Critical Mass

On the road in Toni Morrison territory

By Jane Ciabattari

At some point in Ohio the agricultural world is eclipsed by the industrial. For much of the twentieth century, coal coming from eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania fed the furnaces in mills that transformed iron ore shipped across the Great Lakes from Minnesota into steel that fed the automobile industry in Detroit. Now that industrial universe is on the wane, but it remains in the stories we tell and the books we read.

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison‘s first novel, was set in her hometown, the steel town of Lorain, Ohio. The narrator, a black girl growing up in a white town longing for blue eyes, walks with her her sister along the railroad tracks, where they fill burlap bags with the tiny pieces of coal lying about.

“Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot coal smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow. Frieda and I lag behind, staring at the patch of color surrounded by black. It is impossible not to feel a shiver when our feet leave the gravel path and sink into the dead grass in the field.”

At one point in the nineteenth century Ohio meant freedom for fugitives from slavery coming across the Kentucky border. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” highlighted one account of a slave making it across the ice.  But it was not so simple, as freedom was flimsy in the face of vigilante groups and slave catchers. That’s what comes clear in Morrison’s Beloved, winner of the 1987 Pulitzer, basis for her 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature,a novel steeped in grief and haunting from the slave past. Sethe, a runaway slave, when captured, sets her baby daughter free by cutting her throat. Sethe chooses her baby’s headstone, and the man says he’ll engrave if free, she has ten minutes. 

“Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten “Dearly” too? She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possible—that for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby’s headstone: Dearly Beloved. But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new. That should certainly be enough. Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust.

“Counting on the stillness of her own soul, she had forgotten the other one: the soul of her baby girl. Who would have thought that a little old baby could harbor so much rage? Rutting among the stones under the eyes of the engraver’s son was not enough. Not only did she have to live out her years in a house palsied by the baby’s fury at having its throat cut, but those ten minutes she spent pressed up against dawn-colored stone studded with star chips, her knees wide open as the grave, were longer than life, more alive, more pulsating than the baby blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”

The Nobel Committee noted that Morrison, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” For a long time I have carried with me a scrap of paper on which I noted a comment I heard her make in a lecture: “There are places where the historical record has gaps. That’s what art is there for.”