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Toni Morrison's sixth novel, Jazz (1992) takes place in 1926, when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, a special time of success and attention for African American artists in all genres, including literature, art, and music, especially jazz. Its story line was inspired by an event that Morrison learned about in The Harlem Book of the Dead (1978), in which Camille Billops records the story behind James Van Der Zee's photograph of a young woman's corpse; she was shot yet refused to identify her assailant before she died.

The novel is a multifaceted narrative evolving from the early-twentieth-century migration to New York of a seemingly uncomplicated southern couple. They appear to join the hundreds of thousands of black people who left rural areas for urban areas, the South for the North, between 1890 and 1930; that migration led in part to the Harlem Renaissance. Violet and Joe Trace are thus expecting to improve their economic condition just as other migrants so hoped. The unexpected stresses of the city, however, complicate their lives.

At the beginning of the novel, Morrison relates that the over-fifty-year-old Joe, in a morose and jealous state, had murdered a seventeen-year-old girl, Dorcas, with whom he was having an affair; she had finally turned her attention to a younger man. The narrative ties in to The Harlem Book of the Dead because Dorcas, lying shot by Joe, refuses to allow those surrounding her to call for an ambulance until Joe has disappeared; by then, she is too near death to be revived. Violet disrupts the funeral and has to be wrestled to the floor when she attempts to attack Dorcas's corpse with a knife. She thus becomes known as “Violent” Trace. The novel then focuses on Violet and Joe's past and their continuing fascination with the dead girl as well as upon their own reconciliation. During this healing process, Violet develops relationships with Dorcas's aunt and Dorcas's best friend.

Jazz is narrated by an alternately objective, omniscient, and confused voice that reveals the consciousnesses and personal histories of the characters and their historic setting, and also gives the novel its improvisatory, jazzlike feel. During 1992, Jazz achieved bestseller status along with Morrison's nonfiction critical work Playing in the Dark. While most critics responded favorably to the novel, others complained of its structure and narrative technique, and many were simply puzzled by what Morrison was trying to accomplish. Initial detractors, however, seem now to be more appreciative of the novel.

! Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds., Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, 1993.Paula Gallant Eckard, “The Interplay of Music, Language, and Narrative in Toni Morrison's Jazz,” CLA Journal 28.1 (Sept. 1994):11–19.Sarah Aguiar Appleton, “‘Everywhere and Nowhere’: Beloved's ‘Wild’ Legacy in Toni Morrison's Jazz,” Notes on Contemporary Literature 25.4 (Sept. 1995): 11–12.

Betty Taylor-Thompson

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Toni Morrison (b. 1931) American novelist

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