What can I say about Toni Morrison’s Jazz? It’s great. I’ve taught it in American Lit surveys. But this week was the first time I covered it in a special topics upper-division class, which often puts books in a different perspective.
Of all the novels in our Nostalgia/Desiderium class, Jazz was the one I was worried about the most. Not because of its content and style–which are both superb. I was afraid it might not mesh with the theme because, although it’s set in the past during a key moment of the 20th century, it’s not exactly nostalgic.
Now I think I know why. It’s really portraying desiderium, plain and simple. It’s not longing for the past as much as it’s longing for a potential future that didn’t happen. The main characters attempt to escape their own histories in the rural south, only to find the same racism, pettiness, and longing in “the City.” It may be the best statement of post-WWI African-American optimism and the tragedy of that “dream deferred” since Langston Hughes himself coined the term.
Which made it work great in our class.
Also, anyone who teaches Jazz and doesn’t play Duke Ellington’s “Trombone Blues” ought to have their license revoked. The book isn’t completely devoid of that obsession with material culture–Okeh Records, anyone?–that drives collectors, obsessives, and geeks of all kinds.
O.K., so maybe it’s a little nostalgic…