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Speaking the Unspeakable
<p class="red">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.
The Emotional Structure of Stories
Stories engage our emotions. We’ve known this at least since the days of Plato and Aristotle. What this book helps us to understand now is how our own emotions fundamentally organize and orient stories. In light of recent cognitive research and wide reading in different narrative traditions, Patrick Colm Hogan argues that the structure of stories is a systematic product of human emotion systems. Examining the ways in which incidents, events, episodes, plots, and genres are a function of emotional processes, he demonstrates that emotion systems are absolutely crucial for understanding stories. Hogan also makes a case for the potentially integral role that stories play in the development of our emotional lives. He provides an in-depth account of the function of emotion within story—in widespread genres with romantic, heroic, and sacrificial structures, and more limited genres treating parent/child separation, sexual pursuit, criminality, and revenge—as these appear in a variety of cross-cultural traditions. In the course of the book Hogan develops interpretations of works ranging from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to African oral epics, from Sanskrit comedy to Shakespearean tragedy. Integrating the latest research in affective science with narratology, this book provides a powerful explanatory account of narrative organization.
A Study of the Sociocultural Dynamics of Faith
This study of atheist African American writers poses a substantive challenge to those who see atheism in despairing and nihilistic terms. Lackey argues that while most white atheists mourn the loss of faith, many black atheists--believing the "God-concept" spawns racism and oppression--consider the death of God a cause for personal and political hope.
Focusing on a little-discussed aspect of African American literature, this full-length analysis of African American atheists' treatment of God fills a huge gap in studies that consistently ignore their contributions. Examining how a belief in God and His "chosen people" necessitates a politics of superiority and inferiority, Lackey implicitly considers the degree to which religious faith is responsible for justifying oppression, even acts of physical and psychological violence.
In their secular vision of social and political justice, black atheists argue that only when the culture adopts and internalizes a truly atheist politics--one based on pluralism, tolerance, and freedom--will radical democracy be achieved. Of primary interest to scholars of African American studies, this volume also will appeal to religious scholars, philosophers, anthropologists, freethinkers, and religious and secular humanists.
Vol. 43 (2009) through current issue
African American Review is a scholarly aggregation of insightful essays on African American literature, theatre, film, the visual arts, and culture; interviews; poetry; fiction; and book reviews. The Review has featured renowned writers and cultural critics including Trudier Harris, Arnold Rampersad, Hortense Spillers, Amiri Baraka, Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed. The official publication of the Modern Language Association's Divison on Black American Literature and Culture, African American Review fosters a vigorous conversation on African American literature and culture among writers and scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
In identifying Jim Crow with the coming of modernity, Smethurst focuses on how artists reacted to the system’s racial territorialization, especially in urban areas, with migration narratives, poetry about the black experience, and black performance of popular culture forms such as ragtime and vaudeville. He shows how black writers such as Fenton Johnson and William Stanley Braithwaite circulated some of the earliest and strongest ideas about an American “bohemia.” Smethurst also upsets the customary assessment of the later Harlem Renaissance as the first and primary site of a nationally significant black arts movement by examining the influence of these earlier writers and artists on the black and white modernists who followed. In so doing, Smethurst brings forward a host of understudied figures while recontextualizing the work of canonical authors such as Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and James Weldon Johnson. As such, Smethurst positions his work as part of the current growing intellectual conversation about the nature of African American literature and culture between Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance. Far from being a “nadir” period, Smethurst argues, this period saw black artists creating cultural forms from which issued some of the most significant literary works of the twentieth century.
Mobility and Cultural Work in the Age of Jim Crow
During the Jim Crow era, African American travelers faced the prospects of violence, harassment, and the denial of services, especially as they made their way throughout the American South. Those who journeyed outside the United States found not only a political and social context that was markedly different from America’s, but in their international mobility, they also discovered new ways of identifying themselves in relation to others. In this book, Gary Totten examines the global travel narratives of a diverse set of African American writers, including Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, Matthew Henson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston. While these writers deal with issues of identity in relation to a reimagined sense of self—in a way that we might expect to find in travel narratives—they also push against the constraints and conventions of the genre, reconsidering discourses of tourism, ethnography, and exploration. This book not only offers new insights about African American writers and mobility, it also charts the ideological distinctions and divergent agendas within this group of writers. Totten demonstrates how these travelers and their writings challenged dominant ideologies about African American experience, expression, and identity in a period of escalating racial violence. By setting these texts in their historical context and within the genre of travel writing, Totten presents a nuanced understanding of both popular and recovered work of the period.
