Transgenerational haunting: metamorphosis, transgression, and survival in Toni Morrison’s Jazz

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Inspired by James Van Der Zee’s photographic record of a young Afro-American girl lying in a coffin, Jazz, a historical novel with a difference, thrusts the reader into the recreated lives of individuals experiencing the events of 1926, the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance (1910-30). Confronted with the impact of geographical, ethnic, and socio-economic changes, the newcomers to the city of jazz undergo a journey of discovery and self-definition, involving what Deborah H. Barnes has described as a process of cultural metamorphosis, transgression, and survival in their attempts to adapt to the consequences of migration. However, the application to Jazz of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s research into psychoanalysis reveals the full significance of transgenerational haunting in Toni Morrison’s story of human survival. The conjuring up of phantoms, or ghosts, of the past launches the reader, as it does the protagonists, on a trek back to the roots of memory by recreating a lost, yet repetitive history of pain and suffering – encompassing tragic afflictions passed down both orally and ventriloquially through the generations. Psychoanalytically haunted by ethnic violence and trauma, by the sins witnessed and committed by previous generations, the characters realize that it is impossible to escape from the claws of the past, as does Coleman Silk - to his own detriment - in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. It is the descendants’ liability to address the truth by interpreting the spiderlike, phobia-inducing web of links projected between the past and the present. It is essential for them to reclaim and transgress the burden of personal and collective memories in order to decode their genuine Afro-American cultural identity, to be able to survive psychologically, and, indeed, newly invigorated, to embark upon the true path to the future.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-82
Number of pages16
JournalThe Atlantic Critical Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


  • Transgenerational haunting
  • metamorphosis
  • transgression
  • survival
  • Toni Morrison
  • Jazz
  • James Van Der Zee
  • historical novel
  • Harlem Renaissance
  • Deborah H. Barnes
  • 1926
  • Nicolas Abraham
  • Maria Torok
  • psychanalysis
  • phantom
  • ghost
  • venriloquial
  • Coleman Silk
  • Philip Roth
  • The Human Stain
  • past
  • memory
  • Afro-American
  • cultural identity
  • postcolonial literature
  • novel
  • English literature
  • Afro-American literature
  • postmodernist
  • contemporary


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