[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]
There was a busy and sad news week in April – led by the death of Prince – where you might have missed the fact that the US Treasury Department decided your wallet has too much testosterone so they’re booting Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replacing him with Harriet Tubman. If your third grade history class is a little fuzzy, Tubman was one of the most important figures in the movement to end slavery. Now, not only is she the first woman to appear on US currency in more than a century, but she is also the first African-American ever to appear. And Andrew Jackson, the man she is replacing, owned slaves. Karma’s a bitch.
What you might have also missed if you were endlessly looping every Prince album from 1980’s Dirty Mind through 1987’s Sign o’ the Times (which, if you haven’t done, then you should right now), was that the original plan wasn’t to replace Jackson, but rather to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. That’s not happening anymore because, well, Hamilton. Controversy? Not really.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Hamilton is the Lin-Manuel Miranda written Broadway phenomenon; an unlikely sounding hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the lesser-known founding fathers of America. The numbers are staggering. After a successful off-Broadway run, it took in over $60 million before it opened on Broadway in August 2015; it’s sold out through January 2017; the album, which reached number three in the rap charts, is the highest selling cast recording for 50 years; tickets for even Monday evening shows can fetch up to $2000 for the best seats; and it just collected a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.
But Hamilton is more than just numbers. It has been called historic and game-changing and, honestly, everyone seems to agree. Hollywood stars, hip-hop royalty and politicians of every persuasion have turned out in droves to see it. President Obama took his daughters, Bill Clinton has seen it, as has Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Madonna (though she, according to cast members, spent most of her time glued to her phone). Jay-Z and Beyoncé posed with the cast after the show. One night JJ Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, came and asked Manuel to write music for a scene in the film.
But its not just famous people that love Hamilton. Little kids love Hamilton and make cute little kid YouTube videos. Finicky critics love Hamilton. Ben Brantley, the New York Times critic, wrote, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit musical. But Hamilton… might just be about worth it.” And even more finicky (finickier?) and sometimes hard to please teens love the show. How do I know? Because I’ve got one.
My daughter Lily started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack right before Christmas. I’m not entirely sure what the impetus was to make her queue it up on Spotify, but I am sure that once she started listening to it she couldn’t stop. Within a fairly short period of time, she knew every word to every song. She knew every cast member, including ensemble cast members and backups. She even enlisted her little sister to accompany her in a cute little video.
Which brings me to Beloved from Toni Morrison, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner and probably the most controversial novel on the countdown. Just as Frank Bascombe from Independence Day was the anti-Lemmy Kilmister, Beloved is the anti-Hamilton. People love or hate this book in equal numbers.
Set in Ohio in 1873 after the end of the Civil War, Beloved tells a lot of stories with a lot of voices, but the central one belongs to Sethe who is living in a farmhouse with her youngest daughter Denver, and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. There is almost no way to explain this book without giving away the plot (ergo, SPOILER ALERT), but their house is also home to a sad but very angry ghost, who everyone believes is the spirit of Sethe’s baby daughter, who, at the age of 2, had her throat cut under appalling circumstances. We never know this child’s full name, but we – and Sethe – think of her as Beloved, because that is what is on her tombstone. Sethe wanted ”Dearly Beloved,” from the funeral service, but had only enough strength to pay for one word. Payment was 10 minutes of sex with the tombstone engraver.
Not surprisingly, a haunted house doesn’t make for the greatest home environment. Sethe’s two young sons have run away from home by the age of 13, and Denver, the only child remaining, is shy, friendless, and housebound. To add insult to injury, not long into the book and with the ghost in full possession of the house, Baby Suggs dies in her bed. Insert sad emoji.
But characters – and stories – such as these don’t exist without some significant trauma in their past, and Sethe’s past comes front and center when Paul D – one of the slaves from Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle (Sethe’s ex), and several other slaves once worked – arrives at their home. They fled Sweet Home 18 years before the novel opens, and when we begin the flashbacks, we see why. If there is such a thing as a good slave owner, then Mr. Garner, the original owner of Sweet Home, might qualify. He treated the slaves well, allowed them some say in running the plantation, and called them ”men” in defiance of the neighbors, who want all male blacks to be called ”boys.” But when he dies, his wife brings in her handiest male relative, who is known as ”the schoolteacher,” and, as is often the case with people whose nickname is “the schoolteacher,” he is a total asshole.