Toni Morrison herself has long urged for organic critical readings of her works. K. Zauditu-Selassie delves deeply into African spiritual traditions, clearly explaining the meanings of African cosmology and epistemology as manifest in Morrison's novels. The result is a comprehensive, tour-de-force critical investigation of such works as The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Paradise, Love, Beloved, and Jazz.
While others have studied the African spiritual ideas and values encoded in Morrison's work, African Spiritual Traditions in the Novels of Toni Morrison is the most comprehensive. Zauditu-Selassie explores a wide range of complex concepts, including African deities, ancestral ideas, spiritual archetypes, mythic trope, and lyrical prose representing African spiritual continuities.
Zauditu-Selassie is uniquely positioned to write this book, as she is not only a literary critic but also a practicing Obatala priest in the Yoruba spiritual tradition and a Mama Nganga in the Kongo spiritual system. She analyzes tensions between communal and individual values and moral codes as represented in Morrison's novels. She also uses interviews with and nonfiction written by Morrison to further build her critical paradigm.
From Plantations to the Slums
Costumbrismo, which refers to depictions of life in Latin America during the nineteenth century, introduced some of the earliest black themes in Cuban literature. Rafael Ocasio delves into this literature to offer up a new perspective on the development of Cuban identity, as influenced by black culture and religion, during the sugar cane boom.
Comments about the slave trade and the treatment of slaves were often censored in Cuban publications; nevertheless white Costumbrista writers reported on a vast catalogue of stereotypes, religious beliefs, and musical folklore, and on rich African traditions in major Cuban cities. Exploring rare and seldom discussed nineteenth-century texts, Ocasio offers insight into the nuances of black representation in Costumbrismo while analyzing authors such as Suárez y Romero, an abolitionist who wrote from the perspective of a plantation owner.
Afro-Cuban Costumbrismo expands the idea of what texts constitute Costumbrismo and debunks the traditional notion that this writing reveals little about the Afro-Cuban experience. The result is a novel examination of how white writers' representations of black culture heavily inform our current understanding of nineteenth-century Afro-Cuban culture and national identity.
Fiction of the Contemporary South
A provocative reckoning of the challenging new direction southern literature has taken in the works of nine authors
The literature of the contemporary South might best be understood for its discontinuity with the literary past. At odds with traditions of the Southern Renascence, southern literature of today sharply refutes the Nashville Agrarians and shares few of Faulkner's and Welty's concerns about place, community, and history.
This sweeping study of the literary South's new direction focuses on nine well established writers who, by breaking away from the firmly ensconced myths, have emerged as an iconoclastic generation- -- Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, Larry Brown, Kaye Gibbons, Randall Kenan, Richard Ford, Cormac McCarthy, and Barry Hannah. Resisting the modernist methods of the past, they have established their own postmodern ground beyond the shadow of their predecessors.
This shift in authorial perspective is a significant indicator of the future of southern writing. Crews's seminal role as a ground-breaking "poor white" author, Mason's and Crews's portrayals of rural life, and Allison's and Brown's frank portrayals of the lower class pose a challenge to traditional depictions of the South. The dissenting voices of Gibbons and Kenan, who focus on gender, race, and sexuality, create fiction that is at once identifiably "southern" and also distinctly subversive. Gibbons's iconoclastic stance toward patriarchy, like the outsider's critique of community found in Kenan's work, proffers a portrait of the South unprecedented in the region's literature. Ford, McCarthy, and Hannah each approach the South's traditional notions of history and community with new irreverence and treat familiar southern topics in a distinctly postmodern manner. Whether through Ford's generic consumer landscape, the haunted netherworld of McCarthy's southern novels, or Hannah's riotous burlesque of the Civil War, these authors assail the philosophical and cultural foundations from which the Southern Renascence arose.
Challenging the conventional conceptions of the southern canon, this is a provocative and innovative contribution to the region's literary study.
Matthew Guinn, formerly an instructor of English at the University of Mississippi, has published articles on southern literature in Southern Quarterly, South Atlantic Review, and Resources for American Literary Study.