Overview

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Jazz now gives us a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism that promises to change the way we read American literature even as it opens a new chapter in the American dialogue on race.

Toni Morrison's brilliant discussions of the "Africanist" presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential ...
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Playing in the Dark

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Overview

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Jazz now gives us a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism that promises to change the way we read American literature even as it opens a new chapter in the American dialogue on race.

Toni Morrison's brilliant discussions of the "Africanist" presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential characteristics of our literary tradition. She shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree--and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires.

Written with the artistic vision that has earned Toni Morrison a pre-eminent place in modern letters, Playing in the Dark will be avidly read by Morrison admirers as well as by students, critics, and scholars of American literature.

"By going for the American literary jugular...she places her arguments...at the very heart of contemporary public conversation about what it is to be authentically and originally American. [She] boldly...reimagines and remaps the possibility of America."
--Chicago Tribune

"Toni Morrison is the closest thing the country has to a national writer."
The New York Times Book Review

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Novelist Morrison takes a turn as a literary critic, examining the American literary imagination and finding it obsessed with the white/black polarity. (Aug.)
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Morrison ( Jazz , LJ 4/15/92) believes that an African American presence, largely ignored by critics, has always permeated white American literature. She opens by carefully setting her parameters and defining her terms--e.g., Africanism: ``the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.'' The first few pages feature densely packed language whose meaning becomes clearer when Morrison examines such specific works as Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl . This brief, highly provocative book, which considers ``the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it,'' is highly recommended not only for Morrison's many admirers but for all those interested in American literature.--Louis J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Campus , New York
Chicago Tribune
In three compact and skillful essays, Morrison explores and illumines the gaggle of literary devices--conceits, tropes, metaphors--that have been mostly unconsciously deployed by white writers to refract the rays of blackness through the prism of literary silence, repression or avoidance. Morrison ably applies her therapeutic textual intervention to make these rays visible and to imaginatively envision how an Africanist presence was essential in forming and extending an American national literature...[This is her] impressive debut as a critical intellectual.
— Michael Eric Dyson
Los Angeles Times
This is a major work by a major American author...It is an exuberant exercise, conducted by a writer in her prime who knows that her own work makes steady inroads on the unspeakable.
— Diane Middlebrook
San Francisco Chronicle
A brief and compelling dissection of U.S. fiction.
— Paul Skenazy
Boston Globe
Morrison's delivery of the distinguished Massey lectures at Harvard in 1990 showed off her prowess as critic, for she brings the indomitable spirit of her fiction to her feelings about literature. In Playing in the Dark, the published lectures, Morrison argues that a black, or Africanist, presence exists throughout the history of American literature, and its understanding is essential to any body of criticism. Identifying what she calls "the rhetoric of dread and desire," then tracing its manifestations through works by Poe, Cather and Hemingway, Morrison believes that to ignore the presence of race in literature is to rob fiction of its power...But the most telling test of any critical argument, at least for those of us who prefer passion to theory, is whether such speculation will send you back to primary sources. By the time I'd finished Playing in the Dark, the floor around me was littered with Huck Finn and James Baldwin and Faulkner.
— Gail Caldwell
Voice Literary Supplement
In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores how the temptation to enslave others instead of embracing freedom has shaded our national literature, and how an acceptance of this truth will enable us to see that literature's struggles and fears, and so better understand its exuberance...Her wisdom is to locate strength in what appears to be weakness.
— Jane Mendelsohn
Washington Post Book World
[Her] thesis is an engaging one, and it becomes more so in a sequence of a few compressed but inspired readings of American works, Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and Twain's Huckleberry Finn.
— Mark Edmundson
Signs
In this beautifully written, immensely quotable study, Morrison attempts to overturn pervasive critical agendas that ignore racial representations in white texts and thus impoverish literary studies…Morrison's interest is not to designate texts as "racist" but to read the ways that the "racial" operates (xii).
— Linda Krumholz
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307388636
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/24/2007
  • Series: Vintage
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 345,113
  • File size: 168 KB

Meet the Author

Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio. She is Robert E. Goheen Professor, Council of the Humanities, Princeton University. She is the author of six novels: The Bluest Eye; Sula; Song of Solomon, which won the 1978 National Book Critics Award for fiction; Tar Baby; Beloved, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; and Jazz. Her most recent novel since winning the Nobel Prize 1993 is Paradise (1998).

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Biography

Toni Morrison has been called "black America's best novelist," and her incredible string of imaginative contemporary classics would suggest that she is actually one of America's best novelists regardless of race. Be that as it may, it is indeed difficult to disconnect Morrison's work from racial issues, as they lie at the heart of her most enduring novels.

Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, a milieu Jet magazine described as "mixed and sometimes hostile," Morrison experienced racism firsthand. (When she was still a toddler, her home was set on fire with her family inside.) Yet, her father instilled in her a great sense of dignity, a cultural pride that would permeate her writing. She distinguished herself in school, graduating from Howard and Cornell Universities with bachelor's and master's degrees in English; in addition to her career as a writer, she has taught at several colleges and universities, lectured widely, and worked in publishing.

Morrison made her literary debut in 1970 with The Bluest Eye, the story of a lonely 11-year-old black girl who prays that God will turn her eyes blue, in the naïve belief that this transformation will change her miserable life. As the tale unfolds, her life does change, but in ways almost too tragic and devastating to contemplate. On its publication, the book received mixed reviews; but John Leonard of The New York Times recognized the brilliance of Morrison's writing, describing her prose as "...so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."

Over time, Morrison's talent became self-evident, and her reputation grew with each successive book. Her second novel, Sula, was nominated for a National Book Award; her third, 1977's Song of Solomon, established her as a true literary force. Shot through with the mythology and African-American folklore that informed Morrison's childhood in Ohio, this contemporary folktale is notable for its blending of supernatural and realistic elements. It was reviewed rapturously and went on win a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The culmination of Morrison's storytelling skills, and the book most often considered her masterpiece, is Beloved. Published in 1987 and inspired by an incident from history, this post-Civil War ghost story tells the story of Sethe, a former runaway slave who murdered her baby daughter rather than condemn her to a life of slavery. Now, 18 years later, Sethe and her family are haunted by the spirit of the dead child. Heartbreaking and harrowing, Beloved grapples with mythic themes of love and loss, family and freedom, grief and guilt, while excavating the tragic, shameful legacy of slavery. The novel so moved Morrison's literary peers that 48 of them signed an open letter published in The New York Times, demanding that she be recognized for this towering achievement. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2006, it was selected by The New York Times as the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

In addition to her extraordinary novels, Morrison has also written a play, short stories, a children's book, and copious nonfiction, including essays, reviews, and literary and social criticism. While she has made her name by addressing important African-American themes, her narrative power and epic sweep have won her a wide and diverse audience. She cannot be dismissed as a "black writer" any more than we can shoehorn Faulkner's fiction into "southern literature." Fittingly, she received the Nobel Prize in 1993; perhaps the true power of her impressive body of work is best summed up in the Swedish Academy's citation, which reads: "To Toni Morrison, who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Good To Know

Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.

In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole play Dreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.

Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Chloe Anthony Wofford (real name)
      Toni Morrison
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lorain, Ohio
    1. Education:
      Howard University, B.A. in English, 1953; Cornell, M.A., 1955

Table of Contents

1. black matters

2. romancing the shadow

3. disturbing nurses and the kindness of sharks

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