After publishing four novels, Toni Morrison had already established herself as one of the most popular and successful black female writers of her time. With the publication of her fifth novel Beloved, however, critics worldwide recognized that here was an author with a depth and brilliance that made her work universal. In this tale set in Reconstruction Ohio, Morrison paints a dark and powerful portrait of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Inspired by an actual historical incident, Beloved tells the story of a woman haunted by the daughter she murdered rather than have returned to slavery. Part ghost story, part realistic narrative, the novel examines the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery as well as the lingering damage inflicted on its survivors. In a prose both stark and lyrical, Morrison addresses several of her enduring themes: the importance of family and community, the quest for individual and cultural identity, and the very nature of humanity.
Although Beloved was hailed by many reviewers as a masterpiece when it first appeared in 1987, the novel inspired considerable controversy several months after its publication. After it failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award, accusations of racism were leveled. Demonstrating their support of the author, forty-eight prominent black writers and critics signed a tribute to Morrison’s career and published it in the 24 January 1988 edition of the New York Times Book Review. Beloved subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the secretary of the jury addressed the issue by stating that it “would be unfortunate if anyone diluted the value of Toni Morrison’s achievement by suggesting that her prize rested on anything but merit.” Despite the controversy, few have contested the excellence of the novel, and Beloved remains one of the author’s most celebrated and analyzed works. As critic John Leonard concluded in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the novel “belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off. … Without Beloved our imagination of the nation’s self has a hole in it big enough to die from.”