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The Distance between Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead

[By Howard Rambsy II]
In a recent blog entry, literary critic Jerry Ward observed
that Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt is “a comic book.” Further, “One
senses the ghost of Henry James in the book’s machinery,” notes Ward, “although
its effect is pure George Bernard Shaw.” Yes, humor and satire are on display
in Apex, and really all of Whitehead’s works.
On a larger level, it’s worth noting that Whitehead
represents one side of a notable yet understated divide or shift in African
American literary fiction. On one side, we have Whitehead, one of our most
prominent humorous literary artists. On the other side, we have Toni Morrison,
by far, our most critically acclaimed serious literary artist. The distance
between the two writers and what it means for African American literature might
deserve more attention.

Over the last 20 years, Morrison has become the single most
critically acclaimed literary artist among literature scholars. Over the last
ten years, Whitehead has become the most widely recognized “new” African
American author of literary fiction. Commentators continually note and
celebrate the seriousness of Morrison’s works; while observers regularly point
out Whitehead’s humor.
So far, there has been little discussion about the extents
to which the overwhelming scholarly focus on a writer who addresses serious
subjects in her works makes it less possible for attention to be paid to
writers who highlight humor. By contrast, the extensive appraisals of a
contemporary writer whose works display humor and pop culture references
suggest that large numbers of reviewers might be less enthusiastic about
writers who primarily address solemn topics. The different factors driving
interest in Morrison and Whitehead are important to consider because of how
far-reaching and field-shaping that they can be.
The good news is that the distances between Morrison and
Whitehead indicates a rich diversity among African American novelists. The
not-so-good news is that literary scholars and contemporary reviewers rarely
communicate with each other, and they tend to focus on a relatively small
number of writers at a time.

One thought on “The Distance between Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead

  1. I do agree with your remark about not-so-good news. Poverty of imagination can result, for example, by failing to address levels of innovation in the poetry of Asili ya Nadhiri and Kevin Young, or perspectives on womanhood and culture in the novels of Olympia Vernon, Thulani Davis,and Toni Cade Bambara.
    JWW

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