Susan L. Blake Lafayette College
One of five current or forthcoming titles on American authors in the Modern Novelists series published jointly by Macmillan of London and St. Martin's, this succinct study offers a synthesis of post-structuralist criticism of Toni Morrison from a British point of view. The Modem Novelists series aims "to provide an introduction to the fiction of the writer concerned, both for those approaching him or her for the first time and for those who are already familiar with some parts of the achievement in question and now wish to place it in the context of the total oeuvre" (vii-viii). In this volume, Linden Peach, who is Principal Lecturer and Head of the School of English at Bretton Hall College, University of Leeds, and whose previous publications include British Influence on the Birth of American Literature, The Prose Writing of Dylan Thomas, and Ancestral Lines: Culture and Identity in the Work of Six Contemporary Poets, anticipates an audience of skilled readers unfamiliar with African American culture and perspectives.
Peach's thesis is that Toni Morrison must be understood as an African American artist writing out of African American cultural paradigms. An introductory chapter lays out four "contexts for discussing Morrison's novels as African American works" (2) - her life, the critical debate about whether black writing "should be approached as a separatist or syncretist literature" (11), black women's writing, and the coincidence of a dialogic understanding of narrative and the "openness of traditional black culture" (19). Six chapters on the individual novels develop variations on the general theme that "Morrison's innovative form is driven by its radical content." By radical content, Peach means an African American perspective grounded in both African philosophical and spiritual principles and experience of the individual "as the subject of a political state, susceptible to the forces of control which operate in a given society or social context, and constructed through language or discourse" (22). Morrison's novels, Peach argues, defy Euro-American expectations of unitary meaning, binary opposition, and closure because they reflect African philosophical principles and cultural values - a cyclical rather than linear concept of time, community rather than individuality - and "the complex process by which black people, especially black women, have to negotiate the competing discourses which influence individual and cultural behaviour" (92). Thus, the structure of The Bluest Eye "is driven by its exploration of the impact of white ideologies on the black community" (25); Sula presents "a kaleidoscopic model of self and behaviour" that "causes readers to constantly reinterpret what they read" (54); and the conclusion of Beloved offers both healing and the persistent "enormity of the fracture which slavery and white racism have created" (111).
Peach's readings of Morrison's novels are both theoretically sophisticated and attentive to detail, rich enough to be interesting to experienced readers of Morrison and concrete enough to be accessible to students. They do not summarize plots but do briefly explain such elements of history as the murder of Emmett Till and the sharecropping system. Though Peach relies heavily (and forthrightly) on previous criticism, including books by Jacqueline de Weever and Dorothea Mbalia and Nellie McKay's 1988 collection Critical Essays on Toni Morrison (but no articles published in African American Review since 1982), his readings are integrative rather than derivative. They successfully resolve what have often seemed to be binary oppositions in criticism between text and context, form and content, and cultural and political foundations of African American identity. Peach's own experience as a critic of modern poetry is evident in his sensitive attention to language: both Morrison's use of language, to which he also addresses a separate chapter, and her implicit analysis - in the contrast between the Dick-and-Jane mythology and the Breedlove family in The Bluest Eye, for example - of "the way in which language is enmeshed with power structures" (38).
This book has two significant weaknesses, which are most apparent in the introduction. The first is a shallow understanding of black history and literature, which paradoxically diminishes the culture Peach wants readers to recognize. Identification of The Bluest Eye as "the first novel to give a black child centre stage" (8) writes Hughes's Not Without Laughter out of literary history. The claim that, "in the late 1960s and 1970s, distances, divisions and debates opened up for the first time in African American writing around the subject of black identity" (17) discounts both early-twentieth-century literature of passing and Harlem Renaissance critical debate.
The second, related weakness is a dubious campaign against "overemphasi[zing] a non-black cultural legacy" (13). This argument is well-intentioned-and irrefutable in the sense that overemphasis is by definition undesirable. The assumption that such "overemphasis" exists, though unsupported, responds to universalist assumptions apparent in the series editor's preface to this very volume a preference, for example, for "close examination of important texts" rather than" 'background' or generalisations" (viii). But Peach's need to argue against "white" as well as for "black" foundations for Morrison's art paints him into essentialist corners. Peach at times conflates readers and readings, as in "to a white reader versed in European literature" (43), and consistently implies that linearity and closure are characteristics of "white" writing, whereas circularity and ambivalence are characteristics of "black." Though such formulations as "the emphasis on closure which we find in much white fiction" (20) include qualifiers, they shut out such complicating figures as Faulkner and Woolf, on the one hand, and Wright and Petry, on the other. And his insistence on distinguishing between "white" and "black" modes tends to contradict Peach's own point that African American culture is itself hybrid and opens up the question of just which parts of a syncretic and constantly evolving culture are "black" and which "white."
These weaknesses do most of their damage in the introduction, however. The chapters on Morrison's novels and language provide an insightful and synthesizing introduction to an African American writer with an international and multi-cultural readership.
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|Author:||Blake, Susan L.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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