Books

Toni Morrison:
The Power of Fiction in the Arc of Progress

When Toni Morrison died this week at 88, it was major news. As an African-American woman, she achieved what few writers of any background have accomplished: National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Her story is remarkable. As a single mother, she began writing fiction after she realized there were no novels available that spoke to her experience.

In a 1981 speech to the Ohio Arts Council, she said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And so she did. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, set in 1941, was published in 1970. The protagonist, a young African-American girl named Pecola, dislikes herself because of her dark skin.

Writing in The New York Times, activist and scholar Angela Davis and a colleague, Farah Jasmine Griffin, observe that Pecola,

“. . . Has internalized the culture at large, which, essentially, endorses this view. Morrison wrote in an introduction to later editions that her novel set out to explore ‘what it is like to be actually hated — hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.’ ”

Morrison’s work is honored not only as great literature but  also as an agent of social change. She gave voice and humanity to the issues that were beginning to bubble up in the zeitgeist.

Davis and Griffin write:

“Her political vision — using language to combat the devastating effects of white supremacy, sexism and all dehumanizing ideologies — remains a profound and under explored aspect of her identity and impact. . . The work had to be “both political and beautiful,” [Morrison]… said in the 1984 essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” We should also remember her as a revolutionary political thinker, who used her gift to change the world.”

Almost every commentator has reflected on not only her skill as a writer but also her impact—not just on personal lives, but on the struggle to make black lives matter. Important fiction helps propel progress by giving voice to issues that are ripe to be explored and making them personal and human.

Morrison is part of a select group of writers who have profoundly influenced the world they lived in. She may not have sparked an actual war, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 1862 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with igniting the tinder that became the Civil War. The bestselling book of the 19th Century (excluding the Bible,) Stowe’s story succeeded in humanizing the aspects of slaves’ lives in ways that resonated and could no longer be ignored. When Abraham Lincoln met her in 1865, he allegedly said, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this Great War.”

At almost the same time, across the pond, Charles Dickens, who began his career as a writer in the 1830s, used novels to illuminate many of the great social injustices plaguing the newly industrialized Great Britain. As a child, Dickens, whose father was imprisoned for debt, was forced to work for a time in a shoe-blacking factory. This experience shaped his views ever after, and his novels all vibrantly illuminated the impact of social injustice through the lives of vivid, recognizable, and unforgettable characters.

Enormously popular, Dickens’ work, serialized in newspapers, was widely read and had great impact on the social dialogue of the day. He himself never lost sight of this.Writing to his friend Wilkie Collins in 1858, Dickens says:

“Everything that happens […] shows beyond mistake that you can’t shut out the world; that you are in it, to be of it; that you get yourself into a false position the moment you try to sever yourself from it; that you must mingle with it, and make the best of it, and make the best of yourself into the bargain.”

Dickens’ great artistry personified the plight of orphans and runaways in characters like Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. No longer able to pretend that the less fortunate were a nameless, inchoate mass, the public now had access to indelible, human images galvanizing public opinion.

In 1910, muckraking journalist Sinclair Lewis attempted to do the same with his novel The Jungle. Aiming to expose corruption in business and industry, his book brought about significant reforms in the meatpacking industry. But, as a less skilled novelist than Dickens, Sinclair’s characters did not succeed in igniting public opinion concerning the conditions of the workers as well, something that frustrated and disappointed the author. Sinclair famously complained: “I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

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