American Literature and The Psyche of the Writer

    Toni Morrison’s goal is to take what has been considered the standard of approaching American literature and to broaden it. Though her argument is applied to American literature, this argument is not specific to solely American literature. Morrison gained another perspective of American literature when examining the psyche of the writer and how language operates in the imagination of the writer. 

    Morrison describes her experiences reading, “I would like it to be clear at the outset that I do not bring to these matters solely or even principally the tools of a literary critic. As a reader (before becoming a writer) I read as I had been taught to do” (3). When Morrison first read these literary traditions, she read them as a reader, and she was not yet a writer. She read American literature under the guidance of a literary critic or with a series of professors in her American literature classes. She was guided through the dominant approaches, ideas, and theories of literary critics who focused on American literature. Morrison’s guidance from professors and classes gave her one idea of what the American canon is about. Morrison continues, “But books revealed themselves rather differently to me as a writer.  In that capacity I have to place enormous trust in my ability to imagine others and my willingness to project consciously into the danger zones such others may represent for me” (3). As a writer, she has come to reject this perspective of the American canon which has been taught to her in classes when reading American literature as a reader. 
    The psyche of the writer is revealed through the writer’s work. Morrison says, “I am interested in what prompts and makes possible this process of entering what one is estranged from” (4). To Morrison part of what it is to be a writer is to imagine your way into the experience of others and your characters. You have to speak the language of other characters and strangers. Morrison questions the imagination of the writer, “-and in what disables the foray, for purposes of fiction, into corners of the consciousness held off and away from the reach of the writer’s imagination” (4). Morrison questions what the writer is able to imagine and what the writer is disabled from imagining. Why are some aspects of human experience more imaginable to some writers than to others? Morrison moves from questioning a lack of imagination to questioning freedom altogether. 
    Morrison connects a lack of imagination and freedom. Morrison continues, “My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African American woman writing in my genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world“ (4). She is raising the question of freedom in almost the way that Saussure and Derrida would talk about it. How much freedom do we have as speakers in a language? All of us compose our thoughts and our ideas, even in everyday conversation, using the medium of language to convey all of those things (and also using language as an artistic medium like Morrison). All of us have no choice but to employ this medium of language. Nobody chose what language they would speak when they were born, what culture they were born into, and where they were born. How free are any of us to speak, to frame our experiences, or to tell our stories. Though we are all free in a certain sense (with some people more free than others), we are all also constrained by the language we have available to us. Morrison is describing one way language functions within a culture. Language gives you a repertoire of concepts that you can think with. When Morrison says that the world is “genderized, sexualized, and racialized” (4), her grammatical use of these words point to the idea that people have had aspects of identity imposed on them, culturally, through these terms and the creation of these classifications. 
    Morrison describes the seeming lack of race in American literature, “These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature- individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figurations of death and hell- are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence” (5). Morrison names themes of American literature that she was taught in college when reading great American writers. It seems that Morrison was given the message from classes and professors that American literature didn’t have a lot to do with race. Morrison began to wonder if the themes in literature were actually connected to race as responses to the idea of American blackness which is central to the American story. Her idea of themes as reactions to race is an example of Morrison moving from how she saw American literature as a reader to how she saw American literature when she read it as a writer. 
    Morrison describes the way writers have employed black characters in novels that are catered to the white gaze. Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl is discussed at length, with the slave girl in the title being named Nancy. Morrison describes Nancy, “She becomes the unconsulted, appropriated ground of Cather’s inquiry into what is of paramount importance to the author: the reckless, unabated power of a white woman gathering identity unto herself from the wholly available serviceable lives of Africanist others” (225). Black characters are used by white characters and the authors themselves to employ specific purposes and to stand in for larger ideas/needs. This employment of black characters diminishes any true character or personality to the black individuals in the novel. Morrison develops this idea of the self-evolving as part of a language of cultural concepts and signs. Literature reflects the rest of the culture landscape of its author’s world which is seen in the way white supremacy influences the mind and imagination of white writers, including Willa Cather. The consciousness explored when reading a piece of literature is the writer’ consciousness. 
    Morrison describes reading as a reader, “It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl-” She goes on to describe the inside of the fishbowl and it’s landscape. She continues, “-and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world” (17). When she’s looking at the inside of the fishbowl, she’s reading in the way she’s been taught to by professors. She compares seeing the bowl to reading as a writer. Perceiving the bowl is perceiving this much broader defining structure in the world that allows details within the work of art to be created or imagined in the way the artist did. 
    Artists live in a “genderized, sexualized, wholly racialized world” (4). Perceiving the bowl is acknowledging the defining conditions of the world. Racial ideologies psychologically and linguistically serve as foundations that limit what can be imagined. Studying literature is more significant if you start to see the fishbowl because broader social and political structures become apparent, revealing literature as an interconnected art form.


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