“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
— Toni Morrison
I take virtual quill in hand following the death of our friend Toni Morrison. Though I never met her personally, I have run across an unusually large number of people who studied with her at Princeton in her 17-plus years, for brief periods or longer. They describe her as a great, fulsome being who at the same time was a teacher of singular gifts and generosity. This conforms to essentially every interview of her I ever saw, in which she as a public person was unfailingly under the microscope and still most often seemed to float with a knowing smile and a deconstructive eye. I call her a friend because of her gifts to those many students, and the personal way she seemed to regard all that she did with us.
On another level, of course, she was hugely important to Princeton in an institutional way, be it her bolstering of the African American studies department at a pivotal point in its development, her creation of the Atelier that continued in a prominent and forceful way the refocusing of the Princeton experience toward the greater community of the world beyond the gates, or her legitimizing influence on the arts at Princeton by simple virtue of her presence, demanding respect and setting the table for our first great leap of the 21st century, the Lewis Center for the Arts. The location of her papers in the University Library’s Manuscripts Division continues this influence as she knew it would, and by virtue of her position in the national dialogue will continue to do so many years from now. The renamed Morrison Hall and her honorary doctorate are the very least we could do in her honor.
All that being said, I might well not have written a column on the occasion of her death. There will be plenty of other comments, most of which you’ve already seen, some from close friends who have deeper, truer insights to her person and her import than I might ever conjure up. No, the reason I mention her here is her truly intimidating talent as an historian, one who wrote the following a full 23 years ago:
In the years to come, between now and the 250 years that will pass before the Quincentennial that I am imagining, the world may be overwhelmed by fear and mediocrity, by xenophobia and mendacity. Then universities alone may very well be the last preserve of free thought, of independent inquiry, of simple caring for.
Those sentences command an immediate consideration, not only because we have somehow blundered into such a period within such a short time, but because of the deep understanding it reveals of the root values of the very best places like Princeton, and implicitly what we endanger when we stray from them.
The source is Morrison’s keynote address at the University’s 250th anniversary convocation on the front campus Oct. 25, 1996. She had been handed what she immediately understood as the dubious honor of following Woodrow Wilson 1879’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” address 100 years prior, and the 1946 speech by president Harold Dodds *1914, which recalled the history of free thought at the University’s Bicentennial, celebrating the end of World War II and the passing of one set of totalitarian shadows from the world.
I was there, and from this one encounter I was convinced beyond any question that Morrison was my friend, as she wove her thoughts before a distinguished but also random-ish crowd. Front campus is a big place, it was a Friday, tickets were easy to come by, and the pre-9/11 security was minimal, so students, alumni, and townies joined the academics in profusion. Her cadences were those of the church pulpit, her terms colorful and musical enough to welcome everyone, and perhaps leave one wondering at the end how substantial the message had been, given its beauty. I will readily confess that my first reading of it afterward on paper was a revelation, as appreciation of its literary depth became as apparent as its spellbinding language. It is rare even today, as with Wilson’s 1896 address — which Morrison explicitly cites in hers — for me to reread her 2,400 words and not find some gleaming facet that I had not seen before.
Similar to Wilson’s, her title alone was thought-provoking: The Place of the Idea; The Idea of the Place. This was not simply wordplay; to her it is two distinct entities, through which she called on her audience to recognize the best of our past and make active use of it each day.
She begins with Wordsworth’s concept of genius loci, the spirit of the place. The physical place of the idea — her term for Princeton and its history — is so compelling when sitting in front of Nassau Hall that you can see how I got lost in the mood. But crucially, what she finds germane in the place is its contrarianism. Not only against the British, but against the closed-mindedness of high church education in those days, of the upper-crust parts of the evolving American culture. She uses Wilson to cite that effort, labels it independence vs. orthodoxy, and notes that to some it seemed arrogant. To which her tacit reply is: So what?
And then she swings for the fences. “The place of the idea represents the value of tradition, of independence; the idea of the place is its insightful grasp of the future.” We are to use our legacy of free inquiry and iconoclasm as a launching pad, and also keep it safe from those who would belittle and debase it. Not out of arrogance, but because we’ve done it before, the results were a boon to humanity, and if we are creative, independent, and energetic enough, we can do it again; albeit via different new ideas, fed from the same wellspring visited by our predecessors in building the Place of the Idea. There will be times when that’s a lonely task, when it will call us to sacrifice, but it has before, and we have been fortified by the Place of the Idea to carry on and see the high value that the Idea of the Place offers our culture, increasingly our entire world.
She warns of a dystopian future where we squander that legacy, which to me sounds for all the world like university via Facebook — this, eight years before Facebook was founded — or, dare I say it, government via Tweet. But she notes we have the resources and, of course, the Place to avoid that, and to ensure the survival and flourishing of our best selves, if at times only in the universities. She restates, as clearly as anyone I’ve ever heard, our root values:
Princeton’s poise rests on its tradition of independence. Princeton’s subtlety lies in its ability to revise itself. Its strength is knowing what its founders knew, that service to the individual, to the government, to the world requires unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom, a fierce commitment to virtues already being debased by apathy: virtues such as integrity and honor and fair play and courage.
I would say of Morrison, as I have in the past about such great Princeton spirits as Bob Goheen ’40 *48 and Fred Fox ’39, that we will miss her deeply, but in her case I am more tempted to say that she will remain with us, challenging us to re-see the Place of the Idea (at which we’re pretty good, actually), but then also in turn to fulfill the Idea of the Place, hard work in the best of times, and daunting in the bleakest.
Dei sub numine viget.