Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"A Mercy": Critical Overview

"Breathing the Air of a World So New": Rewriting the Landscape of America in Toni Morrison's A Mercy
Author: Jennifer Terry
Source: Journal of American Studies, 48 (2014), 1, 127-145.

Keywords: Colonial history, postcolonial theory, ecocriticism, landscape, race, racism, gender, slavery, wilderness

Main claim: The mapping of seventeenth-century North America in the author’s ninth novel both exposes colonial relations to place and probes African American experiences of the natural world. In particular, A Mercy is found to recalibrate definitions of “wilderness” with a sharpened sensitivity to the position of women and the racially othered within them. The dynamic between the perspectives towards the environment of Anglo-Dutch farmer and trader Jacob Vaark and Native American orphan and servant Lina, is examined, as well as the slave girl Florens’s formative encounters in American space. Bringing together diverse narrative views, A Mercy is shown to trouble hegemonic settler and masculinist notions of the New World and, especially through Florens’s voicing, shape an alternative engagement with landscape. The article goes some way towards meeting recent calls for attention to the intersections between postcolonial approaches and ecocriticism.

Key Citations in Works Cited: 

Diedrich, Maria. “Caves and Mountaintops: American Landscapes in Toni Morrison’s Novels,” in Mick Gidley and Robert Lawson-Peebles, eds., Modern American Landscapes (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1993), 232-49.

Dixon, Melvin. Ride Out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro-American Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987);

Terry, Jennifer. “Buried Perspectives: Narratives in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon," Narrative Inquiry, 17 (2007), 93-118.

Wallace, Kathleen R. and Karla Armbruster, “The Novels of Toni Morrison: Wild Wilderness Where There Was None,” in Kathleen R. Wallace and Karla Armbruster, eds., Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 211-39, 211.

"I am a Thing Apart": Toni Morrison, A Mercy, and American Exceptionalism
Author: Susan Strehle
Source: Critique, 54:109-123, 2013

Keywords: Race, Racism, American Exceptionalism, American history, Colonial America, Puritans

Main Claim: "As Morrison invokes it in her most recent novel, a deeply ironic look at American origins, the myth of a chosen people rests on pernicious binary separations between elect and damned, white and black, male and female, New World and Old; it actually exacerbates the settlers’ mistreatment of the indigenous, poor, and landless and justifies their enslavement of non-white people. In the colonies, the faith that God separates sheep from goats and elect from Others leads to sanctified racism, while the self-proclaimed godliness of the community legitimates special exceptions to the very claims for moral high ground that define the redeemer nation." 

Key citations in Works Cited: 

Babb, Valerie. “E Pluribus Unum? The American Origins Narrative in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” MELUS 36.2 (2011): 147–64.
Bass, Patrick Henry. “Have Mercy!” Interview with Toni Morrison. Essence 39.8 (2008): 87.
Cantiello, Jessica Wells. “From Pre-Racial to Post-Racial?: Reading and Reviewing A Mercy in the Age of Obama.” MELUS 36.2 (2011): 165–83.
Gates, David. “Original Sins.” Rev. of A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. New York Times 30 Nov. 2008. 29 June 2010 .
Grewal, Gurleen. Rev. of A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. MELUS 36.2 (2011): 191–93.
Harris, Ann E. “Women, Work and Bondage in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” Forum on Public Policy (2010). 1 June 2011 . Jennings, La Vinia Delois. “A Mercy: Toni Morrison Plots the Formation of Racial Slavery in Seventeenth Century America.” Callaloo 32.2 (2009): 645–49.
Miller, Cheryl. “Mine, Mine, Mine.” Rev. of A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. Commentary 2009. 29 June 2012 .
Montgomery, Maxine L. “Got on My Traveling Shoes: Migration, Exile, and Home in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.” Journal of Black Studies 42.4 (2011): 627–37.
Updike, John. “Dreamy Wilderness: Unmastered Women in Colonial Virginia.” Rev. of A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. The New Yorker 3 Nov. 2008. 29 June 2010 .

History, Imagination, and "A Mercy"
Author: Susan Curtis
Souce: Early American Literature, 2013, Vol. 48, No. 1 92013), pp. 188-193

Keywords: Pedagogy, History, Slavery, Sexual violence, Historiography

Main Claim: In the case of A Mercy, I had students read the novel in conjunction with Demos's The Unredeemed Captive and an article by Wendy Anne Warren, '"The Cause of Her Grief: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England." [...] They thus could see that historians had been unearthing the experiences of marginalized people—Native Americans, poor women, indentured servants, and African slaves ("the giddy multitude")—which enabled an author-scholar like Toni Morrison to conceive of a story about living in a rough colonial setting that was not safe for any of them. By pairing A Mercy with The Unredeemed Captive and "The Cause of Her Grief," I was hoping to accomplish several things. First, I wanted the two forms to lead to a discussion of the line separating historical writing from historical fiction writing. What are some of the ways that historians do use imagination to bridge archival gaps? How is that use of the imagination the same thing as or different from what a novelist does? The objective in addressing these questions was not to create a hierarchy of truth; rather it was to appreciate disciplinary convention. Second, I was very interested in the matter of slavery-captivity. Slavery was not a monolithic institution; captivity and slavery bore remarkable similarities.

"The Cause of Her Grief": The Rape of a Slave in Early New England
Author: Wendy Anne Warren
Source: Journal of American History, March 2007, 1031-1049

Keywords: Sexual violence, Slavery, Massachusetts, Colonial America, History, Historiography

Main claim: "In this case, at the margins of colonial New England’s monumental history lies the life of an African woman whose presence there can be understood only by envisioning all the region’s earliest inhabitants as active participants in the rollicking seventeenth-century Atlantic world. Telling the story of “Mr. Mavericks Negro woman” draws attention to the fact that African slaves and sexual abuse existed alongside Puritan fathers, Indian wars, and town meetings in colonial New England. It also deepens the narrative of early African American history, too long located almost exclusively in the South; this enslaved woman first set foot on North American soil, not in Charleston nor in Jamestown, but in the northern port of Boston."


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