Wednesday, October 28, 2009

“Sixty Million and more”

In the annals of comparative martyrology, [Toni Morrison] appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

My commentators are unhappy with this statement, which launched my attack on Beloved. One protests that “Sixty million and more”—Morrison’s dedication—is an “accurate and probably sparing estimate of slavery-related deaths.” “If Morrison ‘suggested’ this she was not incorrect,” another said. “The real problem is that you even feel compelled to compare the two.”

But is Morrison correct? And is the compulsion to compare mine or hers?

In a volume of papers on “comparative genocide,” the historian Seymour Drescher summarizes the research on “slavery-related deaths”:

One historian has estimated that in the peak century and a half of the inter-continental forced migration from Africa (1700–1850), “twenty-one million persons were captured in Africa, seven million of whom were brought into domestic slavery [within Africa itself].” The human cost of sustaining the combined slave systems to the west, north, and east of sub-Saharan Africa between 1500 and 1900 was an estimated “four million people who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement,” plus others who died prematurely. Of the nearly 12 million in the Atlantic slave trade, around 15 percent, or up to 2 million more, died on the Atlantic voyage—the dreaded “Middle Passage”—and the first year of “seasoning.” In the Americas, the death rates dropped gradually to levels approximating those projected in Africa.[1]Nothing in the historical record, in short, suggests the figure sixty million. How did Morrison arrive at it?

As early as 1945, the figure of six million became established as the official count of European Jews murdered by the German Nazis. The figure first appeared in a New York Times report on the United Nations plan to bring war criminals to justice. The British jurist Robert Alderson Wright (known by legal scholars as Lord Wright) chaired the UN Commission on War Crimes. He charged that a “policy of race extermination was carried out ruthlessly against the Jews according to a plan which can be traced back to Hitler and those members of his Government who were in his immediate circle.” He described the gas chambers and crematoria in concentration camps like Birkenau:How many people have been done to death in these camps cannot yet be stated. It has, however, been calculated that in all about six million Jews were deliberately slaughtered in that and other ways.[2]The figure was quickly ratified. Nathan Eck, an underground fighter who later became an important Holocaust historian, told a July 1945 press conference in Chicago that “the Germans killed six or seven million Jews in their ‘murder factories,’ while starvation killed about one million.” Despite his qualifications, Eck’s claims were headlined in the Chicago Tribune: “Charges Nazis Slew 6 Million in Poland” (July 24, 1945).

By the end of the year, the figure had become a commonplace in Jewish discourse. Rabbi Louis I. Newman said in his Yom Kippur sermon that “Six million Jews have died as martyrs and their blood cries up from the ground.”[3] The American Zionist Emergency Committee, jointly chaired by rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise, in an open letter urging British prime minister Clement Attlee to open Mandate Palestine to Jewish immigration, held that “the responsibility for the extinction of six million Jews in Europe was not Hitler’s alone.”[4] The figure no longer needed to be calculated; it could be taken for granted as the premise to a different appeal altogether. Indeed, a December editorial “In Memory of Six Million Dead” in an American Jewish magazine complained of an already growing callousness toward “the tales of Nazi atrocities.”[5]

The exact number will never be known. In an Appendix to her magisterial War Against the Jews (1975), the historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz estimated the total Jewish population annihilated at 5,933,900.

But in dedicating her novel to “Sixty Million or more,” Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested in being “accurate and probably sparing.” If she had been she would have written To the twenty-one million captured in Africa and sold into slavery. Or perhaps: To the four million who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement.

Instead, she appropriated the Jewish commonplace of six million and trumped it by a factor of ten. While it is obviously true that slavery was, as an anonymous commentator called it, “a historical event that predates [the Holocaust] by hundreds of years,” it follows neither that the literature of the Holocaust is not the proper “framework for assessing the success or failure of Beloved” nor that it is not the “primary tradition in which Ms. Morrison writes.”

Slavery predates the Holocaust, but Holocaust literature predates Beloved. And the very conception of slavery as “a historical event,” in my commentator’s words—a single, unbroken, coherent event—derives from Holocaust literature.

