Can America Reckon With the Ghosts of Slavery? Beloved: A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive

When I decided to embark on my Pulitzer Prize Project, in which I am reading every book that has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, there was one book that stood out from all the others as a title I was both excited to get to and felt pretty certain I would love… even though it greatly intimidated me. That book was Toni Morrison’s 1987 instant classic Beloved. In some ways, you could say that this whole project is just a roundabout way for me to work up the courage to finally pick this book up.

I had actually already read a Toni Morrison book before, but it was one of her more recent novels, Home. To prepare myself for Beloved, I went back to the beginning and read Morrison’s very first novel, The Bluest Eye. I was astonished by how clear her purpose (and how sharp her skill) was even in her debut. Morrison emerged fully formed as a writer with a then-revolutionary intention to tell black stories about black characters. White people, when they appear in a Morrison novel, are incidental. Similarly, there is only one Morrison novel with a male protagonist, Song of Solomon (which I also read as I built up to Beloved, and which I also loved).

Toni Morrison is a fascinating person who dedicated her writing career (and her editorial career as well) to reclaiming the American narrative for some of this country’s most marginalized citizens. It reminds me of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s response when asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court: when there are nine. There are people who take that as a radical, controversial statement, but it’s not actually an unfair goal at all. For most of this country’s history, we’ve had entirely male Supreme Courts. If the very idea of nine female Justices seems outrageous to you, you should probably ask yourself why.

So it is with Toni Morrison, who slyly tilted the conversation about race and gender in this country away from the accepted norm and asked people to reckon with why it’s been set up this way. She is, in my opinion, truly brilliant. She’s also one of the most essential writers in all of American history (and perhaps even human history).

Historically, the publishing industry and book awards celebrated stories about race, racism, slavery, and the Civil War that were told by white authors. To some extent, this is still largely true, but it had begun to change a bit in the decade before Toni Morrison published Beloved. James Alan McPherson became the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1978 for his short story collection Elbow Room, followed by Alice Walker in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple. Toni Morrison became the third with Beloved‘s 1988 win, but since then only two other black novelists have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (although one of them, Colson Whitehead, is a two-time winner). Instead, discourse about racism in the United States was defined by Julia Peterkin’s Scarlet Sister Mary, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shirley Anne Grau’s The Keepers of the House, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Margaret Mitchell and her execrable Gone With the Wind, and more. All of those books were also Pulitzer Prize winners, and I’ve omitted several other Pulitzer Prize winners by white authors that were about the Civil War.

Toni Morrison’s career was about reclaiming the conversation for the people who have actually been most impacted by racism. In many ways, Beloved is her magnum opus.

I will say this upfront: Beloved is essential reading, especially for Americans, but do not go into it unless you are ready for a heavy read. I think it was smart for me to work my way up to Beloved by reading some other books by Toni Morrison first. I tell people all the time that if you are only planning to read one book by Toni Morrison, make it Beloved–but otherwise, start with The Bluest Eye to prepare yourself. Song of Solomon works great as a bridge between The Bluest Eye and Beloved as well. All three are great books anyway–Toni Morrison is a truly tremendous writer.

What is Beloved About?

Please note that Beloved is an exceptionally difficult book to summarize because a lot happens, there’s a lot of backstory, there are multiple layers of meaning, the timeline is out of order, there are a lot of characters, and there’s just a lot to absorb. Toni Morrison deliberately made this a difficult book for the reader because it requires active participation. You can’t just float along with the story and see where it goes. It’s a prickly, difficult reading experience–but that is exactly how it was designed to be. Because what could be more unpleasant than the realities of slavery and the systemic racism that allowed it to exist and which still thrives in this country?

Because the plot is so involved, I’ll keep this as simple as possible. Sethe is a formerly enslaved woman living with her daughter Denver in a house plagued by a ghost in 1873 Cincinnati, a town that seems to want nothing to do with Sethe. Beloved begins when a figure from Sethe’s past shows up at the house: Paul D, who knew Sethe when they were both enslaved and living on a plantation called Sweet Home. Things really get going when a sickly young woman who calls herself Beloved shows up at Sethe’s home. Paul D is suspicious of her but Sethe and Denver immediately take a liking to her and begin to nurse her back to health.

I don’t think this is a spoiler since pretty much every description of this book that I’ve ever seen mentions it freely, but if you’re feeling like you don’t want spoilers anyway I recommend you jump to the next section. Beloved is the ghost of the daughter Sethe murdered in order to keep her from being forced back into slavery. She also attempted to murder her other three children, including Denver, and planned to kill herself last, but she was prevented from following through. The word “beloved” was all that Sethe could afford to have engraved on her daughter’s tombstone, which is why the ghost assumes that name (we never learn the name she was given in life. Someday, I’m going to do a research paper on the role of names in Toni Morrison novels and it’s going to be fascinating).

