An interview with Toni Morrison in The Guardian newspaper (UK) in 2012 might be subtitled, A Life in Language. Morrison speaks about her work and her childhood; politics and culture; and, at the end, the untimely death of one of her sons. She relates everything she says back to language – its use and misuse.
(Link to the original Guardian article )
Excerpts from the article [I retain the British spelling]:
When Morrison was 17, she had tried out a thought experiment. … On the news, she had seen footage of some white mothers in the south trying to turn over a school bus with black children in it. “I didn’t know if I could turn over a bus full of little white kids. I didn’t know if I could feel that … fury. And I tried very hard to. This is what I did: I said suppose horses began to speak. And began to demand their rights. Now, I’ve ridden horses. They’re very good workers. They’re very good racehorses. Suppose they just want more. Suppose they want to go to school! Suppose they want to sit next to me in the theatre. I began to feel this sense of – ‘I like you, but…’; ‘You’re good, but…’ Suppose they want to sleep with my children?!” She’s laughing heartily now. “I had to go outside the species! But it worked, I could feel it. You know; don’t sit next to me.”
[Her novel Home] is dedicated to her son, Slade, who died 18 months ago and in the face of whose death she found herself wordless. She could not work. She could barely speak and didn’t want to hear comforting words from others.
“What do you say? There really are no words for that. There really aren’t. Somebody tries to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ People say that to me. There’s no language for it. Sorry doesn’t do it. I think you should just hug people and mop their floor or something.”
“I used to think there was a Republican attitude and language that, although I vehemently disagreed with it because I thought it was fraudulent, it wasn’t dumb. It made some sort of sense. If you really and truly think that the United States is free, and capital is free – none of that’s true, but if you really believe it – you can develop an argument that’s not embarrassing. But they don’t do that any more. They use coded words.”
[Editor: Such as Newt Gingrich referring to Obama as the “food-stamp president”; Mitt Romney accusing him of wanting America to be a “welfare state”; etc.]
If you substitute “segregation” or “white racism” for “slavery,” the following quotations can apply to Song of Solomon as well as Beloved (the original context). (T.L.)
From a 1987 interview with Toni Morrison in The New York Times when Beloved was published. Expanded from Seth’s original post:
The novel is not, [Morrison] said, about slavery. ”Slavery is very predictable,” she said. ”There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don’t. It can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.”
”There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,” she said, ”and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you’re writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it’s the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.”
What is useful, she said, is the images. ”The controlling image is useful,” she said, ”because it determines the language that informs the text. Once I know what the shape of the scar is, once I know that there are two patches of orange in that quilt, then I can move. Once I have the controlling image, which can also work as the metaphor – that is where the information lodges. When I know where the white space is, when I know where the broad strokes are.”
Ms. Morrison said that unlike some authors, who despise being labeled – a Jewish writer, for instance, or a Southern writer – she does not mind being called a black writer, or a black woman writer. ”I’ve decided to define that, rather than having it be defined for me,” she said. ”In the beginning, people would say, ‘Do you regard yourself as a black writer, or as a writer?’ and they also used the word woman with it – woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I’m a black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was ‘bigger’ than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.”
The New York Times, August 26th, 1987
You may want to check out this Paris Review interview with Morrison.
Now that we’re reading the passages about Mordecai and his ideas, it might be useful to get a better sense of how George Eliot learned about Judaism and the Jewish diaspora – and in particular, how her research managed to feed her imagination as well as her intellect, so that she could try to enter the minds and experiences of a number of Jewish characters who were otherwise outside her immediate understanding.
I brought to our last meeting a thick book containing the Notebooks in which Eliot recorded her reading and study before and during the writing Daniel Deronda. I’ll bring it with me again this week. I also post here the Introduction to that volume which contains some interesting insight into Eliot’s methods. — Tom
|“…George Eliot’s distinction as a novelist lies in her power to locate vivid impressions and dramatized experience within a considered and comprehensive intellectual framework of reference. The intelligence which sustains her fiction is nourished by extensive preparatory reading.” – Jane Irwin|
ADDENDUM 9/7: In order to give a flavor of Eliot’s scholarly research, I’ve arbitrary selected some sample pages from the 500+ published by Cambridge University Press. Eliot here makes notes about Jewish history and religious customs – and the women’s issues that have so angered Daniel’s mother. The PDF contains about 12 eminently-skimmable pages.
