In Literature, What Makes a Classic?This year marks the centennial of Everyman's classics, and the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf recently relaunched the library. Editor Sonny Mehta and writers Joan Didion and Z.Z. Packer talk about what makes a classic.
This year marks the centennial of Everyman's classics, and the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf recently relaunched the library. Editor Sonny Mehta and writers Joan Didion and Z.Z. Packer talk about what makes a classic.
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
If you're a dedicated browser of secondhand bookstores, you've probably come across the volumes of the Everyman's Library; small, beautifully bound hard covers that each feature this statement on the title page: Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide in thy most need to go by thy side.
The Library is a literary treasure that includes more than a thousand titles, from Austen to Dickens to Marcus Aurelius. In 1906, the Everyman Library was practically a philanthropic mission. Its founder, Joseph Malaby Dent, called it a democratic library at the democratic price of one shilling.
A hundred years later, the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf re-launched the Library, though it set prices a bit higher than one shilling. Along the way, though, Knopf acquired the question inherent to the Library: What belongs in a modern Everyman edition? What constitutes a classic? This hour we'll talk with the publisher and head of Knopf about those questions. We'll also talk with authors Joan Didion and Z.Z. Packers about what they think makes a classic.
Later on in the program we'll talk with the authors of the book “Impounded,” which if you'd like to take a look at some of the previously unreleased photos of World War II American interment camps, you can go to our Web page at npr.org.
But first, what is a classic and what isn't? How do you tell a literary lion from a mere cub, and what books get overlooked? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joining us now from the BBC studios in New York is the chairman and publisher of Knopf, Sonny Mehta. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. SONNY MEHTA (Chairman and Publisher, Alfred A. Knopf): It's nice to be here.
CONAN: The original Everyman Library was a rather remarkable achievement that began a hundred years ago. Tell us a little bit about its original mission.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, it was started in February 1906 by Joseph Dent, who was a kind of a master London bookbinder turned publisher and was a classic Victorian autodidact. He was the 10th child of a housepainter in Darlington, who left school at the age of 13 and arrived in London and decided that he wanted to have a library that basically - of beautiful books that encompassed all that was lasting in literature. And his ambition was that for a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals. For five pounds, he will procure him 100 volumes and that a man may be intellectually rich for life.
CONAN: And as he went about this - now he's not an academic, he's not somebody familiar with even the book publishing business - how did he decide what was a classic and what wasn't?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, I think he and his son, and they had an extremely gifted editor who was instrumental I think in helping the books be chosen; a man called Ernest Rhys, who essentially edited the complete Library until his death. And they made some choices that might be considered sort of eccentric now but I think the first British author to have a complete works included in the Everyman Library was Jane Austen.
CONAN: And not Shakespeare?
Mr. MEHTA: No, it was Jane Austen, I believe, to have the complete works.
Mr. MEHTA: Shakespeare was probably - was there very early on, but The Complete Jane Austen I think was the first complete set published. He was followed by Dickens with an introduction by C.K. Chesterton. Then came the great sort of Europeans - Dostoyevsky, Rabelais, Rousseau, Flaubert, Stendhal - and then the near contemporaries - Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Conrad, DH Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf - and a host of people in-between who really aren't read as frequently as the authors I've just mentioned.
CONAN: Now when you took over this imprint you had some decisions to make yourself. Now I assume some of these relate to questions like what can I get the rights to, but other than that, if it was an open intellectual question, how do you define a classic?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, there are probably as many definitions about what makes a classic I think as classics. Actually, I think it was Mark Twain who described it as a book, which people praise and don't read.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: But the one I feel closest to is Clifton Fadiman's. And he said when you read a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before.
CONAN: I guess by Twain's definition, it would be “A Brief History of Time” would qualify as a classic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: Well, yes. I can think of some others, too, as a matter of fact.
CONAN: Are there any that you've looked at and said, you know, maybe later, but not right now.
Mr. MEHTA: Yes, I mean we are considering books all the time. We have a Web site that we encourage people to send in their suggestions. And we've had some very interesting suggestions, some of which actually have had - you know, pertain to books that we actually had in the pipeline, like say Paul Scott's “The Raj Quartet.”
Mr. MEHTA: But there have been some others that we haven't acted on. Like for instance there was a suggestion quite recently that we consider Jeffrey(ph) Felsen 1950 bestseller “Hot Rod.” I don't know whether you've come across that.
CONAN: I seemed to have missed it in my education, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: It's a huge bestseller through the '50s, and we don't think we're quite ready for that yet.
CONAN: We're going to want your suggestions on both classics that might be considered and on the question what constitutes a classic. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
But first, let's welcome Joan Didion to the conversation. Her new-collected book of nonfiction has been released as part of the Knopf Everyman series. It's called “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” and she joins us from her home in New York. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. JOAN DIDION: (Author, Essayist): It's nice to be here.
CONAN: Now you've been included in the pantheon of nonfiction in the Everyman Library. It's - I guess you can go to bed happy.
Ms. DIDION: Well, it's a little daunting, I have to say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: It was an exciting thing.
CONAN: How do you think the decisions ought to be made? I don't know if you...
Ms. DIDION: You know, I don't even know what a classic is. It seems to me that basically what you're talking about at any given time, you're always going to end up with things that are going to seem eccentric to later generations.
Ms. DIDION: But there's a certain body of knowledge at any given time, certain shared narratives and shared information that if you - theoretically, if you had a collection of books, you would - and you read - and everybody read all those, we would all share some knowledge.
Ms. DIDION: And we would share some values maybe, and - but it's - so it's kind of something you feel as you go along.
CONAN: Now you know Sonny Mehta, and I wonder do you call him up every once in awhile after you see a new edition in a bookstore and said you've got to be kidding.