Here’s where we get into actual spoilers, so if you don’t want to know how Beloved ends, skip to the next part.

What Beloved is doing is very complicated, especially for a short summary, but essentially she wants two things from Sethe: the maternal love she feels she was denied when she was murdered, and to make Sethe pay for what she did to her. So there’s a really twisted dynamic of love and hate, forgiveness and revenge. Ultimately, Paul D is cast out of Sethe’s home in favor of Beloved and Denver, who initially welcomed her sister home, must strike out on her own to seek the community’s help in order to save her mother–and we learn that the community abandoned Sethe because of what she did to Beloved. Paul D must begin to come to terms with the legacies of the trauma he carries with him in order to return to Sethe. And Denver must convince the women of their community to forgive (or at least understand) Sethe so they can band together as a group to help Sethe face her own trauma and let go of Beloved (again).

What Does Beloved Mean?

Most of the characters in Beloved have a different experience of slavery but all of them have been left scarred by it in some way. Sethe literally carries the pain of slavery on her back in the form of scars in the shape of a chokecherry tree. It’s a constant reminder of the pain and degradation she has been through, but it also killed her sensation and left her unable to feel. Similarly, Sethe is literally haunted by the ghosts of slavery. This is a book that does many things, but it is primarily about the weight and burden of trauma–specifically trauma caused by slavery and the systemic racism that allowed it to exist.

Each character carries their own individual burden that they are unable to face. All they can do is keep stumbling along on their path trying not to let the weight smother them. And when a character reaches out to someone else to share their burden, it becomes too much. When Paul D tries to tell Sethe about what happened to him when he tried to escape Sweet Home, she is unable to process it. When Sethe tries to share her burden with Denver, Denver doesn’t know how to help her mother. It’s only when people band together as a community that they are able to reckon with the force of what happened and begin to heal. It is only when people as a community deal with the ghosts of the past that they can move forward.

On a much grander scale, Beloved is about how America as a country will never heal from the wounds of slavery unless it finally has an honest reckoning with what happened. Not just the black community but especially the white community, because we are the people who perpetrated slavery, benefitted from its existence, and have continually refused to acknowledge its evil. Instead, we love to tell ourselves that we are not to blame and cling to stories like the white savior. We even allow ourselves to believe propaganda like Gone With the Wind in order to believe that slavery wasn’t actually so bad.

Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe and Paul D lived, had a reputation for being a good place for enslaved people to be and its owner had a reputation as someone who was kind to the enslaved people who lived on his land. And while things at Sweet Home only really turned bad when a new overseer who called himself Schoolteacher took over, Morrison essentially burns down the notion that there was anything resembling a safe haven for the enslaved. She makes an undeniable case that there was no good way to live as a slave. Take that, Gone With the Wind.

Over the course of the book, Morrison reveals the hypocrisy behind the notion of a well-intended slave owner. In Beloved, and in many of Morrison’s other works, she doesn’t offer a path for white readers to feel absolved of systemic racism, including the traumas of slavery. And traumas do indeed haunt both Sethe and Paul D, who find themselves unable to confront the things that happened to them and the other enslaved people who lived at Sweet Home–and everything that has happened to them as a result.

While I didn’t plan it this way, this book was the perfect antidote to Gone With the Wind, which was the last book I read for my Pulitzer Prize Project. And if you want to know why this was the perfect antidote, check out my deep dive on whether or not Gone With the Wind is racist (spoiler alert: it is).

A reckoning with slavery and racism in this country is something that has never happened in all the years since the end of the Civil War, and something that is unlikely to ever happen. Which means that the United States is going to continue to keep stumbling along under the weight of our burden, trying not to get smothered.

Is Beloved Based on a True Story?

Yes, but only loosely. During her work as an editor, Toni Morrison worked on The Black Book, a collection of documents relating to the history and experience of African Americans. In its pages is a newspaper article about Margaret Garner, who inspired the book Beloved.

Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her family by crossing the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati. While staying at her uncle’s house to figure out a path further north to safety, U.S. Marshalls surrounded the property before storming the house. Garner killed her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter rather than see her become enslaved. She wounded her other children and planned to kill them and herself but did not manage it before the Marshalls captured her.

That much of the story is familiar to anyone who has read Beloved, but anything you read about Margaret Garner focuses very tightly on the sensational trial that followed, which featured a great many philosophical arguments about the Fugitive Slave Act and the traumas of slavery. Essentially, Garner became a figurehead for both sides of the debate. On the one hand, she was denounced as inhuman for murdering her own daughter. On the other, she was a symbol of just how dehumanizing slavery was. During this trial, abolitionist Lucy Stone took the stand and said the following: “Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”

Not much is known about what happened to Garner, but according to her husband, she died of Typhoid not long after.

