David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia. He is working on a history of political thought in the 1970s.
Literature often seems to descend from the heavens, seeded into our world by some empyrean hand. (In ancient Greece, poets and playwrights were second only to gods.) Literary criticism often follows suit, tracing the otherworldly structures as Galileo did the stars. This is because many of us do not see works of literature as work but as disembodied acts of creativity, spontaneous and inevitable. It is also because many of us want to read our novels in peace, without fretting over their origins.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah?s profile of Toni Morrison, in this weekend?s New York Times Magazine, breaks from all of this celestial skittishness and digs deep into earthly sources. Morrison ? 84, still smoking, full of gossip and an enviably coy wit ? emerges like a mountain, especially when set against the flat plain of American fiction. she was born Chloe Wofford to transplanted Southerners in the working-class town of Lorain, Ohio. She went to Howard and Cornell, became associated with the Black Arts Movement, and helped publish many new African-American voices as a young editor at Random House. She also spent many years struggling to find her own voice before eventually publishing The Bluest Eye, at age 39.
Part of the story is Morrison?s, her remarkable ascent to the eventual heights of the Nobel. Part of the story is Ghansah?s, another young woman seeking to understand and confront a world that ? despite Morrison?s own achievements as editor and author ? has never been quite open to her. This is a remarkable feat: Much more than a profile, it is an exercise in self-exploration. It is also, I think, one more pressing example that things still need to change, that the work Morrison began all those years ago as an upstart editor remains unfinished. As Ghansah, considering the lack of diversity in today's publishing world, asks, ?What will happen to the next generation of authors who are writing from the margins?"