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Toni Morrison and the Maternal

From «The Bluest Eye» to «Home»


Linda Wagner-Martin

Linda Wagner-Martin’s study of African American writer Toni Morrison’s work, beginning with The Bluest Eye in 1970 and continuing through her 2012 novel Home, describes Morrison as an inherently original novelist who was shaped throughout her career by her role within families. Morrison speaks of herself, compellingly and frequently, as daughter, sister, wife, mother, mentor, and friend. The energy from playing these roles in her life helped to lead to her thoroughly distinctive fiction. The book charts Morrison’s changing vision as well. Morrison’s deeper and deeper involvement in the history of African Americans within the United States leads to her study of the urban in Jazz, of the all-black Western towns in Paradise, of the upper-middle class in Love, as well as her poignant study of the returning Korean War veteran in Home. Morrison’s 2008 A Mercy, set in the seventeenth century, reprises much of the power of the prize-winning Beloved and returns readers to the quintessential theme of parent-child relationships. In Morrison’s fictional world, drawing from the human and spiritual forces in both Africa and the United States provides some hope of a truly satisfying existence.
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← VIII | IX → Preface


In the world of the twenty-first century, it is difficult to understand why feminist reviewers and critics did not immediately claim Toni Morrison for their camp when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, appeared in 1970. The book, ornate in its fragmented juxtapositions and modernist narrative style, focused on childhood deprivation, and it culminated in the rape of the child, Pecola Breedlove, by her father: it included vivid and often intentionally humorous scenes of menstruation, girlhood envy, curiosity about sex, friendship, and bullying. It reeked of sexuality of all kinds, of families pushed to the edge to find and maintain living places, of a marginal Ohio society filled with so many outsider characters that readers had trouble focusing on the MacTeer family, whose two daughters—Frieda and Claudia—provided the narration, and the conscience, of the story.

The Bluest Eye might well have been linked to such novels as Joan Didion’s Run River (1963) and Play It as It Lays (1970), Sue Kaufman’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife (1967), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (available in the US in 1970, after its initial British publication in 1963), Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an ex-Prom Queen to come in 1972, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, the first feminist best seller in 1973. Instead, its reception illustrated the wide chasm between the white literary world and the newly emergent grouping of African American writers: most critics did not cross that color line....

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