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The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison

Speaking the Unspeakable

Marc C. Conner

Publication Year: 2000

A traditional yet fresh approach to grasping the power of Morrison's writing

With essays by Yvonne Atkinson, Marc C. Conner, Susan Corey, Maria DiBattista, Barbara Johnson, Cheryl Lester, Katherine Stern, and Michael Wood

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's novels have almost exclusively been examined as sagas illuminating history, race, culture, and gender politics. This gathering of eight essays by top scholars probes Morrison's novels and her growing body of nonfiction and critical work for the complex and potent aesthetic elements that have made her a major American novelist of the twentieth century.

Through traditional aesthetic concepts such as the sublime, the beautiful, and the grotesque, through issues of form, narrative, and language, and through questions of affect and reader response, the nine essays in this volume bring into relief the dynamic and often overlooked range within Morrison's writing. Employing aesthetic ideas that range from the ancient Greeks to contemporary research in the black English oral tradition, The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison shows the potency of these ideas for interpreting Morrison's writing. This is a force Morrison herself has often suggested in her claims that Greek tragedy bears a striking similarity to "Afro-American communal structures."

At the same time each essay attends to the ways in which Morrison also challenges traditional aesthetic concepts, establishing the African American and female voices that are essential to her sensibility. The result is a series of readings that simultaneously expands our understanding of Morrison's work and also provokes new thinking about an aesthetic tradition that is nearly 2,500 years old.

These essays offer a rich complement to the dominant approaches in Morrison scholarship by revealing aspects of her work that purely ideological approaches have obscured or about which they have remained oddly silent. Each essay focuses particularly on the relations between the aesthetic and the ethical in Morrison's writing and between the artistic production and its role in the world at large. These relations show the rich political implications that aesthetic analysis engenders.

By treating both Morrison's fiction and her nonfiction, the essays reveal a mind and imagination that have long been intimately engaged with the questions and traditions of the aesthetic domain. The result is a provocative and original contribution to Morrison scholarship, and to scholarship in American letters generally.

Marc C. Conner is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University. He has published articles in Studies in American Fiction and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

This book has been encouraged and advised by a number of people to whom I am quite grateful. Arnold Rampersad, Michael Kowalewski, Eric Sundquist, and Lee Mitchell each gave helpful guidance at various stages of this project. The Works-in-Progress group at Washington and Lee University offered...

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Introduction: Aesthetics and the African American Novel

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pp. ix-xxviii

In "The World and the Jug," Ralph Ellison's powerful meditation upon the roles of aesthetics and politics in the African-American novel, Ellison makes a key distinction: "The novel," he urges, "is always a public gesture, though not necessarily a political one." Few American authors have been more...

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"Aesthetic" and "Rapport" in Toni Morrison's Sula

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pp. 3-11

Toni Morrison's novels have often been read as presenting something beloved, lost, and familiar to an African-American reader. Renita Weems, for instance, writes: "Toni Morrison is one of the few authors I enjoy rereading. Having lived in the North for the last six years (against my better senses), when...

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Language That Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison

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pp. 12-30

Toni Morrison has said, "I tend not to explain things very much, but I long for a critic who will know what I mean when I say 'Church' or 'community,' or when I say 'ancestor' or 'chorus' Because my books come out of those things and represent how they function in the [B]lack cosmology" (McKay, "Interview" 151). As...

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Toward the Limits of Mystery: The Grotesque in Toni Morrison's Beloved

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pp. 31-48

Since its publication in 1987, Toni Morrison's Beloved has challenged and engaged readers with its moving portrayal of Sethe, an ex-slave woman, in her struggle to construct a new identity out of the horrors of her past life. Multiple plot lines, shifting points of view, and complicated chronology all...

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From the Sublime to the Beautiful: The Aesthetic Progression of Toni Morrison

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pp. 49-76

The great truism of Morrison scholarship is that her primary theme is "community." Certainly each novel rigorously engages such issues as what constitutes a community, what function a community serves, what threatens a community, what helps it survive. As Morrison herself has said, "If anything I do...

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Toni Morrison's Beauty Formula

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pp. 77-91

"The concept of physical beauty as a virtue," Toni Morrison wrote in 1974, "is one of the dumbest, most pernicious and destructive ideas of the Western world, and we should have nothing to do with it" ("Behind the Making" 89). Morrison was responding to the slogan "Black is Beautiful" which she took...

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Contentions in the House of Chloe: Morrison's Tar Baby

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pp. 92-112

Is "Once upon a time" the oldest narrative entry into the world? So conjectures Toni Morrison in support of her belief, vigorously defended in her Nobel Laureate Address, that narrative is "one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge" (7). Whatever else can be inferred from such a statement...

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Sensations of Loss

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pp. 113-124

One of the most striking features of Toni Morrison's fiction is the brilliance of its apparently casual, often bleak insights; what it knows without seeming to know at all. "The neighbors seemed pleased when the babies smothered.... They did all the right things, of course: brought food, telephoned...

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Meditations on a Bird in the Hand: Ethics and Aesthetics in a Parable by Toni Morrison

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pp. 125-138

My reflections on aesthetic ideology in Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize Lecture appear in what follows as a form of call-and-response, staying very much in the neighborhood and spirit and order of the Lecture. They engage and resonate with the aesthetic principles foregrounded in the Lecture rather than...

Works Cited

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pp. 139-148


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pp. 149-150


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pp. 151-153

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030836
E-ISBN-10: 1578062853
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578062850

Publication Year: 2000