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A Haunting Death Inspires ‘Beloved’ : Novelist Morrison Writes of Families, Freedom and Slavery

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Times Staff Writer

The brief 19th-Century newspaper article about a Kentucky slave who killed her daughter rather than yield her to a life of slavery continued to haunt novelist Toni Morrison, still preying on her 10 years after she had included the incident in an anthology about black life in America.

Morally unthinkable, ethically untenable, the story of Margaret Garner seemed to Morrison at once to capture the desperate evil of slavery and to contain the seeds of “enormously contemporary” questions. Fictionalized, it became the core of “Beloved” (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95), Morrison’s new, resoundingly acclaimed novel about families and freedom and the horrible things humans do to one another.

“Black women had to confront very, very modern questions in the middle of the 19th Century,” Morrison, Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at the State University of New York, said in her office on campus here.

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In some ways, Morrison said, “Beloved” represents a departure from her four earlier novels in that it is set not in the present, but in the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Yet she stresses that she is continuing to probe emotional dilemmas that seem unrestricted by time or by race.

“How do you become an individual and nurture at the same time?” she asked, sipping coffee on the first cold morning of fall. “What is your place vis-a-vis a man? What kind of decisions can you make about the future of your children?”

Morrison leaned forward, switching now from the abstract to the marrow-pinching specifics that drove the young Kentucky runaway to take a handsaw to the neck of her own offspring.

“See, the slavery had denied her her motherhood,” she said. “She was saying: ‘I am the mother, and I will determine the lives of my children.” Morrison shrugged. “When it became clear that their future would be the same as hers, she decided to alter that.”

‘Effort to Love Is Amazing’

Her voice radiated wonder, as if the character she created were sitting in the office with her. “The effort to love when you are surrounded by that kind of pathology is amazing,” Morrison said.

Filled with admiration for her lush prose, reviewers have called “Beloved” a novel about slavery. But to Morrison, the saga of the woman she named Sethe transcends both the institution and the era.

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“I don’t think that book is about the past at all, except in the ways in which the past influences today and tomorrow,” she said.

Yet fiction, Morrison’s genre, is a way to explore the past. New information, “wars, civil rights, changes in the way we perceive all sorts of information,” surface to challenge old interpretations of past events. One student helping Morrison do research for “Beloved” came upon a description of “why Negroes are inferior,” published 75 years ago in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “They decided that the fact that the bone structure of Negro babies’ heads closed early” made them inferior, Morrison said, marveling at the obvious absurdity passed off as fact.

Facts, in Morrison’s view, are often suspect.

“What other people take for clear, pure, unfraught fact, I was never able to do. I never trusted the facts,” she said. “Things like that were just sprinkled throughout the books.” Her eyes widened. “The dictionary!” she said.

“Or,” she added, “a book like William Safire’s new novel.”

Fellow contemporary writer Safire’s “Freedom” (Doubleday) “plunges the reader into the reality and drama of the American Civil War,” or so the book jacket proclaims.

“He is writing about Lincoln and the Civil War and nevertheless no black person says anything,” Morrison pointed out. “They just listen.”

So for Morrison, “if there is a void in the history of this country, then I feel an obligation to fill it.” The novel becomes a kind of compass, a guide to what Morrison calls the “interior life” of the past.

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“It’s a constant process of trying to find out what is valuable and what is not,” she said.

In the case of slavery: “One doesn’t know the actual experience of being a slave. You only know about it. It is abstract.”

Morrison smiled.

Before she began writing “Beloved,” she said, “I certainly thought I knew as much about slavery as anybody. But it was the interior life I needed to find out about. That is the whole problem of novel-writing, to find access to truly realized characters.”

Morrison the student, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, devoured the novels of history, pouring over Flaubert, Zola, the Russians. From Lorain, Ohio, she headed to undergraduate school at Howard University, to Cornell for a master’s degree, then back to Howard to teach. There she married a Jamaican architecture student, Harold Morrison. Six years later, the marriage collapsed. Morrison, pregnant and with a 3-year-old son in tow, took a job as a textbook editor and began to write fiction.

