BOOKS

Taking the A train

Toni Morrison re-creates Harlem at its peak

DIANE TURBIDE June 1 1992
BOOKS

Taking the A train

Toni Morrison re-creates Harlem at its peak

DIANE TURBIDE June 1 1992

Taking the A train

BOOKS

Toni Morrison re-creates Harlem at its peak

It is 1926 in Harlem, and 50-year-old Joe Trace has shot and killed his 18-year-old lover, Dorcas. The young woman had awakened in him, author Toni Morrison writes, “one of those deep-down spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” Later, Joe’s wife, Violet, goes to the funeral and tries to mutilate the body with a butcher knife. Those fateful events form the crux of Morrison’s moody, lyrically written sixth novel, Jazz (Random House, $24.50). But the real heart of the story is Harlem itself, alive with possibility and prom-

ise, a place where, as Morrison describes it, “any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists, and the voices of sorrowful women.” With Jazz, 61-year-old Morrison builds on her reputation as the most artful chronicler of the experience of American blacks. “If you don’t acknowledge the past, it can do what it’s done to white people,” she told Maclean’s. “It makes them repeat and deny, repeat and deny—and never be free of—our own American history.”

Jazz depicts a city that has been invigorated by waves of southern black immigrants. “After the First World War, black people began to literally color—if I can use that word—the

culture of the country,” said Morrison. “And jazz was a big part of that. ” In a broad sense, Jazz continues the saga of escaped and freed slaves that Morrison began in some of her earlier novels. Song of Solomon (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, describes a black man in search of his heritage in the South, where his family was dispossessed in the aftermath of the Civil War. And Beloved, the 1987 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, is a searing tale of an escaped slave haunted by a ghost—the baby daughter she killed rather than see her returned to slavery. The theme of dispossession recurs in Jazz: Joe and Violet have moved north from rural Virginia' after whites swindled them out of their land. The background for such tales came partly from stories Morrison’s grandparents told her about a piece of land in Alabama that they had lost. The family eventually ended up in Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison was bom. Called Chloe Anthony Wofford, she was one of four children bom to George Wofford, a shipyard worker, and his homemaker wife, Ramah. The author-to-be changed her name to Toni while attending Howard University in Washington in the 1950s. Later, she taught English there and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. They had two 5 sons, Slade and Ford, before di3 vorcing in the mid-1960s.

I Morrison began writing fiction

9 while working as an editor at g Random House. Although she published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1969, and followed it in 1973 with the acclaimed Sula, Morrison reveals wryly that “I never called myself a writer—on my income tax form I mean—before Song of Solomon was published.”

Morrison says that she sees her books as a way of reclaiming the past. To illustrate the selective amnesia that she believes afflicts her country, she points out that most small towns in the South have a monument to a Confederate hero. “But there’s not one memorial or haven or park dedicated to slaves, the survivors.” America’s failure to confront black experience in a significant way, even in its own literature, is the theme of another Morrison volume released this spring. Playing in the

Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, $14.95) is the text of a lecture series that she gave at Harvard in 1990. Morrison divides her time between New Jersey, where she teaches at Princeton University, and her house in Rockland County, just outside New York City.

A different New York, the one that Morrison imagines and re-creates in Jazz, is Harlem seen from the point of view of average black people. She avoids celebrities of the jazz age, but still manages to create, in gorgeous prose, a sense of the freedom and excitement of that era. She has an extraordinary ability to translate the surface of things, their physical qualities, into sensuous images and to link them to her characters’ inner lives. In one passage, she describes an anonymous woman sitting on a stoop, a cool beer in hand, one shoe dangling from her toes. And the man, reacting “to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate dangling shoe, is captured,” she writes. “And he’d think it was the woman he wanted, and not some combination of curved stone, and a swinging high-heeled shoe moving in and out of sunlight.”

From such minute detail, Morrison constructs a monumental homage to a black community poised between hope and despair. Technically adventurous—an unnamed narrator frequently interjects—Jazz has a cooler tone than her earlier works. But with the characters of Joe and Violet, unforgettable but ultimately unknowable, Morrison has again proven to be a formidable storyteller.

DIANE TURBIDE