2.01.2021

Spring 2021 Teaching: Toni Morrison -- the Art of Storytelling

Brief Introduction:

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) is the Nobel-prize winning author of eleven novels and several important works of literary criticism. This course will be a deep dive into her life and career, starting with her earliest novel (The Bluest Eye) and continuing through her later career. We'll study the evolution of Morrison's style and thematic interests, and consider whether Morrison's explorations of American history constitute a unified method. We'll also consider the impacts of Morrison beyond the world of English departments, considering theatrical and filmic adaptations of some of her key works. What is Morrison's status in African-American literature, in American literature, and World literature? How did Morrison expand the market for fiction by African-American women? Likely texts include: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, A Mercy, and God Bless the Child


In a Little More Depth:

It’s considered a bit old-fashioned these days to do a whole seminar on a single author; it would be more common to teach a course called something like “Fiction by African American Women,” and include Morrison as well as peers like Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler, as well as notable predecessors like Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Frances Harper, and Pauline Hopkins. Another version could be a more general contemporary “African American Fiction” course. Think: a combination of the above-named writers along with male writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ishmael Reed, and so on.

Those other courses that I just described are necessary and valuable, though unfortunately with the staffing in the current Lehigh English department there are not many folks who are likely to teach them. Morrison wrote in dialogue with a broader Black tradition in American literature, and indeed, in dialogue with white writers as well (her Master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner -- and we can see traces and ideas from both of those important modernist figures in her works). If any of you want to get started reading other contemporary Black authors on your own (perhaps over the summer), please let me know and I can give you a reading list as a starting point.

That said, there’s also something special that can happen when you do a deep dive with a single author. For one thing, you can trace the evolution of a voice and a literary sensibility. As a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as nearly every other major literature prize, Toni Morrison is easily the most celebrated Black author of the past 50 years. Her books straddle the divide between popular fiction--her most successful books have sold millions of copies--and serious literary fiction; she is a household name. But what makes her so special? How did her interests and technique evolve over the course of a long and storied career that included eleven novels (of which we’ll read seven), two published plays (one of which we’ll read one), several books for children she co-authored with her son Slade (sadly not on our syllabus), and an impressive amount of literary and cultural criticism (some of which we’ll read)?

Morrison first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a powerful coming of age story -- it’s really centered around three girls growing up in Ohio roughly contemporaneous with when Toni Morrison herself grew up there (in the early 1940s). This a novel that is often ferocious in its anger at what racism does to young Black girls, especially dark-skinned girls; it is painful to read and sometimes narratively challenging, owing to its unconventional structure (we really see the influence of writers like James Joyce on Morrison here). The Bluest Eye was rejected by many publishers, and even once it was published, it wasn’t especially well-received at the time (Morrison has written that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread”). I should underline that this first novel of Morrison’s, which we’ll start discussing today, goes to some very dark psychological places. That said, they aren’t all going to be like this: starting around the time she published Beloved, Morrison starts to inject more emphasis on hope and possibilities for the future of her characters even as she continues to grapple with heavy topics.

(And I should also add that even with the heavy stuff, there’s humor and laughter in all of Toni Morrison’s works. Also engagements with popular culture -- music, the movies, current events. Even the stories that are tragic have upbeat moments. And I think one of the key lessons of Morrison's writing is that even people who have dealt with horrific challenges in their lives continue to try and find laughter, continue to feel hope, and continue to have desire -- including sexual desire.)

What really made Morrison rise to a different level as an author is a set of four novels she published in the middle of her career -- Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Together, these four books earned her her highest and most consistently positive reviews. They were bestsellers, often helped by Oprah Winfrey’s book club (which was an undeniable force in American publishing in the 1980s and 90s -- and actually continues to be one even today). These books had a massive cultural impact.

Morrison’s writing reflects a level of craftsmanship, literary invention, and sophistication that’s effectively unique in modern American literature. As a result of that success, Morrison transcended what might have been a marginal status and a limited readership -- i.e., the world of “Black women’s fiction” (the “Black Authors” section of the bookshelf) -- and became what we call a Canonical figure: someone who is widely and regularly assigned in general American literature classes as well as more specialized classes.

Morrison has managed to do this while also insisting on writing primarily about Black people and with a sense that Black readers are her primary intended audience. There’s a great quote she gave in an interview once that speaks to this:

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girt in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but l am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say "people," that's what I mean. (New Republic, 1981. Link to original)

I especially like this quote because of the unassuming way she marks her space within the culture. I don’t think too many of us today read this and find it controversial, but when she said it (in 1981), it was not at all a commonplace thing to say. Writers who focused exclusively on Black culture (and who saw themselves as addressing primarily Black audiences) were frequently marked as “Afro-centric.” White readers (and other non-Black readers) often steered clear of this material, thinking it wasn’t for them. But that’s not how Morrison is framing it, and I think it’s important that non-Black readers engage with her work & learn to hear her voice. Even if she is not necessarily thinking of us as her first intended audience.

Content and Language Warning. One thing I should say right off the bat is that the topics covered by these novels frequently involves direct and frank experiences of racism and misogyny. There are characters who are referred to by others using the “n-word” in these books -- not to mention countless other instances of hurtful language. I will not use that word aloud in this class, but it will definitely be in the readings. In my view, we cannot hide from the racism that impacts the characters in these novels: it is an important part of American history, and it is central to Morrison’s voice and vision as a novelist. If directly engaging with representations of racism in stories centered around a Black feminist perspective makes you uncomfortable, you might wish to consider another class.

Another content warning -- Morrison’s novels also depict sexual violence, including in rare instances the rape of children. It is never gratuitous and it is always integral to the story she’s trying to tell. I will try to approach these topics carefully. However, if you find reading about or discussing these topics too difficult, you might wish to consider taking another course. 

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Though I’ve been teaching at Lehigh for a long time, this is the first time I’m teaching this class, so there are likely to be some bumps on the road; please bear with me if so. I see the teaching of literature at an advanced level as a space where we can open up the voices of authors and make texts accessible to students -- who will ultimately interpret those works for themselves. It’s not my job to dictate an interpretation or to be the final Authority. Rather, I am approaching these novels with humility and as a learner myself. With each text, my goal will be to elucidate some key historical and cultural references you may not have encountered before, but then to step back and invite you all to offer your thoughts and interpretations of the texts.


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