What is now called the Holocaust is the Ger­man campaign to exter­minate European Jewry, but told from the perspective of its victims. From the out­set Jewish think­ing detached the Euro­pean Jewish experience from everything else that was happen­ing in the world between the years 1939 to 1945. Experiences that were dis­parate in kind and widely removed in space and time—not only legal persecution, rounding up, ghettoization, deporta­tion, and mass murder, but also hiding, flight, exile, “passing,” rescue, mili­tary and spiritual resis­tance, cultural activity, the response of Jewish communities outside Europe, the anguish of onlook­ers, the world’s silence, survival, DP camps after the war—all came to be read as chapters of the Holocaust. Unless the Holocaust is presupposed, however, there is no connec­tion between any single fact, not even the gas chambers at Ausch­witz, and the Holo­caust.

Although the events that com­prise it occurred within history, its coherence—the combining of these manifold events into a relentless Holo­caust—does not belong to history, but to litera­ture: that is, the human effort to leave a unified account, to raise up a dominating image, of experience. The Holo­caust is not an event as such but a meaning, which ineluc­tably alters any attempt to dis­cuss the historical occurrence. What is now called the Holo­caust is the Jewish mean­ing of the his­torical event. It is an inter­pretive paradigm, a bold collec­tive effort to create meaning out of his­tory.

By the time that Toni Morrison came to write Beloved, Jewish writers had firmly implanted the paradigm in the Western literary mind. The classics of Holocaust literature had all been written and canonized. Sophie’s Choice (1979), the immediate predecessor of Morrison’s novel, belongs not to Holocaust literature but to the élite backlash against the Holocaust paradigm, which culminated in Norman Finkelstein’s attack on The Holocaust Industry (2000).

Beloved follows William Styron’s lead in revolting against the Holocaust paradigm, which includes the claims that the destruction of European Jewry was the worst that had ever happened in human history and that it was therefore unique. Where Styron faults the paradigmatic Jewish accounts for failing to make more than “fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews . . . who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps,” Morrison adopts a different strategy. She accepts the Holocaust paradigm—a coherent historical event that binds together widely divergent experiences in widely separated places at widely different times, because they are unified by the victims’ point of view—and she puts it to a similar end.

The end was described shortly after the war by a Jewish writer:Even more important is our obligation to the Jewish people to commemorate for future generations the disaster which has struck us; to record for ever, in the clearest form—by word and picture—the magnitude of the destruction and desolation which is our lot.[6]Like the Jews who succeeded in establishing the Holocaust as the paradigm of human atrocity, Morrison imposes upon herself the task, not simply to preserve slavery and the slave trade in memory, but to describe their sheer magnitude—to make them unforgettable. The aim is not knowledge alone, but also the power to excite ideas of pain and danger, to produce the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling.

The adoption of the Holocaust paradigm accounts for what I pointed to as a significant flaw in Beloved—namely, Morrison’s failure to devise the fiction by which Beloved, a slave girl born in nineteenth-century Kentucky and murdered as an infant, could possibly know the horrifying details of the Middle Passage. My anonymous commentator is contemptuous: “You mean apart from writing a novel?” Yeah, that’s what I mean.

When Philip Roth introduces the incredible possibility that Amy Bellette, the fetching young woman whom Nathan Zuckerman meets at E. I. Lonoff’s house, is really Anne Frank, still alive and living under an alias, he does not rely upon the mere fact of The Ghost Writer’s being a novel to see him through. Zuckerman eavesdrops on a lovers’ conversation between Lonoff and Amy, and reflects: “Oh, if only I could have imagined the scene I’d overheard! If only I could invent as presumptuously as real life!” He proceeds immediately to the presumptuous invention of Anne Frank’s survival and postwar life in America. The next morning he can no longer think of her as Amy Bellette. Instead he finds himself “continually drawn back into the fiction that [he] had evolved about her. . . .”[7]

Morrison does nothing of the sort. Her presumptuous invention, the fiction she evolves, is treated as self-explanatory. As indeed it is—if you recognize that Beloved embodies the Holocaust paradigm, adapted to the purpose of commemorating for future generations the horror of slavery.
____________________

[1] Seymour Drescher, “The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Holocaust,” in Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996), pp. 66–67. Drescher cites work by Paul E. Lovejoy (he is the first historian quoted above), Patrick Manning, Philip D. Curtin, David Eltis, J. D. Fage, David Richardson, and Stephen Behrendt.

[2] Lord Wright, “That the Guilty Shall Not Escape,” New York Times (May 13, 1945): SM4.