For anyone who finds the Introduction to our Penguin Edition of Daniel Deronda a disappointment, here’s a better one – it’s from the Oxford World Classics edition and is written by Prof. K.W. Newton. – Tom
It may not be too early to post some essays about George Eliot from that fountainhead of literary opinion and gossip, The New York Review of Books. Perhaps the most relevant piece for us was written by Harold Bloom in 1985. In the course of reviewing Gordon Haight’s book of Eliot’s letters, Bloom devotes a couple of sections to an insightful discussion (it seems to me) of Daniel Deronda.
In a January 1969 number of the NYRB, Noel Annan discussed the (then) new biography, George Eliot, by the same Gordon Haight. For many years, I believe this was the definitive biography. A more general reflection on Eliot’s life and work, Annan’s essay would be useful to anyone wanting to read a bit more about the elusive author.
In 1996, Frederick Karl published a new “definitive” biography, George Eliot, Voice of a Century. Millicent Bell reviewed the book for the NYRB and her comments make interesting counterpoint to Annan’s essay of almost 20 years earlier.
A little to one side of the above discussions, in 1984 Gillian Beer wrote a book called Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction. The long title suggests some of the tendentiousness of Beer’s argument but also indicates why a critical review of the book (by David Joravsky) may have some interest for us. This is not the first time we have encountered George Eliot’s fascination with science, in general, and Darwin, in particular. Beer points out (and Joravsky agrees) that these interests form part of the woof upon which Eliot’s weaves Daniel Deronda.
Henry James wrote several reviews and essays about George Eliot, whom he admired and considered an inspiration. Two of his most famous pieces contain references to Daniel Deronda. His main review of the book (1877) took the highly unusual form of a short play – a “Conversation” between three readers whose views differ widely about the book and George Eliot. Then in 1885, upon the posthumous publication of the first biography of the writer, James wrote a longer essay evaluating Eliot’s work. (James famously considered Middlemarch, like Deronda, a failure, and, inexplicably to our tastes, regarded Romola as her masterpiece.)
I post below these two pieces of Jamesian criticism: as you might expect from the author, they are not short. Be aware that “The Conversation” reveals most of the plot of the Daniel Deronda and the more of the book you’ve read, the more sense you’ll make of the varied nuances of interpretation the characters discuss. Likewise the more you know of Eliot’s work generally, the better you’ll follow James’ commentary in his review of George Eliot’s Life as related in her Letters and Journals edited by her husband, John Cross.
Addendum 8/8: I’ve located a rather unusual piece by James – a short notice published in The Nation shortly after Daniel Deronda started appearing in serialized form. It’s a kind of literary “heads-up” alerting readers to Eliot’s novel and anticipating that it’s likely to be very interesting. I’ll place it first in the links below since it was the earliest of James comments about the book.
For the sake of completeness (but at the risk of acting like a graduate student in English), I’ll post here the very first piece of criticism Henry James wrote about George Eliot, an unsigned review of Felix Holt: Radical, published in The Nation in 1866. James was twenty-six at the time, had not yet published his first novel and had begun making a name for himself as a writer by turning out over two dozen book reviews. This partly explains his occasionally acerbic tone. I confess to be intrigued enough by the vitreol in parts of James’ review to track down a nicely-written (if, naturally, a bit pedantic) piece in The George Eliot Review that critiques James’ critique – and by so doing adds a few more insights into James’ relationship with his sometime Muse.
Henry James reviews ‘Felix Holt’ (1866) [3 (double) pages]
So Wodehouse’s usage first appears in 1838; and note how quickly the illustrative quotations start coming from American sources. I also like the earlier (16th-18th century) entries that lay the figurative groundwork for the later colloquialism.
And for those who enjoy browsing the OED, here’s a link to a slightly larger excerpt about “mitten.”