For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books — either academic or non-academic — that have been important or influential on us.
1. Name a book you read early on that shaped the trajectory of your career.
I was still very early in my graduate studies in English when I came across Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Morrison is best known for her novels, of course, but this tiny book is a critical examination of what she calls an “Africanist presence” that has been key, in her reading, to the construction of literary notions of “Americanness.” I tend to think—both in fiction and in criticism, Morrison is at her best when she is at her most concise. My favorite of her novels has always been the quick but powerful read Sula, and I’m similarly taken with her ability to pack a lot of punch in the mere 91 pages of Playing in the Dark.
At that point as a grad student, I thought I’d be taking a relatively traditional approach, doing close readings of the works by “great” American writers (J. D. Salinger was the one I most wanted to write about). What struck me about Morrison’s text at the time was her interest in the structural or contextual concerns of the fiction she discusses (by Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway, specifically). She deals with the ways in which ideas of individualism, freedom, manhood, discovery, etc.—all popular themes in so much American writing—rely heavily on an oppressive racial power structure that creates the space for writers and scholars to naturalize that very structure by ignoring concerns of racial identifications in the pursuit of “humanistic” matters. This was a big and productive blow to what I then thought to be the different and distinct worlds of “text” and “context.”
There are certain excerpts and quotations in the literary criticism I was reading at the time that have stuck with me over the years. The following passage from Playing in the Dark is one of them:
As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer… It is as if I had been looking at a fishbowl—the glide and flick of the golden scales, the green tip, the bolt of white careening back from the gills; the castles at the bottom, surrounded by pebbles and tiny, intricate fronds of green; the barely disturbed water, the flecks of waste and food, the tranquil bubbles traveling to the surface—and suddenly I saw the bowl, the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world. In other words, I began to rely on my knowledge of how books get written, how language arrives; my sense of how and why writers abandon or take on certain aspects of their project. I began to rely on my understanding of what the linguistic struggle requires of writers and what they make of the surprise that is the inevitable concomitant of the act of creation. What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.
I have my critiques now of some of the turns Morrison makes that slip too quickly into broad psychoanalytic claims. But her challenge to look critically at social containing/enabling structures that so often seem invisible because of how they’re normalized was one I took with me throughout the rest of my graduate career, and it may well have been one of the intellectual turning points that got me interested in shifting my scholarly attentions to critical theory and identity studies. That challenge is also one I’ve carried into my role as a professor, as I try to get my students to think about text as context and vice versa.