[3] Quoted in “Day of Atonement Observed by Jews,” New York Times (Sept. 17, 1945): 8.

[4] “An Open Letter to Prime Minister Attlee” [advertisement], Chicago Tribune (Oct. 8, 1945): 14, and Los Angeles Times (Oct. 8, 1945): A2.

[5] “In Memory of Six Million Dead,” Reconstructionist 11 (December 14, 1945): 3-4.

[6] Jacob Lestschinsky, “For a Survey of the Jewish Tragedy,” Chicago Jewish Forum 4 (1945–46): 160.

[7] Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979), pp. 121, 157.

28 comments:

R. T. said...

In Morrison's case, myth-making cannot be encumbered by empiricism because the political agenda rejects objectivity. By bootstrapping her claim to the Nazi atrocities, she seeks to minimize one--the 20th century facts--and maximize another--the previous centuries' unprovable "facts." Do you not agree that Morrison must be read as fictional myth-making rather than history? And do you not agree that too many critics (interested in political correctness) are reluctant to undermine Morrison's pseudo-history because it is contrary to a shared interest in Morrison's myth-making (which is part of irrational white American guilt)?

Michelle said...

I guess what I remain unclear about the basis for your contention that she arrived at the sixty million number by multiplying the Holocaust figure by ten? I.e., I do not know what the basis for that is?

D. G. Myers said...

By the interpretive technique taught to me by J. V. Cunningham under the name of the “ghost text.” The principle is that any text as actually written is surrounded by the ghosts of texts that could have been written.

Thus Morrison, if she preferred not to use one of the historically correct alternatives that I suggested above (“To the twenty-one million captured in Africa and sold into slavery,” “To the four million who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement”), could have written:

Thirty Million
and more


What difference is immediately obvious between that ghost text and her actual dedication “Sixty Million and more”? Namely: the figure of thirty million does not allude to the Holocaust commonplace of six million.

Kevin said...

Hi Professor Myers:

To quantify monumental pain and suffering is impossible.

Six million is an impossible number to fathom.

A singular point of suffering times six million. The mind just reels.

As it reels when a faux quantifier like "60 million and more" is used in vain to wrap one's head around physical and emotional trauma on an incalculable scale.

Instead of comparing monumental tragedies, why not enter into the experience of Beloved, you know, the bitter loss of a child and the haunting effects of this on one's own experience, etc.?

Even if Beloved is routinely bathed in over praise and even if Morrison isn't a Philip Roth or a Jose Saramago or a Marilynne Robinson, the prevailing tone of your posts reveals a meanness and pettiness, as if you were animated by something other than objective literary standards.

What gives?

Regards,
K

Michelle said...

I guess what I would say to that is that while this may be an interesting theoretical question to you, it actually touches on the lives of people who lived and suffered, and continue to suffer today. I mean, structurally/sociologically speaking, the aftereffects of slavery are still being felt by African Americans as a whole. And I mean that in sheer economic terms. It strikes me as more than possible that Morrison also meant to capture them.

It further seems bizarre to me to assume that Morrison must have consulted the same sources you did and arrived at this conclusion. Google informs me you are not the only person to do so, and I suppose there is something in that. But I just feel like you are opening a can of worms here somewhat naively. The first commenter on this thread, for example, refers to "irrational white guilt"? I don't quite see what's irrational about white people thinking about how they came to be situated as the privileged class.

D. G. Myers said...

What gives?

I believe that the novel is overrated, and that the duty of the literary critic is to lower the ratings when necessary.

D. G. Myers said...

[I]t actually touches on the lives of people who lived and suffered, and continue to suffer today.

No, it doesn’t. Beloved is a novel, and as such is subject to literary criticism.

You can dislike a monument to suffering without making light of the suffering.

R. T. said...

Let me repeat my previously posed questions: "Do you not agree that Morrison must be read as fictional myth-making rather than history? And do you not agree that too many critics (interested in political correctness) are reluctant to undermine Morrison's pseudo-history because it is contrary to a shared interest in Morrison's myth-making (which is part of irrational white American guilt)?" I am particularly interested in hearing your thoughts on the myth-making notion, especially as it seeks to advance a politically correct revisionist history in Morrison's novel.

D. G. Myers said...

Do you not agree that Morrison must be read as fictional myth-making rather than history?

I agree that Beloved is fiction rather than history. But as I wrote originally, the novel is “less mythic than typological.”