I think it best to let Toni Morrison herself speak about how this story inspired her to write Beloved. In her forward to my edition of the book, she says that after leaving her job at Random House she felt unmoored, overwhelmed by thoughts of what to do with the liberation of being able to pursue her own work. She began thinking about freedom and what it meant to women–and in particular black women. She began thinking of parenthood and how enslavement stripped women of the right to love and care for their own children. But she couldn’t think of how to approach the overwhelming topic in fiction until she remembered the story of Margaret Garner.

Her sanity and lack of repentance caught the attention of Abolitionists as well as newspapers. She was certainly single-minded and, judging by her comments, she had the intellect, the ferocity, and the willingness to risk everything for what was to her the necessity of freedom.

The historical Margaret Garner is fascinating, but, to a novelist, confining. Too little imaginative space there for my purposes. So I would invent her thoughts, plumb them for a subtext that was historically true in essence, but not strictly factual in order to relate her history to contemporary issues about freedom, responsibility, and women’s “place.” The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom. The terrain, slavery, was formidable and pathless. To invite readers (and myself) into the repellant landscape (hidden, but not completely; deliberately buried, but not forgotten) was to pitch a tent in a cemetery inhabited by highly vocal ghosts.

From the foreward by Toni Morrison in my edition of Beloved.

In terms of form, Morrison’s poetic license with Margaret Garner’s story allows her to focus on the spiritual and psychological impact of the murder: how it happened, why, and what scars it left behind. She does not, significantly, have to spend any time at all depicting the trial that came to define Margaret Garner’s life. Instead, the trial that followed Beloved’s murder is a past event that is referenced but never shown to the reader.

Is Beloved Problematic?

Only if you’re one of those people who think conversations about race, literature, and book prizes should not be allowed at the same time. And if you’re one of those people, who are you and how did you get here? Are you lost?

Toni Morrison
Image Credit: Bucknell University

Who Is Toni Morrison?

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931. She married a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison while she was teaching at Howard University in 1958. They had two sons before divorcing in 1964, the year before she got her first job in editing with Random House. In 1967, Toni Morrison became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House.

It’s easy to gloss over Morrison’s career in publishing to skip ahead to her writing career, which began in 1970 with the publication of The Bluest Eye, but that would be a mistake. Publishing is where Morrison’s true legacy began. She played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. You cannot understate the seismic shift Toni Morrison had on the publishing industry both as an editor and as a writer.

Morrison left publishing in 1983 to focus on her own writing–a move that caused an existential crisis centered around how to use that free time that directly led to Beloved, which earned Morrison her only Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Personally, I believe she should have won at least one more.

The Nobel Prize for Literature followed in 1993. Morrison was cited by the Swedish Academy for being an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

She is a towering presence in American literature (and beyond). She also gave one of my all-time favorite author interviews ever:

Are There Adaptations or Sequels of Beloved?

Oprah Winfrey purchased the film rights to Beloved before it even won the Pulitzer and starred in the adaptation that was released in 1998. Directed by Jonathan Demme, the movie was a box office bomb with mixed reviews. It only received a single Academy Award nomination for costume design (losing to Shakespeare in Love).

It may surprise you to hear this part but there are sequels to Beloved–but not in the traditional sense. Beloved was the first in a conceptual trilogy of books by Toni Morrison. These books are not narratively linked but form what is described as a “Dantesque trilogy on African American history.” The second volume of the trilogy is Jazz, published in 1992 and set in Harlem during the 1920s (although the storyline does deal with events in the American south during the 19th century). The trilogy concludes with 1998’s Paradise, a novel that begins with an act of mass violence and then goes back to trace what led to that event.

Morrison explained the trilogy in an interview with The Washington Post shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “‘The conceptual connection,’ Morrison explains, ‘is the search for the beloved — the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.'”

Is Beloved Readily Available?

It sure is.

Snapshot: 1987

You might be confused right now because Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, but the award is given the year after a book is published, so let’s see what was going on in the news the year Toni Morrison’s Beloved hit bookstores.

In Bookstores:

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling novel of 1987 was Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers, followed by Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games. This was Stephen King’s second consecutive year claiming the bestselling book of the year after It took the title in 1986.

The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Joseph Brodsky, a Russian author who immigrated to the United States, for “an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity.” The Booker Prize was awarded to Penelope Lively for Moon Tiger and the National Book Award went to Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann.

