Toni Morrison exhibition at Princeton University highlights her creative process

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In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review about her writing practice, Toni Morrison spoke of how she achieved the literary feat that is her novel “Jazz.”

“I thought of myself as like the jazz musician — someone who practices and practices and practices in order to be able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful,” she told the literary magazine at the time.

Behind such masterpieces as “Jazz,” “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye” was a painstaking craft that Morrison honed over her decades-long career — one that is explored in an upcoming exhibition at Princeton University in New Jersey, where Morrison taught for 17 years.

“Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” set to open on February 22, examines the creative methods of the celebrated author and Nobel laureate. Drawing from an extensive archive that includes manuscript drafts, speeches, writing plans and correspondence, the exhibition promises to offer new insight into Morrison’s literary mind.

A handwritten manuscript page for Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye,” along with other papers from the author’s archive. Credit: Princeton University Library

“The focus here really is on excavating the process behind these polished texts — what it looks like to imagine, to write in all of these different moments,” said curator Autumn Womack, who is also an assistant professor of English and African American Studies.

The exhibition, which is divided into six sections, provides glimpses into Morrison’s thought process and writing practice at various points in her career. Day planners from her time as an editor at Random House show how she made time to write her own novels in between her professional obligations, while yellow legal pads that she filled with notes and drafts shed light on her thinking as she was writing later novels such as “A Mercy.”

Womack, a scholar of 19th and 20th century American literature, has worked extensively with Morrison’s archives since she came to Princeton in 2017, making use of the materials in a course she taught on the author and reading practices. As she and her students parsed through the collection, Womack said she found that Morrison’s writing practice was “infused with a kind of patience.”

Autumn Womack, an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton, is the lead curator of the exhibition.

Autumn Womack, an assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton, is the lead curator of the exhibition. Credit: Brandon Johnson

“As writers we often want to get to the finished product and know that we have cracked the code,” she said. “But you see (Morrison) trying and over and over and over and over again, asking questions, looking at different objects, trying different research methods, trying different narrative voices.”

The exhibition takes its title from Morrison’s essay “The Site of Memory.” In it, the author detailed a creative practice that began with an image in her mind, which then prompted questions that she set out to explore. As the meaning of the image became clear, she ultimately arrived at the text.
That process comes to life in the exhibit, Womack said. Viewers can see how Morrison drew inspiration from a newspaper account of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African American woman who killed her own daughter rather than allow her to return to a life of slavery, for the premise of “Beloved.” They can trace how an image taken by photographer James Van Der Zee planted the initial seed for “Jazz.”

“You see her continuing to ask the questions until she alights upon the story,” Womack added.

When Womack began curating “Sites of Memory,” she said it became clear to her that the exhibition should reflect the collaborative, multidisciplinary elements that were so evident in Morrison’s work. That’s why the archival exhibit is just one of a series of community events and initiatives that Princeton is holding around the author.

The exhibition features an array of materials from Morrison's archives, including this small notebook.

The exhibition features an array of materials from Morrison’s archives, including this small notebook. Credit: Brandon Johnson

“Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Papers,” an exhibition presented by the university’s art museum that also opens in late February, will pair materials from Morrison’s archive with the works of sculptor Alison Saar to explore how both artists illuminate aspects of the Black American experience.

In March, the university will hold a symposium that brings together writers, scholars and artists to consider Morrison’s work and its impact on American culture, with a keynote by novelist Edwidge Danticat.
A spring lecture series and undergraduate courses on Morrison’s work are also in store, according to a news release.

The exhibition “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory” will be on view at Princeton University Library’s Milberg Gallery in Princeton, New Jersey, from February 23 until June 4.

Top image: Toni Morrison attends the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner in Chicago on October 20, 2010. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic)


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