Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Sula": Reception History

The following reception history is by Daniel Rosler. 

Sula was generally positively reviewed following its publication in the U.S. in December 1973 in venues such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as in African American-oriented newspapers and periodicals such as the Wichita Times and Freedomways Magazine. Here we will focus on on a prominent venue, the New York Times review by Sara Blackburn (“You Still Can’t Go Home Again.” The New York Times, 30 Dec. 1973, p. 163). We'll also briefly summarize the Chicago Tribune review, the Playboy review, and a 1980 review by Jenny Uglow in the Times Literary Supplement, upon the occasion of the first British edition of the novel. 

(A fuller list of early reviews of Sula can be found in Robert Fikes, Jr.'s 1979 Bibliography in Obsidian Magazine, here.) 

Blackburn, Sara. “You Still Can’t Go Home Again.” The New York Times, 30 Dec. 1973, p. 163

Blackburn’s New York Times review is positive and admiring on the whole, though it contains some troubling sentences that provoked subsequent controversy and response from readers. To begin with the positive, Blackburn notes Morrison’s ability to “clank a sentence,” particularly her skill with capturing speech: “her dialogue is so compressed and life-like that it sizzles”. She further compliments Morrison’s “skill at characterization,” noting that she, along with Gabriel García Márquez, creates characters with “heroic quality,” suggesting that “it’s hard to believe [we] haven’t known them forever.”

However, Blackburn strikes down the analogy there, arguing that Morrison’s characters cannot be fully imagined as existing “beyond their place and function in the novel,” that we can’t picture them “surviving outside the tiny community where they carry on their separate lives.” As such, Sula’s “long-range impact doesn’t sustain the intensity of its first reading.” Blackburn contends that the novel “seems somehow frozen, stylized,” an “icy version” of her previous novel. Blackburn suggests that the novel fails to “invade our present in the way we want it to and stays, instead, confined to its time and place.”
Blackburn’s review proves problematic from the very beginning, when she posits that Morrison’s success with The Bluest Eye came as a result of “reaping the benefits of growing, middle-class women’s movement,” one that had only just begun, as Blackburn argues, to “acknowledge the reality of its black and poor sisters.” As such, Blackburn believes that the novel

Probably attracted more attention than it otherwise might have in the publishing industry and was received rather uncritically by readers and reviewers: socially conscious readers—including myself—were so pleased to see a new writer of Morrison’s obvious talent that we tended to celebrate the book and ignore its flaws.

One of the more problematic points of Blackburn’s review comes in her closing, where she argues that Morrison is much too “talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.” Blackburn peppers her myopic vision of what determines talent with praise, calling Morrison a “marvelous” recorder of Black Americans’ experience—but the content, that experience, appears limiting to Blackburn. “If she is to maintain the large and serious audience she deserves,” Blackburn writes—again, letting us know she thinks Morrison deserves a large and “serious” (white?) audience, then she is “going to have to address a riskier contemporary reality than this beautiful but nevertheless distanced novel.” Again, to Blackburn, the novel is “beautiful”—the subject matter less so. Indeed, if she moves beyond the “early and unintentionally limiting classification” of “black woman writer,” then she will “take her place among the most serious, important and talented Amerinovelists now working.”
Blackburn’s review prompted several critical letters to the editor in the January 20, 1974 edition of The New York Times, including Teixeria Nash from Washington, who wrote that it “has been a long time since I have read such a racially polarizing review.” Clarence Major from New York City argues that her review “ends with a typical white attitude toward untypical black writing” and makes the case that “for a long time, white readers and critics have tried to dictate what black writing should be.” The reviewer, who scolds Blackburn’s “dangerously nearsighted stance,” reminds her that she herself cannot transcend her own experience of being a white woman critic, so why would she demand Morrison transcend being a black woman writer? Alice Walker from Jackson, Mississippi (no relation to the well-known author Alice Walker), claims Blackburn is “incapable apparently of experiencing black fiction as art but must read it instead as sociology.” 
Nick Rango from Chicago takes issue with Blackburn’s “comradely and trendy treatment of Morrison.” He suggests that Blackburn’s review reveals “how far we all must travel before we overcome the false consciousness of white liberalism towards the creativity of black Americans.” Critical Race Theorists would later take up these charges of liberalism’s failure to peek beyond the veil of white-tinged universalism, and of aesthetics being judged based on a merit defined by white writers for white audiences.

