Claudia Brodsky and Toni Morrison

THE OTHER SLANT: Did New York magazine paint a cynical and suspect portrait of the beloved Toni Morrison? Close friend and Princeton Prof. Claudia Brodsky says yes.

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It caught us by (sweet) surprise when the April 29th issue of New York magazine included a full-length profile of Toni Morrison. True, her new novel, Home, was about to drop come May 9th.  And true, she’s a literary heavyweight: the recipient of both the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But how often have you read a lengthy profile of an octogenarian black woman novelist in a general interest magazine?

As we read the article, however, it became evident that Boris Kachka’s piece (“Who’s the author of Toni Morrison?”) was no ordinary retrospective. Instead, it was a subtle, but clear challenge to Morrison’s place in literary posterity. After ten novels and numerous accolades, Kachka’s perplexity over Morrison’s true identity, popularity and endurance seemed odd.

The Slant reached out to Claudia Brodsky, Morrison’s close friend and Princeton colleague, who was extensively cited in the story, to get her take. In Brodsky’s view, New York magazine painted an inaccurate and cynical portrait of Morrison, one that made her seem duplicitous, scheming, and unworthy of her success.

So, what’s your beef with Kachka’s article?

For starters, he uses a string of animal adjectives and verbs to portray her, freely dehumanizing her from the very start of the piece. He writes: “The author growls, purrs…and barks.” A whole other host of adjectives could have been used to describe a human and articulate voice: resonant, deep, thoughtful, melodious, mercurial, expressive, soft, laughing–words applicable only to humans. On the other end of the spectrum, she is an inanimate, weathered piece of stone. He writes: “Her face is polished in places and fissured in others, like the weathered stone of Mount Rushmore….” Had Kachka never interviewed or looked in the face of anyone over 80? Yes, they may have wrinkles unlike stones; and yes, their skin can also amazingly enough be smooth, too! Kachka told me that he has a B.A. in English from Columbia University. Hasn’t he read Percy B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias“? Beware the comparison to a talking stone head and what one brings upon oneself in making it! Everything he wrote was so cynical and made Toni seem suspect.

How so?

Remember these lines from his article? “Brodsky…is never at a loss for words–except when I ask her why Morrison’s difficult novels became so explosively popular. ‘I’m actually gonna think for a minute,’ she says. ‘No one’s asked me that question.’ After more than a minute, she says, ‘If she were not a black woman, then you would say, obviously, the work.’” The deletion of my long measured response following that purposefully prefatory comment — a response designed carefully to follow down and root out every cynical thread woven into its formulation in the first place — made it seem like I was hesitating because facing a “tough” question, from a “tough” interviewer. Instead, the question’s outright bizarreness, to put it nicely, made me pause in considering how best to answer an already openly biased interviewer. Did anyone ask an admirer and acquaintance of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (or Thomas Mann or T. S. Eliot) how he managed to be both difficult and popular, let alone go on to win a Nobel Prize? This was an obvious comparison, among others, to make. But my naive desire to correct rather than dismiss the interviewer’s suspicions, while obviously misplaced, prevented me from responding in such an openly confrontational way — nor would doing so, evidently, have helped. He knew what he thought and I am not sure why the interviews were necessary at all.

When we first spoke, you had a strong reaction to the sentences that read: “…Morrison fought unapologetically for the importance of considering racial politics in literature and of bringing marginalized American forces and shameful American secrets into the cultural mainstream. No one benefited more from her bold stance on the barricades of inclusiveness than Morrison herself.” Why did that last statement set you off?

It sends a chill through my body. It epitomizes the suspicious angle taken throughout his piece. He makes that statement in the declarative tense, as if it were indeed a causally engendered fact, and the quality of Morrison’s writing had nothing to do with her popularity. But the fact is her writing–its burnished craft, continually innovative nature, and fusion of historical experience and imaginative language into fiction in stories about subjects no one had regarded at all, let alone imagined as subjects of imaginative fiction, are the reasons it appeals to readers worldwide regardless of their race, class, gender and nationality. Did anyone dramatically imply in print that Gabriel Garcia Marquez spearheaded magic realist fiction so as most to benefit from it? Also, all that business about her creating a person named Toni Morrison that she, Chloe Wofford [Morrison's birth name], the real person, is manipulating, is absurd.