And do you not agree that too many critics . . . are reluctant to undermine Morrison’s pseudo-history because it is contrary to a shared interest in Morrison’s myth-making. . . .

I have no idea why critics have overpraised Beloved, but I am reluctant to ascribe an occult reluctance to them that I could not possibly know anything about it, even if it existed.

I do agree, though, that the vast majority of literary scholars share Morrison’s ambivalence toward America.

D. G. Myers said...

Meanwhile, this is what passes for literary reflection by the assistant literary editor of the liberal Catholic weekly America.

Michelle said...

You can dislike a monument to suffering without making light of the suffering.

Well, yes, but your argument, correct me if I'm wrong, is that Morrison is "presumptuous" to compare slavery to the Holocaust. That implicates certain views about the suffering itself, as opposed to the monument to it. I realize it is your contention that the comparison is Morrison's; but you cannot address it without importing those views into your analysis, it seems to me.

Regarding the other thing you linked, it seems a little childish to me to pick on it - I don't thik the author would say it's "literary reflection" either.

J said...

“Nothing in the historical record, in short, suggests the figure sixty million.”

When exactly did you become a professor of Black Studies? You read one article and now you feel qualified to make authoritative statements about the historical record of the transatlantic slave trade? You don’t even cite any historians that have analyzed the available data directly. Drescher is not offering a survey of the historical record. And you call Toni Morrison “presumptuous?”

Countless scholars have covered this subject and have offered wildly different numbers. There is no way to calculate how many people died en route from the interior to the coast. Estimates of the death toll are largely based on shipping records from the period which, needless to say, are incomplete. Furthermore, there is no way of counting all the deaths that resulted in the New World as a result of the institution of slavery. The cause and effect relationship here is too complicated. Are high mortality rates, for instance, in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the U.S. counted as a direct result of slavery?

“Slavery predates the Holocaust, but Holocaust literature predates Beloved.”

The literature of slavery predates Holocaust literature by over 100 years. Perhaps this is why Seymour Drescher writes, “The African slave trade had, in its turn, served Jews as a means of making sense of catastrophic oppression, for apprehending the disorienting cruelty of the world.” Morrison is writing in a tradition that stretches back to Olaudah Equiano. Your failure to recognize this merely demonstrates that you are ignorant of the African-American literary tradition.

“And the very conception of slavery as ‘a historical event,’ in my commentator’s words—a single, unbroken, coherent event—derives from Holocaust literature.”

Apparently you are unaware of the fact that people were writing and theorizing about the slave trade, the Middle Passage, and America’s “peculiar institution,” collectively long before the Holocaust. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk meditates on slavery as an event, on the historical arc of bondage, on the status of African-Americans as a people with a coherent, shared history. The same is true of the work Carter G. Woodson, John Henrik Clarke, and Alain Locke. Slavery as an institution and an experience had been memorialized long before the Holocaust by Olaudah Equiano, Martin Delaney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Mark Twain, and Charles Chestnutt. It makes absolutely no sense to judge Morrison’s work from the standpoint of Holocaust literature when one considers the amount of literature on slavery that existed before Beloved and, indeed, before the Holocaust. Toni Morrison’s novel has more in common with Jean Toomer’s Cane than any Holocaust novel. Your comparison to Philip Roth’s novel—one of my favorites by him—is completely unwarranted. To judge her and Roth by the same novelistic standards is to assume that they are writing the same kind of novel. Morrison does not even write in the same American social realist tradition as Roth and, as I have stated earlier, is interested in the two hundred year old literary tradition of representing slavery not the Holocaust. Roth and Morrison have completely different concerns—though Roth agrees with me and many others that Morrison is a writer of the first rank. Reading Morrison in the context of Holocaust literature might be the only way for YOU to make sense of her work given your own interest in Jewish literature and culture. But do not assume that you are reading her correctly or that you will have definitive things to say about her work from this perspective. This is simply a failure on your part to recognize the legitimacy of literary traditions outside your own narrow interests and worldview. Morrison’s work, like the work of all great authors, must be met on its own terms and read within its primary tradition.

Regina Nigro said...

Dr Myers,

Thanks for linking to my blog, one which I write as a creative/non-professional endeavor, separate from my position at America.

