I put off reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for a long time, mostly because I had been horrified by her novel Song of Solomon when I was fourteen (not a book geared for teenagers: among other terrors, it includes a woman attempting an abortion with a knitting needle). For my first upper-level English course, I assigned the book as a way to force myself to read it. I had to reread the first chapter at least six or seven times to catch on to the rhythm; it reminded me of the first time I encountered War and Peace and could not latch on to the names, vocabulary, or style of Tolstoy.
Morrison’s work is often called lyrical; it reads like poetry. The novel begins with confusion: fragments, ambiguous nouns, contrasting images, and repetitions: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” The sounds of the words play off one another like a building beat, but it’s unfamiliar and initially thwarting. After a few efforts reading it, I chose to purchase the audiobook read by Morrison. She reads the novel as though singing it, and I highly recommend reading and listening together to understand the lyricism that critics rave about.
Recently a student came over to my house to sit out on the porch and discuss her summer reading list. Her boyfriend is an African-American student who is attempting to teach her about his culture and asked her to read Beloved; she was rightly haunted by it. Literally, she confessed to having nightmares about the book. The plot itself is full of ghosts, including the title character Beloved. Although the story occurs in post-Civil War Ohio, the main characters bring the antebellum South to the forefront, remembering the suffering they endured under slavery. Their memories make the tales of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs look Disney-worthy.
My favorite character is dead before the end of the first paragraph, but she is resurrected a quarter of a way through in a memory and preaches a sermon that outdoes Melville’s or Hawthorne’s preachers, at least aesthetically. As she sits on a large (literal and figurative) rock, Baby Suggs shouts to a congregation of former slaves in a clearing in the woods: “Let the children come; “Let your mothers hear you laugh;” “Let the grown men come.” Her authority is resolute, and the outcast children of God respond. She preaches the immanence of God found in their flesh: “Yonder they do not love your flesh. …You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.” It’s beautiful how she claims the right to be loved for a people tragically and wrongly despised. The passage should be read aloud, preached as a healing word to those who have been persecuted.
In A.S. Byatt’s introduction to the novel, she quotes T.S. Eliot: “[E]very new work of literature altered the literature of the past—in a sense reread that literature. Belovedenacts this alteration more forcefully than most classics.” In choosing the great works that every American should read, I’m choosing a twentieth-century novel that rereads the greatest literature in our canon from The Odyssey to the Bible to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. InBeloved Morrison somehow sings an old and new song.