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  • James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays
  • Brenda R. Smith
Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott, eds. James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 300 pp. $69.95.

This collection of thirteen essays explores the literary relationship between James Baldwin and Toni Morrison with the goal of opening up new avenues of scholarship on some of their most resonant and challenging fiction and nonfiction. Establishing connections between Baldwin, most often read and studied within the context of protest literature and gay theory, and Morrison, most often situated within the contexts of feminist scholarship, postmodernism, and poststructuralist theory, may seem a critical "stretch." However, given the ways in which the authors' respective texts connect thematically, structurally and discursively, and given the sheer volume and breadth of literary criticism on each individual author, comparative analysis seems an innovative and progressive next step in scholarship on their work.

The editors' introduction establishes the critical relevance of analyzing each author's work within the context of the other's, delineating specific characteristics of Baldwin's writing—his approach to the challenge of racial representation in American literature, his resistance to hegemonic constructions of race and sexuality, [End Page 186] and his innovation of a racially inflected language—as important influences on the development of Morrison's writing.

The collection's first two essays, Keren Omry's "Baldwin's Bop 'N' Morrison's Mood: Bebop and Race in James Baldwin's Another Country and Toni Morrison's Jazz," and Anna Kérchy's "Narrating the Beat of the Heart, Jazzing the Text of Desire: A Comparative Interface of James Baldwin's Another Country and Toni Morrison's Jazz," examine the authors' approaches to subject position and narrative construction, emphasizing parallels in the ways in which Baldwin and Morrison use music (bebop and jazz) simultaneously as theme and as a mode of narrative structure. Trudier Harris's essay, "Watchers Watching Watchers: Positioning Characters and Readers in Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues' and Morrison's 'Recitatif,'" adopts a reader response approach to subject position and narrative construction. Harris illustrates that "investigative narrators" in each of the short stories attempt to "read" or solve puzzles surrounding other characters in a manner which "mirrors" how readers of the stories are positioned in reading these characters.

Carol E. Henderson's "Refiguring the Flesh: The Word, the Body, and the Rituals of Being in Beloved and Go Tell It on the Mountain," Keith Byerman's "Secular Word, Sacred Flesh: Preachers in the Fiction of Baldwin and Morrison," and Babacar M'Baye's "Resistance against Racial, Sexual and Social Oppression in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Beloved" illuminate parallels between the ways that Baldwin's and Morrison's works re-vision possible paths of redemption through which the physical and psychical wounds resulting from slavery and racism are healed.

Revisionism is the focus of Michelle Phillip's "Revising Revision: Methodologies of Love, Desire, and Resistance in Beloved and If Beale Street Could Talk," Lynn Orilla Scott's essay, "Revising the Incest Story: Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and James Baldwin's Just above My Head" and Quentin Miller's "Playing a Mean Guitar: The Legend of Staggerlee in Baldwin and Morrison." Phillips examines the ways in which Baldwin and Morrison use "authentic and productive love" as a force that liberates and ultimately transforms African American community in their respective works. Scott examines the ways in which the authors use stories of incest to give form to other "unspeakable" subjects and stories, racial self-loathing in The Bluest Eye and homophobia in Just above My Head. Miller examines Baldwin's and Morrison's re-visioning of the folk figure Staggerlee in such works as Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone and Song of Solomon, and argues that supporting characters in these works, who possess and serve to clarify the more disturbing aspects of Staggerlee's character, ultimately function as "cautionary tales" for the protagonists, who are struggling to become "complete" beings, embodying the capacity for both love and rage.

Baldwin's and Morrison's nonfiction is the subject of essays by Richard Schur and...


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pp. 186-188
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