Ms. DIDION: No, I've never done that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: No, I feel - generally, it seems to me the choices have been quite good.
CONAN: And as you say, it must be daunting to have your own work included in such a list.
Ms. DIDION: Well, yes, it is. The other thing about Everyman's Library is basically it seems to me that most of the books in it have crossed two generations, which I hesitate to say is now true of my early work. It has now been read by two generations, and that's basically all we're talking about, I think.
CONAN: And, Sonny Mehta, all of the stuff that we were talking about initially was fiction. Obviously, Joan Didion's nonfiction work is what you've included here.
Mr. MEHTA: In this particular volume, yes. This is just nonfiction. But I think Dent set out not just to publish fiction. He did publish nonfiction, too. I'm thinking about Lord Chesterfield's letters to his grandson, for instance.
Mr. MEHTA: There was a great deal of nonfiction because - and, you know, there will be more in the Everyman that we're currently working on.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener on the line, and this is Brook(ph). Brook joins us from Oklahoma City.
BROOK (Caller): (Unintelligible) How are you guys today?
BROOK: Great. I'm an English teacher, and oftentimes I'm dialoguing with folks on the Advanced Placement Web site, and we often have the conversation about a book's literary merit. And I was wondering if our guests saw the literary merit and classic as interchangeable terms or if they're different terms.
CONAN: What do you think, Joan Didion?
Ms. DIDION: Well, as I say, I have trouble defining classic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: So I don't know. I mean obviously I think...
BROOK: (Unintelligible) great fights about what literary merit is, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: ...something - I mean we do want literary merit, I think, all of us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: There was a book that was in the - sort of in the - it was high school reading at the time I was in high school. And at the time it was nationwide. It was a book that - it was Giants in the Earth, it was called. It was by a Norwegian named Rolvaag.
Ms. DIDION: And it was - and I had a - it was a - basically it was about American immigration, but it all took place in the Midwest. It was equally mystifying to me in Sacramento and to my husband, who was also assigned it in West Hartford, Connecticut. I mean certain books are assigned because they reflect a societal value.
CONAN: So no threat, Sonny Mehta, that Giants in the Earth is going to be the next edition in the Everyman's Library.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, I did in fact buy it about eight months after I came to work in America, which was about 18 years ago. I was traveling and someone had taken me I think it was Seattle, and we were making a progress across that sector, sort of visiting bookstores. And I bought a copy of that because everyone told me it was a classic. I'm still reading it.
Ms. DIDION: That's - it's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
BROOK: For enjoyment or just (unintelligible).
CONAN: Savoring every word, I take it.
Mr. MEHTA: Absolutely.
CONAN: Yes. Brook, thanks very much for the call.
BROOK: Thank you. Great show.
CONAN: Good luck with your class.
BROOK: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Joan Didion, we wanted to thank you very much for being with us today.
Ms. DIDION: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Joan Didion, her collected nonfiction, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” is one of six new releases in Knopf's Everyman's Library. And we'll be back with Sonny Mehta and more of your calls after a short break. If you'd like to joins us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about what makes a classic with somebody who should know: Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, the publishing company which puts out now the Everyman's Library series. The introductions to all the books in the Everyman series are commissioned especially for those editions. To read A.S. Byatt's introduction to Toni Morrison's “Beloved,” you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk. And of course we want your ideas on what makes a classic and what doesn't. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
And let's turn to Mark(ph). Mark's with us from Paddle Creek or Battle Creek, Michigan. Is that it?
MARK (Caller): Battle Creek (unintelligible).
CONAN: Home of Kellogg's. Go ahead.
MARK: That's right. Well, to me a classic is a book that deals with a classic meta-theme very well, and I think of James Agee's A Death in the Family. You know, to me that was a quintessential story about a young man who, you know, had a emerging relationship with his father and how it was cut short and, you know, the tragedy about that, only to be mirrored in real life by James Agee's own tragedy as he died before the book was finished. So I wonder how you feel about that, the idea of a classic being defined by how it treats a classic theme.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, it is an absolutely wonderful book. I still remember it from when I read it as a much younger person. I think a classic always has - is built around themes that remain sort of quintessentially sort of memorable, and frequently more than one theme. And that was a remarkable book and it is built around one quintessential theme. That is absolutely right.
CONAN: Well, maybe you've given James Agee (unintelligible).
Mr. MEHTA: And actually, you know, I think James Agee probably does deserve a place in any classic collection.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MARK: Sure, yeah.
CONAN: Let's go to - this'll be David, David with us from St. Joseph, Missouri.
DAVID (Caller): Yes, I had a question regarding science fiction. Is there any science fiction novels that are part of the classic collection that we speak of, or is it vacant of those?
Mr. MEHTA: Not yet, but I can think of some science fiction writers who definitely should be inside (unintelligible).
DAVID: Yeah, that was kind of my comment was that it seems oftentimes science fiction is snubbed when it comes to regarding as a classic, but I think that Frank Herbert's “Dune” and obviously Asimov's “Foundation,” there are probably a few of (unintelligible).
CONAN: Well, some of those are still in print. It might be pricey.
Mr. MEHTA: I agree with you, absolutely. Then of course there have been classics of futuristic writing from the past that are very much a part of any sort of ongoing classics collection. I'm thinking about H.G. Wells. I'm thinking Jules Verne.
CONAN: Who may not have been great writers themselves, though pretty good and sold a lot of books.
Mr. MEHTA: Right.
CONAN: But nevertheless important creatively.
CONAN: But there are other genres, not just science fiction. I mean would Dashiell Hammett be part of the Everyman series?
Mr. MEHTA: Actually, yes, Dashiell Hammett is. And we're issuing a second volume. Well, we have one volume in print. We're issuing a second volume, which is being introduced by James Ellroy. And we already have Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
CONAN: The three biggies of the hardboiled school.
