- Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination by Valerie Smith
Toni Morrison, renowned novelist, Nobel laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner, teacher, cultural critic, and essayist, is one of the most important writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Morrison’s work has provoked a landslide of scholarly writing. Valerie Smith’s Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination is distinctive as a scholarly book written for a general audience; the book is an addition to the Blackwell Introduction to Literature series. Smith has written an introduction [End Page 219] to Morrison’s novels for nonspecialists that defies that humble description. She synthesizes forty years of Morrison scholarship—along with her knowledge of Morrison’s work and her relationship with Morrison as a colleague and interlocutor—to create a fresh and insightful work. Smith respects Morrison’s desire to actively engage and challenge readers; the book both provokes and guides them. Smith demonstrates strategies of interpretation without taking over the work of interpreting. She cites “The Dancing Mind,” in which Morrison explains the goal for a reader “to experience one’s own mind dancing with another’s” (3). Smith does not cut in on the dance; she helps readers follow Morrison’s lead.
Smith discusses Morrison’s ten novels in chronological order in five chapters and an epilogue (on Home); in chapter five she includes Morrison’s six books for young readers (five of which Morrison coauthored with her son Slade). The treatment of each novel is highly condensed; the longest section on one novel (Beloved) is thirteen pages, but most are eight or nine pages. In the Introduction, Smith outlines the arguments that serve as touchstones in her treatment of the novels. The result is a lightly drawn coherence that gives form to Morrison’s artistic vision while retaining the distinctiveness of each fictional project. Smith puts at the crux of her argument Morrison’s attention to “the impact of racial patriarchy upon the lives of black women during specific periods in American history” (2). For each novel, Smith elaborates on this argument with a focus on the effects of geographical and cultural dislocations of African Americans, the consequences of systemic racism for African American cultural and individual identities, the ways that trauma is passed down through generations, and the power of art and stories—as well as love, friendship, and intimacy— to encourage self-love, self-invention, a reconstituted cultural heritage, and collective and individual healing.
Smith also describes in the Introduction Morrison’s strategies for teaching readers to recognize and articulate the complexities of race. Morrison insists that readers contend with the history of racial domination and oppression in the United States; Smith writes, “the urge to cloak oneself (or the nation) in the mantle of ‘post-race’ . . . betrays an eagerness, if not a desperation, to run from the history and the current state of racial formations in the nation” (14). Smith explains Morrison’s arguments about the role of language and discourse in maintaining and disrupting systems of domination and how Morrison’s engagement with “the rich possibilities contained in the idea of absence” can challenge the historical “unspeakability” of race in U. S. literature (6). Smith concludes that the language of race can be more than “a discourse of blame and victimization”; she writes, “Morrison shows us that however violent, exploitative, and dehumanizing, the history and experience of racial formations have led to complex and rich emotional, cultural, and artistic responses” (15). Rather than running from the shame and conflict associated with race, Morrison helps readers grapple with the horrors and the beauty.
In subsequent chapters, Smith makes Morrison’s work more accessible without sacrificing the artistic, theoretical, and political complexity of the novels. For each novel, Smith weaves together the situations and dilemmas of the characters with historical contexts. She provides succinct plot summaries, and then unwinds the plot’s directness with explanations of structure, narrative voices, and character development. She addresses the artistic approaches that make Morrison’s novels difficult, and proposes reasons for the difficulty. By the time Smith discusses the first line of each...