Corrections or additions?
These articles by Nicole Plett and Lisa Jardine were published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998..
Toni Morrison’s `Paradise’
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they
can take their time. No need to hurry out here," intoned Toni
Morrison from the podium of McCosh 50 on the campus of Princeton
It was almost exactly one year ago, the occasion was a reading of
the work in progress that became "Paradise," the Nobel
first novel to follow her historic prize.
Morrison will read from her completed novel, "Paradise," at
a benefit event at Nassau Presbyterian Church, on Friday, February
27, at 7:30 p.m. A question and answer session follows the reading.
At press time tickets for the reading were sold out.
"I had the choice of reading something published, but my whole
attention is involved, engaged, and locked in this manuscript I’m
working on," Morrison told last year’s capacity audience. The
title of the novel, "Paradise," she described as "possibly
the most overused title in the world." Her original choice had
been "War," but her publishers "didn’t like it much,"
and she was overruled.
The Ivy League setting could not have been more classic — the
imposing, oak-paneled auditorium, stone Gothic arches, wood and iron
seats, each with its own little fold-down desktop, overlooked by the
upstairs gallery, bounded by elegant turned wood rails.
This is storytelling at its most elemental. The storyteller locked
into communion with a rapt audience. Morrison weaves her words,
sentences, and thoughts calmly, yet with breathtaking eloquence. The
audience listens in reverential silence.
At 66, Morrison is dressed fashionably, in a simple and comfortable
black suit set off by a coffee-colored scarf, her myriad, tiny gray
braids drawn are together into a heavy braid down her back.
In quiet, incantatory tones Morrison takes her listeners on a
tour of the Convent, a decadent mansion that was once "an
folly," as seen through the eyes of the nine men of Ruby who have
come to annihilate its innocent inhabitants, a motley group of women
(of unspecified race) who have found a refuge there from the accidents
of their lives. "The target, after all, is detritus: throwaway
people that sometimes blow back into a room after being swept out
the door," says one of the characters, a young man with a gun.
The reverential mood of the hall turns palpably to dread.
"Although it is the dawn of a July day, there is a chill
Morrison continues. "The chill intensifies as the men spread
into the mansion, taking their time, looking, listening, alert to
the female malice that hides here and the yeast-and-butter smell of
The war that is "Paradise" takes place in Ruby, Oklahoma,
a fictional town founded by former slaves, that remains a town
of and for African-Americans, described as a place where "race
exists but doesn’t matter." With fortune and harmony now failing
in Ruby, its male leaders seek their scapegoat.
"The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who
belongs in it," explained Morrison, in a January, 1998, interview
with Dinitia Smith in the New York Times. "All paradises are
as male enclaves, where the interloper is a woman, defenseless and
threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when
we are assaulted."
The volume of critical and popular acclaim that has arisen around
the work of Toni Morrison is great indeed. Her six major novels —
"The Bluest Eye," "Song of Solomon," "Sula,"
"Tar Baby," "Beloved," and "Jazz" — focus
on the unique joys and sorrows of black American women’s lives. They
have collected nearly every major literary prize: the 1993 Nobel
the Pulitzer, the National Book Foundation medal, the Pearl Buck
and the title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from
She joined the faculty of Princeton University as the
Robert F. Goheen Professor in spring 1989. Before coming to Princeton
she held teaching posts at Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers
Although Morrison would probably say that her heart is in her home
overlooking the Hudson, in her 1996 address at Princeton University’s
250th anniversary convocation, she expressed a strong affection for
her academic home. "This place is redolent with the breath of
the emotional life lived here and the intellectual life made manifest
here," she told her audience. "Those trees down there on
Street — how they reach across the pavement and the shops and
the pedestrians to touch each other . . . If you are there in spring
at twilight, falling petals cover the walkers and the road like
Morrison grew up poor as Chloe Anthony Wofford in the rust-belt town
of Lorain, Ohio. Her father was a ship welder, and her mother, Ramah,
a homemaker. Yet her parents instilled in all their children a strong
sense of their own worth. "I always knew we were very poor. But
that was never degrading," she told one interviewer. "My
made all of us feel as though there were these rather extraordinary
deserving people within us. I felt like an aristocrat."
