In new novel and in the classroom, Morrison speaks of love and language
By Lauren Robinson-Brown
Princeton NJ -- Toni Morrison says there are two ripe features that aggrandize humans: love and language. So it is no wonder that her eighth novel, "Love," speaks to the human condition in search of its own voice.
"I was always interested in efforts people make to thrive, to survive and to relate to one another," Morrison said in an interview, after first describing her new novel as an exploration of African-American culture from the 1940s to the 1990s -- before, during and after the civil rights movement. "Even though I describe all of this as the paramount thing, it isn't. That is the background story. The people, the characters, are consequences of other people's actions as well as their own history."
Canvassing the panorama of emotions summoned by love is a trait found throughout Morrison's body of work -- from spiritual love in "Beloved" to romantic love in "Jazz." The new novel, published Oct. 28, is the story of the women bound to Bill Cosey, a rich owner of a segregated black resort in Florida who is dead as the book unfolds.
During the four years it took her to craft this story, Morrison did not always refer to it as "Love." In the end, she agreed with her publisher on the title, as love is "a mediating factor" in the book. It is "what eludes or drives or confuses or even destroys and, sometimes, enables the characters," she said. "Equally important, it is indeed the most empty, clichéd word in the language besides 'nice.' At the same time, it is the most powerful of human emotions and one of the few things that distinguishes us from other kinds of life on earth -- the ability to love something or even search for love."
Morrison, who will read from "Love" at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4, in Richardson Auditorium (see related story at right), called it "a delicious feeling" to have received recently her bound copies of the published work. Yet the Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning author said she does not write for acclaim. "I like it when they like it, but I have to keep on," she said, noting she has started her next novel. "It's something to comfort me."
Transforming words and students
Morrison's novels have both comforted and jarred millions of readers worldwide, just as she has had a transforming effect on Princeton's students, faculty and staff members.
"Toni Morrison has produced some of the most artistically, historically and politically important work of the 20th and now 21st centuries as well as some of the most luminous prose written in English," commented Valerie Smith, the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature and professor of English.
Morrison arrived in Princeton in 1989 and, as the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, has engaged with students through her teaching, through recruiting efforts and by creating innovative programs such as the Princeton Atelier, where professional artists work in unison with students to breathe life into original works.
"Toni gives tirelessly, with her extraordinary combination of erudition and eloquence, to recruiting faculty and students to Princeton," said Provost Amy Gutmann. "I have never known her to decline an invitation to work with me in recruiting on our behalf, and I have called on her more often than I care for her to remember. Her generosity in speaking to alumni groups is also extraordinary, and enormously appreciated."
Princeton's stimulating environment is what first attracted Morrison and remains an element she appreciates deeply. "You are surrounded by really demanding people, thoughtful people, and the students are top of the line so you can really get there," Morrison said. "You don't have to spend a lot of time getting them to a place. The preliminaries are already done; the habits of study are already there. And, they are increasingly diverse."
Why make a point about diversity on campus? "It broadens the mind and that is pretty much what a university education is supposed to do," Morrison said. "I think the whole thrust of getting people of color on the faculty is extremely important not just because you get first-rate people but because the nature of education cannot be static anymore. You cannot have a complete, wide, deep life of the mind if it only travels one path or if you get your information from people who only have one kind of life experience. It just doesn't work."
Students were different in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many were bent on making fortunes and when Morrison felt she had to push harder to move more of them from writing stories with a "predetermination of what was flawless" on to new and potentially uncomfortable ground. She said it was more challenging then because so many of her students wanted little more than to produce the "New Yorker" version of their tales.
"If you are going to be worldly or cosmopolitan or urbane or modern you just can't do that any more," Morrison said. "You have to be a little bit more global in order to be able to deal." The increasing campus diversity helps more than just students, she added. "It stirs up the faculty. I mean there is nothing like having people who bring to the table a separate discourse -- a newer one. It sharpens you in a number of ways. You find extraordinary similarities and unusual differences that are provocative."
Troy Savage, a junior in the Woodrow Wilson School and in civil engineering, is grateful that Morrison helped recruit and return Professor Cornel West to Princeton last year. While Savage has not had a class with Morrison, she lectured in one of West's classes this past spring. At first, Savage said, he was surprised that Morrison was so accessible and did not have more "stage presence," until he realized that, indeed, she did.
"She was engaging when she answered student questions. She didn't avoid the questions," he recalled. "And she answered them in a way that I can't describe, but it was special."
Morrison said today's Princeton students are special too because more and more are committing themselves to careers such as teaching and public service, although she realizes this trend is often cyclical. She said the pattern is juxtaposed to an America today that seems to be choked by "rabid consumers," instead of active participants in a "citizenship society."
"Every four years you get a group that sort of rejects what went on before or reevaluates it," she noted. "They seem to take more risks or want to take more risks. That may be just their being young and hopeful and looking for some way to be useful in the world."
The value of criticism and failure
What she has most in common with her students -- although, she said, many may not realize it -- is her fascination with the process of developing language, which includes criticism. Morrison said young writers often reject critical review because they perceive it as failure. They must learn that editing and rewriting are important tools upon which most superb writers rely, she added.
"I've always found Princeton students to be alert and fairly fastidious about their work and their demands on themselves so they have high expectations for themselves and other people and they are very critical, which I like. It's that quality of always questioning," Morrison said. "For me, it is pleasant -- encouraging, I guess -- because I am in the humanities. All my life is critiqued."
Accustomed to "doing it right the first time," Princeton students sometimes struggle with letting go of their work and giving in to the process of artistic evaluation, she said. Morrison knows she has witnessed growth when they "see that that notion of inquiry, and critique, and evaluation and analysis to get to the best possible performance, or short story, or choreography, or what have you, is the heart of our work."
Morrison uses an analogy of a scientist rethinking an experiment to emphasize to students that failure delivers vital information when one pays attention. "They get that because they have a lot of respect for scientists. They don't always have a lot of respect for fiction. Although they are sometimes passionate about it, they don't always get the intellectual heat that it requires."
When Morrison isn't focused on fiction she contemplates issues such as the dilapidation of the public school system, the failure of modern American leaders to articulate real vision and the new differences between being rich or poor. "Now if you are poor you are treated like a child. That wasn't always the case," she said. In the past, "you could be a poor person and still be an adult -- because of the things you could do."
Such issues sometimes make their way into her novels. In "Love," for instance, she said her readers can witness her fascination with intergenerational relationships. "I got interested in very young people and the way in which older people don't understand them or don't make an effort to understand them or don't tell them anything," Morrison said. She noted that one reason she really enjoys interacting with college students is that they serve as an endless source of new language and customs.
"They have a lot of fresh information that I don't have access to," Morrison said. At Princeton, "You get to see, really quite rapidly, what is coming up the road."