Toni Morrison’s war at home


HomeToni Morrison, one of the United States’ most influential novelists, has just published her tenth novel, Home. Jennifer Terry, who has worked extensively on the author, considers how Home fits in with Morrison’s ongoing interest in the legacy of war in the USA.  

Toni Morrison was just last week announced as the recipient of a presidential medal of freedom, the highest civilian honour in the US. She has come to occupy a prominent position as both a canonised author and influential cultural commentator over a writing career spanning forty odd years.

Her new novel takes readers into a 1950s America that is very different to the nostalgic interpretations of our more recent mainstream popular and political imagination. As she puts it “I was trying to take the scab off the 50s.” Focused on the dislocated existence of African American veteran of the Korean War, Frank (aka Smart) Money, Home represents a North segregated by habit and a South segregated by law, where the experience of being “on the road” is deeply stratified by colour lines. Frank’s quest to save his younger sister Cee, who “had been his original caring-for,” puts a close sibling relationship at the centre of the novel.

Her latest fiction once more combines lyrical, seductive prose and a powerful engagement with the effects of hierarchies of race and gender

This is something new from Morrison – although it is perhaps anticipated somewhat by the early but not sustained bond of Pilate and Macon Dead in Song of Solomon (1977). Her latest fiction once more combines lyrical, seductive prose and a powerful engagement with the effects of hierarchies of race and gender. The author also continues to capture and value the humour of long-suffering black communities. At one point, a group of diners exchange stories and recall “the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life.”

The most conspicuous continuity between her earlier work and Home comes in Morrison’s interest in “post-war” moments. In her second novel, Sula (1973), she explores the devastating experience of World War One through the character of Shadrack, who has been left “Blasted and permanently astonished by the events of 1917.”

Jazz (1992) features Harlem victory parades but also the civil unrest and anti-black backlash that followed the return of African American combatants from the First World War: “disgruntled veterans who had fought in all-colored units […] came home to white violence more intense than when they enlisted and, unlike the battles they fought in Europe, stateside fighting was pitiless and totally without honor.” The aftermath here is defined by disillusionment and disappointment at the inequality and oppression still in operation back home. The lack of political agency has not been changed by the efforts of black servicemen overseas on behalf of America and democracy. Such contexts and pressures are something I have examined in my essay “‘When All the Wars Are Over’: The Utopian Impulses of Toni Morrison’s Postwar Fiction,” which focuses on Paradise (1998).

The dynamics and legacies of militarism are central to the conception of Morrison’s Paradise, which was originally to be titled War. In that novel, much of the narrative present is shadowed by not only the Civil Rights struggle, but also the Vietnam War. There are references to men of the “dreamtown” of Ruby serving in various US conflicts. The novel establishes a historical model of departure and return, bravery and bereavement, and sometimes a dangerous crystallisation of ideas of home and community.

In Home the sense of a complicated, fractured “atomic” modernity with its own aesthetic is conveyed when Frank observes “After Hiroshima, the musicians understood as early as anyone that Truman’s bomb changed everything and only scat and bebop could say how.”

The depiction of Morrison’s latest protagonist is surely intended to resonate in the present US context of a new generation of veterans returning scarred from military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Frank is haunted by memories of brutal warfare in Korea, his civilian life kept anchorless and volatile by post traumatic stress disorder. At the novel’s opening, someone who is helping Frank start his journey across America comments “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs. Change that. They treat dogs better.” And the narrative closes as, having reached home in Georgia, now ready to confront his own part in wartime atrocity in Asia, Frank gives a respectful burial to a man forced to fight like a dog for white entertainment within the US.

In my earlier research on Paradise, I explored how Morrison evokes a connection between domestic and overseas arenas. This latest novel returns to the power structures animating war at home and abroad, confirming Morrison as one of the US’s most politically engaged writers. Although it revisits the 1950s, in Home we can also locate her pointed response to ongoing twenty-first century conflicts.

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