Academic journal article MELUS

E Pluribus Unum? the American Origins Narrative in Toni Morrison's A Mercy

Academic journal article MELUS

E Pluribus Unum? the American Origins Narrative in Toni Morrison's A Mercy

Article excerpt

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue And found the land, land of the Free, beloved by you, beloved by me.

--Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.

A cultural origins nanative repeated over time can make a nation beloved. It can supply a vision of a united people pursuing noble and democratic ends. It can also gloss over much actual history instituting the "forgetting" that is "a crucial factor in the creation of a nation" (Renan 11). This "forgetting," however, can become an opening for a writer with the skill to turn the tragic history of a slave mother's infanticide into Beloved (1987). In the hands of Toni Morrison, an origins narrative can correct the epic of Englishmen who sailed to the "vast and unpeopled countries of America" and created "a citty [sic] upon a hill" that would be an example of God's grace toward the Chosen (Bradford 26; Winthrop, "Modell" 47). Morrison's most recent novel, A Mercy (2008), is an American origins narrative that re-places the racial, gender, and class complexities lost in the creation of a canonical narrative that sought to privilege the few over the many.

As Cathy Covell Waegner suggests, A Mercy "recalls the vexed intercultural beginnings of the settlement of the New World--rather than the grand myth of a chosen people's compact with God to establish an exemplary City upon a Hill, Morrison offers a multivoiced litany featuring a collection of waifs of various (mixed) ethnicities, vacuous aristocrats, debilitating religions, conscienceless trade" (91). Morrison uses much of the language of the "grand myth" to rewrite it, and in so doing indicts its lapses. From early American historical narratives such as William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (1620-1647) and John Winthrop's "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630), a mythohistory of American origins emerged that cast the North American continent as western European (particularly English) by divine right. Subsequent retellings of this myth erased the social plurality of prenational America that even Bradford and Winthrop recorded, leaving instead an oversimplified saga in which Columbus discovered America; the Pilgrims shared Thanksgiving with the Indians; and Ben Franklin found electricity. (1) Lost in this process were the subjective stories of Africans, Native Americans, white European indentured servants, and women of all races and ethnicities who had little economic means or domestic security. These voices might make appearances in genres such as criminal and captivity narratives, as well as in transcripts of witch trials; however, these documents were heavily edited or framed by amanuenses from the privileged, white, Protestant, male English clerical elite who sought to conform them to their mission of social control. The subjects themselves are rarely allowed to recount their experiences in any nonformulaic way. (2)

In A Mercy Morrison enlists such marginalized voices to rewrite the origins narrative as a cautionary tale warning of the dangers of selfish individualism to any form of community. Within the texture of her novel, she weaves pronounced allusions to prenational documents that demarcated lines of race, gender, and class in the cause of privileging an ideology of whiteness. While relating the stow of a young woman's unrequited love, A Mercy offers a fuller narrative of what John Updike describes as "a new world turning old, and poisoned from the start" (113) and goes far beyond his too-narrow conception of Morrison's "noble and necessary fictional project of exposing the infamies of slavery and the hardships of being African American" (112). Updike has difficulty perceiving that Morrison's portraits of the "infamies of slavery" and the "hardships of being African American" are not meant to characterize one racial history; rather, they are cast as illustrative of the workings of a larger social and cultural system that creates "infamies" and "hardships" for any not part of the dominant classes. …

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