Throw in the schoolteacher’s two sadistic and repulsive nephews, and from there it’s all downhill at Sweet Home as the slaves try to escape, go crazy or are murdered. Sethe, in a trek that makes the Snake’s journey in Escape from New York look like a stroll around the block, gets out, just barely; her husband, Halle, doesn’t. Paul D. does, but has some very unpleasant adventures along the way, including a literally nauseating sojourn in a 19th-century Georgia chain gang.
So Paul D. and a shit ton of baggage arrive at Sethe’s home, and surprisingly, he appears to make things a little better. He forces out the ghost, and even gets Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But never forget, this is a Pulitzer winner which means that, chances are, this isn’t a story where things are going to work out for everyone in the end. And sure enough, on the way back home with Denver, they come across a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself, of all things, Beloved. Paul D is suspicious (duh) and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him.
Not surprisingly, inviting a random 20 year-old who shows up out of nowhere calling herself the same name as your baby daughter who died tragically turns out to be a poor decision. Beloved gets in everyone’s head and sooner or later has sex with Paul D in a shed. He feels horrible and is racked with guilt, but when he tries to tell Sethe about it he instead tells her that he wants her pregnant. Lesson: just no.
Albeit, Sethe is initially elated so, to be fair, Paul D’s ad lib does put the breakup playlist on hold for a few. But when Paul D tells his friends at work about his plan to start a new family, they tell him the real story of how Sethe’s two year old died. I’ve given away too much already (and honestly would rather not discuss it), but suffice it to say that the news is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him around, Beloved consumes more and more of Sethe’s life until it reaches the point where it is clear that both cannot survive.
As I mentioned at the outset, people’s opinions on this novel vary widely. But regardless of where you think this book should sit in our literary countdown, there is little disputing that both the story and the writing are somewhat painful to get through, although I have a much harder time with the latter than the former.
Stories about slavery, especially good stories, are hard to read. On purpose. It was a brutal and lamentable part of our nation’s history, when very specific (and horrific) things happened to actual human beings. And being a book about that period, Beloved describes all of the beatings, whippings, rapes, killings, all of the families torn apart, individuals humiliated and lives wasted. As it should. And that may make the novel hard to read for some, but that isn’t a valid critique of the book.
For me, what made this book difficult to read wasn’t the story, it was the presentation. I’ll give you one example:
“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”
Look, Toni Morrison is a much much much (I could go on for a while) more talented writer than I am, so I’m sure many people will completely disagree with me, but I find passages like the above hard to read. And not in a good way. It is a little over the top. A little Faulkner-esqe (and we see where that got him on the countdown). A little too, well, much. As I read this book, I kept feeling that she was trying too hard to impress and that the story therefore suffered a teeny bit because of it (IMHO).
But regardless of the prose, I admire Beloved for what it aims to achieve: to make us remember a terrible part of American history. And by remember, I don’t mean in a generic “there was slavery in the United States” way, but instead that there were very specific (and horrific) things that happened to actual people. With many wide scale events such as war, racism, or the holocaust, it is easy to get lost in the numbers, to forget that individual people were affected or perished. Beloved personalizes slavery, which makes it easier for people-in-general to identify with the subject. It elevates a terrible part of history beyond mere statistics.
And maybe that’s where Beloved and Hamilton share a common bond. We all learn about the War for Independence in school but in our heart of hearts, we don’t care. We aren’t really moved by it. Hamilton changes that because it shows us a period in history through the story of a single, albeit sometimes unsympathetic, man. Just as we really feel the horrors of slavery because of how we see it affected Sethe, we understand the sacrifices people made when establishing this country.
But, and this is a big but, delivery matters. Beloved will never be universally beloved because Morrison loses the reader (or at least some readers) with her challenging writing. There are no little kids making videos recreating scenes from Beloved. Miranda, in contrast, engages a whole new generation of people with his never-before-heard all-rap Broadway musical. Its accessibility enables the story. Hence that’s why Alexander Hamilton will remain on the ten-dollar bill while slave owner Andrew Jackson gets the boot.
Oddly enough, the very same week that equally universally beloved Prince died, I found myself at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York with Lily watching Lin-Manuel Miranda do his stuff. To tell the truth, I was a little concerned that there was no way the play could live up to the hype. I shouldn’t have been. I loved it. No controversy there.