“124 was spiteful.”
With that enigmatic opening line of “Beloved,” Toni Morrison, who died Monday at the age of 88, placed her indelible stamp on American literature.
That a black woman should write the greatest novel of the 20th century is a glorious rebuke to our long history that denigrated women and African Americans. From the furnace of her genius emerged a book that melded America’s past into a work of enduring art — gothic, magical, magisterial. And the passage of more than three decades has done nothing to diminish the power of that masterpiece. It remains, like the world’s most famous monuments, both familiar and astonishing, as capable of inspiring awe as it did when it first appeared in 1987.
Most authors are silenced by death. But a few — Shakespeare, Austen, Twain — grow more amplified by each new generation. We had the blessing of reading Morrison as she was writing. Others will have the blessing of rediscovering her.
The granddaughter of a slave, Morrison wrote the novel that definitively dismantled a century of Southern romanticism. Arguments about states’ rights or fantasies of antebellum gentility were scythed by her storytelling. With “Beloved,” she dared to expose not just the injustice of slavery, but the full spectrum of its obscenity. She uncovered the ghastly metal devices wrapped around black necks and crammed into black mouths. She explored the sickening abuses of “science” to justify racial hierarchies. She blasted the myth of the benevolent plantation.
And most dramatically, she called forth the spirit of trauma that still haunts this nation, what she once called “the tenacity of racism.” Recalling the true story of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who killed her daughter rather than allow her to be dragged back into slavery, Morrison presented America’s “peculiar institution” in terms so visceral that no reader could endure it unshaken. It was the greatest love wrapped in the greatest horror.