these individuals are orphans, literally or metaphorically: people who have experienced abandonment as children or as spurned romantic partners. In the words of the heroine of A Mercy, they feel themselves to be ice floes, cut away from the riverbank, and they yearn to find something to belong to. At the same time, the hurt theyve experienced in the past makes them wary of caring too much. After all, loss and leaving are all too likely to result: parents die, children grow up, lovers move on, land is sold or stolen, people are killed or jailed. But if this is one of the lessons that Morrisons characters learn, another realisation afforded the luckier ones is that the past must sometimes be left behind, that redemption is to be found not in obsessively remembering, but in forgetting, if not forgiving.

Wanna fly, the heros best friend says in Song of Solomon, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. Indeed transcendence always remains a possibility for the women and men in Morrisons novels whether its coming to appreciate the music the world makes or finding love, in the words of a character in Beloved, with someone who takes the pieces I am and gives them back to me in all the right order.

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Michiko Kakutani is the author of The Death of Truth. The paperback edition will be released on 22 August.

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