DAVID: Some of the best science fiction, while perhaps not as literary, the themes and the stories behind them, they involve a great deal of, you know, social awareness and a good understanding of the way a culture functions and operates and those sort of things. And, again, I think of Frank Herbert and “Dune” and Asimov and his Foundation series. They (unintelligible)
Mr. MEHTA: I think you're absolutely right.
Mr. MEHTA: And if you have any ideas, please send them in. We can use all the help we can get.
DAVID: Oh, very good. Thank you all very much. Take care.
CONAN: David, thanks very much. And if listeners like David wanted to send their ideas directly to you, how would they do that?
Mr. MEHTA: E-mail is probably the best way of getting hold of me. It's firstname.lastname@example.org.
CONAN: And that's M-E-T - M-E-H-T-A?
Mr. MEHTA: That's right.
CONAN: OK. And all right, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is - if I find the right button - Robert, Robert with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi, thanks for my call.
ROBERT: My comment - my suggested book would be “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I know that it's - after having won the Nobel many may consider it - that it's already a classic, but I fear that future generations may no longer consider it a classic or essential reading as social attitudes change, or at least people's perceptions of common social attitudes will change. I think that a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” is essential reading because it reminds us of some of the injustices that can be taken against the disenfranchised.
Mr. MEHTA: I agree with you. If we could get hold of the rights, I assure we'd have it in the Everyman's Library. But it's - the book has been continuously in print, and it's read all over the world. It's read in India, where I come from. It's read in England, where I worked, and it's read in Australia. It's read where anyone reads the English language.
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much.
ROBERT: You're welcome.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer is a writer and author of the short story collection “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” She's working on a forthcoming novel about Buffalo Soldiers, and she joins us now from the studios of our member station in San Francisco, KQED. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. Z.Z. PACKER (Author, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”): Nice to be here. Hi, Neal.
Ms. PACKER: Hi, Mr. Mehta.
Mr. MEHTA: Hi.
Ms. PACKER: What do you think makes a classic, ZZ Packer?
Ms. PACKER: I think that there's a reason why writers kind of shy away from the question, because we kind of feel that we're always constantly, you know, trying to maybe write a classic but of course we don't want to admit to having the ego of saying that we actually do.
It's very difficult. I think that the terminology has changed just over the centuries. I mean it used to be that in a university that literature itself, just as a, you know, a realm of study, was considered kind of a bastard sort of stepchild to the actual classics, meaning like the Greeks and the Latin...
CONAN: Right, yeah.
Ms. PACKER: ...and that kind of thing. And now the very things that would have been considered just (unintelligible) sort of entertainments back then, like, you know, the things I had to read that I fell asleep reading - like Clarissa and Shamela and Pamela and all those things - are I guess by some people still considered classics.
But the way I usually think of it is, you know, just something that - a piece of literature that speaks across generations and often times deals with truths in ways that are sometimes hard or difficult to deal with or wrestle with.
Ms. PACKER: So the one caller talked about, you know, a classic meta-theme, and I would almost sort of shy away from that because that sort of suggests that it's merely theme or merely if you come up with a certain subject matter, then that's, you know, that's grounds for declaring something a classic. And I think it's much more about the style and the substance than just theme.
CONAN: Yeah, otherwise it'd be a template, and then we'd all know what a classic was.
Ms. PACKER: Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah. Is there anything in the canon that - I don't know if you're looking at the actual list of Everyman's Library...
Ms. PACKER: I'm not.
CONAN: ...you know, everything in the canon you think, you know, it's easy in fact to add stuff. You know, oh, gee willikers, how could they possibly skip this? A little harder to take some stuff off sometimes.
Ms. PACKER: Yeah, but then the generations to come, the younger generations are always sort of loathe to say, well, I'm going to take away something like, you know, The Heart of Midlothian or something...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PACKER: ...you know, something like that because, you know, who are you to judge? That's sort of the feeling. But I do think that, you know, there has been a stronger push for people to want to include those books that always seem to be breaking new ground. And many classics I mean start off being somewhat unpopular in their day and then later they're importance becomes known. And I think - but I think that the sort of time span in which that occurs has been narrowing over the years to the point that it almost seems like it takes, you know, a little less than 10 years, whereas maybe before it would almost take, you know, almost a century or something.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Holly. Holly's with us from Fanora(ph) in California.
HOLLY (Caller): Yes, hi.
HOLLY: We use classical approach in my schooling. I home school my kids, and we use classical education approach, whatever that means. So we've had this discussion often about what constitutes a classic. And I would have to say that my feelings of what it is has somewhat evolved, and I love what your new guest is saying. A lot of what I've thought of the classic has come to be what your guest has been saying just now.
HOLLY: And that is that classics seem to be those to me that over the years appeal to the masses, that maybe were popular when they first came out or maybe not, maybe more controversial, but that there's an appeal to the masses and tackles themes that may be uncomfortable, maybe challenges society, challenges political views or religious beliefs.
So, some of my thoughts are there and one reason that my thought would come this way is I recently attended a lecture series and included on the reading list of classics that we were to have read was a Louis L'Amour book. And I really struggled with calling that a classic and why it would be included on that list.
CONAN: Hmm. Well, let me ask Sonny Mehta first of all. Would you think of Louis L'Amour - the great western writer - as eligible for Everyman's?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, he wrote an awful lot of books and they were sequences of novels that - if I remember them rightly from my teenage years - that followed sections of families over a period of time. The Sackett's, I think, was one of them.
I'm not sure that I would, but on the other hand, Owen Wister's “The Virginian” - I don't know whether you've ever come across that.
Mr. MEHTA: That, I think, probably might qualify, but there are other great novels about the west.
CONAN: Some of Cooper's stuff - Fenimore Cooper's would qualify.
