Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XI: Toni Morrison

On a cold and rainy day in early April, I made my way to Harvard’s Memorial Hall to hear Toni Morrison give the last of a series of lectures. I had tried and failed to get a ticket to her lecture the day before, but on a whim I attempted to get a ticket to her last lecture, which I thought would be impossible, but somehow managed to hit it right and secured a ticket. Tickets were free but only available starting at noon the day of the lecture. I had never heard Morrison speak in person before, and I was excited and anxious about seeing and hearing the last American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison’s fiction has always been hit or miss with me. I first read her, like most, as an undergraduate in an English class. We read Beloved, a book I heard so much about, but had never gotten around to actually reading. I remember being blown away by the story and the writing. It was a book that, once read, is impossible to forget, for its imprint is too strong on one’s mind. It is a quintessentially American book, every bit as important at Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby. Yet, most of her other work has left me cold and wanting more. So far I’ve read nothing by her that has stood up to Beloved, and perhaps that is as it should be. After all, it was that book that secured her the Noble Prize in Literature in 1993. If Morrison never writes another word she will still have altered the world of fiction for the better. But I can’t help feeling disappointed by each book she continues to publish.

Toni Morrison was giving the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. The series of lectures was titled: “The Origins of Others: The Literature of Belonging,” a series that was right up my intellectual alley. The series consisted of six hour-long lectures, each of which touched on her overall theme. I attended her last lecture, “The Foreigner’s Home.” Arriving almost an hour early, I was first amazed by the Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall itself. The theater resembles the inside of some luxurious ship from the age of exploration, or an English church. The interior consists mostly of woodwork, expertly carved and built. One feels regal and smart just sitting on its cold and hard wooden pews. There is something warm, yet deadly serious among those pews. Standing before us was an altar of wisdom, more in spirit with the Enlightenment than Puritan pragmaticism. Still, the feeling in the room was more than vaguely religious.

Morrison herself was wheeled out in her wheelchair by an assistant and placed before a small desk. I could hear a collective gasp as she was pushed down the ramp and placed in front of the desk. We were in the presence of royalty, or some living saint, come down from on high to dispense wisdom. All of this is not hyperbole, but the feeling I had as I sat there. Even though Morrison was not my favorite author, or even in my top ten, I never experienced the feeling I had once she appeared in the room. It was as if the Holy Spirit had entered the room and dissipated among the faithful. It was the closest thing to spirituality I have ever felt, and I had an audience with Pope John Paul II who is now a bona fide saint!

Morrison is quiet-spoken, and methodical in her delivery. She never once wavered from her written text, nor improvised. One has to strain to hear her words, even with the microphone attached to her collar. Speakers, even the most famous, do not normally intimidate me but Morrison left me is a feeling of utter awe. Over the course of an hour I was hypnotized by her voice and tuned into her subject matter. I remember thinking that I hadn’t given her books, those I didn’t feel measured up to her reputation, enough of a chance, and I wanted to go out and re-read everything she published.

She vanished as quickly as she appeared. There were no questions, no book signings, and no photo opportunities. She had given all in her lecture, and that was enough. With any other writer I would have left the lecture hall feeling disappointed at not having met the speaker, but with Morrison I felt a sense of spiritual and intellectual renewal. I had been in the same room with her, I had breathed the same air, and inhabited the same space. There was nothing else to say.

I made my way past the crowd to the doors that led to Harvard Yard, and as I emerged from the darkened theater, I walked out into the newly emerged bright sunshine of a late afternoon, shaken and profoundly moved.

 

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One thought on “Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XI: Toni Morrison

  1. What a great essay. I finished the last line and muttered “holy crap.” My wife, sitting across the table of the coffee shop, asked me what I had said. I just headed her my iPad.

    As I have said before, you’ve got the magic.

    Keep ’em coming Andrew.

    Nick

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