Periodizing Toni Morrison's Work from 'The Bluest Eye' to 'Jazz': The Importance of 'Tar Baby.'

Article excerpt

It is a mark of an author's status as "major" when we begin to periodize their work. William Faulkner, Adrienne Rich, William Butler Yeats, Gwendolyn Brooks, and T.S. Eliot are among the major authors for whose ouevres periods have been suggested. Toni Morrison's body of work is large enough, and her achievements notable enough, that it seems appropriate to periodize her work. While literary criticism of Toni Morrison's novels has generally acknowledged differences between her early and more recent work, there is a more radical shift in her oeuvre than has been articulated. Morrison's complex relationship to colonization is radically transformed from her early to more recent work. Periodizing Morrison's work in relationship to her process of decolonization clarifies differences between her early and more recent periods and stresses her development across her oeuvre. This approach also gives a central role to Tar Baby, a role not accessible within current frames.

Such a project--periodizing Morrison--has profound implications for both teaching and research. When Morrison's work is taught as a whole, as in a major author's course, periodization will affect the way in which the novels are grouped conceptually, the selection of themes and literary techniques to be investigated, even determining which novels would not be taught once her body of work expands further. When one of her novels is taught as part of a survey course in American fiction, women's writing, or African American literature, periodization will affect which one of her novels would be selected as representative. In terms of research, periodization will provide a focus to the discourse and encourage a shared vocabulary instead of the disparate theoretical discourses now in place.(1)

What I want to begin here is a call/response dynamic on the issue of Morrison's canon and its periods, and I hope my call generates many responses. The conversation on periodizing Morrison should be exciting and multi-voiced; I do not intend the periodization I probe exciting and multi-voiced; I do not intend the periodization. I propose here as a final product.

One of the central concerns throughout Morrison's work is colonization.(2) Her early work struggles with the effects of colonization on African American individuals and the community, while her later work moves into an exploration of decolonized African American culture and history. In this context, her fourth novel, Tar Baby, assumes a rich significance. Understanding the importance of Tar Baby to Morrison's distancing from the colonizing effects of Euro-American culture is central to understanding how the novel divides her early and later works.

Tar Baby seems an unlikely choice for pre-eminence in the Morrison canon. It is, after all, the least admired, least researched, and least taught of her novels. It has been called her "most problematic and unresolved novel" (Peterson 471) and has received little critical attention generally, and virtually no critical attention in the past five years.(3) Few of us teach it, choosing the shorter, "woman-oriented" Sula, or the richer, male quest patterned Song of Solomon, or the current favorite, the cathartic Beloved. Yet perhaps Tar Baby seems problematic and unsatisfying to many of us precisely because it functions as a transitional text in Morrison's oeuvre. Viewed in this light, Tar Baby's ambivalences, refusal of answers, and weaknesses in plot and characterization reveal tensions in Morrison's process as a writer; the novel offers maximum insight into both her periods.

Tar Baby's central concern is colonization.(4) The island hierarchy at the beginning of the novel reinscribes the classic colonial schema, with the white colonizer, Philadelphia exile Valerian Street, presiding over a household empire that includes a beautiful wife, Margaret, a black "assistant," Jadine, black servants, Ondine and Sydney, and occasional employees from the island, Gideon and Therese. …

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