Anderson, Elliot. “Novels of America past: Morrison’s blacks in ‘the Bottom’.” Chicago Tribune, 13 Jan. 1974, p. 148.

In his January 1974 review in the Chicago Tribune, Elliot Anderson offers high praise for Sula, noting that it’s “one of the finest books [he has] read in some time.” Describing Morrison as a “major talent,” he cites previous critics’ admiration of The Bluest Eye, notably their “critical praise for its precision of language,” and believes Sula “should receive equal praise.”  Despite Anderson’s generous admiration of Morrison’s writing, he believes Sula suffers from lapses—though “they are few”—particularly what he describes as “sketchy” characters. Indeed, Anderson argues that some of these characters (though he doesn’t specify who) “function more as an occasion for the author to exercise her considerable talent for portraiture than as elements of story and plot.” For Anderson, this results in some “loose ends” and “moments of awkward tableau.”

Unsigned. “Sula.” Books, Playboy, March 1974, p. 22. 

In this brief blurb about Sula in Playboy Magazine, the reviewer begins with a striking simile: Sula, they write, is “like an ice-pick wound: clean and deep.” Like others, this review also praises Morrison’s precision with language as well as the emotional weight underlying the story; the novel is written in a “language so pure and resonant that it makes you ache.” However, unlike Blackburn, who wants Morrison to transcend detailing the experience of Black Americans, this review notes that “few novels grasp so profoundly the essence of a world: in this case, the black world.” Describing Sula as “a gem,” the review emphasizes the “memorable portraits of people and of a community,” arguing that the novel “is as mournful as a spiritual and as angry as a clenched fist.”

Uglow, Jenny. “Rock bottom.” Times Literary Supplement, 19 Dec. 1980.

“Beauty, eccentricity, bustle, laughter, sensuality, generous affection: Toni Morrison’s novels evoke such qualities only to reduce them to shadows through the bleak light of unremitting irony.”  --Jenny Uglow, in her review of "Sula" in the TLS

Uglow situates her review of Sula in the context of Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, and the novel to follow, Song of Solomon. Although her first two novels “anticipate the complicated and wide-ranging concerns of Song of Solomon,” Uglow argues, they zone in on “the process of growing up black, female and poor.” This process, as Uglow identifies, means not only navigating the “developing sense of self,” but “pressures of the community” and “patterns established within families” as well. 

Uglow emphasizes the difference between gender roles and gender dynamics within Sula’s universe, particularly Sula’s “clear understanding and inability to lie about the plight of women” as “render[ing] her an outcast.” Along with this observation, Uglow describes the men of their society as emasculated, a “peculiar feature of Toni Morrison’s novels,” and highlights the men’s names as evidence: “Tar Baby, Boy Boy, Plum: it is as if these men can never grow away from their mothers.” The women, on the other hand, are “stronger” but they also have a “greater capacity for pleasure” as well as “suffering.” Indeed, as Uglow posits, “we have become attuned to novels (by black male writers) which locate oppression in the conflicts experienced by blacks (usually men) trying to make it in a white world,” and, as such, “by concentrating on the sense of violation experienced within black neighborhoods, even within families, Toni Morrison deprives us of stock responses and creates a more demanding and uncomfortable literature.”

Uglow acknowledges Morrison’s writing as existing “within a recognizable American tradition,” but argues that her work is “strikingly original.” She notes, too, that, aside from Nella Larsen (Passing, Quicksand), Morrison “appears to be the only black American woman writer to have found a British publisher.” Uglow asks if it would be “too much to hope now for British editions of other powerful works,” citing Gayl Jones (author of Corregidora and Eva’s Man) and Alice Walker as examples. “Their combined voices,” Uglow believes, “could shatter some old images and create many new.”

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