Excitement Abounds for Toni Morrison Visit

by Ryan Dougherty
Morrison speaks to students in the "Faulkner, Morrison & the Representation of Race" class taught by Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature Philip Weinstein.
Toni Morrison speaks to students in the "Faulkner, Morrison & the Representation of Race" class taught by Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature Philip Weinstein.

Immersing yourself in the work of a literary giant for a semester is common. Having the writer come to your classroom, though? Most uncommon.

Yet Swarthmore students and community members will have that opportunity on Monday, when Nobel laureate Toni Morrison visits a classroom prior to her public lecture and reading in the evening.

"I've been asking them to come up with questions for her, going back and forth with them on those, and it's got them really juiced up," says Philip Weinstein, Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Literature, who arranged the visit with the support of the Cooper Foundation. "This is an extremely rare thing in the literary world."

Weinstein, the author of What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison, has been steeped in Morrison's work for decades, "thinking about it, going to conferences on it, teaching it." He tried for years to get bring her to Swarthmore, finally getting the green light for this year, the College's sesquicentennial.

This visit coincides with Weinstein's final semester on campus, and his last modernism seminar and literature class. While it may seem a capstone to a career spanning more than 40 years at the College, Weinstein hasn't thought about the visit in those terms. He did, however, alter his plan to teach his final class on Faulkner, expanding it to Faulkner and Morrison.

"From a curricular view, then, it's a capper," he says. "This time, returning to the course with the subject."

In addition to Weinstein's students, College community members who participated in Morrison book clubs this semester can also attend the classroom session. Long-time members of the College deem the interest in the clubs unprecedented, with The Frank Aydelotte Foundation for the Support of the Liberal Arts supporting three groups, each with upwards of 20 members. Each group read A Mercy and Home, while one group read Jazz as the second text, one read Sula, and the third read Love.

Having transformed the stylistic range of American letters and our understanding of history and community, Morrison's work is fertile ground for discussion. Topics included how she often withholds crucial pieces of information until late in the novel and narrates stories out of chronological sequence, says English literature professor and book club co-facilitator Peter Schmidt. Additional co-facilitators include Associate Professor of French Carina Yervasi, Student Wellness Coordinator Satya Nelms, and Tania Johnson, associate director of Sponsored Programs and Institutional Relations.

"When I proposed the Toni Morrison book club to the [Foundation] last spring, I could not have dreamed it would have been so successful," says Professor of History Allison Dorsey. Indeed, beyond dissecting text, the clubs helped realize the Foundation's goal of fostering community, with discussions spilling into the coffee bars or McCabe Library, "building new channels of communication across the board," says participant Pamela Harris, head of reference for the College libraries.

"To me it feels similar to the way Morrison's writing had me identifying with people whom, on paper, I seem very much different from," says Jen Moore, an administrative assistant in the History Department and assistant softball coach, who co-facilitated one of the clubs. "We connected through a common experience and shared in one another's humanness, coming to the group not as faculty, administration, or staff, but as people.

"The only thing that mattered," she adds, "was 'Did you read the book?'"