The Novel, the Mob, and Morrison

The Novel, the Mob, and Morrison

I set out recently to read the complete novels of Toni Morrison with a mix of expectation and resentment that was probably unavoidable. What Lawrence called the “mob-self” had heard the tremendous chorus of celebration, crescendoing in the Nobel Prize. There is no writer on the contemporary American scene who comes as close as she to unanimity of approval, and in Morrison’s case the approval has become a sort of personal devotion that serious writers are rarely the objects of (the New York Times, which isn’t prone to lose its head, reported her Nobel lecture as an experience of rapture and transformation). Five years before, when a group of writers fired off a letter to the Pulitzer judges demanding that they not stiff Beloved as the National Book Award had done, the novel became a candidate for public office with angry, long-disenfranchised constituents doing the canvassing. The late Ralph Ellison refused to sign on, saying that Morrison didn’t need their help to get her Pulitzer. His response implied that literature belongs mainly to individuals’ private judgments, that it has little to do with consensus, and that the mob reaction is bound to corrupt it.

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