Study Guide

Jazz Genre

By Toni Morrison

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Historical Fiction; Family Drama; Postmodernism

Jazz bucks convention in the genre department. It's a little bit historical fiction, a little bit family drama, a little bit postmodern head-trip, and a lot bit awesome.

We're putting it in the historical fiction category because—no head scratching here—it takes place in various historical contexts. You have all the hallmarks of historical fiction in that the narrative is shaped by its history. The parts of Jazz that are set in Harlem, 1926 are super-preoccupied with the issues facing Harlem in 1926. Jazz music corrupting the youths? Yup, Jazz addresses that. Racism still simmering under the surface on 5th Avenue? Jazz deals with that, too. Those scandalous hemlines? Oh yes indeed.

Jazz also takes us into post-Civil War Virginia, where newly freed enslaved people are suddenly up against burgeoning Jim Crow laws, and racially-motivated violence is at a terrifying full boil. We're taken inside a train car heading North: Jazz shows us the Great Migration in action.

But it's not just history lessons in Jazz. The heart and soul of the story is preoccupied with infidelity and the lasting repercussions of being orphaned. That's right: It's also very much a family drama. We're given insight into not one, not two, but three generations on Violet's side, and we see Joe's mother for longer than Joe ever gets to. The emotional concerns of this novel are very domestic: whether marital love can last, whether children are important, how families can overcome tragedy.

Last but not least, Jazz is a postmodern fun-house mirror. What the Dickens is postmodernism? Hint: It's the opposite of Charles Dickens. For a quick n' dirty definition of Postmodernism think "experimentation." Jazz has a bunch of the hallmarks of postmodernism: shifts in narrative, shifts in tone, shifts in perspective, shifts in time. In short, it's shifty—but not in an untrustworthy sense, because like all good postmodernist literature, Jazz stays truthful, even when it's questioning the very nature of truth.

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