Whatever Happened to Toni Morrison?

Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Woffford) is one of several prominent African-Americans to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Best known for her novels Beloved and Song of Solomon, Morrison was for several years among the most widely discussed writers in America. Among the many awards she has received (along with the Nobel) are the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the MLA Commonwealth Award in Literature, and the National Humanities Medal. Morrison taught at several universities, including SUNY Albany and Princeton, until her retirement in 2006.

Morrison continues to serve on the editorial board of The Nation and has participated in a number of liberal causes. While at Random House, she served as editor for Angela Davis, the 1960s radical. Among other things, Morrison has written or edited books on the Anita Hill affair, the O. J. Simpson case, and the treatment of race in literature. During the 1998 impeachment inquiry, it was Morrison who first referred to Bill Clinton as "our first black president" -- despite which she backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Nevertheless, despite her genuine talent and accomplishment, the odd thing about Toni Morrison is that so few people appear to be reading her books. As of February 2010, Morrison's latest book, A Mercy (2008), enjoyed an Amazon sales rank of #51,277. Beloved, in a 2006 Everyman's Library edition, was ranked # 44,476. By contrast, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue (2009) stood at #63.

It is not only in book sales that Morrison seems to have fallen out of favor. Of the 63 general magazine publications on Morrison since 2007 as compiled by Gale Research, all except two seem to be reviews, brief comments, or interviews. The only group that continues to churn out essays -- 21 of them by my count published since 2007 -- are those reliably liberal professors of English.

It is remarkable, in fact, how an individual once considered America's most important contemporary author should fall so rapidly from view. It is true that Morrison's best-known novels were published more than twenty years ago. Morrison turns 79 this month, and it is not fair to expect her to continue publishing critically acclaimed novels at this point in her life. Still, one can reasonably ask why it is that Morrison, who was presented with nearly every major literary award, should be so little-read. What is it that the elite selection committees for the Nobel Prize and other awards see in Morrison's work? And why does the general reader fail to get it?

An important clue can be found in the wording of the Nobel presentation speech delivered by Professor Sture Allén, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Allén stressed that Morrison "regards the African presence in her country as a vital but unarticulated prerequisite for the fulfillment of the American dream." Of the novel Beloved, Allén stated that "in the world the female protagonist, Sethe, inhabits, one does not possess one's own body." Race and gender seem to have been on the minds of the selection committee, just as they were on Morrison's when she stated that she lives in a "genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world."

Like our first "post-racial president," Morrison, it seems, is adept at reminding her audience of their racial guilt even as she promises to absolve them of it. A similar dynamic seems to underlie the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award the Peace Prize to Barack Obama. The announcement on October 9, 2009, praised Obama's efforts at global cooperation, disarmament, and climate regulation. Since the decision to award Obama the prize had been reached months earlier, on what was it based?

There was little evidence at that point in Obama's presidency that his "efforts" at cooperation, disarmament, and carbon abatement would succeed. Now, with increased terrorist attacks, deteriorating relations with China, the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks, and the unlikelihood of passing cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress, there is even less evidence of success. As in so many previous cases, it appears that Obama's Peace Prize was awarded on the basis of ideological affiliation and multicultural considerations. This may be what the Nobel Committee meant by noting that Obama operates "on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population." Clearly, the committee's opinion that American diplomacy must be guided by the "values and attitudes" of Asia and Africa -- "the majority of the world's population" -- is not shared by most Americans, but I fear that it is shared by the 2009 Peace Prize recipient.

Herein lies the great rift in American politics and culture. Toni Morrison and Barack Obama, I believe, emanate from an elitist culture that views America as a nation defined by racism, imperialism, environmental destruction, and sexism. It is not surprising that two persons as profoundly critical of the United States as these should be promptly awarded the Nobel Prize early in their careers. The American public, however, is not buying it. 

