restricted access The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism, and: Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction, and: Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism (review)
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Reviewed by
Bessie W. Jones and Audrey L. Vinson. The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism. Dubuque: Kendall, 1985. 158 pp. pb. $12.95.
Keith E. Byerman. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1986. 308 pp. $30.00.
Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot, eds. Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism. Studies in Black American Literature 2. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1986. 262 pp. No price given.

Jones and Vinson's book on Morrison is more of a pedagogical tool than it is a theoretical exploration of Morrison's work. Byerman's book, like the collection of essays that Weixlmann and Fontenot edit, probes fundamental questions as to how Afro-American literary criticism is practiced. In particular, both books attempt to move beyond the limitations perceived in the Black Aesthetic as a critical mode and to apply some aspect of Marxist and/or poststructuralist criticism to the analysis of Afro-American fiction.

The World of Toni Morrison is composed of nine essays by Jones and Vinson and an interview with Morrison. Each essay is followed by a series of study questions that attempt to suggest relationships between Morrison's literary and rhetorical choices and those of established Euro-American writers.

The essays in this book are structured by the metaphor of escape, which [End Page 635] the authors see as being developed in terms of imagery, rhetorical devices, and the supernatural. They also identify what they call "negations" in Morrison's work, and these "negations" are analyzed as a recurrent thematic concern.

Their individual discussions are precise and useful in providing a gateway into Morrison's fiction for students and general readers who might not be familiar with her work. The first essay, "The Other World of Toni Morrison," contextualizes her work by relating it to what Vinson calls "the grotesque as an American genre in the tradition of writers which include Sherwood Anderson, Andrew Lyttle, Flanney O'Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner." Using the "grotesque" as a model, she then moves through Morrison's canon, demonstrating the way metaphors work to develop this preoccupation. Similarly, in "Greek Tragic Motifs in Song of Solomon," Morrison's work is discussed to illustrate its relationship to an existing mode of expression. In particular, imagery and symbolism are analyzed as techniques that connect Morrison's work to Greek tragedy.

As noted, this book is best characterized as a teaching text to aid in making Morrison's work accessible to those who have familiarity with existing themes and techniques in the Euro-American literary canon as well as those who have little or no familiarity with Morrison's work.

Byerman's book makes the obligatory condemnation of the Black Arts Movement by separating that movement's aesthetic from the attempt at institution building (small presses, theaters, community centers, etc.) that, after all, was half the dialectic of the Black Arts Movement. His thesis is that Ellison's Invisible Man—through its utilization of modernist techniques, its laying claim to aspects of American culture that, at the very least, have black influence, and its utilization of black folk culture—opens the creative boundaries for a generation of Afro-American writers.

Byerman organizes his study in pairs (James Alan McPherson and Ernest Gaines, Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker, Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison, Leon Forrest and Clarence Major) with the exception of entire chapters on Ellison and on Ishmael Reed. The Ellison chapter foregrounds the discussion of the ways folklore, ideology, and various rhetorical choices associated with modernism and postmodernism interact with the contemporary writers he studies. The Reed chapter discusses that writer's "Neo-HooDoo Aesthetic" as an actuality rather than an affectation.

Byerman's reasons for pairing the writers as he does are arbitrary and in some ways internally inconsistent. For example, he says that Bambara and Walker are discussed in the same chapter because, in part, they use "the traditional devices of fiction, such as chronological plot development, reliable narrators, round characters, and realistic situations and actions." But in his discussion of Bambara's The Salt Eaters, which is her only novel, he says that "the black...


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