Mr. MEHTA: Fenimore Cooper, yes.
CONAN: If you think of the Catskills as the West. It was at one time.
Mr. MEHTA: And, you know, basically in their time these were writers as popular in a mass sense as Louis L'Amour became later on.
CONAN: Hmm. I wonder, do you go through - did you go through the list at one point and say, you know, there's some - well, this would be my characterization and not yours - but there's some real caster oil books here that we might want to think about skipping over this time around? I mean, does anybody read “Pilgrim's Progress” anymore?
HOLLY: Our family does.
CONAN: Your family does. All right, I'm shot down by Holly there in Sonora, California.
Ms. PACKER: She brought up an interesting point about Louis L'Amour just being genre fiction. I mean typically - and the other caller talked about science fiction and, you know, what was its place. And I think typically genre fiction or a genre writer doesn't sort of get ranked as being, you know, one of the classics until they sort of break out of that particular genre in some way.
Mr. MEHTA: You mean transcended it in some way.
Ms. PACKER: Exactly. Because it seems as though if you're writing in a genre to begin with you're automatically agreeing to a set of conventions that, you know, generally affirms a particular societal position. So, for westerns generally, you know, there's the idea that - there's a promotion of, you know, this idea of manifest destiny and the settlers on some level were right.
And, you know, with science fiction there is always the ambiguity with, you know, with the way the world works, but, you know, you have your machines and this and that. And only when you begin to break out and sort of go towards the idea of there being a central human condition that we're wrestling with do the sort of genre writers - like Owen Wister and, you know, some of the other science fiction writers - do they manage to usually just be considered a classic.
CONAN: Holly thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
HOLLY: Thank you.
CONAN: And have a good time with John Bunyan.
HOLLY: Thank you. We will.
We're talking about what constitutes a classic. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Joe on the line. Joe's calling us from La Crosse in Wisconsin.
JOE (Caller): I am and thank you so much for taking my call because I get to talk to people about books, which I don't frequently get to do. First let me -a couple of comments. One is, as far as science fiction goes, I think you've just start to look at an author like Robert Heinlein who wrote “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which is probably the - if you look at a book that you could base the free-love generation on from the ‘60s, you'd probably have to go with that as much as anything else.
And the other thing is the Louis L'Amour book that I suspect they were talking about is a book called “The Walking Drum,” which in the introduction to it L'Amour said is the only book he wrote for him. And so, of course, he made no money on it. And it's the story of a 13th century young man named Kerbouchard and his adventure to find himself.
And one of your guests mentioned, you know, a meta-theme that overarches that she was opposed to. But I think if you look at it not as an encompassing theme but as an opening theme. Space not as something that holds. Space as merely a container. Then you can say that the overarching theme must be like Albee said of theater, it must change you.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer was objecting to that as the sole definition and not merely to that as an idea, but she can defend herself. But go ahead. Anyway, I'm sorry.
JOE: And because I think that's it. It doesn't matter whether it's a personal narrative that changes you. I mean, my connection to Everyman, which is like many years ago - I first read Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, “On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History” in Everyman editions that a very wonderful friend of mine loaned to me one day.
And so - but it must change you because that's what great literature does. That's what great art does. That's what great art does. That's what great anything does, ultimately, when you get right down to it. So, it's wonderful to see this discussion today.
And it really - I don't think it's a bad thing to consider Louis L'Amour - who wrote many popular books about the West - but it was his one book about the West that I suspect they wanted to include on there. And science fiction -somebody like Orson Scott Card or Robert Heinlein.
CONAN: Oh, let me throw in Alfred Bester. So go ahead, anyway.
JOE: Oh, Bester. “Stars My Destination” may be the greatest sociological observation in what would be termed a science fiction book ever written. Man is a social animal first and an individual second. That stuff's great, but that's what changes people. That's what makes you aware, and it's that change in your awareness that I think is what qualifies for anything to be termed great.
And that's why we can't decide what that is, but we can certainly come up with some things that affect a lot of people in a lot of ways and say, hey here's the canon, here's what we found is effective in being affective. And I think that's a great start.
And I think the Everyman Library deserves accolades over and over again for being part of that. And keep “Pilgrim's Progress” and keep (unintelligible) and keep everything else, because, you know, someday somebody will pick up a copy in an attic and read it and that will be the beginning of their life.
CONAN: Joe thanks very much for the call. That's a great call. Appreciate it.
JOE: Thank you.
And Sonny Mehta just a few seconds before we let you go, but when you make decisions about what's in the Everyman's Library series, do you sit in a big meeting? Are there a lot of important people there or do you sit in your office by yourself and just thumb through the books?
Mr. MEHTA: No. Well, it's a group of us who work on this. Chiefly, Luanne Waltrim(ph). She's got a group of people. We meet periodically. We send e-mails to each other. We say what about this, what about that? We have an advisory board that we run ideas by and they sometimes make recommendations to us. And, you know, we argue.
CONAN: That sounds like as good a basis for a series of books as any. Sonny Mehta thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Mr. MEHTA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Sonny Mehta is publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, and he joined us from the BBC Studios in New York. Z.Z. Packer thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. PACKER: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer is author of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and a forthcoming novel about Buffalo Soldiers, with us today from the studios of our member station in San Francisco, KQED.
When we come back from a short break, a book of newly released photographs that document the internment of Japanese Americans. The editors of Impounded join us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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Excerpt: A. S. Byatt’s introduction to 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
I reviewed Beloved when it first appeared in Britain, in 1987. I remember the experience of reading it for the first time. I wrote then, "This novel gave me nightmares and yet I sat up late, paradoxically smiling to myself with intense pleasure at the exact beauty of the singing prose. I recognized it as a writer, as one of those "fortunate" books whose forms present themselves fluently in the writing, whose problems know their own solutions. Morrison in her 2004 foreword describes how it was written, in a rare period of freedom, when she had given up her publishing work and was able to think about what "free" meant — to women, and beyond that, to people who were, or had been, slaves. Her subject rose up at her, as the solid female ghost rose out of the water, in a "nice hat," to haunt the women in the house in 1873, and to embody an American masterpiece in 1987. I reread it before writing this introduction, with the same mixture of delight and terror and with even more admiration for the brilliance of its art.
