Nobelist and novelist Toni Morrison.
Princeton Alumni Weekly. September 16, 1992.
Taylor and Hulse share physics prize; Morrison recognized for literature...

Amid a frenzy of media attention unknown since Brooke Shields graduated in 1987, Princeton basked last month in the glory of a rare trio of Nobel laureates. On October 7th, humanities professor Toni Morrison won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and one week later, the Swedish Academy awarded the physics prize to Joseph H. Taylor, a professor of physics and Russell A. Hulse, a research scientist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, Morrison has earned growing acclaim during a writing career devoted to showing how the legacy of slavery still affect society (see accompanying story and excerpts). She is the first black American ever to win the literature prize, and the first American-born laureate since John Steinbeck, in 1961.

The physics prize honored Taylor and Hulse for their discovery, in 1974, of the first binary pulsar. This system of two extremely dense neutron stars orbiting each other 21,000 light years away emit waves of gravitational energy exactly as predicted by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (see story, page 8). The physicists detected the pulsar while Hulse was a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Taylor was his faculty adviser. Hulse subsequently took a position as a research physicist for the P.P.P.L.’s experiments in nuclear fusion, and later Taylor coincidentally came to Princeton to continue his research on pulsars.

Morrison and Taylor join three physics Nobelists on the faculty: Eugene P. Wigner (emeritus), Val L. Fitch (emeritus), and Philip W. Anderson, who won in 1963, 1977, and 1980, respectively. Over the years, many Nobel laureates have been associated with the university, including three honored while members of the faculty: Wolfgang Pauli (physics, 1945), Arno A. Penzias (physics, 1978), and Sir W. Arthur Lewis (economics, 1979). A gold medal and a cash award of $825,000 accompany each of this year’s prizes, which were endowed in 1901 by the estate of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite.

While those around her rejoice, Chloe Anthony Morrison seems determined not to let the Nobel Prize greatly change her life. “Chaotic and disruptive,” she described October 7th, her first day of Nobelity, “but in the best way, because all of the interruptions are congratulatory and the chaos comes out of a great deal of happiness.”

She dealt patiently with the pack of reporters who ambushed her outside a classroom. She granted interviews sparingly, squeezing them between teaching commitments. At the end of the day, friends gathered at President Shapiro’s residence to fete her. Then she quickly rededicated herself to the teaching and writing that Princeton’s tranquility makes possible. But the university’s celebration may be as long as her own was brief.

Morrison, sixty-two, came late to writing. She received a B.A. from Howard University and an M.A. in English from Cornell, and went on to teach literature at various universities, including Howard, Yale, and Rutgers. For nearly twenty years, she was also a senior editor at Random House. She began writing in the 1960s she has said, because she perceived a void in American fiction: the experience of the sort of black women she knew growing up in Ohio.

In a quarter-century, she has filled that void with six novels and a book of criticism about the invisibility of the black experience in American literature. Her works of fiction – The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992) – draw on the indelible history of slavery to show brutality, sadness, and strength in the lives of American blacks. Her first four books depict small-town blacks in this century; in Beloved, set in the last century, she moves beyond that milieu and confronts slavery directly in a tale about the ghost of a young black girl who is killed to spare her from the slave masters.

The Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy cited Morrison for giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality,” saying that she “delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” That is not to say that her fiction purports to transcend America’s racial identities. Rather, she seems to want to expose the psychological and emotional damage that racism inflicts on individuals. Her work provokes profound discomfort, because she is more a chronicler of an ugly history than a prophet of utopian harmony. Says Morrison, “The ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality – exciting goals for America – are inextricable from the presence of white domination.”

In a sense, Morrison was invited to the university in 1987 to fill another sort of void. She’s not the typical Princeton professor. The Robert F. Goheen Professorship in the Humanities, of which she is the first incumbent, is an experiment. It was created to attract a writer who could teach courses in creative writing and the humanities and give scholars and students of literature a chance to learn from an articulate practitioner of the real thing. For her part, Morrison says she found a pool of bright students, a “fertile place” for her writing, and an opportunity to build, at an institution with an “elitist” reputation, “a community where people were secure in their work and could concentrate on really important intellectual and social matters.”

If not typical of what Princeton has, Morrison may be archetypal of what it wants: professors who are accomplished, world renowned, and conspicuously devoted to teaching. (Reporters were surprised she didn’t cancel her Thursday seminar to talk to them. Administrators see a windfall in her latest achievement. Speaking of all the Nobelists, Provost Stephen M. Goldfeld told The Times of Trenton, “My gut reaction is that it helps every way you can imagine. It helps in recruiting undergraduates, it helps in recruiting graduate students, it helps in recruiting professors and keeping them, it helps in fundraising, it helps politically.”

By itself, Morrison’s award means even more. It is priceless advertising for the university’s remarkable assemblage of Afro-American scholars, and, perhaps, an antidote to a persistent image problem. Justly or not, Princeton is often seen as stuffy, homogeneous, and aloof. By contrast, her manner is perceived as open, her fiction passionate, and her exploration of social issues unflinching. Some here would like to see this as a seminal moment for a 247-year-old institution emerging from several decades of profound change.

This was originally published in the September 16, 1992 issue of PAW.