Book Club, Beloved: Introduction
Toni Morrison died in 2019. When she did, she received as much acclaim as our culture ever affords novelists, these days. Speaking as someone who’s read the novels of the first half of her career - The Bluest Eye (excellent if at times uneven), Sula (incredible), Song of Solomon (excellent if a little repetitive with the two books before it), Tar Baby (sharp and moving), and Jazz (weird, bad, and weirdly bad) - the adulation felt deserved. I imagine her last five books saw diminishing returns, but then, that dynamic holds true for the large majority of novelists. At her best her work is stripped down without falling into the traps of American minimalism, and her authorial viewpoint is keen, fractious, and far weirder than her reputation. In my estimation, the first half of her career alone made her a deserving recipient of her many accolades, even as I cringed at some of the cliched and overwrought obituaries. She was far too sharp to be the recipient of hamhanded hagiography, and her work far too great to require the kind of shoddy hagiography that’s often expressed by the well-meaning but clumsy when great artists of color die.
Black women in literature are often held to an odd kind of standard - there’s of course sexism and racism at play in the reception of their work, but there’s often also a condescending liberal urge to celebrate it in a reductive and limiting way. Writers like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker, or really the critical reaction to them, have helped create the figure of the New Age-y Black poetess, which like all such garments is an ill-fitting suit. These tropes eliminate the specificity that defines good writing and flatten differences; Angelou started her career as an exceptionally sharp poet who was ill-served by becoming an institution and slouched towards self-parody in her last decades. Alice Walker, well…. I just haven’t liked anything she’s written. Anyway - the point is that some poor souls have attempted to shoehorn Morrison into that trope too, and it’s just not on. It’s impossible to read a book like Tar Baby and see some sort of gooey quasi-mystical Black Earth Mother philosophy - or, perhaps not impossible, but possible only through a lens so distorted I do question what its origins might be. I don’t know; maybe it’s because she wore dreadlocks late in life.
I mention all of this because Beloved is the book that’s most recommended among Morrison’s work, it’s the one that earned the most awards, it’s the one that most contributes to her reputation, and it’s the one that seems most susceptible to that reductive vision of Black women writers and their interests. It’s also the only one of Morrison’s first seven novels I haven’t read, and that’s related to the previous point, I guess. As I wrote in my post on how much I love Sula, part of the reason I’ve never reached for Beloved (despite its presence on my mental to-read list for years) is that the sparseness and resistance to cliche I found in Sula seem imperiled by what I know of Beloved, which has a tendency to inspire people to the same airy and vague praise of a Black woman’s art as a kind of loose mysticism. And the book is just so capital-G Great, with such a prominent place in the culture - for a time, Beloved was the most-assigned book in the American university system - that I felt the weight of its reputation, which always makes my neck a little scratchy. I hate feeling crowded by other people’s opinions. Of course, these are stupid reasons not to read a book, and the only way to really escape other people’s opinions is to read it for yourself.
Well, here we are! It’s time for me to throw aside those concerns and read, and I have begun. I’ve been surprisingly successful in avoiding spoilers, all these years. What I knew before reading the first couple chapters (and for the record I’m planning on staying a couple chapters ahead of the book club) was that this was the story of former slaves, particularly a woman named Sethe who had escaped with her children and killed her baby in an effort to spare her from a life in slavery. Morrison adapted this plot from the real-life story of Margaret Garner, who did herself kill a child while a runaway slave, in hopes of sparing her from the pain of life in slavery. As the novel opens, emancipation is eight or nine years in the past, and Sethe is living in a house in Cincinnati with her surviving daughter Denver. Sethe believes that they’re being haunted by the ghost of the child she killed. An old fellow slave from the plantation, Paul D., shows up at the house, intent on driving off the ghost, and sets the plot in motion. We’ll leave it there for now.
For every one of these book clubs, there’s been a consistent concern with pace - I’m moving too fast or too slow. I’m going to do my best, as always. Beloved is divided into two parts which are themselves divided into unnumbered chapters. I know many people will read ahead - I’m sure some of you will participate having read the whole thing by the time we start - but you are allowed only to discuss the reading we’ve already completed as a group, or else talk in generalities without spoiling plot details. Let me stress that “I didn’t read this but….” comments will be swiftly deleted and perhaps catch a ban. Let’s read the first three chapters of the book, through page 51 in my paperback. I personally find the Foreward eminently skippable but it’s quite brief. We’ll discuss on Tuesday, June 6th. As always, future book club posts will be subscriber-only, so if you’re not subscribed, now’s a great time.