Toni Morrison's "Beloved" 
During my daily 5-mile walk I am periodically joined by two genuine characters, Marlon James and Jake Morrissey, through the medium of their intriguing podcast, “Marlon and Jake Read Dead People” from Penguin-Random House Publishers. Marlon James is a noted Jamaican novelist now teaching at St. Francis College in New York. Jake Morrisey is senior editor for Penguin Books and Marlon’s editor to boot. Their “Dead People” podcasts are insightful exchanges about novelists who are no longer with us, and “about whom we can say anything we want.” I find them funny—in a very adult way, to be sure—as well as massively informative; each has read thousands of novels in their respective careers; Marlon has won awards for writing some. Most of all, they make me feel like a literary peasant. I have read novels recreationally throughout my life, but only since I started Catholic blogging did I take to more serious analysis of novels, particularly those by Catholic authors—and there are an amazing number of very good Catholic authors frequently cited as such by my pod-friends, who have a special love for Toni Morrison.
I came to this late-in-life interest in Catholic novelists through recollections of interactions years ago with an old friend, colleague, and author Amy Welborn, [parents, catechists, general readers--check out Amy's books] who introduced me to the writing of Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964], as part of a teenaged faith formation venture, and later through author Nick Ripatrazone, whose Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction  intrigued me with its fascinating collection of essays on outstanding Catholic novelists.
When I reviewed Longing for an Absent God, I wrote this: “Ripatrazone has opened the door to the possibility that Catholic artists of the pen may be serving up realistic templates for Christians torn by sin and doubt and the improbable roads to God’s grace.” Flannery O’Connor had no use for Catholic fiction that was little more than covert institutional evangelizing. For her, the individual and cultural sins of her characters—their rage and violence—were the embodiment of the world’s original sin and no one needed to coin a special name for it. She pulled no punches in describing the ugliness and madness of evil and the miracle that redemption surely is. [She could be typically blunt about theology, too. At a dinner party of Catholics, she announced that “if the Eucharist is only a symbol, then the hell with it.”]
Catholic fiction writers have for centuries been providing the Church with truth that rarely comes from the pulpit. Consider the satire in The Canterbury Tales, written just before 1400 A.D., which takes to task most officers of the Church for corruption, greed, or hypocrisy. Modern day Catholic novelists talk to us about the deepest mysteries of life in a way that we accept and understand, though not necessarily happily or cheerfully. Some tackle Church institutional life head on, such as J.F. Powers’ 1962 best seller, Morte d’Urban, where an inventive priest in the American Midwest tries to salvage his tired, dying order by building a luxury golf course next to the order’s ramshackle retreat house in Minnesota. Powers’ works never mentioned Vatican II, then in its planning stages as he wrote, but there is no stronger argument for the need of a reform Council in the United States than Morte d’Urban and his earlier short stories under the heading Prince of Darkness. 
Some of today’s greatest Catholic novelists never even mention a church or a creed in their story lines; their characters play out the sacramental mysteries that we Catholics recognize, or should recognize, because their narratives resonate with the Christian bedrocks of Incarnation and Redemption. Some authors, like Graham Greene, can have it both ways. His “Whiskey Priest” in The Power and the Glory  is one of literature’s most enduring figures, but in his purely “secular” The End of the Affair , my current Kindle read, the grace of God arrives in decidedly unconventional ways. My general impression is that Catholic novelists were and are a necessary antidote to the congenial façade of life that parish Catholicism often presents.
Toni Morrison’s [1931-2019] literature and commentary will serve the Church for generations to come, whether the Church welcomes her literature into its pastoral-cultural life or not. Her most notable novels, particularly Beloved , are civilly banned in school and/or public libraries in parts of Florida, Missouri, New York [New York!], Utah, Virginia, Oklahoma, Michigan, Tennessee, Kansas, Georgia, Idaho, Texas, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania. In a January 31, 2022, essay, Time Magazine explored the reason that the second most referenced female novelist in American colleges is targeted in so many places: “Scholars say one of the reasons Morrison’s books in particular are controversial is because they address, unabashedly…dark moments in American history that can be uncomfortable for some people to talk about. Beloved, for example, is inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman, Margaret Garner, who killed her daughter in 1856 to spare her from slavery.”
I do understand that parents might want to protect their children from inappropriate material for which they are not prepared, and even we adults may not want to habitually hit ourselves on the head with a hammer of pain and guilt. When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to see Brigitte Bardot movies because there was too much ooh-la-la in them, and we sure couldn’t visit Buffalo’s Palace Burlesque House, though I know some Catholic high school boys who cut out of class early for the 2 PM show. But I do not hold with Jack Nicholson’s “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” either. There are painful things in our individual and collective histories which we cannot run away from, much as we may be tempted. In my State of Florida here, there are various legislative movements to repress elements of American history that students and citizens may find disturbing. How convenient…and how dishonest.
