(Format revised 2019)
On Saturday I managed to open our discussion on three topics that we were, somehow, supposed to discuss at the same time. I suggested we talk about Baby Suggs, the scene in the clearing with Sethe, Denver, and Beloved, and the question of whether the characters in Beloved managed to successfully overcome the brutality of slavery. We are a perceptive group and the last question was quickly answered: What matters in Beloved is not so much some “fullness of recovery” but any success any former slave has in building a new life. Baby Suggs proved more complicated. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out why the black community turned on her after the feast. Jealousy of her talents, the excess of her feast, which contradicted her long-time emphasis on “knowing when to stop”, and her pride were all considered. We also discussed all the things that made her take to her bed to contemplate color. Sethe believes that her arrival without Halle was what did in her mother-in-law, although Baby denies it. Baby, herself, gives us plenty of reasons for giving up. When Stamp Paid tries to convince her to preach again, she tells him three times, “They came into my yard”, referring, most of us thought, to school teacher and his crew. She means, I think, that anything she does, thinks, preaches, or loves can be taken away by the white world. Her last words: “‘Those white things have taken all I had or dreamed,’ she said, ‘and broke my heartstrings too. There is no bad luck in the world but whitefolks”. It might be worth considering if the rest of the book affirms Baby’s pronouncements.
Unfortunately, our discussion of Baby Suggs barely touched on her preaching, only glanced at her slave life, and missed the story of Garner taking her to freedom–all important parts of Baby’s life. It’s too bad, but we couldn’t go over everything. A good deal of time was spent trying to figure out just what and when things happened in the story. On a less important level, a fair amount of time we might have spent talking was spent, instead, trying to hunt down passages. Morrison’s unnumbered chapters often make it difficult to find what you want. She has said that she wants readers to be confused and lost in the reading the story so that they feel something like the confusion her characters feel. For my money, this is one of the book’s greatest strengths.Towards the end, we looked at a harsh review of Beloved by Stanley Crouch, who complains that the world of Beloved “exists in a purple haze of overstatement, of false voices, of strained homilies; nothing very subtle is ever really tried. Beloved reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries.” He also finds a good deal of her prose overwrought and phony. I don’t want to spend much space here on Crouch. I’ll leave that for next Saturday, if the group wants to discuss him. But the forceful response of the group to what we heard of Crouch’s criticisms, interested me. Apologies, I know I’m not doing this response justice. The point was that Crouch didn’t understand that Beloved is about women, and many of us found their stories not trite or sentimental, but powerful. It struck me that the fact that Beloved is very much about women may lie at the bottom of Crouch’s literary dislike of Beloved. I have other arguments with Crouch. My overall take is that, while he occasionally hits a small target when he finds an overwritten passage, overall he seems almost purposefully blind to what the book has to offer.