Books on Toni Morrison and “Beloved”

In preparation for leading a recent discussion on Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I raided my public libary, which had a number of books on Morrison and Beloved. Since I didn’t read them all in their entirety, I’ll put them all on one entry, though my annoyance with Harold Bloom’s guide was such that I thought it deserved its own entry.

Columbia Critical Guides: Toni Morrison “Beloved”, edited by Carl Plasa. Much more intellectually rigorous than Bloom’s guide. Five chapters cover the major aspects of the novel and gather and summarize some of the best scholarly works. Warning: tiny type. I showed a page to my husband who is something of a typesetting geek. He recoiled and cried out in disgust. I kid you not. If you were to read one book on Beloved, this would be the one I’d recommend.

Contemporary World Writers: Toni Morrison by Jill Matus. The chapter on Beloved is smart, well-written and well informed by earlier scholarship.

Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Gurleen Grewal. The chapter on Beloved is very good, tying together many aspects of it without being overwritten. I especially liked Grewal’s take on the ending as a communal working-through.

Modern Critical Views: Toni Morrison, ed. and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, who decries evaluating Morrison’s fiction on political, rather than simply aesthetic, criteria. He also writes that while Morrison has said she wishes to be contextualized in African-American literature, Bloom feels more that she is a potent mixture of Faulkner and Woolf, both of whom were subjects of Morrison’s graduate thesis. I was troubled by the pains he took to identify her with white writers while dismissing some specific other writers of color. But I appreciated that this collection was capped by an essay from Morrison herself, about a conspicuous lack of the Afro-American presence in American literature. In it, she argues so eloquently that the essay itself disproves Bloom’s attempt to diminish her work. As with the other Bloom guide, this one does have good essays in it by other authors than Bloom, including one by Margaret Atwood, and another by Margaret Mobley that is often cited in subsequent scholarship on Beloved.

Bloom’s BioCritiques: Toni Morrison. From his introduction:

Beloved is certainly Morrison’s most problematical work. Some readers whom I esteem set it very high, while other [sic] share my skepticism as to its aesthetic persuasiveness. It is a narrative intended to shock us into an ideological awareness, but its contrivances of plot are tendentious, and the personalities of its protagonists do not always cohere. I regard Beloved as a Period Piece, albeit one written by a woman of genius.

Note that he didn’t just say “genius” but qualifies it as “woman of genius.” Note the typo, one of many I found in the three Bloom books I consulted. I did appreciate the essay by Malmgren on Beloved that highlighted what odd companions the historical novel and the gothic ghost story make.

I am not saying that Bloom isn’t entitled to his opinion on Beloved, though I disagree with it. I _am_ saying he deploys terms that are belittling and condescending. I find this a kind of intellectual bullying, and all the more troubling for how many books on Morrison in general and Beloved in particular that Bloom has put his name on, and therefore made money. Yes, they may not be best sellers, but many are expensive ($35 to $45), and likely to be staples at most public and university libraries. He’s made money off Morrison’s Beloved by less than fair critiques, in my opinion.

Toni Morrison Explained by Ron David. Davis says he sought to write a guide that would be appeal to all levels of readers, from newbies to experts. I think he’s playing more to the groundlings with smart-ass comments that disrupt what might otherwise be a decent, readable guide. He has an interesting take on Morrison’s Paradise.

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