- Introduction:Canonizing Toni Morrison
Now That Toni Morrison Has Been Awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature, it has become almost unimaginable or unspeakable to mention the struggles that marked her early career as a writer. In a 1987 essay, Barbara Christian laments that "in no way is the literature [that] Morrison, [Paule] Marshall, or [Alice] Walker create supported by the academic world" (61-62), but recent and forthcoming narratives of Morrison's career have, or no doubt will, suggest that her genius was apparent from the publication of her very first novel, that it was clear in 1970 what she would come to mean to us by 1994.1 I want to open this special double-issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to Toni Morrison by pursuing an alternative narrative, re-membering at least part of the story of Morrison's coming to national and global consciousness, a story punctuated by disappointment as well as triumph.
In the mid to late 1960s, Morrison was a single parent raising two sons alone in Syracuse, New York. She wrote The Bluest Eye at night after her children had gone to sleep, having spent her days working as a textbook editor for L. W. Singer, a subsidiary of Random House. In various interviews, she has mentioned the isolation and loneliness she experienced while living in Syracuse, a place where [End Page 461] she had no kin, no community, and how she wrote in order to reconnect herself to these important forces. Her manuscript for the novel was rejected by more than one publisher before Holt, Rinehart, and Winston agreed to publish it.2 By 1974, however, The Bluest Eye was out of print.
Her second novel, Sula, had appeared in 1974 (copyright 1973) to perhaps wider recognition than The Bluest Eye, but quickly garnered its share of negative reviews among the positive ones. Perhaps the most cutting was by Sara Blackburn of the New York Times Book Review, who claimed that Morrison's first novel had been "received rather uncritically," its flaws being ignored because (white) middle-class women readers and reviewers wanted to become more socially conscious about black women. Blackburn then went on to criticize Morrison (and Sula) for not "transcending] that early and unintentionally limiting classification 'black woman writer' and tak[ing] her place among the most serious, important and talented American novelists now working." Blackburn's opinion that "Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life" (emphasis added) would perhaps have elicited a nod of the head from readers of the New York Times Book Review in 1973, but by 1994, this comment seems almost unthinkable. How markedly have Morrison's fortunes shifted in just 20 years. And how interesting that the New York Times Book Review piece on Playing in the Dark in 1992 would open by lauding Morrison for the very quality that Blackburn had condemned her for: "Toni Morrison is both a great novelist and the closest thing the country has to a national writer. The fact that she speaks as a woman and a black only enhances her ability to speak as an American, for the path to a common voice nowadays runs through the partisan" (Steiner 1).3
The shift from Blackburn's view to Steiner's has not easily taken place. Morrison's breakthrough into widespread recognition and acclaim began with the 1977 publication of Song of Solomon. Although Sula had been excerpted in Redbook, had been offered as an alternative selection by the Book of the Month Club, and was nominated in 1975 for the National Book Award in Fiction, Song of Solomon was named a Book of the Month Club selection, the first book by a olack writer to receive such an endorsement since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940. Song of Solomon also won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and became a bestseller in paperback. Tar Baby, the 1981 novel that followed this success, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for four months and catapulted [End Page...