Magical Realism and History in Beloved

According to most critical discussions of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987), this influential novel sits comfortably under the umbrella of the magical realist genre. The qualities of this genre, defined loosely as the incorporation of otherworldly events in an otherwise realistic setting, are important features of this novel, which tells the story of Sethe, who becomes haunted-and eventually overpowered by the spirit of her two-year-old daughter, whom she killed. However, Morrison's novel was inspired by a newspaper article Morrison stumbled upon while editing a collection of historical and cultural documents, The Black Book (1974). This article, "A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child" (1856), came from the newspaper American Baptist, and told of Margaret Garner, a slave who fled Kentucky for Ohio, a free state. Amid the extraordinary events of Sethe's spiritual hauntings, lie important historical observations about the ever-present trauma of American enslavement. And, one could argue, the magical realist genre could be utilized to pronounce even further and lay bare the horrifying historical realities of slavery, as well as their haunting echoes in post-Emancipation America. This seminar examines the generic tensions between magical realism and America's well-documented historical narratives of enslavement, and how this tension works together to create Morrison's masterpiece. We will discuss important literary and historical contexts that contributed to Morrison's work, and how broad generic categories can oftentimes obscure the book's bold engagement with literary experimentation and "pushing the boundaries" of conventional novelistic narratives. The seminar will also present suggestions on how to demystify this rather difficult text for students, and with its participants explore lesson planning ideas that incorporate historical documents, film, and other visual media representations of Beloved and American slavery.