Tuesday, March 17, 2009


We read Beloved last month in AP English. Is this the sixth time that I've read the book now? Seventh?

Regardless, how did it take so long for me to make the link between "When the four horsemen came" (in all of its intentional apocalyptic obviousness) and the description of the sick camp of Cherokees that Paul D encounters after escaping from the flood in Georgia? Here's the Cherokee:

Decimated but stubborn, they were among those who chose a fugitive life rather than Oklahoma. The illness that swept them now was reminiscent of the one that had killed half their number two hundred years earlier. In between that calamity and this, they had visited George III in London, published a newspaper, made baskets, led Oglethorpe through forests, helped Andrew Jackson fight Creek, cooked maize, drawn up a constitution, petitioned the King of Spain, been experimented on by Dartmouth, established asylums, wrote their language, resisted settlers, shot bear and translated scripture. All to no avail. The forced move to the Arkansas River, insisted upon by the same president they fought for against the Creek, destroyed another quarter of their already shattered number.

So far, so good, no?

It's a wonderful, and terrible, compressed history of a civilization. It's not a complete history, of course -- it's not meant to be -- but it is a window between two plagues. Literacy, government, craft, agriculture, religion, etc. Even higher education, here given the awful irony of "been experimented on by Dartmouth." It's enough, right? It has to be enough, right? Isn't that enough to ensure your civilization's survival? Isn't that enough to ensure the continued existence of your people? Isn't that enough story?

Nope: all to no avail.

Here's the rest of the relevant passage, though:

That was it, they thought, and removed themselves from those Cherokee who signed the treaty, in order to retire into the forest and await the end of the world. The disease they suffered now was a mere inconvenience compared to the devastation they remembered.

It's hard to miss the "now vs. then" appeal to memory, to the potential terror of the past, the echoes of the struggles of Sethe (and Baby Suggs, and Stamp Paid, and etc etc etc) to remember as little as possible. And, I suppose, for a lot of people, it's hard to miss the "end of the world" echo in the later description of Schoolteacher and Company as the "four horsemen," but I hadn't seen it until this year. Even after being prepped for it by Morrison concluding the Cherokee's 200 year window with "translated scripture."

And that's why I re-read. Not just because I have a pretty damn mediocre memory, making too many books feel like first-reads even on a second go-round, but because I love how re-reading adds layers and layers and layers to my understanding both of the questions that a given text is raising (and how it seeks to answer them) and of how that text is put together, how it works, and why it works.

(War and Peace, by the way, now that I'm about 400 pages in, is feeling more like a first-timer than a true re-read. And that's okay).

1 comment:

cyrenecj said...

I adore Morrison, more than anyone (Baldwin, Walker,Atwood, Eggers, Sedaris, Danticat)but until A Mercy, I wondered (quietly,and with trepidation)whether Beloved represented the beginning of the end for Toni. Whereas Sula was clear and beautiful, even as it brought up disturbing components of the human character, Beloved seemed muddled and tentative. It is certainly complex, it is certainly beautifully written in several passages (my favorite parts: the handprints in the dough, Sethe's baring of her back, Paul D.'s bewilderment at finding himself out of the house), but as a cohesive work...I feel like I'm missing something.
So is it because Sethe is too damaged for the narrative to focus or is the narrative focused in so complex a way that I need to reexamine it again?
(This can absolutely wait until school starts; I am just too stoked to be able to talk about this book and author)