By Ruby Shao ’17, Humanities Council
To celebrate Toni Morrison (1931–2019), a Special Committee prepared a Memorial Resolution that Humanities Council Chair Eric Gregory presented to the Faculty on Monday, December 7. The resolution was ordered spread upon the records of the Faculty. The University homepage announced Morrison’s other recent accolades.
When Morrison visited campus to read from her forthcoming novel Beloved in February 1987, the people of Princeton University so impressed her that for the first time, she contemplated leaving her post at the State University of New York at Albany for another institution. Two years later, the Humanities Council welcomed Morrison as the inaugural Robert G. Goheen Professor in the Humanities. Morrison held the position for 17 years until retiring in the summer of 2006.
The Goheen Professor would bridge creative writing with the academic departments of the University, according to Humanities Council Chair Robert Connor GS ’61. He pushed for Morrison’s appointment while sitting with a search committee that he had assembled. Its chair, James Richardson, directed the Humanities Council’s Program in Creative Writing, which started in the fall of 1972. The rest of the committee consisted of English Professor Sandra Gilbert, English Professor A. Walton Litz, and Comparative Literature Professor Robert Fagles. Their hunt for an extraordinary writer who would enhance literary studies at Princeton took two years. University President Bill Bowen GS ’58 personally recruited Morrison.
Morrison accepted Princeton’s offer largely because of the University’s “enormous commitment” to the humanities, along with the Humanities Council’s enthusiasm for connecting the arts to various disciplines, she said in 1987. She looked forward to “ideal and provocative” interactions among writers, filmmakers, painters, scholars, and others usually separated by “artificial differences.” In particular, she treasured the opportunity to teach within the Program in Creative Writing.
Upon arrival, Morrison joined writers at the Humanities Council including Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor Joyce Carol Oates, as well as Ferris Professor of Journalism and Public Relations John McPhee. The Humanities Council hosted a special dinner in March 1989 inaugurating Oates and Morrison in their respective chairs. Russell Banks, Sandra Gilbert, Edmund Keeley, Julie Agoos, and Paul Auster preceded Morrison as colleagues in Creative Writing.
To welcome Morrison to Princeton, the Humanities Council hosted a lecture by and reception for her on Valentine’s Day 1989. She spoke to the campus community in McCosh 50 about her novels in light of debates within Afro-American literature.
As a teacher, Morrison gained a reputation for warmth and wisdom, especially in her one-on-one conferences. Her Creative Writing courses involved several distinctive features. Participants needed to write only 30 pages by the end of each semester. They read stories aloud during class before discussing any of them. Instead of producing many short pieces, each student revised expressions of one cherished idea. Morrison’s advisees include current authors David Treuer, Ladee Hubbard, Kate Morgenroth, MacKenzie Tuttle, and Rachel Kadish.
The Program in Humanistic Studies hosted Morrison’s other courses. She offered seminars like “Studies in American Africanism,” “Art and Culture in Modern Afro-American Literature,” and, at the initiation of students, “On Morrison: The Literary Imagination.”
Inventing a program, Morrison founded the Princeton Atelier, through which artists visit the University to teach courses on creating plays, concerts, exhibitions, or dance shows within a semester. The idea came to her when, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, she wrote lyrics in collaboration with a composer and a singer in 1991. She sought to bring such joyful experiences to students. In the spring of 1994, Morrison led the first Princeton Atelier alongside choreographer Jacques d’Amboise and author A. S. Byatt.
As a member of the interdisciplinary committee overseeing African-American Studies, Morrison helped recruit outstanding faculty from a range of fields. She contributed to other interdisciplinary programs like Women’s Studies, which gained formal recognition with the aid of the Humanities Council in 1976, after years of development by faculty, students, and staff.
Beyond the classroom, Morrison often lectured for local audiences. In September 1989, she delivered an Orientation Week speech required for first-years, yet also attended by many upperclassmen, in Richardson Auditorium. Describing her research into slavery, she recounted how she ultimately combined facts with her imagination to create her novel Beloved. On multiple occasions, she read aloud from her work in progress or recently published books at Princeton. Honoring the 75th anniversary of the Friends of the Princeton University Library, she spoke on the duty to support libraries, which formed her extensively as a reader and a writer. For the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, Morrison read excerpts of her novels aloud before fielding questions.
Politics entered into her sphere as well. Amid death threats against author Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, Morrison joined an editor and seven Creative Writing colleagues to support him in front of Princeton students in March 1989. The faculty read aloud from the book while calling for freedom of speech. Another time, to illuminate the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Morrison organized, edited, and introduced Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, published in 1992. The volume featured essays from nine University professors and ten external scholars. Many of the authors, including Morrison, participated in a panel discussion and book signing co-sponsored by the Humanities Council.
During her years at the Humanities Council, Morrison influenced major Princeton moments. She served on the Steering Committee for the University’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1996. At the opening convocation, her keynote speech “The Place of the Idea; The Idea of the Place” praised Princeton’s “tradition of independence,” which harnesses the wisdom of the past to build a good future. Selected by University President Shirley Tilghman following consultation with senior class leaders, Morrison delivered the Baccalaureate address for the Class of 2005.
She accrued numerous distinctions throughout her tenure. Soon after the announcement of her appointment at the Humanities Council, she won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved. The same work garnered her the 1988 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations for fiction, co-won with South African novelist Nadine Gordimer. Morrison received the 1988 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award in Arts and Letters as well as the 1988 Melcher Book Award. She gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1990. That same year, she won the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore international literary prize for Beloved. Smith College awarded her an honorary degree in 1991. She became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. The National Council on the Humanities made Morrison the 1996 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. President Bill Clinton bestowed a National Humanities Medal on her in 2000. In 2005, Morrison received the Coretta Scott King Award from the American Library Association for Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Shortly before Morrison’s retirement in 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best book in American fiction over the past quarter-century.
The Toni Morrison Papers, an archive of manuscripts, drafts, galleys, and proofs of Morrison’s novels and other writings; personal correspondence; editorial files; and teaching files can be found in Princeton University Library Special Collections.