Dr. Peter A. Muckley|
To Garner Stories : A Note on Margaret
in and out of History, and Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Levi Coffin, life-long
Underground Railroad Man and sometime President thereof, in his Reminiscences
(1876), detailed the case of Margaret Garner. He there referred to
it as the case of slavery which had "aroused deeper interest and sympathy,"
than any other. It was the case of "Margaret Garner, the slave mother,
who killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery" (Blockson
Here, we intend to
simply look at the divergences between Toni Morrison's Beloved and
Margaret Garner's story. This is done not in a John Livingstone Lowes’
Road to Xanadu attempt to trace the untraceable of artistic creation,
nor is it done to answer such non-questions as the famous "How Many Children
had Lady Macbeth?" It is not done to simply reveal sources, nor to
detract from a haunting novel of our collective consciousness. No.
It is rather done to let Margaret's story be more widely known, and to
trace how looking at changes in detailthose between history, Sethe's
story, Toni Morrison's storya future might now have been created
from the unrelenting spitefulness of the past.
The following synopsis
of the reported facts of Margaret Garner's case has been broken into discreet,
numerated event-units (1 to 11) to facilitate analysis and discussion.
Certain speculatively key-motifs have been underlined to aid readerly identification.
Observations follow each unit and are indicated by two dashes. While
Sethe is never given a surname, Paul D. is. He is called Mr. Garner
(11). Slaves generally were referred to by their owners' names.
Sethe then too would be a Garner.
The "simple facts" of Margaret Garner's life are these:
1. Margaret Garner,
slave, in late January 1856, together with 16 other slaves from neighboring
parts of Kentucky, formed an escape plan. The weather was cold, the
Ohio River frozen. On a Sunday night, with two horses stolen from
their respective slave-owners, they hitched up a sled to carry them from
Kentucky to Freedom.
Sethe Garner escapes pregnant and alone, but three of her children already
reside with Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law.
2. The 17 crossed
the frozen Ohio River on foot. Their crossing was from Covington,
Kentucky to Wester Row, Ohio. Once across, they thought it best to
split up, it being daylight Monday morning. Simon, Mary, their son
Robert, together with his wife Margaret, and their four children
(two boys, two baby girls) went the dangerous route to a Mr. Kite's cabin
in Mill Creek, a lower part of Wester Row. Mr. Kite (no christian
name is given) was the son of one Joe Kite. The son had been bought
out of slavery by his father. The route via Kite's house was
dangerous because white residents might see them pass. The 9 other
escapees, who had taken a different route, made it to Canada.
Sethe has 4 children: two boys, two baby girls. Sethe crosses
from Kentucky to Ohio. The real Robert would become the mythic Halle,
and the returning Paul D.
It is not difficult to understand why Robert's mother Mary might become
Grandma Baby Suggs, holy. No other name lends itself to her role
3. Kite went to
Levi Coffin for advice at his store on 6th and Elm Streets. Coffin advised
Kite to take the 8 fugitives to the outskirts, West of the city, where
the colored settlement lay, and the escapees would be helped. Coffin would
meanwhile arrange their escape for that night.
"West of the city, where the colored settlement lay" becomes "the Clearing"
of Baby Suggs, where Sethe had learnt "how it felt to wake up at dawn and
decide what to do with the day" (95). Coffin himself becomes Mr.
4. When Kite returned,
his home was already surrounded by slave masters, sheriff's officers, and
a posse. The fugitives, barred and locked in, were resolved to fight
and die. Margaret determined to kill herself and children rather
than to submit to slavery again. Robert fired on the officials. They
beat down the door and dragged him from the house.
Kite is a kind of Stamp Paid, his freedom stamp paid for by his father
Joe. Robert here goes briefly to an unknown destiny as do Halle and
5. Margaret seized
a butcher's knife, and cut her youngest girl's throat "with
one stroke". "The throat of her little daughter," following Coffin,
"whom probably she loved the best." She immediately tried to kill
herself, and the rest of
the children (220).
Sethe kills her second youngest daughter Beloved with a saw.
Sethe's near strangulation (96) is the dead daughter's psychic revenge.
Margaret's one day of freedom becomes Sethe's "twenty-eight days," from
her child's "pure clear stream of spit" to "her oily blood" (95).
Somewhat speculativelyas indeed everything here must bethose baptismal
to sacrificial twenty-eight days might recall February, the month which
elapsed between Margaret Garner's killing of her child and her March trial.
Certainly Margaret was visited by all kinds of solicitous black folk while
6. All remaining
7 of the Garner group were put in jail. Their trial lasted a sensational
2 weeks. Lawyers for the Slave-Owners were Wall and Tinnell, for
the Slaves, Jolliffe and Getchell. Jolliffe argued that, because
Margaret had been given permission to work in a Free State some years before
by her owner, she should have been legally free from that point on.
