Words of Wisdom–and a Few Laughs–From Toni Morrison

April 8, 2010 at 6:35 pm Leave a comment

Oh, if only Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison had spoken at Penn State when I was a student, majoring in English and trying to reassure my parents that, sure, I was going to be employable when I graduated. I would have had a way better response to their suggestions that I take a few business courses, thanks to Morrison’s answer Wednesday night to a liberal arts major who has clearly had some similar conversations.

“What you know as a humanist is that you are improving the species with what you are learning,” she said. “You are supposed to learn to be a better human being. If you were a cabbage in a row of cabbages, you’d want to be a better cabbage. If you were a rabbit, you’d want to be a better rabbit. It doesn’t matter what your work is—it’s what’s going on up here.” Morrison paused and tapped her head as the 1,600 or so people in Eisenhower Auditorium burst into applause.

I’ll be honest—I’m not sure I got the part about the cabbages and rabbits word-for-word. It’s hard to take notes, honestly, when one of your literary heroes is speaking. (Especially when she’s speaking quickly, and everyone is laughing.) But I know I captured her meaning–and, at least a little, her sense of humor.

For me, the latter was one of the most amazing parts of the evening. It turns out that in addition to writing novels and essays that are beautiful and profound, Morrison is down-to-earth and really funny.

Morrison came to campus to receive the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to the Arts and Humanities from Penn State’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities. So of course she opened her speech by explaining why she had studied the humanities: “The most critical, most engaged, and the edgiest ideas were to be found in humanities courses. … Humanities functions best and most brilliantly from the edge.”

Her lecture was exactly what I expected—intellectually stimulating and beautifully written.  That’s how her novels struck me the first time I read them, during the last semester of my collegiate career in an English seminar taught by Deborah Clarke and titled, I think, simply Faulkner, Cather, and Morrison. It was possibly my favorite class of all-time. I’d read William Faulkner and Willa Cather before, but I hadn’t fully understood them. And I’d never even heard of Morrison. By the end of the course, I was horrified at how close I’d come to leaving college without ever studying her work.

Sitting regally in a chair on the Eisenhower stage, Morrison spoke softly, but she owned the auditorium. She’s best known for the novel Beloved, which was chosen in 2006 by the New York Times Book Review as the best work of American fiction in the past 25 years. Can’t argue with that pick, although I love Song of Solomon, too, and I devoured her latest, A Mercy. Great works all—and all written because of Morrison’s willingness to inhabit the edge.

After exploring the idea of borders, spaces she acknowledged could be lonely, physically and/or intellectually, but contended are “in fact the richest fields of productivity,” Morrison took questions from the audience. And that’s when her personality really shone through.

What was on her Kindle? Her own books. “I have to say I got a kind of a deal,” she quipped.

What does she think about technology? “Some of it is thrilling. Some of it is scary to me … as a person who writes with a No. 2 pencil. On a legal pad. And then prints it out. And then writes on it.”

Yes, she has the same beautiful rhythm speaking off the cuff as she does when she writes.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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