Beloved turns on the slaughter of a baby by her own mother. Sethe kills her child rather than have her returned from freedom into slavery. Sethe has escaped from Sweet Home in Kentucky to freedom in Ohio, where she has joined her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, whose freedom has been bought by the labor of Sethe’s husband, Halle. Sethe’s three elder children, two boys and a "crawling-already" daughter, are already in the free house, number 124. Sethe has given birth to another daughter, Denver, on the way there. The harsh Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave slaveholders the right to retrieve their "property" from states that had abolished slavery. The Act had been passed as part of a payment for southern support for the admission of California to the Union as a free state, and for the ending of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The Act aroused anger and distress in northern states. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, dramatized the moral distress of the abolitionists. The act was repealed in 1864. Northern states’ attempts to legislate against the Act led to the secession of South Carolina in 1860, and to the American Civil War of 1861–1865.
Sethe’s escape is modeled on the story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky with sixteen other slaves in January 1856. The fugitives were pursued by a posse, of slave masters and sheriff’s officers. They fought back. Margaret Garner cut her youngest daughter’s throat with a butcher’s knife and tried to kill herself and the rest of her children. There was a sensational trial, in which the slaves’ lawyer paradoxically suggested that Margaret be charged with murder and the others with complicity — trying to ensure that she remained in the Free State to be judged as a person, not returned as property. She was, however, returned, and her other baby daughter was drowned when the boat returning them capsized. Margaret is reported as having "displayed frantic joy" at this death.
The tale is grim. Margaret Garner became a symbolic heroine for the abolitionists. Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized the events in Dred, a novel about a slave revolution, which enacted, grimly, the lynchings and mob riots of the South, sold 100,000 copies in four weeks, and was adapted for the stage. Stowe’s Cora Gordon speaks in her own justification with strong and argued rhetoric. Morrison, in her introduction to Beloved, speaks of the real Margaret Garner’s "intellect," "ferocity," and "willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom." Morrison invented Sethe in order to have space to imagine history—an imagined history of slavery, both reality and myth at once.
Beloved is, in ways to which I shall come back, the great American nineteenth-century novel that wasn’t written, about those things that were not written about, but that haunt those great novels, by Melville and Poe, that were. In American fiction of that period there is always a sense of a reality beyond realism, a reaching-out for the "myth before the myth began," as Wallace Stevens puts it in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." Beloved has everything that makes the delight of strong realist fiction—complex, believable, admirable and suffering characters, fully imagined places and things, food, clothes, social awkwardnesses and narrownesses, singing dialogue in real voices. It has the bleak power of true, not symbolic tragedy, the defeat of fully imagined human beings. It makes its readers, relentlessly, contemplate terrors they are really horrified by, with no Gothic thrill — mundane, unimaginative cruelties, the extremity of infanticide and its effects on everyone near it. But it has also the quality of American Gothic, the black veil of metaphor, the symbolic glitter of myth.
The two worlds are connected—indivisibly entwined—by the extraordinary solidity of the ghost of the unappeased dead baby, who is introduced in the first two brief sentences. "124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom." The invisible spite willfully creates her own solidity, clothes her body with real clothes, and puts shoes on her unused feet (she was only "crawling-already"), rises dripping from the water, and demands love with the unappeasable desire of a dependent baby. She becomes black and shining, lovely, greedy, and terrible. Her bodily presence anchors her in the real world of the novel. Her name, and other names, place her in a myth.
Margaret Atwood, reviewing the novel, noted the importance of its epigraph.
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
This is from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and comes from a passage in which Paul is arguing that the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, are the children of God. Paul goes on:
And it shall come to pass that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.
This passage is about the inclusion of the excluded, the despised, and the rejected of men, and can be compared to the defiant citation, by rebellious slaves, of the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (Stowe’s Dred is impressive in this context.)
The passage could also be connected to what I take to be the biblical origin of Morrison’s choice of name for her heroine—Sethe. I like to think it rhymes with the classical Lethe, the river of oblivion, but I am not sure about this. What does seem clear is that Sethe was named for Adam and Eve’s third child, Seth, born after the murder of Abel by Cain. This child, according to certain traditions, was presented with the staff God gave to Adam, a branch of the Tree of Life, and Kallimachus says that it is "well known…that the descendants of Cain are distinguished in Scripture by the name of the sons of man or Adam; those of Seth by the name of the sons of God." (This appears to be an allusion to those "sons of God" in Genesis 6:2 who "saw the daughters of men that they were fair.") Christ called himself the son of God, and the quotation from Romans, taken with the description of Seth, suggests that the excluded are the true inheritors.
Set, or Seth, is also an ambivalent deity, worshipped in ancient Egypt as a form of Typhon, the destroying serpent, female as well as male. Hippolytus in his refutation of heresies in the early days of Christianity says that the "Sethians" worshipped "the Eternal Logos — Darkness, and Mist, and Tempest." The divinity also became associated with the waters of the Nile and the regenerative mud that produced life from death. Some esoteric heresies identify Set or Seth with the Serpent in Paradise, the third (excluded) member of the trinity Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Essentially what Beloved takes from this cluster of myths is this symbolic grouping of female, darkness, water, rejected, but secretly the source of life. There is a wonderful mythic moment when Sethe is at her lowest, battered, bleeding, crawling on her pregnant belly to hide in the grass, just before she meets Amy, the raggedy white girl.
