Social Novels “Jazz” by Toni Morrison and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin

The two books that I would like to discuss are “Jazz” by Toni Morrison and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” by James Baldwin. These are both social novels that give us a good picture of the horror of racism in the early twentieth century.

First I would like to give some details on the authors, to see where did they take their ideas. Toni Morrison was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio; she was a daughter of a religious woman and shipyard welder. Her parents originally came to Ohio from the South part of the United States, with the hope to raise their kids in the environment were blacks were tolerated.

Morrison became one of the most popular writers for Afro Americans. And was committed to these theme in every single of her novels.

James Baldwin’s family was not as wealthy as Morison’s; he grew up in poverty in Harlem. When he was yet a teenager he worked a preacher in a small revivalist church that was a period of time when he wrote his famous, partly autobiographical novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in 1953.

As we see, both writers were very devoted to the topic of racism and very sensitive about race discrimination taking place in America. Now let us take a closer look at the novels.

A novel “Jazz” by Toni Morrison is considered a romance book, but I don’t think it is the case. This story shows us events involving life of African Americans in 1920’s.

How the city and its music can make people do things. How the city can make a man kill his lover. How the city can make a woman slash a dead girl. How the city can make a girl let herself die. There is passion, jealousy, adultery, fornication and murder in the city. The city calls you. Once you hear of it you will be attracted to it and it will eventually pull you in from the country. No one can resist the city’s power, not even a man who feels at home in the woods and sleeps in trees. It may take him a little longer to get to the city but get there he will and stay he will also.

That man is Joseph Trace. The son of a wild woman who did not want him. Who would not even feed him when he was born. Joe was raised by a loving family, but he named himself “Trace” because that’s what his mother left without. Joe marries Violet and moves to the city after several attempts to find his mother (which are unsuccessful). He sells cosmetics to women on the side. The women flirt with him and he back at them, but nothing comes of it because that’s how he makes his money. Not to mention he doesn’t need a jealous husband coming after him. But he does cheat on Violet. With a nineteen year old girl named Dorcas. that she wasn’t prey to be hunted and shot. Maybe he even realizes that she could have been his daughter. And what about Violet, his wife. Whose mother threw herself in a well and missed all the fun. The stories of Golden Gray that her grandmother told her about.

Violet, or Violent, which is what they called her after she tried to slice the neck of the already dead Dorcas at the funeral, she didn’t take her husband’s infidelity too well at first. She had to get rid of that Violent. The one with all the anger and pity and hatred. When I think about it we all have a part of us that comes out in certain circumstances. Like when you think back on something you did and say, “No way, that couldn’t have been me.” But it was you; it was “that” part of you. Violet herself became somewhat obsessed with getting to know the Dorcas person and why Joe chose her. I think she really does love Joe. But there were just problems within their relationship that needed to be worked out. And I’ll go as far as to say that the whole dreadful incident with Dorcas needed to happen in order for them to work on their problems. I think it may have even brought them closer.
And now let’s talk about Dorcas. She didn’t make a pretty picture altogether. She had bad skin (complexion) but her hair was nice and long, her skin light, and she had a nice shape. Separate each feature was nice but together she wasn’t pretty on the outside or on the inside. She left Joe (who brought her gifts and gave her money, and tried to mold her into an independent woman) for Acton, a man who used her. A man who was upset because she got blood on his coat when she was shot. A man who made her run around trying to please him, and he was never satisfied. I think maybe she wasn’t happy with herself after the way she used Joe, maybe that’s why she wouldn’t let anyone call an ambulance and she let herself bleed to death. Did she love Joe? I don’t know. I believe she cared for him but I’m not so sure that she loved him.

I love the image of how Joe and Violet met. She’s laying at the foot of a tree when a man falls out of that very same tree and almost lands on top of her. It’s destiny, or fate, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe it’s gravity that brings them together. Yes, more like gravity.

I enjoyed Jazz, but I can’t say that I love it. It’s so sad. Everyone seems to be searching for something. Similar to the search for happiness in The Sun Also Rises, but you feel more compassion for Morrison’s characters than you do Hemingway’s. Perhaps because Morrison’s characters are poor and the world doesn’t offer them much, whereas Hemingway’s characters are rich and can have almost anything they want. I almost see them as causing their unhappiness. But Morrison’s characters are unhappy because of feelings that they can’t control, and don’t understand.

The couple has to overcome all the judgment coming from the outside world. Thus finding identities through the past. One of the main themes of the novel is racism – expressed mainly through the girl’s family and community, Security-Violet’s marriage is her only idea of security and is taken away, and abandonment-what happens to Violet from her husband after the murder.

Baldwin’s novel “Go Tell on the Mountain” has slightly different main topic. The central theme is religion, and three main characters struggle with religion in three different, but similar, ways, as each struggle to live by God’s laws. However all this struggle comes close with the racism issue of the first half of 20th century.

The novel is based on the Baldwin’s experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church. The novel is partly autobiographical and the events described were actually happening at some point of time. The author was actually looking for a release from his poor surroundings in this little church. Baldwin depicted two days in the life of the Grimes family. The 14-year- old John is a good student, religious, and sensitive. “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.” He has a long series of conflicts with his brutal stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher, who had fathered an illegitimate child in his youth. His mother has her own secrets. John’s spiritual awakening unites the family but only superficially – John becomes ready to carry his own weight.

The struggle of Gabriel, who, though he desires in his heart to be a servant of God, fails because he is too weak to overcome temptation. Or the struggle of John, who manages to separate his father from religion, allowing him to develop a personal relationship with God without feeling that he is giving in to his hated father. Or the struggle of Elisha, an adolescent who, despite normal pubescent emotions, manages to serve God, postponing the pleasures of this life for the infinite pleasures of the next. These three characters have different situations, but are unified in their successful or unsuccessful attempt to serve their God.

In the novel, James masterfully reveals the struggle of those discriminated against and willing to serve God. They are mostly all too week to resist the temptations. This is shown on the example of John, struggling to separate his father from religion, trying to develop a personal relationship with God, without giving in to his father, whom he hates. Or the struggle of Elisha, an adolescent who, despite normal pubescent emotions, manages to serve God, postponing the pleasures of this life for the infinite pleasures of the next. These three characters have different situations, but are unified in their successful or unsuccessful attempt to serve their God.

The central idea of both novels, is a concern for being remembered, for memory. The racist acts that are becoming an epidemics, are reflected in the two novels. All these acts erased most of aspects of African and African American culture, and the writers try to restore the bits they can. In Jazz, Morrison stretches her characters from the 1850s through the 1920s, chronicling the extended cultural responses to slavery’s end. The events take place a little period after this in Go tell on the Mountain, but however carry about the same meaning and problem described in Jazz.

In a social novels context fit well in the literary movement called “Postmodernism”. Postmodern works retain some of the tropes of modernism, techniques like “stream of consciousness” and “flashback,” but the narrator and novelist are far more self-conscious and culturally self-conscious. I personally enjoyed the novels greatly; just because the truth of life is always more alive and close to out hearts the any science fiction. The novels educate our generation about racial issues and help us to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.


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