That, therefore, all her children were legally free, since they were born
after that time. He, curiously, proposed that Margaret be charged
with murder, the others with complicity. This, at least, would guarantee
that they remain in a Free State to be judged as people, not as property.
He did this to circumvent the harsh provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave
Law. In fact, his whole defence turned on proving both this law in
particular, and slavery in general, unconstitutional.
Coffin's longest section, detailing the legal ramifications of Margaret's
trial, become Bodwin's fleeting wistful memories: "The Society managed
to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around, and build a further
case for abolishing slavery" (260). This seems almost a Morrisonian footnote.
Perhaps, this is why Nelson Lord's question –“the question about her mother”--
must forever go unanswered (102). Nelson Lord, incidentally, as "Lord
Nelson," ties in with all the water imagery of the book. Margaret's
second youngest daughter died by drowning in March, 1856 (Blockson 223).
is described by Coffin as "a mulatto, about five feet high... she appeared
to be twenty-one or twenty-three years old." He specifically noted:
"On the left side of the forehead was an old scar, and on the cheekbone
of the same side, another one. When asked what caused them, she said:
“White man struck me.”
Sethe would have been 19 or 20 in 1856. Her height even seems
to match that of Margaret's. Margaret's facial scars become Sethe's
dorsal "chokecherry tree." The laconic "white man struck me" blossoms
into Baby Suggs' dying wisdom, "there was no bad luck in the world but
dwelt on the fact that Margaret held her remaining daughter of nine months
close to her throughout the trial, while "the little boys, four and six
years respectively, were bright-eyed, woolly-headed little fellows, with
fat dimpled cheeks." The youngest daughter who had been murdered
was "of rare beauty" (Blockson 221-222).
Toni Morrison seems to have transposed the ages of Beloved and Denver
vis à vis these factual conterparts. In a similar way, Beloved's
fate partakes of both murder and drowning, as previously noted.
"The little boys" become Howard and Buglar, and their mysterious disappearance
in Beloved is equalled by their abrupt fading out of the Coffin
chronicle of events. Coffin does, however, note that Margaret "declared
she would kill herself and her children" (Blockson 219) which would certainly
account for Denver's speculation that "if Nelson Lord was rightno wonder
they were sulky, staying away from home as much as they could" (103).
They feared for their lives. Beloved, of course, is certainly "of
9. The family
was remanded back into slavery by the Commissioner on the grounds that
this was in accord with the property laws of Kentucky, and the United States
Apparently, only Robert, Margaret and the remaining youngest child
were sent South (Sold Down the River). Nothing more is said in the
account of either the grand-parents or of the two boys.
Baby Suggs dies in 1865, but she does not witness the end of the Civil
War. That is, for her consciousness, the question of slavery is as
yet an open issue (perhaps, however, it still is). Paul D.'s war-time
wanderings may have been inspired by the real-life Robert's long odyssey
to freedom, recounted in the Philadelphia Press of March 14, 1870
(cf. Blockson 223).
10. William Lloyd Garrison's
The Liberator of March 11, 1856 recounted that the sinking Lewis,
the ship carrying Margaret and her baby in arms, was badly shaken by a
ship coming to its rescue. Margaret and her child were hurled into
the river by the shock of the collision. A Black man and the cook
of the Lewis leaped to save them, but only succeeded in saving Margaret,
the baby was drowned. Margaret "displayed frantic joy" on
hearing the news, and indicated her intention “to drown herself" before
ever returning to slavery (Blockson 223).
Beloved, in some ways a composite of both of Margaret's girl children,
comes out of the water, and seems to have lived in a watery limbo beneath
a bridge. Denver is born while being borne on a boat. Sethe
at one time feels she herself is “voiding all the waters of the world”
(51). Water symbolism in Beloved would require a book in itself,
but, given Margaret and her daughter's fate, there is, even here, more
than sufficient raw material for the creative imagination of Toni Morrison
11. A Cincinnati Chronicle
article, reprinted in the Philadelphia Press, March 14, 1870, stated
that Robert and Margaret had worked in New Orleans, and then had been sold
to one Judge Bonham, for forced plantation labor, at Tennessee Landing,
Mississippi. Robert reported to the Chronicle that Margaret
had died in 1858 of typhoid fever. Her last words to him had been
that he should never again marry in slavery, but “live in the hope of Freedom”
Here we seem to have left that place where Margaret's and
Sethe's stories overlap. Margaret's story, however, should always
be remembered. Like her, Toni Morrison adjures us to "live in the
hope of Freedom."
