Journal of American Studies

A New “Romen” Empire: Toni Morrison's Love and the Classics 1

a1 Department of English at the University of Warwick.

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An important but little-studied feature of Toni Morrison's novels is their ambivalent relationship with classical tradition. Morrison was a classics minor while at Howard University, and her deployment of the cultural practices of ancient Greece and Rome is fundamental to her radical project. Indeed, the works' revisionary classicism extends far beyond the scope of established criticism, which has largely confined itself to the engagement with Greek tragedy in Beloved, with the Demeter/Kore myth in The Bluest Eye and with allusions to Oedipus and Odysseus in Song of Solomon.1 Morrison repeatedly subverts the central role that Greece and Rome have played in American self-definition and historiography. In Paradise, for example, the affinity between the Oven in Ruby and the Greek koine hestia or communal hearth critiques the historical Founding Fathers' insistence on their new nation's analogical relationship with the ancient republics. And in their densely allusive rewritings of slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath, Beloved and Jazz expose the dependence of the “Old South” on classical pastoral tradition. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that in her most recent novel – Love (2003) – Morrison further develops the transformative engagement with America's Graeco-Roman inheritance that characterizes all of her previous fiction.2


1 My thanks to Helen M. Dennis and Marc Conner for their encouragement of this project, and to Elizabeth Barry for her invaluable advice. The research which gave rise to this article was funded by an AHRC postgraduate award.