Contemporary Black American Fiction Writers

Contemporary Black American Fiction Writers

Contemporary Black American Fiction Writers

Contemporary Black American Fiction Writers

Excerpt

I cannot recall that any other contemporary writer of authentic eminence compares to Toni Morrison as having meditated in print, so extensively and profoundly, upon the processes of literary canon-making. One therefore ventures a canonical prophecy in regard to her work with a certain anxiety of wariness, yet of her six novels to date I greatly prefer Song of Solomon (1977) to the others. The success of Beloved, a decade later, doubtless had much to do with her Nobel Prize, and the recent Jazz has been extolled by H. L. Gates, Jr., our best-known African-American literary critic. Yet both Beloved and Jazz seem to me heavy with the cultural responsibilities that Morrison has assumed as the leading African-American writer since Ralph Ellison. Both novels are rather uneven, perhaps as a consequence of what I at least would regard as extraliterary pressures and considerations, admirable in themselves but not always relevant to Morrison's art as a novelist. Like Faulkner, Conrad, and Balzac, she essentially writes romance narratives that sometimes are disguised as societal analyses, though elements of fantasy tend to qualify the overt political and economic concerns. She herself insists that she be understood in the context of African-American literature, but she shares very little with Richard Wright or Zora Neale Hurston or Ellison, even though Song of Solomon does show traces of Invisible Man's effect upon her. Faulkner remains Morrison's nearest precursor for narrative stance and characterization, even as Virginia Woolf hovers as an undersong throughout Morrison's prose style.

Milkman Dead, the protagonist of Song of Solomon, is a true Faulknerian quester, driven by a metaphysical need for his true name, and for the transcendental folkvalues that have been alienated from him because he has been "called out" of that name, as Keith Byerman observes. Milkman's search begins to find fulfillment only when he comes upon the appropriately named Circe, an aged black woman who incarnates a total rejection of all principles and standards that are not African. She sends him to his ancestral, American village, Shalimar, where initially he is resented almost as though he were wholly contaminated by the dominant white culture. Later, when he has been accepted and learns his family identity, he undergoes a metamorphosis radical enough to justify Morrison's audacity in naming her visionary crone as a Circe. There is nothing else in Morrison's work so magically . . .

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