Differences and Significances:
are, of course, vast differences between Toni Morrison's Beloved
and Margaret Garner's story but if we accept that Coffin's Reminiscences
in some wise inspired Sethe's storyas I think we mustthen some of
those vast changes can be dwelt upon to help focus Toni Morrison's special
emphases. The whole of the Sweet Home episode of Sethe's life is
pure creation, though its division into pre- and post-Mr. Garner, or "enlightened
patriarchy" and Schoolmaster's "vicious despotism," with its social Darwinian
claptrap, cannot help but remind the reader of the Shelby, of Kentucky,
and the Legree episodes in Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, an
unjustly abused founding text for all who write of slavery. Much
else in the novel is likewise pure, inimitable Morrison creation too.3
The major deviations
from the story of Margaret we shall treat of here are: the solo flight
of Sethe; the introduction of Amy"the raggediest-looking trash you ever
saw" (31-32); the disappearance of the adult males of the Margaret Garner
group, both father-in-law and Robert, with only Stamp Paid remaining to
remind us of Kite; the uniting of traits of Robert in both Halle and Paul
D.; the uniting of traits of Margaret's two hapless daughters in the figure
of Beloved; the downplaying of the legalistic white world, in fact of the
white world altogether; the transmogrification of Margaret's slavery sentence
into Sethe's imprisonment within her own brain and its incessant, uncalled-for
memories; the maturing of Denver as a promise for tomorrow.
considerations taken together point up Toni Morrison's shift from the public
to the personal, from the legalistic/paternal to the familial/maternal,
from the external/phenomenal to the intimate noumenal. The outside
world beyond 124 only breaks in as disruption, danger, and evil until the
final acceptance of Paul D., harbinger of the freedom of love, and the
resplendent independence of Denver, representative of a sturdy new African-American
Denver is named
after Amy Denver of Boston, she is thus a link of love and solidarity between
the white and the black worlds, the common sisterhood of the marginalized
as Sethe and Amy were recognized as "two throw-away people" (84).
The emphases and changes between Margaret and Sethe's stories point to
Toni Morrison's offering us tentative hopes for a future based on the qualities
residing in the ethos of the poor and the outcast, qualities of resilience
and mutual aid.
of Margaret Garner's history and fate helps us better appreciate the vision
of Toni Morrison's Beloved. While Margaret's life was one
of unremitting misery, Sethe's offers some hopes for the futurefounded
on the transracial love and endurance of women. While the unforgiving
past must always haunt usas Beloved haunts 124, as slavery haunts the
ghettoes of the U.S.A. todaythe combined efforts of poor whites and
poor blacks may deliver the beautiful future hope that is a Denver, née
Garner. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Garner might help beget
a Toni Morrison.
1. The whole of the tragic story of Margaret Garner, as related by Coffin, can be found in Levi Coffin's Reminiscences. Robert Clarke & Co.: Cincinnati, 1876. The latter part of the same is recorded in the Cincinnati Chronicle for March, 1870. Cincinnati as the place of publication has an obvious bearing on Beloved, with its Ohio setting. Coffin's curious name may even, remotely, have aided in Sethe's obsession with her Beloved's tombstone. Everything in the novel takes place around Cincinnati, though, historically, only Robert Garner actually found refuge there. back
2. The novels chronology is somewhat as follows: Sethe arrives at "Sweet Home" in 1850. She is then 13. She marries Halle in 1851. Pregnant every year thereafter, she escapes in 1856, aged 19 or 20. One month after her arrival on the Ohio bank, she kills Beloved, as the white posse arrives in town. Baby Suggs dies in 1865. Paul D. comes to Nº 124 in 1873/1874. That is, 18 years after Baby Suggs' death, 18 years after his last seeing Sethe. back
3 I think Lincoln's comment to Harriet Beecher Stowe should never be forgotten: "So you are the little lady who started this big war". Beecher Stowe had a tremendous influence on American History. Perhaps one reason why Toni Morrison omits any description of the historical flight of Margaret across the frozen ice (from Kentucky to Ohio) may have been to obviate comparison with Eliza and the "floundering masses of ice" in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Surely, amongst much else, Beloved is a "black-wise" rewriting of Beecher Stowe's novel.
For instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin begins in February, while February is Sethe's "free month". Beecher Stowe's Haleythe slave-driverand Harrythe slave childmight even have yielded up Toni Morrison's use of the name Halle. Henry/Harry/Hal are variants of the same name, as seen in Shakespeare, for example. While source speculation is often absurd, offering potential intertextual depth is not. After all, going back to founding texts is one way in which poor culture manages to struggle on. back
Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Blockson, Charles L. The Underground Railroad.
New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of
the Underground Railroad.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved.
London: Picador, 1988.
----- . Song of Solomon.
London: Picador, 1989.
To cite this essay:
Muckley, Peter A. "To Garner Stories : A Note on Margaret and Sethe in and out
of History, and Toni Morrison's Beloved." 2002.
Anniina's Toni Morrison Page. 19 Sept. 2002. [Date you accessed the page].
Essay copyright ©2002 Dr. Peter A. Muckley. Published by Luminarium through Express Written Permission.
Toni Morrison site and web presentation copyright ©2002-2011 Anniina Jokinen.
Page created 19 September 2002 by Anniina Jokinen. Last updated January 5, 2011.