She thinks she hears a white boy and becomes a destroyer.
She told Denver that a something came up out of the earth into her—like a freezing, but moving too, like jaws inside. "Look like I was just cold jaws grinding," she said. Suddenly she was eager for his eyes, to bite into them; to gnaw his cheek."
Amy is brusquely kind (her name means love, or gentleness; all the names in the novel, I think, have meanings). She speaks to Sethe.
Down in the grass, like the snake she believed she was, Sethe opened her mouth, and instead of fangs and a split tongue, out shot the truth.
And Amy massages Sethe’s bleeding feet, which carries Christian associations — Christ’s bleeding feet, Christ washing the feet of the disciples.
In a symbolic novel, a metaphor is as real in the reader’s mind as a thing on the level of the primary narrative. Sethe is a snake. It is no accident that in the storytelling of the novel, the imaged snake is juxtaposed to a brief description Sethe gives her daughter Denver, named for Amy’s home town, of schoolteacher, the white man at Sweet Home who inherits the slaves and is writing a book comparing the animal and human characteristics of the black people. (It was important to the argument that the Declaration of Independence didn’t apply to blacks, to claim that they were part animals, in some way inferior to those "all men" [not women?] who are born free.) Sethe in the realist novel is painfully human. At her lowest moment, Paul D tells her "You got two feet, Sethe, not four," recalling the unspeakable idea of animal characteristics. The sentence goes on "and right then a forest sprang up between them; trackless and quiet." The word forest is not the word jungle, to which we shall come. But the insult carries the whole weight of the horror of being black and human and a slave.
Almost all readers of Beloved, I imagine, will associate the title more readily with the biblical Song of Solomon than with St. Paul. "I am black, but comely," says the beloved, who was perhaps the Queen of Sheba. "Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me. My mother’s children were angry with me. They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept." The whole poem is dripping with sweetness, bodily pleasure, and paradisal imagery. The erotic garden of the black but comely Beloved is a version of the Paradise Garden, and the beloved is the garden.
A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse;
A spring shut up, a fountain sealed …
A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters,
And streams from Lebanon …
Almost every line of the Song of Solomon has its resonance in Beloved, with its triumphant sensuality, its land of milk and honey, its imagery of children as well as lovers.
O that thou wert as my brother
That sucked the breasts of my mother!
When I should find thee without,
I would kiss thee;
Yea, I should not be despised.
I would lead thee
And bring thee into my mother’s house
Who would instruct me.
Here is the voice of Denver speaking to the beloved ghost, and also the voice of Sethe, seeking out the good mother, Baby Suggs.
For love is strong as death;
Jealousy is as cruel as the grave;
The coals thereof are as coals of fire,
Which hath a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
Neither can the floods drown it …
We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts;
What shall we do for our sister
In the day when she shall be spoken for?
The Song of Solomon is a world of shining archetypes, apple trees, milk, water, bright black flesh for which the metaphors are pomegranates and tender grapes. It is set both ironically and in a kind of yearning counterpart against the world in which Sethe, Paul D, and Baby Suggs try to live well.
There are other, more corrupt versions of the Paradise Garden. Toni Morrison’s naming of the Kentucky farm, Sweet Home, is a stroke of genius. Its owners are kinder than most slaveholders and almost treat their slaves as men and women. When Sethe remembers it, she cannot recall the fields and trees without a kind of love for the beauty of the earth, followed by the immediate sense that she does not want to love it, for it is not hers, and she was not at home in it but was a slave and a captive. I think Morrison kept the original name of the owners of Margaret Garner because it has its own wicked irony — the owners garner the fruits of the land, the slaves bring in the harvest. Sethe’s only contact with her mother is watching her working in the fields before she is hanged. Baby Suggs grants that Sweet Home is an improvement on her tortured life in Carolina. "And no matter, for the sadness was at her center the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home."
The American Dream sees the New World as a paradise. I shall come back to that.
It could be argued that the black people in the novel have an almost pastoral or mythical quality of virtue and intelligence. They are all good, patient, heroic, and defeated. There is no malice among the Sweet Home slaves, although the venom and spite they suppress collects and manifests itself in the swelling ghost of the baby-woman. The neighboring blacks, in the free community around 124, feel suspicion and spite when Baby Suggs manages to make a kind of paradisal harvest feast in the house. That is the spite of the humiliated, unable to claim their world for their own as bravely as she has done. Sethe’s child-killing stands out as quite different from the crime of Medea, slaughtering her children because she is rejected as a woman. Sethe kills out of extreme love and fear, and Paul D’s horror of her act is her worst (and just) punishment (except for the terrible presence of the ghost). What is hard to write about is the exact justice with which Morrison depicts these damaged people’s grown-up intelligence and dignity in a world that gives them no home. They do not have even have their own names—the Sweet Home men are Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner and Paul A Garner, and the wild Sixo. Baby Suggs’s owner always believed she was called "Jenny" because that was on her papers. But she sticks to the odd and awkward Baby Suggs because her husband was called Suggs, and he called her "Baby." I have wondered whether Baby Suggs carries the suggestion of the child at the breast — baby sucks. Baby is a diminutive that makes a child of a woman, even if it is loving — but Baby Suggs is nothing if not grown-up, wise, and generous. (And Denver, finally, feels she is a woman when Lady Jones calls her "Baby".) These are people who hardly dare love their children because they may be sold tomorrow; who will not love, or reluctantly partly love, children fathered by white masters; who do not know, as human beings need to know, who their ancestors are, where they come from. They are people who own nothing, and are themselves owned. Yet, in this tale, they are not brutalized. The chain gang rescues itself in the flood because they move together, each depending on the other.