Her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” sold modestly after it appeared in 1970. Next came “Sula,” and in 1978, the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Song of Solomon.” “Tar Baby,” Morrison’s 1981 novel about race relations and relations between the sexes, vaulted the author to the cover of Newsweek.

All the while, Morrison refused to accept publishers’ advances, likening contracts for uncompleted works to homework assignments. With “Beloved” she broke precedent, accepting both an advance and a contract.

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‘Black Writer’

Inevitably, Morrison has worn the literary name tag of “black writer,” a title she both touts and tolerates.

“It’s a hopeless conundrum,” she said.

“To say that being a black writer is less than being a writer” is ridiculous, Morrison explained, “but it’s what we associate with the minority position.” On the other hand, Morrison is black, she is a woman and she is a writer. “So I have always insisted on the label of black woman writer, in order to turn the definition around.”

Morrison’s mission, however, is less to chronicle the condition solely of blacks or of women than to “find artistic solutions to situations that most people take for granted.” Her imagination is her tool: “The only job worth doing for a novelist,” she contends, “is the quality of the imagination.”

In writing “Beloved,” Morrison said, her own imagination was sometimes stymied. She had read frequently about the accoutrements, the appliances of slavery in America. “Put the brake on Jenny,” a slave owner’s journal might mention. Slave narratives talked about the bit, or about other highly specialized devices used to restrain them, to keep them from speaking, in some cases to keep them from sleeping.

But Morrison could not actually envision all the equipment, described almost casually by slave owners and slaves alike. White slave owners took the indignities for granted. “They were very small items in the daily business of slavery,” said Morrison. Slave narratives, she explained, “were written and published in order to persuade well-meaning white people to abolish slavery.” To describe the true horrors was counterproductive.

“They were always being accused, as I am, of being excessive,” Morrison said. This seemed amazing, she said, because “the system was excessive.”

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Eventually, Morrison’s researcher produced illustrations and detailed descriptions that enabled Morrison to imagine the three-pronged neck braces that held a slave’s head rigid or the bit that locked his tongue silent.

“It was sort of Industrial Revolutionary,” she said. “Creative cruelty.”

The real story of “Beloved,” Morrison said, is “the ferocity with which these people were determined. They were working in this literal hell. They had to do something that was quite remarkable. They had to imaginatively construct a reality with which they could live.

“They had to create systems of solace and support,” she added, in the midst of an institution in which they were “dismissed as simple-minded people in bondage.”

Morrison let the characters who would populate “Beloved” gestate for two years before she began writing. “I wanted to write only when I was so curious and so eager to explore some territory that it would be impossible not to do it,” she said. “I wanted to have that kind of passion, that kind of urgency.

“When I realized that it was something I couldn’t put aside, then I could begin to write a manuscript.”

Once consumed, “totally engaged” in her project, Morrison found that “the problem became how to carry on with everything else.”

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Writing Habits

But she is lucky. Sons Harold and Slade are old enough now to understand her devotion to her writing, and friends do not interrupt when she holes up in her house on the Hudson. “Like Hawthorne,” she writes longhand. “That way, I tend to write only what needs to be written.”

Living with manufactured humans, creating the twists and turns of their lives, is not without its risk. “You never know they’re not going to let you down,” Morrison said. “But if you don’t have that faith, you don’t write. If you don’t have the stamina, then one should do something else.”

Writers, Morrison maintains, take “a certain delight in walking that edge. Some people climb mountains. Some people race cars. Some people write novels.”

The ghosts of “Beloved,” the “unmourned souls” of slavery, as she calls them, still hover in Morrison’s mind. There is more to tell, clearly, and Morrison’s legion of fans hope the next novel will not be another six years in the making.

She sat at her desk and nodded.

“Neither do I,” she said.

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