(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By Toni Morrison
Book #23 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
To understand the importance of 1987's Beloved, you need to understand that before this first novel of hers, author Toni Morrison was already a respected executive within the publishing industry, and a highly educated book-loving nerd; this is what made it so frustrating for her during the 1970s and '80s, after all, when trying to look back in history for older books detailing the historical black experience, and finding almost nothing there because of past industry discrimination, general withholding of education from blacks for decades, etc. This novel, then, is Morrison's attempt to partially right this wrong, loosely using a real historical record from the 1850s she once discovered when younger and obsessed upon for years, the story of a slave woman her age who once voluntarily killed her own child rather than let her be taken back to slave territory.
In Morrison's case, the novel is set in the decade following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, up in Ohio (in the northern US) where so many former slaves fled during the so-called "Reconstruction" of the American South in those years. As such, the actual plotline resembles the beginnings of what we now call "magical realism," a style that has become virtually its own new sub-genre in literary fiction in the last twenty years; because not only is this woman's house haunted by a violent poltergeist, but eventually even a young woman appears claiming to be Beloved herself, the bizarre revenge-seeking reincarnated version of the very daughter this woman killed during the Civil War years. But is she? Or is she a runaway taking chance advantage of intimate knowledge she randomly happened to learn through odd circumstances? And does it matter? Just as is the case with most great postmodern literature, Beloved actually tackles a lot of different bigger issues in a metaphorical way, perhaps the more important point altogether than the details of the magical part of the plot, which never does get fully resolved in a definitive way even by the end; it is instead a novel about love, about family, about responsibility, about the struggle between innate intelligence and a formal education. It is ultimately a book about the black experience, a sophisticated and complex look at some of the emotional issues people from that time period must've had to struggle with, Morrison writing their stories for them precisely because none of them were allowed to back then, or were given the education to express themselves in such an eloquent way; and as such, it's not really the "ghost" part of this ghost-story that is important at all, but rather that it serves as a convenient coat-rack in which to hang all these other issues.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, it won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, and when was the last time you won a Pulitzer, chump? Much more important than that, though, say its fans, it heralded a whole new sea-change in the global arts altogether; a triumphant moment for both black artists and women artists (and especially black women artists), a story that not only speaks powerfully and intimately to all people with that background, but that proves to the rest of the world that it's not just stuffy white dudes who can write beautiful, haunting, instantly classic literature. It's a major highlight of the postmodern period, say historians, a changing of the guard just as important as when the early Modernists shut down the Victorian Age; this one novel and its overwhelming success single-handedly ushered in a whole new golden period for the arts concerning people of color, women, the gay community and more. And not only that, but so far it's held up well too; it was not only made into an extremely high-profile movie ten years later, starring and produced by The Great And Almighty Oprah Hallowed Be Her Name Amen, but in 2006 was named by the New York Times as the very best American novel of the last 25 years.
The argument against:
A weak one, frankly; it seems that most people who read this book end up loving it, and with very little dissent found online. And a controversial argument, too; because the argument against this book being a classic seems mostly to be the anti-politically-correct argument, that books such as these got as much attention as they did in the '80s, '90s and '00s merely because the overly liberal academic community had a political agenda back then, that they were determined to usher in a new golden age for writers of color and women and the gay community, even if they had to falsely trumpet a whole series of merely okay books, or sometimes even semi-crappy ones. It's an argument more often applied to other, lesser books than Beloved, frankly; but like other books in the CCLaP 100 series, you can technically argue that this book started the entire trend, was the one that led to the lesser books afterwards that people complain about in a more valid way. I'm not sure how much water this holds, but you do see people arguing this point online.
So in many ways, this week's book very directly illustrates why I wanted to start this essay series in the first place this year, of why I first thought it good for my own life that I tackle all these so-called "classics" for the first time, and only then thought, "Oh yeah, and I could write essays about the experience afterwards too." Because I admit, as a white male with a Modernist education, I was raised as biased against books like these, and in fact until they started appearing in the '80s and '90s was one of those people who never even thought about their conspicuous absence from world classic/canon lists in the first place. Plus, I'm predisposed to dislike the so-called "ebonics" on display here in Beloved, an aspect of this book that continues to be controversial; that is, Morrison wrote all the dialogue here as actual barely-educated former slaves in the 1870s would've actually talked, making it difficult to follow along and requiring close attention while reading, a decision that some "Western Classics" style professors have accused of being damaging to the arts in the long term, and another bad legacy of the politically-correct years.
But then again, let's plainly admit that I have absolutely loved reading all these old Victorian novels that I have through the CCLaP 100 this year as well, of looking back on the nerdy little overdressed white people who were my very ancestors and seeing how they talked, behaved, what they found important, what they fretted about when the doors were closed, feeling that connection between them and myself, feeling that except for the wardrobe and funky flowery language we were actually quite alike. When thought about this way, suddenly one has a lot of empathy for what Morrison and other intelligent, educated black women went through in pre-Beloved days; they simply wanted to have the same experience I've been having with Victorian literature this year, frustratingly couldn't because of no literature from smart educated black women even existing from those years, so realized that they were going to have to write it themselves. And also when looking at it this way, you realize that the ebonics of Beloved is no worser at all than, say, the Romanticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables; both are old-fashioned language, hard for modern eyes to follow, yet historically accurate and reflecting what those times were actually like. Both require patience, both require forgiveness, but both can offer up richly rewarding experiences if taken seriously and if meeting the author halfway.
It's this essay series, this newfound attention to the historical classics, that is making my brain suddenly work in these new ways this year, to have a more patient and more expansive view of any particular project I tackle; like I said, that's the whole reason I decided to read a hundred classics in the first place, is to hopefully learn something from it, since so many people are always arguing that there's something unique and important to be learned from "reading the classics." It's why I call Beloved today an undeniable classic itself, one of the top-20 titles in fact of this entire CCLaP 100 list, why it turned out to be such a profoundly great book but only once I was ready to accept it on its own terms, and once understanding the real history it references. It gets an extremely high recommendation from me today.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
In two Fridays: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad
In three Fridays: Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
In four Fridays: The Trial, by Franz Kafka