As a teenager, she cleaned the houses of white families after school.
She found fascination, nonetheless, in working gadgets, such as a
vacuum cleaner, that she didn’t have at home. Readers will recognize
her experience in the portrait of Pauline of "The Bluest Eye."
Books were a vital part of Morrison’s formative years. "My mother
belonged to a book club, one of those early ones. And that was
money, you know."
Who could have predicted that another book club, the Oprah Winfrey
book club, would have introduced Morrison’s fiction to such an
increased readership. "It’s true that the interest in Toni
dramatically when Oprah promoted `Song of Solomon,’" stated Craig
Sweeny of Knopf, with characteristic corporate understatement last
week. "This is the largest first printing of any of her books
— 450,000 copies in first printing. And there are now 900,000
copies in print."
"Yes, the Oprah Club selection has had an enormous effect, but
she’s has also been on `60 Minutes’ and on the cover of Time, so we
can’t assign a specific number of books to the Oprah selection.
no formula for determining that number. We base our numbers on
Oprah’s on-air discussion of "Paradise," set for broadcast
Friday, March 6, will be followed in March by short segments taped
at Princeton University with footage of Morrison teaching her class.
Morrison names as her early literary influences James
Baldwin, and the African novelists Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye.
"They did not explain their black world. Or clarify it. Or justify
it," she says. "These African writers took their blackness
as central and the whites were the `other.’"
"When I began, there was just one thing that I wanted to write
about, which was the true devastation of racism on the most
the most helpless unit in the society — a black female and a
It was as an undergraduate at Howard University that Chloe became
known as Toni. The fact that she became published under that name
was an accident that she regrets. "I was upset. They had the wrong
name. My name is Chloe Wofford. Toni’s a nickname." Her family
all calls her Chloe, and it was as Chloe, she notes, that she went
to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize.
After earning an MA in English at Cornell, she married Harold Morrison
in 1959. The couple divorced in 1964. She moved to Syracuse with her
two sons, Harold Ford (then 3) and Slade (three months), and supported
the family as a textbook editor. When the company was bought by Random
House, she moved to New York City. During her 18 years as a Random
House editor (she stayed through the publication of "Tar
until being offered a professorship at SUNY in 1985), she nurtured
such black authors as Angela Davis, June Jordan, Wesley Brown, and
Toni Cade Bambara.
Raising her sons as a single mother, Morrison credits the
of family and friends for making it possible. Women sharing their
burdens with other women has been her experience as well as her
Her son Slade, 30, is a painter and musician; Ford, 33, is an
and she has a granddaughter, Kali, 10, who is Slade’s daughter.
In her 1994 interview with Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times
Morrison says her Nobel Prize represented a special kind of triumph.
"I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were
or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary
world. Seeing me up there might encourage [young black people] to
write one of those books I’m desperate to read. And that made me
It gave me licence to strut."
Morrison compares her work to jazz music: very complicated, very
and very difficult. it is also very popular. And it has the
of being sensual and illegal. "I would like my work to do two
things: be as demanding and sophisticated as I want it to be, and
at the same time be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lot of
people, just like jazz. That’s a hard task. But that’s what I want
"I’ve always thought best when I wrote," says Morrison.
is what centered me. In the act of writing, I felt most alive, most
coherent, most stable, and most vulnerable."
Morrison has homes in Princeton, New York, and her house in
in upstate New York, now rebuilt after the fire that destroyed it
in December, 1993, just weeks after she won the Nobel Prize. Losing
the structure was inconsequential, she says, compared to the personal
devastation of the fire that stole her photographs, plants she had
nurtured for 20 years, her children’s report cards, and her own
For months after, she said she couldn’t speak to anyone who hadn’t
suffered the same loss — and the list proved surprisingly long.
Having put away her Nobel Prize money, just over $800,000, against
her future retirement, she couldn’t get her hands on it at the time
of the fire. If she could have, she told an interviewer, "I would
have taken the money and rebuilt my house and it would have been like
most of the money I’ve ever had: as soon as you get it, there’s a
big hole waiting for it."
Like any editor, Morrison finds she still has unfinished business.
"I’m mad," she told the New York Times this January.