The post's title question was asked by another person on Tumblr (the blogging platform I use, which works a bit differently than Blogger or Wordpress); I responded by citing a text that touches on the controversy you address here. The post was not an attempt at thoroughgoing "literary reflection," and my phrasing quite purposefully reflects that.

K said...

"I believe that the novel is overrated, and that the duty of the literary critic is to lower the ratings when necessary."

Ay, but lower the ratings through good analysis and commentary.

That Morrison uses hyperbole (60 million and more), that the Nobel prize is often awarded for extra-aesthetic reasons, and that there's illogic in what a ghost can — and can't — know, all this has little or no bearing on the central ideas, feelings, and experiences of Beloved and the artfulness — or lack thereof — of Morrison's storytelling.

Your criticism is best when it focuses on the quality of her writing, i.e., her "fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric," etc.

Regards,
Kevin

D. G. Myers said...

[Y]our argument, correct me if I'm wrong, is that Morrison is “presumptuous” to compare slavery to the Holocaust.

You are corrected. My argument is that the novel’s dedication testifies to its “extra-literary responsibility.”

D. G. Myers said...

When exactly did you become a professor of Black Studies? You read one article and now you feel qualified to make authoritative statements about the historical record of the transatlantic slave trade? You don’t even cite any historians that have analyzed the available data directly. Drescher is not offering a survey of the historical record. And you call Toni Morrison “presumptuous?”

But I am not, in these remarks on Beloved, concerned with the “historical record of the transatlantic slave trade.” And one need not be a “professor of Black Studies” to make well-grounded statements about a novelist’s use of historical knowledge.

My point, pretty clear advanced, was that the state of historical knowledge did not, at the time Morrison wrote Beloved, support the claim, put forward by you and another commentator, that the figure “Sixty Million and more” was “accurate and probably sparing,” or at least was “not incorrect.”

The scholarship cited by Seymour Drescher was, with one exception, published about the same time as Beloved and thus suggests that these figures represented the current understanding. Philip D. Curtin’s “census” of The Atlantic Slave Trade dates from 1969, and thus we can say with certainty that Morrison had it available to her. If you wish to refute me, you need to show that “Sixty Million or more” was a figure current in speculation on the slave trade at the time Morrison wrote.

Before you can refute me, though, you need to slow down and read a little more carefully. Nowhere did I call Morrison “presumptuous.” I used the phrase presumptuous invention, quoted from Philip Roth, to describe the fiction by which Beloved is able to know the details of the Middle Passage.

Finally, whether I am aware or unaware of “the fact that people were writing and theorizing about the slave trade, the Middle Passage, and America’s ‘peculiar institution,’ collectively long before the Holocaust” is irrelevant. Beloved was demonstrably influenced by Jewish writing and theorizing about the Holocaust; I have demonstrated as much. Such an influence does not preclude the novel’s also belonging to the literature of slavery.

Where you and I disagree is what is the novel’s “primary tradition.” You have not persuaded me that you are right. Heaping up references to “writing and theorizing about the slave trade” will not do the trick. You must demonstrate an influence, as I have done, upon the novel itself.

D. G. Myers said...

The post was not an attempt at thoroughgoing “literary reflection”

Ah, but reflection need not be thoroughgoing to be reflection.

What caught my attention was your assigning Morrison’s dedication to the category of metaphor, as if—presto!—that solved the problem.

Rather than raising a hundred new problems, that is.

D. G. Myers said...

That Morrison uses hyperbole (60 million and more), that the Nobel prize is often awarded for extra-aesthetic reasons, and that there’s illogic in what a ghost can—and can’t—know, all this has little or no bearing on the central ideas, feelings, and experiences of Beloved and the artfulness—or lack thereof—of Morrison's storytelling.

According to you.

Well, except for your second point. I agree with your second point, which I included simply as interesting background. (The sentence from the front page story in the New York Times is hilarious in its anxious ideological orthodoxy).

We simply disagree about the function and operations of criticism. Besides, I was not criticizing Morrison for “hyperbole,” but, again, since no one seems to have got the point, for accepting the “extra-literary responsibility” (her own phrase) of raising a monument to the Sixty Million. I read the dedication, in other words, as defining Morrison’s ambitions for the novel. And it is entirely legitimate, in my opinion, to judge a novel by its own ambitions.

Finally, if a novel’s “illogic”—I would prefer to speak of the incoherence of its conception—has no “bearing” on its “central ideas,” then how can they possibly characterized as ideas at all?

