Where to Start with Toni Morrison
February 18 marks the birthday of Toni Morrison, once of the most highly celebrated American novelists of the latter 20th century and an icon of black literature and thought. In addition to a healthy body of short fiction, non-fiction, and theatre, Morrison has written 11 novels over the course of her near-50 year career, and has received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Nobel Prize in Literature, PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All this to say, you should definitely be reading some Toni Morrison. Her writing is flat out gorgeous, mixing poetic and vernacular voices to create prose that sounds as lush as the vivid imagery it describes. Across her oeuvre, she has depicted and crystallized the black experience throughout American history, from colonial Virginia to slavery to the Korean War. Toni Morrison is an American treasure, and if you'd like to join us in wishing her a happy 86th, then we'll help you figure out where to start with her work.
If there's anywhere to start with Toni Morrison, it's Beloved, the novel that won her the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1988. Set during the Reconstruction, the novel tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave whose house becomes haunted by the ghost of her daughter. This haunting tale of the vicious horror of American slavery is one of Morrison's best novels, and it's considered one of the most important works of fiction of the last 30 years.
Song of Solomon, 1977
If Beloved is Toni Morrison's best known work, then Song of Solomon is a close second—and, according to some, an even more stunning piece of fiction. This epic and fantastical novel chronicles the life of Macon "Milkman" Dead, who comes of age in a troubled family in Michigan in the 1930's and then strikes out to the American South in search of his father's origins and a rumored hidden treasure. This novel, Morrison's third, was widely acclaimed and established her firmly as one of America's foremost novelists of the 1970's.
A Mercy, 2008
A lot of the novels on this list come from the first half of Toni Morrison's career, but neither her production nor her brilliance have diminished in recent years, as her acclaimed novel A Mercy can attest. This multilayered story of 17th century Virginia focuses on the home of merchant and new immigrant Jacob Vaark, and the four women who depend on him and one other: Rebekka, his wife; Lina, his Native American servant; Sorrow, a foundling; and Florens, a slave's daughter who Vaark accepted as payment for debt. After Vaark dies, these four must co-exist and survive in a hostile and lawless new nation.
In the poor, black neighborhood known as the Bottom, two children of contrasting backgrounds grow into very different women: Nel, the child of a straightlaced, conservative family, settles down and marries; while Sula, raised by her eccentric grandmother and wild mother, is perceived as unpredictable and dissolute, and her return to the Bottom after a mysterious 10-year absence throws the struggling community into chaos.
In a departure from her other work, Jazz shifts from the suburban black communities of the Midwest to the urban tumult of 1920's Harlem, where she tells the story of the unhappily married Joe and Violet through a series of vignettes and shifting perspectives. The postmodern narrative style, meant to evoke the improvisation and polyphony of jazz music, sets this novel apart from Morrison's others, but it retains her lyrical touch and her skill with creating complicated and fascinating characters.
The Bluest Eye, 1970
This novel was Morrison's first, which evolved from a short story she wrote while teaching at Howard in the 1960's. Set in the 1940's in the suburbs of Cleveland, the book tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who grows up poor and demeaned by her community for being ugly. The Bluest Eye wasn't widely reviewed upon its release, but nevertheless, it stands out a half century later as a painful story about the monstrous hostility and shame inflicted by white standards of beauty, which dominate our world to this day.
If you need more Morrison, check out our podcast featuring her and Angela Davis on social progress, and if you've got any other favorite Morrison novels, shout them out in the comments!