Morrison, Toni

Assigned: Morrison, Toni. From “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” (1673-84). Also read the editors’ introduction (1670-73).

From “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature” (1988/1989)

Section I

1. On 1673-74 (“I planned to call this paper…”), how does Toni Morrison assess the state of the so-called “canon wars” that are taking place as she writes this essay in the late 1980s? In Morrison’s view, when would a civilization be entitled to any degree to label its cultural productions “superior,” if indeed that is something a civilization ought to claim? How does she use her own love of Greek drama to call into question the wisdom of making such assertions on behalf of Western (or any other) civilization?  What does Morrison herself value most about Greek drama?

2. On 1675-76 (“One has the feeling that nights…”), what irony does Morrison find in the hesitation among certain segments of critical thought to address issues surrounding the concept of race in literary history and cultural studies? What does she find different about the struggle taking place over the literary canon in the late 1980s—how, that is, does it go beyond the usual “cyclical arguments within literary communities reflecting unpredictable yet inevitable shifts in taste, relevance or perception” (1675)? What seems to be her own stance towards those who take up radical positions regarding long-treasured literary authors such as “Aeschylus or William Shakespeare, or James or Twain or Hawthorne, or Melville (1676)?

3. On 1676-77 (“When Milan Kundera, in The Art…”), Morrison refers to a review of the novelist Milan Kundera’s critical study The Art of the Novel by New Yorker editorialist Terrence Rafferty. What does she like about this reviewer’s critique of Kundera’s comments on “the history of the European novel” (1676) as being the only context for judging the value of individual texts in that genre? What is Morrison implying about resistance to inclusion of non-European authors in the Western literary canon when she uses the term “miscegenation” (1677)? What four arguments does she say have long been invoked whenever an “incursion” (1677) into the Western canon seems likely?

4. On 1677-79 (“A few comments on a larger…”), what insights does Morrison draw from “the radical upheaval in canon-building that took place at the inauguration of classical studies and Greek” (1677 bottom)? How was Egypt displaced from its spot as the “cradle of civilization” (1678 top) and replaced with ancient Greece? In particular, what praise does Morrison offer for the work of Martin Bernal, who, in his excellent study Black Athena, reasserts in modified form the older conviction that ancient Greek history involved much interaction with African and other “non-Aryan” cultures? According to her, what did Bernal expose about the motives and processes whereby the origins of ancient Greece had been displaced and distorted?

5. On 1679-80 (“I have quoted at perhaps…”), how does Morrison, following on her consideration of Martin Bernal’s work in Black Athena, locate arguments about literary canon formation in the broader contexts of history, politics, and social change? Why, according to her, are the claims of supporters of the status quo to be “apolitical” simply untenable? In addition, why, with regard to African-American contributions to culture and the arts, is it “no longer acceptable for critics to imagine us and imagine for us” (1679)? What has happened, according to Morrison, that makes such condescending gestures on the part of the white critical establishment unbearable and untenable?

Section II

6. On 1680-81 (“[T]here is a great, ornamental…”), Morrison remarks upon the “studiously” (1680) white quality of the “Young America” political and social movement’s literary canon that includes such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville; in other words, critics have made it so. What question does Morrison pose in order to reopen consideration of the meaning of the work of key authors in earlier American literature? How (with reference to critic Michael Rogin) does she use Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick and the critical tradition covering it as a prime example of how to begin this reopening?

7. On 1681-82 (“But let us consider, again…”), what reading of Captain Ahab’s quest to kill the White Whale in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick does Morrison offer to show the value in reconsidering the exclusively white racial cast of earlier America’s canonical literature? How does this reading potentially situate Melville himself as an analog of Captain Ahab? What, then, is the whale—how is the great creature transformed into a metaphor pertinent to mid-nineteenth-century American politics and social struggle? How, too, does such a perspective alter a reader’s understanding of Father Mapple’s sermon in Chapter 9 of Moby Dick, “The Sermon”? (1682)

8. On 1682-83 (“Another chapter that seems…”), Morrison turns to Chapter 42 of Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, titled, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” How does she (again with reference to critic Paul Rogin) reinforce the status of the author Melville as a kind of lonely, isolated Captain Ahab figure, a man bent upon fighting the reigning, vital myth of white superiority in America before and during Melville’s own time? Why, in Morrison’s view, did Melville find it necessary to take this isolation upon himself rather than go looking for “company” among those who shared his hatred of slavery? How does the title of Morrison’s essay, with its emphasis on “the unspeakable,” figure significantly in this last question?

9. On 1683-84 (“A complex, heaving, disorderly…”), what prospects for the re-examination of American classics does Morrison offer at the end of her essay, and what benefits does she think will come of this re-examination? What cautionary words does she also address to those who would use the kind of re-readings she considers necessary to pursue instead “the pernicious goal of equating the fact of [… Afro-American] presence with the achievement of the work” (1684)? How do you interpret the meaning of this warning in connection with the task of understanding “American literature” in the broadest sense?

10. General question: In “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Toni Morrison deals with the ramifications and processes of canon-formation in literary and cultural studies. How, in your own view, is a literary canon formed? What key factors or considerations can you identify as being central to whether a particular text is included, excluded, or not considered at all? Which one or two factors do you consider the most important, and why so?

11. General question: In “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Toni Morrison reflects on the American “canon wars.” Usually, it takes many decades (or even centuries) before a work is permanently accepted into the Western (or British, or American, etc.) literary canon. As Samuel Johnson wrote in his “Preface to Shakespeare, “what has been longest known has been most considered, and what is most considered is best understood” (Leitch 393). All the same, can you think of instances when a more or less contemporary work of literature becomes “canonical” without the long waiting period implied by Dr. Johnson’s remark? What might be responsible for such rapid inclusion of such texts? In responding, consider Morrison’s discussion and, time permitting, Richard Ohmann’s essay, “The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-75” (Leitch 1684-1701).

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake