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Reviewed by:
  • Toni Morrison
  • Cynthia Dobbs
Goulimari, Pelagia. 2011. Toni Morrison. Routledge Guides to Literature. New York: Routledge. $95 hc. $26.95 sc. 276 pp.

Pelagia Goulimari’s Toni Morrison serves as a very competent introduction to Morrison’s fiction, nonfiction, and the ever-growing body of criticism and theory addressing the significance of Morrison’s work. Part of the Routledge Guides to Literature series, Goulimari’s Toni Morrison is divided into three sections: “Life and Contexts,” “Works,” and “Criticism.” The book thus begins with a useful, impressively concise (and thus inevitably limited) account of African American history from 1619 to the present, deftly interwoven with sections sketching out the relevant facts of Morrison’s biography within the sociopolitical and cultural movements that shaped and were increasingly shaped by her. The book then launches into close readings of Morrison’s novels through A Mercy, as well as her major nonfiction essays, interviews, and books, before giving an overview of some of the major critical and theoretical approaches to Morrison.

Goulimari deftly condenses and contextualizes Morrison’s biography. As is well known among Morrison scholars, her literary career did not begin until her early 30s, when she was teaching at Howard University in 1964. In multiple interviews, Morrison has cited her isolation and sense of self-erasure as a divorced mother of two young sons as forces that motivated her to join a writers group so that she could “reclaim [her]self” through writing (21). The short story she wrote for this group would grow into her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Goulimari does not leave us there, however. Instead, she sagely situates these biographical and psychological details within the important sociopolitical and cultural context of Washington, DC in the early 1960s. That Morrison felt, like Pecola in The Bluest Eye, somewhat socially invisible while teaching the likes of the young Stokely Carmichael at Howard—at the very heart of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement—is noteworthy, and suggestive of the alienation of women within these political movements. As Goulimari succinctly captures it, by the late 1970s Morrison’s visibility within and power to shape what would later be defined as a renaissance in black women’s fiction was undeniable. As a writer with a growing critical following (secured in 1977 with the enormous success of Song of Solomon), and as an increasingly influential editor at Random House, Morrison supported and joined such major figures as Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Gayle Jones in achieving the long-overdue mainstream visibility of black women’s fiction.

The book’s “Life and Contexts” section will thus prove enormously useful for undergraduates seeking to grasp the larger historical and cultural movements in the second half of the twentieth century that shaped Morrison’s aesthetics. Goulimari runs into a bit of trouble, however, in the “Works” and “Criticism” [End Page 148] sections, which are at once redundant and oddly anemic at points. The book’s tripartite structure is largely to blame, as it pushes Goulimari to abut her own readings of the novels with other critics’ in the “Works” section, only to rehearse the same critics’ readings in the “Criticism” section.

“Works” offers Morrison scholars thorough and at points brilliant readings of each of the novels, as well as meditations on selected nonfiction, with particular attention to 1984’s “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” 1992’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, and the 1992 Nobel lecture. Goulimari’s readings of the novels are cogent and careful to address the multitudinous threads comprising the fabric of each text. While attentive to each novel’s particularities, Goulimari also deftly teases out the threads connecting them all, threads that define Morrison’s overarching aesthetic strategies, aims, and influences. These include Morrison’s frequent return to West African principles of collectivism, what Morrison calls “enchantment,” and the importance of tribal ancestors; modernist and (in Jazz) postmodernist aesthetics demanding active participation by the reader; and intertextual and cultural references that range from Aristotle to Candomblé to Ralph Ellison. Goulimari’s review of Morrison’s literary influences is, however, curiously silent about the important influence of William Faulkner...