Toni Morrison, as you will have heard, died this week. The many news outlets will have covered her more fully and better than I can here. So rather than offer a retrospective, I want to share some thoughts that I haven’t heard expressed. I only hope they do her justice.
Among the avalanche of Morrisonia the week brought was one that claimed that she was America’s greatest writer. My immediate response was, not sure I could or would refute it, but how does one judge? I cannot. What I can say is that, for me, she is one of three indispensable contemporary novelists, along with Gabriel García Marquéz and John Fowles. They were of the same generation, Fowles having arrived on the scene a year before García Marquéz and five before Morrison. Their oeuvres were light on titles but dense. And they showed us new possibilities for the novel–new forms, new subjects, new treatments, new and stunning uses of language. Morrison’s language was poetic, soaring and earthy, sometimes all at the same time. I once had a student, a journalist lately returned to school, who simply could not get with Song of Solomon because it was too purple. Of course, his rigorous training in the limiting language of newspapers and his fondness for Hemingway made her style harder to accept. Yet her language was, like that of the other two writers, perfectly suited to the task at hand. And magnificent.
All three brought something else readers desperately needed: magic. Fowles offered a special kind of magic, born out of the novel’s form and the possibilities contained in it, possibilities no one had ever quite explored before. The tired term “magical realism” (I may have helped tire it out) was inevitably applied to GGM’s work, but that was all right, since he and his fellow Latin American writers of the Boom were first responsible for it. But when applied to Morrison’s, it made her sound derivative, and that is something she never was. Morrison’s magic was unique to her, owing only to the her own experience in her own place and time, where one child could be nicknamed Milkman and his best friend Guitar, where there were flying Africans and ghostly daughters.
In 1981, John Barth, no slouch among inventive novelists, published an essay called “The Literature of Replenishment,” in which he offered a mea culpa for having declared a mere four years earlier that the novel had exhausted its possibilities. Suddenly, he had discovered, maybe some new approaches had indeed turned up on the doorstep. As evidence, he gave us the examples of Gabo, whom we’ve been discussing, and the Italian arch-postmodernist Italo Calvino. He wasn’t wrong, but maybe the initial diagnosis had been. In an eleven-year period ending in 1977, the year of that premature postmortem, three novels appeared that blew up our understanding of what the novel could do: Gabo’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Song of Solomon. Thank you, Toni Morrison, for the many gifts.