Thursday, February 22, 2007

Beloved (belated)

Toni Morrison's masterpiece, the best American novel of the past 25 years according to a New York Times survey, came out 20 years ago. For that long, through its rapid canonization in college English departments and its popular acceptance as a classic, I avoided it. A slave mother would rather kill her children than see them into the life she'd known? I didn't care to suffer the details.

This semester, thanks to Minrose Gwin's seminar in southern literature, history, memory, and trauma, which she has generously allowed me to audit, I put myself to the task.

Morrison has said that she started writing because she couldn't find the kind of novel that she wanted to read. "I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding--people who can't be faked, people who don't need to be patronized, people who have very, very high criteria," she has said.

It's one thing to know that enslaved families had no legal protection, that on whims of others they were broken up, split apart, auctioned, bartered and traded away. From the point of view of the master class, it was economics: "most commonly the articles [the enslaved] sell best, singly; and therefore they ought, in general, to be so offered," wrote North Carolina judge Thomas Ruffin (Cannon v. Jenkins, 1830). And it's one thing to know that attempted flight from slavery was perilous and just as likely to result in families broken, unable to reunite or even to know who survived and who didn't. Morrison plumbs the depths of these stories.

Beloved carries the reader toward trauma, shattering and irrevocable. The form, inseparable from the content, conveys as much: "124 was spiteful" reads the alienating first line. With time and patience you discover that 124 is a house number, that the house is not just filled with spite but is the very source of spite, owing to the presence of an agitated baby ghost; that the ghost is capable of being run out of the house, only to return, palpably and insistently, as a young woman offering some potential for healing. But no one emerges whole in the end. These lives are unable to gain the consistency or coherence that could anchor them in wholeness, though there's plenty of effort and longing.

It's one thing to know that babies were separated early from their mothers. It's another to learn that the only thing Baby Suggs can remember about her firstborn is the way she liked the acrid taste of burned bread.

"We could move," [Sethe] suggested once to her mother-in-law.
"What'd be the point?" asked Baby Suggs. "Not a house in the country ain't packed to its rafters with some dead Negro's grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby. My husband's spirit was to come back in here? or yours? Don't talk to me. You lucky. You got three left. Three pulling at your skirts and just one raising hell from the other side. Be thankful, why don't you? I had eight. Every one of them gone away from me. Four taken, four chased, and all, I expect, worrying somebody's house into evil." Baby Suggs rubbed her eyebrows. "My firstborn. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that? Eight children and that's all I remember."
"That's all you let yourself remember," Sethe had told her, but she was down to one herself--one alive, that is--the boys chased off by the dead one, and her memory of Buglar was fading fast. Howard at least had a head shape nobody could forget. As for the rest, she worked hard to remember as close to nothing as was safe. . . .

Sethe tries not to remember, yet she can't not remember. "The undoing of the self in trauma involves a radical disruption of memory," writes Susan J. Brison,* "a severing of past from present and, typically, an inability to envision a future." Time contracts to the present moment. Having been reduced to objects ("articles" as Judge Ruffin called them), having lost faith that the world holds any safety, victims of trauma are abandoned to a primal searching for a self.

Beloved has a basis in fact, the story of Margaret Garner, a fugutive slave from Kentucky. Writes Morrison in an introduction to the novel, "The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space for my purposes."

Last fall when I spoke on Elizabeth Spencer's novel The Voice at the Back Door and its reinscription of an actual event, the Carrollton Massacre of 1886, I was asked a great question: what is the relationship of the novel to the history? It's a question that deserves a long answer, because the relationship of history to fiction is deep and tangled; but the short answer is this: History can tell us what happened and, to an extent, why. But it takes a skilled novelist to tell us how it felt. A suspicion of this truth--or, perhaps, in Brison's words, "an active fear of empathizing with those whose terrifying fate forces us to acknowledge that we are not in control of our own"--is what kept me from approaching this powerful, essential American novel for so long.

*Susan J. Brison, "Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self," in Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present (Univ. Press of New England, 1999).

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