Visiting Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory, on exhibit at Princeton University’s Firestone Library from now through June 4, 2023, is like going to a sauna. You enter a warm, windowless space, and as you rotate your way through each experience, you find you’re dunked suddenly into something that barrages the senses—fire-singed early drafts, a detailed map, alternate endings for Beloved, the photograph that inspired Jazz. But it’s also like taking a cold plunge: you’re carried along on the continuous current of Morrison’s voice and work, and you duck out refreshed, tingling, alive with more possibilities than you’d realized there could be.
The exhibit pays careful attention to the geography of imagined space, as well as the processes by which Morrison’s novels—which seem so inevitable in their final form—took years of wrangling, revising, discarding, drafting, and re-forming. In her essay “The Site of Memory,” Morrison writes:
All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our “flooding.”
Curated by Autumn Womack, associate professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton, the exhibit is divided into six sections that flow chronologically but are meant to be experienced in a Morrisonian infinity knot, snaking in and around each other, distinct yet inextricably interlocked. “Beginnings,” “Writing Time,” “Thereness-ness,” “Wonderings and Wanderings,” “Genealogies of Black Feminism,” and “Speculative Futures”—each of these titles bears multiple meanings. “Writing Time,” for instance, refers not only to the interstitial moments in which Morrison squeezed novel-writing into her full-time job as an editor, around her off-the-clock family and social life—but also to her writings that are of and about time. Morrison took copious notes in the blank pages of her day planner, inscribing a kind of ancestral time into the calendrical present.
Princeton itself is a site of Morrisonian memory. She taught at the university for seventeen years. In 2008, I had the insane good luck to take one of her final literature courses. The seminar was called “The Foreigner’s Home,” its apostrophe bearing layers: the foreigner who is home, the home that the foreigner possesses, and the paradox of the foreigner by definition both having a home and not being there. Morrison spun a master class on the interconnectedness of exile and writing, on the nature of “home” and “possession” in literature, and—ultimately—on how to be a human being. As we read authors Morrison loved—Coetzee, Hemingway, Ondaatje—she kept us grounded in the troubled site of Princeton, our own foreign home.
My primary sense memory from that class is the sound of Morrison’s voice: that throaty purr sure as a mountain spring. Her hypnotic tones were best when we could coax her into reading aloud from whatever text we were discussing that week, and better still when we could get her to read from her own work. For Womack, a crucial component of “Sites of Memory” is that Morrison narrates the experience. Morrison’s voice provides the soundtrack—no matter where you are in the space, you hear her speaking. A screen at the omphalos of the exhibit plays a continuous loop of two hours of footage that Womack culled from an eight-hour interview conducted with Morrison in 1987 at Boston University, just before Beloved was published. Drop in at any point and you’ll be mesmerized—I caught, for example, Morrison describing her oldest son spilling orange juice on the pages of something she was writing. Instead of stopping to clean it up, she wrote around the stain. “I wasn’t sure the sentence would last,” she said, “but I knew there would be more orange juice.” As you get closer and farther from the site of her voice, you experience a kind of Doppler effect: her words fade in and out of intelligibility, but her cadences concatenate.
Womack confessed to me, “I have two favorite children [in this exhibit].” One is personal: because her favorite Morrison book is Paradise, she loves the point-of-view diagrams for the novel, which resemble schematic galaxies. The other is a feat of pure archival magic. Morrison’s physical legacy does not lack for breadth—Womack and her team combed over two hundred linear feet of material—but a 1993 fire in Morrison’s upstate New York house damaged or destroyed many more papers. Until recently, scholars believed that all early notes for Song of Solomon had been lost in that fire. But in August 2021, as Womack and her team were finishing their research, they came across singed day planners that included mentions of characters from that novel: scrawled meditations on Milkman Dead’s name, in the forms both of memos and of preliminary dialogue, in blue ink and in black. Practical details from Morrison’s life bleed through the paper, a palimpsest of her life and the book’s timeline. These cherished documents appear as a spine down the center of the exhibit, laid out carefully like dinosaur bones, in the shape of the animal.
My own favorite child lives in the “Speculative Futures” section: it is an outline in which Morrison envisions Beloved as a nine-hundred-page trilogy spanning from the mid-nineteenth century up to the eighties. What if the finished novel itself is just a scrap in the Morrison archive, one that somehow continues to expand? Sites of Memory shows us that the finished products are but one form that her writing could have taken. The Bluest Eye began as a potential play or short story; Paradise first existed as architectural blueprints—the books weren’t the stories’ only possible manifestations. The forms they ultimately took are perfect and decisive, but what this exhibit reminds us is that perfect isn’t inevitable, decisions aren’t made in isolation, and fixed doesn’t mean locked. These might be the forms of the works we have today, but they exist in context, and they continue to live and breathe, as organisms with pasts, presents, and futures.
I also love a piece that’s not in the Sites of Memory exhibition but just across the hall. Princeton’s Firestone Library also houses the Cotsen Children’s Library, an amazing magical space complete with a Narnia lamppost and climbing tree, which has organized a small parallel exhibit, They’ve Got Game: The Children’s Books of Toni and Slade Morrison. They’ve Got Game showcases the eight children’s books that Morrison wrote in collaboration with her son. Among the items is a delicious correspondence with the illustrator Pascal Lemaître, in which Slade suggests that the early sketches of a lion looked like Toni. Both exhibits not only permit but demand the freedom to immerse oneself in Morrison’s work on all levels: to, rather than be afraid of the titan of letters she symbolizes, understand her legacy as one of attention and engagement, of rigorously breaking down assumptions and paying closer attention, of remembering to create time and space so that joy can flood back in.
Leave a Reply