Sethe has escaped. She has run off from Sweet Home, a Kentucky plantation, and has made her way across the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio. There, in the haven that is Cincinnati, she embarks on a new life—until, that is, the pater-rollers catch up to her. In terror, convinced that death is better than renewed slavery, she kills her 2-year-old daughter, then escapes again. Now, after the war, free, she lives in a house of the dead, unhappily haunted by her girl. “Who would have thought,” Sethe marvels, “that a little old baby could harbor so much rage?”
Rage and death are the twin states of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, published in 1987 and, 30 years ago, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In that twilight year of the Reagan administration, other African-American voices were rising, including those of the scholars and theologians Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates, but no work of the imagination did quite so much to capture the terrible reality of slavery and its profound echoes in post-bellum society than Morrison’s book, her fifth novel, a tour de force that is very much of a piece with her other books of African-American life such as Tar Baby and Song of Solomon.
Other slaves from Sweet Home have found their homes with and near Sethe, and the baby’s is not the only ghost to inhabit 124 Bluestone Rd. One of those slaves, Paul D., has otherworldly skills, and he puts them to work in exorcising the spirits. Things quiet down for a moment, and Sethe’s daughter seems to be at rest beneath the gravestone marked “Dearly Beloved.” Ah, but then a young woman who would have been her age turns up at the door, “a young coloredwoman drifting…drifting from ruin.” Exhausted, she falls into a deep sleep, awakening to proclaim of Sethe’s home, “This place is heavy.”
So it is. All around are premonitions of death to come, evidence of death already effected. Sethe’s sun-dried dress, writes Morrison meaningfully, is “stiff, like rigor mortis.” Everyone dies: That is the human story, but it’s more tragic when short lives on this side of the turf are miserable. The people of Bluestone Road make their living in death, working in the slaughterhouses of Cincinnati, “poking, killing, cutting, skinning, case packing and saving offal,” and it takes no time at all for 124 to become as it was before, filled with a “pack of haunts.” The citizens of that end-of-the-road road live in what Vladimir Nabokov called “a democracy of ghosts”—for certainly they inhabit no such democracy in real life.
Six years after Beloved appeared, the Swedish Academy awarded Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature. It was an honor eminently well deserved for her own merits, and more, it offered a rebuke of an American society still lost in the depths of racism, as did a book published in that year by West, Race Matters. Things have not improved a quarter-century later. If anything, they’ve gotten worse, much worse, which makes Beloved all the more timely—and all the more enduring.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.