Morrison by Weinstein: A collegial journey

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One day in 1973, a young, scholarly Phil Weinstein and first-time novelist Toni Morrison, both nervous as cats, shared a stage in Oxford, Miss.

Weinstein discoursed on William Faulkner that day at Ole Miss, but what he remembers today is the impact of the words Morrison was reading aloud in her quiet voice, from “The Bluest Eye,” her debut novel.

You could still hear the excitement and passion in Weinstein’s voice last Sunday as he discussed the day that slow-started a literary relationship lasting more than 40 years.

In the intervening years, Morrison as a Black woman in America became a literary force and a source for racial understanding. Weinstein became a top literary academic don, an acknowledged expert on Faulkner, and not surprisingly, on Morrison. He presides as Professor Emeritus of Swarthmore College’s literature department, and resides with his wife Penny in their Aquinnah aerie.

My hunch is that you too will hear — and see — that excitement on display via Zoom, beginning Sept. 16, as Weinstein begins his ninth annual fall classic, sharing insights on the life, times, and work of his longtime literary colleague, the late Nobel and Pulitzer-winning Toni Morrison.

Registration is open now at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. Participants can register online through the library’s website, vhlibrary.org, or by calling 508-696-4210. Prior to the first class, registered participants will receive a welcome email with Zoom access information and a reading guide. Copies of the books may be requested through a local CLAMS library program.

The discussion will consider “The Bluest Eye” on Wednesday, Sept. 16; “Sula” on Wednesday, Sept. 30; “The Song of Solomon” on Wednesdays Oct. 14 and Oct. 28, and “Beloved” on Thursday, Nov. 12, and Wednesday, Dec. 2. All events begin at 5:30 pm.

Weinstein has an uncanny ability to pick a path to translating classic works of fiction within the framework of current events. It is not a coincidence. Two years ago, when practicing the law and justice more resembled badminton in our national political circles, Weinstein’s series was entitled “Fictions of the Law,” using Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Kafka classics to illuminate timeless legal rascality.

We asked why he chose to illuminate Morrison’s voice now: “Well, there is more than one answer. Toni died at this time last year, and this is exactly the right time for a reassessment of her contribution, an opportunity to engage and get a fuller read of her work at a point now in which racism has become newly intolerable.

“Toni’s work has been dear to my heart since we were both neophytes on that stage in Oxford. I was there to discuss Faulkner, and what I was hearing moved me like Faulkner. I began to write about her work, and she came to lecture at my classes at Harvard and elsewhere until 2014 or 2015.

“This is her moment. She was not looking to create solutions, but to write about the humanity of her people. Not venom or attacks, nor melodrama. It took Toni 17 years to be able to write directly about slavery when, as she said, ‘I realized that if they could survive it, then I could write it,’” Weinstein notes. “We can see her gathering strength in ‘Bluest Eye’ [1970], ‘The Song of Solomon’ [1973], ‘Sula’ [1977], leading to ‘Beloved’ [1987], a book of slavery and of surviving wounds, a story that resonates with all readers.

“There’s a sort of lawyer’s brief available to her: ‘Look what you’ve done to my people.’ But she’s not a lawyer, and she understands that beating up on white people is not the stuff of a great people. She knew the recipe for her story was Black people in conflict with themselves.

The more she studied the lives of slaves, the more she realized how big those lives can be. Making their lives work was big, ‘War and Peace’ material,” Weinstein said.

“She is testifying that Black lives damaged by racism, by inherited wounds, testifying about the struggles of these enduring people. White people cannot feel Black. Faulkner doesn’t write it. Not being those people, he can’t. He writes about the sins of the father. Morrison has a more generous take. She knows those full human lives were not lived near the Cross, they were on the Cross,” Weinstein said.

We live in parlous but momentous times. It says here that Weinstein is a gift to help us understand our course. Add him to your gratitude list in this age of living with plagues.