K said...

"Well, except for your second point. I agree with your second point, which I included simply as interesting background. (The sentence from the front page story in the New York Times is hilarious in its anxious ideological orthodoxy)."

Will chase down the reference...

"We simply disagree about the function and operations of criticism."

I don't have a fully-formed conception of criticism (my interests lie elsewhere), but I do think that good criticism shows how a story goes well or poorly. Simple, really.

"Besides, I was not criticizing Morrison for 'hyperbole,' but, again, since no one seems to have got the point, for accepting the 'extra-literary responsibility' (her own phrase) of raising a monument to the Sixty Million. I read the dedication, in other words, as defining Morrison’s ambitions for the novel."

There's no issue or problem or contradiction in eschewing the "extra-literary responsibility" of winning the Nobel as a "black" writer while embracing the "extra-literary responsibility" of monumentalizing pain and suffering on a scale beyond reckoning.

"And it is entirely legitimate, in my opinion, to judge a novel by its own ambitions."

To judge a novel by its own ambitions, I love that phrase, I really do. It coheres with my unsophisticated view of criticism, which, when done well, works internally to the text, pushing and prodding it, making it groan under the weight of its own expectation. Or ambition, as you say. Yes, entirely legitimate.

"Finally, if a novel’s 'illogic'—I would prefer to speak of the incoherence of its conception—has no 'bearing' on its 'central ideas,' then how can they possibly characterized as ideas at all?"

I'm only referring to the illogicality of a ghost knowing something about the transatlantic passage that's impossible for the ghost to know. This doesn't affect the integrity or coherence of Beloved, any more than the illogicality of a man who awakes from uneasy dreams to find himself turned into a beetle affects the Metamorphosis.

Regards,
Kevin

D. G. Myers said...

Kevin,

I have no clue what you are trying to say in your sixth paragraph.

But your reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis makes my point. I had considered whether to make the comparison in the original essay.

Kafka announces his fiction in his opening sentence and then remains relentlessly faithful to its logic. Once you grant the possibility that a man might after uneasy dreams might find himself transformed into a gigantic cockroach, everything else follows. Kafka remains docilely obedient to the laws of his fictional universe.

Not so Morrison. Beloved starts off as one thing—the ghost of a murdered child—and then, unexpectedly and without explanation, turns into something else. Morrison’s fictional universe is without laws to remain obedient to.

Michelle said...

At the risk of sounding like a dining room table: "testifying to its 'extra-literary responsibility'" doesn't take away the fact that you believe it to fail by way of "presumptuous invention." And which presumption you claim to identify by assigning to the author an intention to appropriate Holocaust narratives.

While you admittedly do not come right out and say it, in this post you are implying that there is something wrong in her presumption that slavery is worth commemorating in this way. And that is where I think you fall back into this comparative suffering mode of analysis.

D. G. Myers said...

you are implying that there is something wrong in her presumption that slavery is worth commemorating in this way

I am implying no such thing, and I will denounce anyone who says such a thing.

Michelle said...

Well, if you would, why are you ignoring the point the commenter made on your original post about the works of William Styron not really being the proper viewpoint through which to assess a book "written in the tradition of slave narratives—which are, like the Negro Spirituals, a uniquely American genre—and African-American Modernism, from Toomer and Hurston to Ellison and Forrest."

I mean, I realize you don't think you are doing what I identify, but there is a pretty big implicit devaluation of literary traditions other than that relating to the Holocaust here. And some of them - like slave narratives - do actually predate the Holocaust, let alone any literary tradition that arose thereafter.

I actually am not a huge Morrison fan, but your critique strikes me as myopic here.

D. G. Myers said...

there is a pretty big implicit devaluation of literary traditions other than that relating to the Holocaust here

You really must stop attributing views to a critic that he does not explicitly enunciate.

The only devaluation here is of Beloved.

If I do not dwell upon the literature of slavery as the novel’s “primary tradition,” the reason is that Morrison chose to commemorate the suffering under slavery by adopting the Holocaust paradigm instead.

The mere existence of another paradigm, however extensive and worth studying in depth, does not make it primary in this case.

Philip Roth is a Jewish writer. But his novels have practically nothing to do with traditional Jewish literature, which centers on study of the Talmud and legal commentaries.

The milieu from which his novels emerge is that of current debates. So too Morrison.