Most readers don't get Morrison for the same reason they don't get Obama. The noxious culture of victimhood, defeatism, and national guilt still embraced by the Left has long since been rejected by most thoughtful Americans. Perhaps this is the reason why Morrison's new book weighs in at #51,277, and why Barack Obama is increasingly regarded as an embarrassing mistake.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Woffford) is one of several prominent African-Americans to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Best known for her novels Beloved and Song of Solomon, Morrison was for several years among the most widely discussed writers in America. Among the many awards she has received (along with the Nobel) are the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the MLA Commonwealth Award in Literature, and the National Humanities Medal. Morrison taught at several universities, including SUNY Albany and Princeton, until her retirement in 2006.

Morrison continues to serve on the editorial board of The Nation and has participated in a number of liberal causes. While at Random House, she served as editor for Angela Davis, the 1960s radical. Among other things, Morrison has written or edited books on the Anita Hill affair, the O. J. Simpson case, and the treatment of race in literature. During the 1998 impeachment inquiry, it was Morrison who first referred to Bill Clinton as "our first black president" -- despite which she backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Nevertheless, despite her genuine talent and accomplishment, the odd thing about Toni Morrison is that so few people appear to be reading her books. As of February 2010, Morrison's latest book, A Mercy (2008), enjoyed an Amazon sales rank of #51,277. Beloved, in a 2006 Everyman's Library edition, was ranked # 44,476. By contrast, Sarah Palin's Going Rogue (2009) stood at #63.

It is not only in book sales that Morrison seems to have fallen out of favor. Of the 63 general magazine publications on Morrison since 2007 as compiled by Gale Research, all except two seem to be reviews, brief comments, or interviews. The only group that continues to churn out essays -- 21 of them by my count published since 2007 -- are those reliably liberal professors of English.

It is remarkable, in fact, how an individual once considered America's most important contemporary author should fall so rapidly from view. It is true that Morrison's best-known novels were published more than twenty years ago. Morrison turns 79 this month, and it is not fair to expect her to continue publishing critically acclaimed novels at this point in her life. Still, one can reasonably ask why it is that Morrison, who was presented with nearly every major literary award, should be so little-read. What is it that the elite selection committees for the Nobel Prize and other awards see in Morrison's work? And why does the general reader fail to get it?

An important clue can be found in the wording of the Nobel presentation speech delivered by Professor Sture Allén, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Allén stressed that Morrison "regards the African presence in her country as a vital but unarticulated prerequisite for the fulfillment of the American dream." Of the novel Beloved, Allén stated that "in the world the female protagonist, Sethe, inhabits, one does not possess one's own body." Race and gender seem to have been on the minds of the selection committee, just as they were on Morrison's when she stated that she lives in a "genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world."

Like our first "post-racial president," Morrison, it seems, is adept at reminding her audience of their racial guilt even as she promises to absolve them of it. A similar dynamic seems to underlie the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to award the Peace Prize to Barack Obama. The announcement on October 9, 2009, praised Obama's efforts at global cooperation, disarmament, and climate regulation. Since the decision to award Obama the prize had been reached months earlier, on what was it based?

There was little evidence at that point in Obama's presidency that his "efforts" at cooperation, disarmament, and carbon abatement would succeed. Now, with increased terrorist attacks, deteriorating relations with China, the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks, and the unlikelihood of passing cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S. Congress, there is even less evidence of success. As in so many previous cases, it appears that Obama's Peace Prize was awarded on the basis of ideological affiliation and multicultural considerations. This may be what the Nobel Committee meant by noting that Obama operates "on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population." Clearly, the committee's opinion that American diplomacy must be guided by the "values and attitudes" of Asia and Africa -- "the majority of the world's population" -- is not shared by most Americans, but I fear that it is shared by the 2009 Peace Prize recipient.

Herein lies the great rift in American politics and culture. Toni Morrison and Barack Obama, I believe, emanate from an elitist culture that views America as a nation defined by racism, imperialism, environmental destruction, and sexism. It is not surprising that two persons as profoundly critical of the United States as these should be promptly awarded the Nobel Prize early in their careers. The American public, however, is not buying it. 

Most readers don't get Morrison for the same reason they don't get Obama. The noxious culture of victimhood, defeatism, and national guilt still embraced by the Left has long since been rejected by most thoughtful Americans. Perhaps this is the reason why Morrison's new book weighs in at #51,277, and why Barack Obama is increasingly regarded as an embarrassing mistake.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.

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