Western Literature's Underside : PLAYING IN THE DARK: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination By Toni Morrison (Harvard University Press: $14.95; 91 pp.)

Middlebrook is the author of "Anne Sexton: A Biography" and is currently writing a book about the cross-dressing jazz musician Billy Tipton.

Virginia Woolf once joked that a book had to be adapted to the body, so women's books should be shorter and more concentrated than the ones men write. "A Room of One's Own," where the joke appeared, was such a book; and so is Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark." Morrison's revolutionary little monograph, like Woolf's, was first delivered as a series of endowed lectures at an elite university: Woolf at Cambridge, Morrison at Harvard. The honor of the invitation, it may be assumed, went to the women; their topics are, well, too topical to occupy a central place in a curriculum that prepares a fortunate few for leadership in a complex social order.

But make no mistake: This is a major work by a major American author, a black woman who adapts her book to her body from the outset. Speaking as a reader "in a highly and historically racialized society," she proposes a way to discover how whiteness is inscribed in American literature.

"I want to draw a map . . . of a critical geography and use that map to open as much space for discovery, intellectual adventure and close exploration as did the original charting of the New World--without the mandate for conquest." Long disguised under the label "universal," whiteness is a characteristic so unstable and uncertain, Morrison finds, that without the reinforcement of institutions such as slavery and legally enforced segregation it should have grown extinct as a defining category. What keeps the concept of whiteness as value alive in American culture?

One answer is: a purposeful code embedded disingenuously in works central to the education of literate Americans, works that appear to have no racialist agenda whatsoever. A writer's response to American Africanism, Morrison notes, often surfaces "in a language that mystifies what it cannot bring itself to articulate but still attempts to register."

A clever reader, Morrison illustrates the many ways in which the presence of blacks in America impinges "furtively" on "the major and championed characteristics of our national literature--individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell." She develops her argument in unpretentiously conversational commentaries on works by canonical American writers such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway.

Morrison is serious about the promise that her goal is not conquest. Instead, she hopes to show the richness of investigation still available in terrain long thought to have been exhausted in earlier readings by critics unconscious of their own racialist agenda. The literature of the United States, she surmises, "has taken as its concern the architecture of a new white man," and this reflexively required the fabrication of "a nonwhite, Africanlike . . . presence or persona."

Sometimes this definitive whiteness surfaces as a symbolism, as in Melville's "Moby Dick" or Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym"--"Almost always in conjunction with representations of black or Africanist people who are dead, impotent or under complete control." Morrison sees this floating "whiteness" as the guilt that shadows the American Dream of freedom and dignity for all people, a guilt that surfaced during the formative years of American literature because of the reality of slavery.

"It is no accident and no mistake that immigrant populations (and much immigrant literature) understood their 'Americanness' as an opposition to the resident black population." Morrison's other readings focus on an assessment of whiteness as "sycophantic" or "parasitical" on blackness; or "complementary"--as in Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not." Hemingway's use of African-Americans, Morrison notes, is "much more artless and unselfconscious than Poe's"--for example, in the ways manhood is established for characters: "Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so."

At 61, Toni Morrison is one of the living writers who really matter in America. Her moral and artistic authority were established firmly by the publication in 1987 of the prize-winning novel "Beloved," a work of genius that taps core issues at once psychological and social, personal and political. "Beloved" represents a society organized by slavery, in which motherhood itself is one of the aspects of social life requiring reconstruction after Emancipation.

Morrison shows how Sethe, a young slave mother, patches together a code of maternal care-giving from dim memories of nurture by a slave woman not her mother, and from the meager kindnesses of her mistress. In a key scene, Sethe is held down and forced to nurse a white man while her owner, called Schoolteacher, takes notes on the proceedings: He is compiling a list of her "characteristics," whether for commercial or for scholarly purposes is not made clear.

This violence motivates Sethe to flee with her children across the Ohio River to freedom. And it is the memory of this violence that causes Sethe to kill her unwanted female baby rather than permit a pursuing slave catcher to return them to Schoolteacher. On one side of the river, the "natural" relationship of mother and child is possible; on the other it is not. So much for nature. Morrison shows that it is culture that intervenes to shape social relations--culture, with its twin enforcers: violence on the one hand, categories on the other.

"Playing in the Dark" puts Morrison in the Schoolteacher position. "In matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse," she notes and proceeds to capture and hold down a small, well-chosen collection of works in order to conduct on them an investigation into "what makes intellectual domination possible." Schoolteacher annotates the bodily functions of his slave in order to fabricate a justification of his abuse. Morrison's essay annotates the body of literature as a site of the willful perpetuation of that fabrication. But it is an exuberant exercise, conducted by a writer in her prime who knows that her own work makes steady inroads on the unspeakable.

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