I forgot to do is bothering me a lot. The last word in the book,
should have a small `p,’ not a capital `P,’" she said, referring
to the final sentence of the novel: "Now they will rest before
shouldering the endless work they were created to do down here in
"The whole point is to get paradise off its pedestal, as a place
for anyone to open it up for passengers and crew," continues
"I want all the readers to put a lowercase mark on that `p.’"
Spoken like a seasoned editor. And for the benefit of readers who
haven’t worked on a copy desk, that proofreader’s mark for a lowercase
letter is a diagonal slash, like this, /. Right through the letter.
Go to it.
— Nicole Plett
Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, 609-921-8454. Donation $12
adults, $7 students & seniors, to benefit Save Our Kids (SOKS).
February 27, 7:30 p.m.
On an Oprah’s Book Club website at the moment you can
join in a passionate debate about Toni Morrison’s new novel
Ordinary readers unselfconsciously explain how difficult they found
Paradise, but how ultimately rewarding the experience was:
of my own to do. Completing `Paradise’ is rewarding in itself. Yes
it’s complicated and challenging but you’ll feel successful when you
get to the end."
I too was lost. Even after I was finished, I wondered what Toni
point was. But I remembered that Oprah had said she was reading it
for the third time, so I started reading it again. The second time
through I understood the characters better, and I began to really
think about what was being said, and even discovered some things I
missed my first reading through. This book is deep, and is not one
you can just run through."
in the field of fiction this decade. I’ve been hooked on it ever since
she picked her first book in September, 1996 — unknown author
Jacqueline Mitchard’s, "The Deep End of the Ocean," which
was promptly catapulted into the best-seller list, and went on to
sell almost a million copies.
The books Oprah chose at the beginning were mostly about women and
pain — about women who are, or who become, dysfunctional, under
the pressure of their everyday, working lives, and their struggles
to find some meaning to their existence. "The Deep End of the
Ocean" is the story of a woman whose three-year-old disappears
from a hotel lobby while her back is turned. The writing is painfully
understated, the detail of the family’s failure to understand what
is happening to their lives, or to communicate with one another, is
precise and believable.
But Oprah has moved her Book Club members along a lot since the
which is still, in the end, a somewhat sentimental book, a book for
readers straightforwardly to identify with. She picked Maya Angelou’s,
"The Heart of a Woman," she picked Toni Morrison’s "Song
of Solomon," she picked Ernest Gaines’s "A Lesson Before
a moving story about a black boy on death row, about fundamental human
dignity, and simple heroism. Selected authors include women and men,
black and white, American and foreign-born.
She has taken her audience on a journey that started with popular
identity politics — being poor, being abused, being dumb, being
a woman, being black, being disabled — moved on to black literary
classics like Angelou and early Morrison, which require some skills
in reading for style as well as content, to a book like "A Lesson
Before Dying," which asks big questions about living well in the
face of the inevitable.
Last Christmas her choice was three little books by Bill Cosby for
beginning readers — elementary school children’s books with black
central characters. So, having drawn her daytime TV-show audience
into serious reading, she is also saying, don’t just leave it there,
make this a family matter, start your children reading and let them
grow in reading maturity alongside their mothers. She offers reading
as solace and salvation — a wonderfully traditional evangelical
thing, to which she gives an important secular twist.
And now, a real book, a difficult book, a book that highbrow readers
are having trouble coming to terms with — as is clear from the
reviews in publications that Oprah’s readers never look at, like the
New York Times and the New Yorker. If Oprah’s readers are going there
with her, and are understanding and responding to "Paradise,"
the 13th book selected, then they are now reading at college level.
There’s a brand new set of feisty book buyers out there, with strong
opinions of their own, and a shared new reading experience. They are
going to alter the literary landscape forever.
— Lisa Jardine
College, University of London, is currently visiting professor at
Johns Hopkins University. She is a regular columnist for the Telegraph
Newspaper, London, and hosted the late-night arts program Night Waves
for BBC radio.
The Oprah Book Club discussion page, maintained by Canadian student
Rachel Decoste, is at
The Oprah Winfrey Show maintains a website on AOL, keyword Oprah.
The discussion of Morrison’s `Paradise’ is scheduled for broadcast
on Friday, March 6, at 4 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.