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was the talk of the literary world as well as a big seller, although it hasn’t aged well at all if you ask me. Its 1990 film adaptation is legendary for being a disaster.

Other books released the same year as Beloved include Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, Roddy Doyle’s Irish classic The Commitments, and the iconic graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

In Movies:

The highest-grossing movie of 1987 was Beverly Hills Cop II followed by Fatal Attraction and Platoon (which was actually released in December of 1986 but won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1987). The movie released in 1987 that went on to win Best Picture was Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, besting fellow nominees Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, and Moonstruck (which is a personal favorite of mine).

On TV:

For the second season in a row, The Cosby Show dominated the ratings. It is one of only three shows that have been number one in ratings for five consecutive seasons (the other two being All in the Family and American Idol).

Debut shows included Star Trek: The Next Generation, Married… with Children, The Bold and the Beautiful, and 21 Jump Street. The Simpsons also made its first appearance as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show.

In Music:

The Bangles topped Billboard‘s Hot 100 Singles with “Walk Like an Egyptian” and the bestselling album was Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet. Paul Simon won Album of the Year at the Grammys for Graceland (U2’s The Joshua Tree was released in March and would go on to take the title in 1988). And Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

In the News:

The Iran-Contra affair was all over the news, with the Tower Commission rebuking President Ronald Reagan and Reagan himself ultimately acknowledging in an address that the situation had deteriorated into an “arms-for-hostages” deal. Later in the year, Reagan famously called on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

AZT was approved by the FDA to treat HIV/AIDS.

In the U.K., the Conservative Party and its leader, Margaret Thatcher, were elected to a third term.

Martial law in Taiwan ended after 38 years.

And in October, not long after the stock market plunged on “Black Monday,” the nation was captivated by the 58-hour rescue mission to save Baby Jessica from a well she had fallen into in her aunt’s backyard. A photo of Baby Jessica’s rescue won the Pulitzer Prize for News Photography the following year.

Is Beloved the Great American Novel?

This is a question that I am going to be grappling with a lot as I work through my Pulitzer Prize Project. Since the Pulitzer is uniquely concerned with rewarding an American author for a work that preferable deals with American life, the title feels intimately connected with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I’ve done a whole post about the question of what the Great American Novel means anyway and if there can be one book that represents the whole of this country. I concluded that the best you can do is form a list that will try to represent as much as possible, and if that’s the approach we’re taking, Beloved absolutely deserves to be on that list (and it was on mine).

If you want to insist on a single title, I think the best contenders are Lonesome Dove, which uses the form of a western to debunk American mythmaking, and Beloved, which spotlights the ugliest part of American history and American life and the insidious grip it continues to hold over this country. I think there’s a strong case to be made either way, and if you ask me on different days I would likely have a different answer about which novel should claim the title. In my video about the Great American Novel, I said Lonesome Dove. But today, as I am writing this, I think it should be Beloved.

What Was Beloved‘s Competition for the Pulitzer Prize?

The other finalists submitted to the Pulitzer Board for consideration were Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights (a novel set during the build-up to the Iranian Revolution) and Alice McDermott’s That Night (a coming-of-age novel set in the 1960s that focuses on first love and social change). You can see why those topics would have been appealing to the jury that year (the Iranian Revolution would have been a big news item for years at that point while the 1960s were the subject of heavy nostalgia–as evidenced by the debut of the TV series The Wonder Years the following year), but neither book has had any lasting imprint on pop culture. The only finalist that did have a lasting impact was the ultimate winner, which the jury praised in its report to the Board as “a work of assured, immense distinction, destined to become an American classic.” The case they presented to the Board (rightly) convinced them to award the prize to Beloved.

Looking at other books published the same year, the pickings are… slim. Let’s just all be thankful that the Pulitzer Board ignored the aforementioned Bonfire of the Vanities. Both McDermott and Morrison were finalists for the National Book Award and lost to a book I had never heard of before beginning research for this post: Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann (a novel about the trauma a Vietnam vet experiences after returning home, which undoubtedly felt like an urgent narrative at the time). And Philip Roth published The Counterlife, which sounds intriguing but from this outsider’s perspective doesn’t even make the top five most-discussed books by Roth in his career.

If you ask me, there wasn’t any competition at all for Beloved, which was far and away the best book published in 1987.

Should Beloved Have Won the Pulitzer?

If that didn’t convince you, let me be blunt: it would be a crime against humanity if Beloved hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Frankly, I think it’s shocking and disappointing that Toni Morrison only won a single Pulitzer in her lifetime. But if that was going to be the case, I’m glad she won it for Beloved.

Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives

Gone With the Wind (1937) Lonesome Dove (1986) Less (2018)

Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner

2012

Is Toni Morrison's Beloved the great American novel?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s