I want to try to understand an episode in Toni Morrison's Beloved that bears a curious resemblance to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is the episode in which a traveling, young, poor white character named Amy Denver helps Sethe in her escape from slavery. The episode is introduced as a familiar and important story for Sethe's daughter Denver, who has been named after this character who helped Sethe deliver Denver during Sethe's escape—deliver her from slavery and from Sethe's womb. Denver remembers and reimagines this story during the course of Morrison's novel in something like the way the novel may suggest her readers reimagine not only Sethe's story but its relation to Twain's, and much of the racialized United States literature and culture that Twain's novel is often taken to represent.
Morrison has described that culture in her nonfiction in terms of the "solitude" and "separate confinement" of canonical American literature, especially as it has tended to be read by a critical tradition that emphasizes its romance, its flight, its individualism, its exceptionalism, and its supposedly ahistorical, apolitical nature ("Unspeakable" 1, 12). But she suggests it is also a literature and culture that [End Page 501] in certain ways may not be as separate from history as it has come to appear:
It only seems that the canon of American literature is "naturally" or "inevitably" "white." In fact it is studiously so. In fact these absences of vital presences in Young American literature may be the insistent fruit of the scholarship rather than the text. Perhaps some of these writers, although under current house arrest, have much more to say than has been realized.(14)
As Denver reimagines the story in Morrison's novel that most resembles Twain's, it begins to seem that Morrison's novel is itself taking up again and reimagining this literary tradition of "the American romance." Julia Kristeva has analyzed a similarly naturalized, ahistorical romance of mother and child in psychoanalysis that I will adapt to the more specific contexts addressed in both Twain's and Morrison's novels. These novels address an ongoing cultural crisis as cultural work in progress—the psychic and social power of the discourse of American romance, and the psychic and social polarizations on which that discourse depends. Together, these novels suggest how such romances may also work to enable the reimagining and restructuring of those same psychic and social polarizations.
Morrison's writing in both fiction and nonfiction suggests how such a cultural work in progress might be carried out. In an essay called "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature," she recommends "the examination and reinterpretation of the American canon . . . for the ways in which the presence of Afro-Americans has shaped the choices, the language, the structure—the meaning of so much American literature. A search, in other words, for the ghost in the machine" (11). Morrison's essay is an example of recent changes in American studies in general, related to what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has called "a new black aesthetic movement," consisting especially of close readings of the social text "to reveal cultural contradictions and the social aspects of literature, the larger dynamics of subjection and incorporation through which the subject is produced." Drawing on but escaping "both the social organicism of the black arts movement and the formalist organicism of the 'reconstructionists,'" such readings problematize, Gates says, both the "black" and the "aesthetic": "No longer, for example, are the concepts of black and white thought to be preconstituted; rather, they are mutually constitutive and socially produced" (309). Thus instead of declaring her social or formal [End Page 502] independence from an American cultural context largely characterized by just such declarations of independence, Morrison's essays and novels have focused on changing, contextualized encounters and interactions between a racialized culture and the sometimes unspoken but irrepressible presence she calls here the ghost in the machine.
Morrison demonstrates in her essay how this ghostly presence...