Jazz Age wasn't just about music and dancing


May 03, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

NEW YORK — New York-- Toni Morrison makes you believe in the story, and the power of the story, but most of all you believe in her story. You can feel it right away in the way she talks. She has a low voice that can sound downright seductive as it sweeps along a sentence. She has the cadences down just right, the inflections. Just as in her writings, she strings along thoughts and words, one after the other -- building on them to an often unexpected but powerful conclusion. All you need is a campfire and a group of listeners reduced to ineffectual silence.

So when she sat down to write "Jazz," her just published novel of Harlem in the 1920s, Toni Morrison was not going to give her readers the usual about dancers and jazz musicians at the Cotton Club, or the poets and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, or any of that dressed-up, repackaged nonsense about the high life and good times in what then was arguably the most important black enclave in the world. What she wanted, Toni Morrison says in a wonderfully evocative phrase, was "to make it strange again."

In her publisher's office, Ms. Morrison stares off reflectively as she relates the thinking behind "Jazz," her first novel since "Beloved" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. That book was about slavery, a most indelicate subject, but one that Ms. Morrison managed to write about with extraordinary skill and sensitivity.

"I wanted to take it [Harlem] away from what was familiar and make it what I think is the Jazz Age," Ms. Morrison, 61, begins. "People think of (the) Harlem of that era in nostalgia terms. I wanted to look at it as though there were no celebrities, there was no Renaissance.

"But even if there were, what about the people who were livinduring that epoch? I wanted to get a bit closer to the marrow, to what it may have been like and why it got that way. I didn't want to go through the Cotton Club, and all those things we are familiar with. A lot of people were disappointed that I didn't put some famous people in 'Jazz.' They said, 'Why couldn't you have just sprinkled them in? What about [poet] Langston Hughes?' They felt really bereft."

Black migration

Thus, "Jazz," like Ms. Morrison's five other novels, is distinctly her own story. The book centers around Joe and Violet, a poor couple fleeing their life in rural Virginia. Most of the characters are transplanted Southerners, who came every which way to "the City" to escape brutality, or dreary lives without hope. ("The wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870s; the '80s; the '90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it.")

As their train neared New York, Joe and Violet actually danced: "And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more, they could hardly wait to get there and love it back."

But Joe and Violet, and so many others, also found out about loss -- of family, of values, of their roots and what it was that defined them. He grows alienated from her, and finally takes a lover, a 17-year-old girl named Dorcas, but shoots her to death a few months later. Already a tormented soul who had undergone great hardship, Violet becomes even more strange: After attempting to stab Dorcas' face at the funeral, she finds a picture of her rival and puts it on the mantel at home. She seeks out all who knew Dorcas. Throughout the book, we discover the pain that she and Joe have known, singly and collectively; "the City" serves both as backdrop and agent of change.

Judging from the early reception accorded "Jazz," it should reaffirm Ms. Morrison's standing as a major American writer. Published with a first printing of 175,000, a high figure for a "literary" writer, "Jazz" has received mostly glowing reviews ("immensely exhilarating," wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times). It quickly became a best seller and should remain so throughout the summer.

Though Toni Morrison seems to have been with us so long, she came to all this late in life. Her first book, "The Bluest Eye," was published in 1969, when she was 38 and an editor at Random House. She was only a few years removed from teaching English at Howard University, from which she had graduated in 1953.

After "The Bluest Eye" came "Sula" in 1973 and "Solomon's Song," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. "Tar Baby" followed in 1981 and then, six years later, her great novel about slavery and a house in Ohio haunted by the ghost of a girl named Beloved. She has remained an editor at Random House, where she has actively encouraged black writers, and since 1989 has been a professor at Princeton University.

Along the way, she's become one of those rare people whmanages to top one achievement after another. Any encore after "Beloved" would suffer, one might suppose, yet with "Jazz" Ms. Morrison hasn't faltered.

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