J said...

You have not presented any survey of the historical record on mortality rates during the transatlantic slave trade. Neither does Drescher. You have also not demonstrated how Holocaust literature is more important to understanding Beloved than slave narratives or African-American literature. Morrison's abstract, elliptical, surrealist and gothic writing style in Beloved has precedence in the Modernist work of Jean Toomer. The books share themes as well. I'm not sure why I should have to demonstrate that a book about slavery, written in the same style and covering the same themes of gender dynamics, spirituality, and general suffering as slave narratives and other cornerstones of African-American literature such as Cane, Corrigedora, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Uncle Tom's Cabin is not written in the tradition of the Holocaust. If you can't see how Morrison, in writing a woman-centered novel about the history American slavery, has sought to engage primarily with Alice Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Gayl Jones, and Harriet Jacobs, among many others, then you are either, as I said, ignorant of African-American literature or pursuing your own narrow agenda. You'll need more than Sophie's Choice and a few nebulous comments about a "Holocaust Paradigm" to prove Morrison is writing mainly in the tradition of Primo Levi. You'll need to prove that Morrison's themes and concerns and techniques were not already introduced through the tradition of African-American literature, the tradition in which she claims to write and the one with which she, as a former professor of African-American literature, is likely most familiar.

Anonymous said...

I've not read "Beloved", so haven't any say here, but you did make me curious about Morrison's own take on this.

I found this Time interview where she claims to simply have asked a few historians and gone with the lowest number she got.

Q. Beloved is dedicated to the 60 million who died as a result of slavery. A staggering number -- is this proved historically?

A. Some historians told me 200 million died. The smallest number I got from anybody was 60 million.


You'd think she'd look deeper than just using what "some historians" told her - particularly given that she got such wildly different numbers, but never mind.

It seems you're certainly not the first to make the Holocaust connection. this issue of "Modern Fiction Studies" looks to be a sort of retort to critics who have had the same reaction to the 6*10^x number as you.
I only have access to the shortened abstract on that page though, and the words "these critics' assumption that the Holocaust holds a certain centrality in Western literature and history" look worrisome to me. Would anyone really contest that assumption? (David Irving and his ilk not counted, of course)

My pardons if all this is besides the point.

D. G. Myers said...

You'll need to prove that Morrison's themes and concerns and techniques were not already introduced through the tradition of African-American literature

No, I won’t, because, as you well know, it is impossible to prove a negative.

You can go on citing as many names and titles as you want (although Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the white daughter of a Presbyterian minister, who never witnessed slavery first hand, is an odd book to serve as a “cornerstone of African-American literature”), but all you are succeeding in doing is to assume their influence upon Morrison’s novel.

(I don’t disagree, by the way, about the influence of Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, and other contemporaries and near-contemporaries.)

Our dispute as led me into the error of overemphasizing the influence of Holocaust literature upon Beloved. Let me scale back my claims.

My claims are these:

(1.) Morrison’s self-announced ambition in Beloved was to raise a literary monument to the “Sixty Million and more” victims of slavery. (As her fellow novelist Charles Johnson observed, Morrison adopted the role of “speaking for the concerns of the race.”)

(2.) The form and content of this monument were determined, to a significant extent, by the genre of collective literary commemoration dominant at the time she was writing—namely, Holocaust literature.

Such an “appropriation” is not foreign to the black experience in America, of course. The novel’s epigraph suggests as much.

Suffering under slavery and oppression, blacks commonly saw themselves in the children of Israel. They would be God’s people, who were scorned and reviled.

R. T. said...

You ascribe Morrison’s novel (a label that I dispute at the end) to typology rather than mythology. As I understand the word “typology,” taking my lead especially from Harmon and Holman (A Handbook of Literature, 9th edition), typology would be an appropriation of allegorical symbols, especially from the Bible, in which much of the Hebrew scriptures are read as types of the revelations to come in the Christian New Testament; perhaps my understanding of typology is incorrect, so you can tell me where I am wrong on this count. Furthermore, my understanding of mythology and myth-making—especially as I perceive it being dominant in the Morrison novel—is that it is a structured rendering of specific racial memories and value systems, which is an ideological and cultural exercise. So, I persist in my argument that Morrison is engaged in myth-making, and I wonder why you argue instead for a typological reading of the novel (though it is probably more a romance, but that is another argument for another time).