The true representative of this goodness and dignity is Paul D. One of the most moving moments in the novel, for me, is when he thinks — clearly — about the need to restrict his love to little things.
Listening to the doves in Alfred, Georgia, and having neither the right nor the permission to enjoy it because in that place mist, doves, sunlight, copper dirt, moon—everything belonged to the men who had the guns. Little men, some of them, big men too, each one of whom he could snap like a twig if he wanted to … And these "men" who made even vixen laugh could, if you let them, stop you from hearing doves or loving moonlight. So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own … Grass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn’t do. A woman, a child, a brother — a big love like that would split you right open in Alfred, Georgia.
Paul D has his heart in a figurative tobacco tin, rusted shut — witched open by Beloved, who seduces him, as much as by his much more cautious settling in with Sethe.
The extraordinary form of the unfolding of the tale of this novel, terrible and beautiful, is essentially constructed round what is both a survival mechanism and a profound courtesy between the survivors — the reluctance to remember the horrors, or to speak of them to others, which might bring those horrors back to life. So Paul D does not intend to damage Sethe by telling her what happened to her husband, Halle, or to Sixo. So the community does not tell Paul D what Sethe has done, at least for some time. And so, bit by bit, Toni Morrison’s readers move through a fictive present full of bearable reminiscences to the concealed horrors — and shattered passions — embodied in Beloved. It is only on a second reading that one can see how delicately Sethe cherry-picks what can be told to Denver as the epic triumph of Denver’s birth, out of the unspeakable evil that led to it happening as it did.
Connected to this, and providing a bridge back to a different discussion of the mythic dimension of this novel, is the treatment of the white people who appear. Whiteness in this story is blankness, emptiness. White people on the periphery of the events are not very much imagined — they are unimagined presences of the unimaginable, and also of the unimaginative. (Consider the limitations of the ability to talk to or understand the black people displayed by Mr. Garner as he takes Baby Suggs to liberty, or the dying Mrs. Garner, thanking Sethe but unaware of, and uninterested in, what is distressing her.) The schoolteacher’s sons who steal milk are distinguished only by their repulsive "mossy teeth." The black girl’s voice in the visionary scene of the slave ship describes whites uncomprehendingly as incomplete, people without skins. They are ghosts, demons.
This reverses, in a wonderful way, the dangerous building of black skins into old associations of darkness with blackness, with danger, even with evil. The American nineteenth-century novel is full of lurid contrasts between black and white, based in religious and metaphysical ambiguities and questioning. I was a postgraduate student in the late 1950s, studying what was then a new subject and a new discipline — American literature. American literature was in a sense defined as the attempt to define and describe America, the Brave New World of the American Dream. One of the critical books that most impressed me at the time was The Power of Blackness by Harry Levin. It studied images of darkness and light, blackness and whiteness in Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville, and defined a certain kind of metaphysical, allegorical, Gothic darkness as an essential characteristic of early American novels. It discussed the Puritan black gloom of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and his minister who wore a Black Veil. It discussed Poe’s black Raven, and went on to look at Poe’s imaginary journey to the then unexplored Antarctic, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, published in 1838. In that fantastic adventure Pym sails, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, past black ships of death, in search of the South Pole. Here is Harry Levin at the South Pole:
Curiosity is rewarded at the expense of plausibility when land is sighted beyond the ice floes, "a singular ledge of rock … bearing a strong resemblance to corded bales of cotton." But the Ultima Thule on which they eventually set foot has no "light-colored substances of any kind." "Everything is black, the flora and fauna, the dwellings and artefacts, not only the skin but the teeth of the woolly-haired inhabitants. The very water is opaque and purplish. Whereas the shirts and sails of the visitors, the pages of their books and the shells of their eggs — everything white is taboo; and an untouchable white animal with red teeth is a sort of totem." The black-skinned warriors inter the white-skinned mariners alive. They escape through grey vapour, milky water, a rain of "fine white powder resembling ashes," the flight of "many gigantic and pallidly white birds." Their last vision is a shrouded figure, huger than lifesize, blocking their path. "And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow."
There is a lot more of this, and of other paradoxical black-white contrasts. Levin remarks, considering Poe’s loathing of abolitionists, that "in the troubled depths of Poe’s unconscious, there must have been not only the fantasy of a lost heritage, but a resentment and a racial phobia."
Levin also considers Melville, whose tale "Benito Cereno" dramatizes the revolt of an enslaved crew against a Spanish captain, and whose masterpiece, Moby Dick, depicts a whaler, with a crew of all races, with a captain with a white ivory leg, careering across all the oceans of the world in pursuit of an unmasterable demonic whale, whose impossible color is white, and who can only be struck by a harpoon baptized by black magic in the blood of three dark-complexioned harpooners. Melville’s Ishmael is rescued by his brotherhood with the "savage" harpooner Queequeg (just as Sethe, perhaps, does need the poor white Amy, in the only scene where a white has a voice and a character). But what is remarkable about Moby Dick is the extraordinary beauty of the long passage about the horror of the whiteness of the whale, in the chapter with that heading. It is tendentious, it is extravagant, it creates new associations for the "color of purity" and, as it says itself, "the very veil of the Christian’s Deity." Melville’s rhetoric rides past the horror of the white bear of the poles and the white shark of the tropics, the pale dread of the albatross and the "strangely hideous" albino human. He identifies whiteness with indifference and cruelty.
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? … "Pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper … "
It is in this chapter that Melville comes to his terrible conclusion: "Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright." He wrote to Hawthorne of this book, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb"—a traditional image of white innocence that he has compromised.
