ALBANY, N.Y. — The brief 19th-Century newspaper article about a Kentucky slave who killed her daughter rather than yield her to a life of slavery continued to haunt novelist Toni Morrison, still preying on her 10 years after she had included the incident in an anthology about black life in America.
Morally unthinkable, ethically untenable, the story of Margaret Garner seemed to Morrison at once to capture the desperate evil of slavery and to contain the seeds of "enormously contemporary" questions. Fictionalized, it became the core of "Beloved" (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95), Morrison's new, resoundingly acclaimed novel about families and freedom and the horrible things humans do to one another.
"Black women had to confront very, very modern questions in the middle of the 19th Century," Morrison, Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at the State University of New York, said in her office on campus here.
In some ways, Morrison said, "Beloved" represents a departure from her four earlier novels in that it is set not in the present, but in the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Yet she stresses that she is continuing to probe emotional dilemmas that seem unrestricted by time or by race.
"How do you become an individual and nurture at the same time?" she asked, sipping coffee on the first cold morning of fall. "What is your place vis-a-vis a man? What kind of decisions can you make about the future of your children?"
Morrison leaned forward, switching now from the abstract to the marrow-pinching specifics that drove the young Kentucky runaway to take a handsaw to the neck of her own offspring.
"See, the slavery had denied her her motherhood," she said. "She was saying: 'I am the mother, and I will determine the lives of my children." Morrison shrugged. "When it became clear that their future would be the same as hers, she decided to alter that."
'Effort to Love Is Amazing'
Her voice radiated wonder, as if the character she created were sitting in the office with her. "The effort to love when you are surrounded by that kind of pathology is amazing," Morrison said.
Filled with admiration for her lush prose, reviewers have called "Beloved" a novel about slavery. But to Morrison, the saga of the woman she named Sethe transcends both the institution and the era.
"I don't think that book is about the past at all, except in the ways in which the past influences today and tomorrow," she said.
Yet fiction, Morrison's genre, is a way to explore the past. New information, "wars, civil rights, changes in the way we perceive all sorts of information," surface to challenge old interpretations of past events. One student helping Morrison do research for "Beloved" came upon a description of "why Negroes are inferior," published 75 years ago in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "They decided that the fact that the bone structure of Negro babies' heads closed early" made them inferior, Morrison said, marveling at the obvious absurdity passed off as fact.
Facts, in Morrison's view, are often suspect.
"What other people take for clear, pure, unfraught fact, I was never able to do. I never trusted the facts," she said. "Things like that were just sprinkled throughout the books." Her eyes widened. "The dictionary!" she said.
"Or," she added, "a book like William Safire's new novel."
Fellow contemporary writer Safire's "Freedom" (Doubleday) "plunges the reader into the reality and drama of the American Civil War," or so the book jacket proclaims.
"He is writing about Lincoln and the Civil War and nevertheless no black person says anything," Morrison pointed out. "They just listen."
So for Morrison, "if there is a void in the history of this country, then I feel an obligation to fill it." The novel becomes a kind of compass, a guide to what Morrison calls the "interior life" of the past.
"It's a constant process of trying to find out what is valuable and what is not," she said.
In the case of slavery: "One doesn't know the actual experience of being a slave. You only know about it. It is abstract."
Before she began writing "Beloved," she said, "I certainly thought I knew as much about slavery as anybody. But it was the interior life I needed to find out about. That is the whole problem of novel-writing, to find access to truly realized characters."
Morrison the student, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, devoured the novels of history, pouring over Flaubert, Zola, the Russians. From Lorain, Ohio, she headed to undergraduate school at Howard University, to Cornell for a master's degree, then back to Howard to teach. There she married a Jamaican architecture student, Harold Morrison. Six years later, the marriage collapsed. Morrison, pregnant and with a 3-year-old son in tow, took a job as a textbook editor and began to write fiction.