This is a curious attitude in a nation which many folks consider a “Christian Country.” Christianity is built upon memory—the annual observance of the New Passover, in which Jesus commands us to “do this in memory of me.” Those memories include grotesque crucifixion and the betrayals of Judas and Peter. We read this every year because we must—redemption is found only in the deepest contrition for sin. I heard a priest recently state from the pulpit that once we have confessed a sin in confession, the sin “disappears” from all existence, even God’s mind. This is not canonically correct, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church [paras. 1472ff.] speaks of the temporal punishment due for sins forgiven in the confessional. The Catechism expresses that all sins leave scars, and it is impossible to walk away from them, in this life, or in Purgatory where we come to full understanding of our evil choices once and for all. Not for nothing did Francis of Assisi, in the final years of his life, pray repeatedly: “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a worm, not a man.”
I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved during Holy Week this year. It proved to be a remarkable examination of conscience experience, for it got me to seriously reflect upon the sinful attitudes of my own life—and of the society around me —that I live with so casually. Beloved is set in the 1855-1875 era of the United States when a large chunk of our country lived tranquilly with an economy built upon the uprooting of millions of indigenous peoples from another continent to the American shores where they would live in circumstances none of us can imagine. One of the largest slaveholding corporations in the U.S. was, regrettably, the Catholic Church, as historians are now discovering. It all made me wonder if, a century or two from now, thoughtful citizens will look back on the 2020’s and marvel at what we live with casually as our societal sin.
Recently a mother who protested the assignment of Beloved to her teenaged son as part of an honors program in his school complained that the book contained, among other things, episodes of bestiality. As it turns out, I remember the circumstances of that chapter very well—it was morally appalling but not exactly for the reason the mother raised. In Morrison’s story line a young prepubescent slave girl is growing up in proximity to five older brothers who are waiting for her to mature to the point where they can each have their way with her as they wish. The author notes that as these young men burned with sexual anticipation, they satisfied their lusts with barnyard animals. The real outrage here is what would and did happen to the young girl, who had no recourse to law or custom. In fact, impregnating a slave girl or a slave woman against her will was a capital gain to the owner by increasing his holdings.
The indignities of a slave’s life are nearly impossible for us to imagine, and Beloved is based upon a true story of a runaway slave who escaped to Ohio. When slave catchers discovered her, she killed her two-year-old daughter rather than let her grow up in a slave’s existence. In a commentary of the times, the mother was not found guilty of murder but of destruction of stolen property. In Morrison’s novel the child returns from the dead eighteen years later to take her place in the family in a mysterious reincarnation. In the unfolding of the story, we get an intimate portrait of slavery and its aftermath that few of us ponder—and it remains a mystery to me how anyone thought the slave system was a good idea, a sobering prompt to look at my own tolerances. And I am not the sole voice crying in the wilderness. In 2023 renewed discussion on the Doctrine of Discovery has added more attention to the grievous denial of rights and dignity of indigenous peoples on the part of the Catholic Church and the crowned heads of popes and monarchs.
Morrison, who converted to Catholicism at the age of thirteen, is a prime example of an author who puts her narratives to the prophetic service of church and society. Prophets are not always welcomed and many of them, as Jesus himself noted, were killed. As Catholics, we are called to a reckoning of our past collaboration, not just with American slavery, but with the subjugation of native cultures in many sites on the globe, particularly after 1492. But in the present day we are confronted with violence—in many cases systematic and legislative—against various segments of the population on matters of sex and race. Violence against women remains endemic, for example, and it deserves a much greater hearing in Catholic moral discussions and state legislative houses when punitive assessments of abortion are discussed, for example. But sermons against such massive outrages are more often preached between the covers of insightful novelists than in any cathedral and we, as readers, own this invaluable piece of adult faith formation.
Lynda M. Dennis
5/2/2023 11:52:58 am
These are great and thought provoking insights. I too, often ponder the way our country perceives things today that happened centuries ago. Having grown up with an educator, we were always allowed to read what we wanted and encouraged to ask questions.. it saddens me that people are trying to recast history for situations that make them uncomfortable.
5/2/2023 02:52:05 pm
Thanks for your kind thoughts...reading your insights and concerns prompts me to push my standards to their limits every day.
Leave a Reply.
CATHOLIC NOVELISTS and the BOOKS THEY WRITE