I myself read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was far too young, sitting in my grandmother’s garden with an old copy I had found on her shelf and feeling overwhelmed by simple horror that a way of life could have existed like the one described in that story. It was one of my very earliest experiences of real evil, and it hurt me. When I read Harry Levin in the fifties, I simply assumed that he was saying that Poe’s, and Melville’s, turning of the religious imagery of whiteness into horror was at some level, conscious and unconscious, an admission that the New World is contaminated by a new sin, the racial guilt of enslavement. He doesn’t in fact say that — he draws back from it, though from time to time he implies it.
In Playing in the Dark (1992) Toni Morrison does, with considerable irony and a kind of implacable charity, discuss the absence of the presence of the enslaved black nation in American literature. She fixes on the image that white American literature gives of the society that wants to see itself as creating a new, earthly Paradise — democratic, just, and free of the shackles and hierarchies of Old Europe. She remarks sharply:
"Living in a nation of people who decided that their worldview would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer."
I have suggested that the blankness of Morrison’s whites can be connected to Poe’s and Melville’s white horrors. The virtuoso use of the language of colors in Beloved rewrites the color language of the American classics that came before it. Its mythic and poetic images connect it to that symbolic tradition of American writing. Its realism makes the fates of real, individual people matter, free, unfree, and in the process of claiming freedom.
Morrison is rightly fearful of what she calls "metaphorical shortcuts." In Britain at least, enthusiastic critical moralists have attempted to deny or prevent the use of blackness to symbolize fear or evil or horror. Human beings of all colors were afraid of the dark in all societies, because danger came out of it, because it was beyond control, and this has not much to do with skin color. Black people are afraid of the dark as white and yellow and beige people are. Morrison writes finely, "Neither blackness nor ‘people of color’ stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread." But she has made a collection of "the associative language of dread and love that accompanies blackness…. Examples I thought of as a category of sources of imagery, like water, flight, war, birth, religion and so on, that make up the writer’s kit."
In Beloved, then, white is blank, and black is on the whole invisible, because people are black, real people who inhabit this novel are black. To be human is to be black, and to be white is to be at least in danger of being inhuman, at the margins. There is a religious symbolism of two connected colors, white and red, the white of milk and the red of blood, both connected with life and death at the extremes. Denver as a baby drinks her sister’s blood and her mother’s milk together. Paul D has shut up his red heart in his rusted tobacco box. The source of Baby Suggs’s life and her religious calling in the green Clearing is the life in her red heart. Red is the color of the ribbon that Stamp Paid thought was a cardinal feather in the river but that turned out to be "a red ribbon knotted around a curl of wet woolly hair, clinging still to its bit of scalp." "Red" is what Baby Suggs slips in, trying to wrest Denver from the wild and murderous Sethe. Red is also the color of the innocent velvet Amy is traveling to Boston in search of, but the word she uses is the rich word "carmine".
It is in this context that we need to read Baby Suggs’s preoccupation with color, as she lies in bed, defeated, we later learn, by Sethe’s blow for freedom.
Her past had been like her present — intolerable — and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
"Bring in a little lavender if you got any. Pink, if you don’t."
Pink is a dubious color — it is the pleasing flesh of a pink tongue, pondered by Baby. It is the tombstone, "pink as a fingernail," that Sethe leans on to pay with sex to have the word Beloved chiseled on the baby’s headstone. It is also the wonderfully described blossom on tree after tree, in American orchard after American orchard, that Paul D follows north after the Civil War to find a new place to be, waiting until one tree fades and hunting out the next one, in a cooler and later climate. This is a different version of the Paradise Garden, half-wild, half-cultivated, entered but not owned, full of birds that can be heard singing, and must be eaten raw to survive.
Color is the scraps of material that Baby Suggs makes into an American quilt, in 124, where she is free and defeated. Two patches of orange among the drab. She tells Stamp Paid that she needs to fix on something harmless in this world. "Blue don’t hurt nobody. Yellow neither." Stamp Paid later fingers his talismanic ribbon and "hopes she stuck to blue, yellow, maybe green, and never fixed on red."
Color is Denver thinking about her years of shocked speechlessness and the return of the solid ghost.
Anything is better than the silence in which she answered to hands gesturing and was indifferent to the movement of lips. When she saw every little thing and colors leaped smoldering into view. She will forgo the most violent of sunsets, stars as fat as dinner plates and all the blood of autumn, and settle for the palest yellow if it comes from her Beloved.
Color is Denver, going to find work, only half hearing Miss Bodwin "because she was stepping on something soft and blue. All around her was thick, soft and blue." It is her first experience of a carpet.
Color is connected in a very complex way to flesh and blood. Baby Suggs, free, listening to her great heart, calls the people and tells them to love their flesh because
the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
"Here," she said, "in this here place we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh."
Flesh is solid in this novel, tortured flesh, damaged flesh, tentatively loving flesh, the willed flesh of the too solid ghost, the bodily fluids of birth and death, spit, blood, piss, milk, and water. When baby Suggs is strong, she can love flesh in the Clearing. When she is defeated, she retreats — she "dismissed her great heart and lay in the keeping-room bed, roused once in a while by a craving for color, and not for another thing. ‘Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,’ she said, ‘and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks.’"
Stamp Paid, in his way, also reverses both the paradisal imagery, and its opposing image, the savage jungle from which black cannibals, in white mythology, come. He broods.
"Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew … until it invaded the whites who had made it … Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own."
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," said that every new work of literature altered the literature of the past — in a sense reread that literature. Beloved enacts this alteration more forcefully than most classics. But the book does also have that gentler quality of seeming to be something that, while entirely new, was always there to be discovered, has always existed. I tried to describe that feeling in a novel (Possession). I was moved to find Toni Morrison quoting my sentence in Playing in the Dark, as an example of the way in which "writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer." Morrison quotes my passage as "an example of certain kinds of readings that seem to me inextricable from certain experiences of writing." It goes:
"When the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge."
Beloved is the novel I think of first, when I think of this kind of reading, this kind of writing.