Morrison Finds Tragedy Underneath the Jazz Age:
Latest Novel Focuses on Legacy of Slavery
"The City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. History is over, you all, and everything's ahead at last." "Do what you please in the City ... All you have to do is heed the design--the way it's laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you need tomorrow."
Jazz, the latest book by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Toni Morrison, is definitively the story of the City, of the twenties and of jazz, the music that gave voice to the African-American experience.
With a few exceptions such as Ralph Ellison, writers white and Black have used jazz as formula for cheap "atmosphere." Morrison rises above his temptation. There is no explicit jazz anywhere in this novel, no over-romantic images of saxophones and speak-easies. Instead, jazz is transmuted into narrative voice--a voice that at times surges poetically, at times sounds like a newsreel, at times is all-knowing.
That voice calls into question the historical moment, this "moment in our century we assumed we understood." "If Booker T. was sitting down to eat a chicken sandwich in the President's house in a city called capital, near where True Belle had had such a good time, then things must be all right, all right." Morrison unravels the underside of the jazz age, complicating what we recall as a wildly uninhibited feel-good era. "Things" were not "all right"; history was not "over."
The weight of the past has devastating effects on the lives of the characters in Jazz. Joe Trace murders his lover; Violet, his wife, tries to disfigure the corpse; and Alice Manfred does not try to prosecute Joe Trace for the death of her niece because "laughing cops" were unlikely to deliver justice.
Beloved, Toni Morrison's best-known work, depicts the direct effect of slavery on the lives of a mother and her children who escape the antebellum South. Jazz is about the children of those children, and while they have not lived under slavery, they have lived with its legacy.
Slavery has un-mothered them all. Joe Trace must name himself after being told that his parents disappeared "without a trace". Violet stays awake nights with the memory of her mother, who threw herself into a well. And Dorcas, Joe Trace's mistress, is orphaned when her parents perish during an East St. Louis riot. Slavery has taken their mothers, and its legacy of oppression has made them reject mothering: "the important thing ... was to never never have children. Whatever happened, no small dark foot would rest no another while a mouth said Mama?"
By exploring the psychological consequences of slavery in a relatively peaceful period in our country's history, Morrison demonstrates that the World Wars are not the only horrors of the twentieth century. Slavery has not been left behind in the nineteenth century, and its spiritual repercussions still have the power to immobilize and destroy lives.
The only initial disappointment is that this tale of Joe and Violet and Dorcas lacks the majestic scale of Beloved, that sense of traveling through space and time and other worlds. Jazz is much more grounded--in fact, its only extension foray into the past, the story of Goldman Gray seems tangential simply because it is so singularly atemperal.
Most of Jazz is meticulously particularized to this one night triangle of man, woman and girl, Morrison writes, "Violet thought about it all and sighed. 'I though it would be bigger than this. I knew it wouldn't last, but I did think it'd be bigger." But the tragedy between Violet and Joe and Dorcas is not big--not because it is not terrible, but because it is dwarfed by a collective experience of many terrible tragedies.
However miniatures this tragedy may be, Morrison's light hand deftly meshes myth and history and poetry. Her orchestration and craftsmanship create a "brilliant spot of blood."