But Morrison herself makes the distinction between Chloe and Toni in the interview. She says, “People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best….Chloe writes the books….I still can’t get to the Toni Morrison place yet.”

All that Toni meant is that anyone of any note or fame has a public and a private life. They have to protect themselves. Because she has this widespread cultural valence, she knows she’s especially prone to being misconstrued, misquoted and lied about. Toni never says she has two identities–the very idea of which promotes the idea of duplicity and a double, always partly false, life. And in Kachka’s description, she is both the puppet and the puppet master, which means that ultimately no real person is there! To make that into a double identity is cynical. These are the larger problems with the piece, but he got smaller details wrong too.

Like?

Like the day it was announced that Toni won the Nobel Prize.  Kachka said I found Toni dancing alone in her office, but that’s not true.  That inaccurate detail was grotesque because it had a minstrel show quality to it and made her seem self-celebratory.  When she found out that she’d won, her assistant called me up and asked me to come to Toni’s office.  I arrived, passed the throngs of reporters, walked in and said: “I told you so.” For years, I had been telling her that she’d get the Nobel Prize.  But she’d say, “Forget about it Claudia, it’s not going to happen.” When I walked in, she cocked her head to the side, threw her arms open as if to say “Who knew?” and we did this really funny slow fox trot for like 30 seconds. It was an adorable, unselfconscious gesture of spontaneous joy.  But the way Kachka wrote it plays into his suspicions about Toni: that she was celebrating because she’d fooled everyone, like it was a gotcha-jig.  It fed into the idea that she was scheming.  You have to understand that the moment she won, she didn’t call someone of notoriety or someone interested in milking the publicity.  She called a friend. Afterwards, I walked her to class.  She actually taught her writing course moments after winning the Nobel Prize like it was just another ordinary day.  Who does that?  I told New York magazine all of this and it didn’t appear in the story.  It was a really beautiful memory, but the way her wrote it perverted it.

Did Morrison take issue with anything in the piece?

Yes, Kachka wrote that she didn’t have any of her son Slade’s paintings hanging in her house. [Slade lost his battle to pancreatic cancer last year at the age of 45.] She said, “What does he mean there are no paintings by Slade hanging in the house? I didn’t invite him upstairs.  Did he expect to be invited upstairs?” She always has paintings by Slade hanging. She felt it slandered implicitly some aspect of her relationship with her son.

Was there anything else she objected to?

She just laughed it off. She laughed! She said “Claudia, you take these things too seriously.”


Filed Under: The Other Slant

2 Comments

  • William Jefferson Jr. says:

    An obvious attempt by Brodsky to say that the author of the piece was a racist. Thus, anything written about sainted Toni must come from racism. Pointing out Morrison has wrinkles doesn’t dehumanize her, just as my pointing out that Morrison’s hair is thinning doesn’t “dehumanize” her, either. It’s accurate. Brodsky’s lesson apparently is: don’t speak accurately about a black saint, her acolytes will flip out.
    “Everything he wrote made Toni seem suspect.” Toni is suspect. I’m working on a piece right now which goes through her interviews and nonfiction pieces and the amount of hypocrisy and self-contradiction is astounding (e.g., claiming the use of the word ‘welfare’ by whites is a ‘code word’ when Morrison herself has argued publicly that welfare creates dependency). She also lied for years about her middle name being “Anthony”; but then, in 2000, academic John Duvall pulled her birth certificate and found out it’s “Ardelia.” That’s minor, but isn’t it weird she claimed for decades that “Toni” was an abbreviated version of her given middle name “Anthony” when it wasn’t. Why create a fictitious story?

    Morrison is a good novelist. But there were many other equally gifted writers of her generation who didn’t get the attention she did. We can pretend her outsized praise isn’t related to her race and gender and the political commitments in the liberal academy that promotes her (not to mention Oprah’s endorsements). Or we can grow up, Claudia.

  • In response to the rather callous comment above by Mr. Jefferson Jr:

    First, Mr. JJ reveals himself to be a very careless reader. Prof. Brodsky did not say that what dehumanizes Prof. Morrison is the claim that she “had wrinkles” per se. Read carefully again: she is rather saying what makes the description of Prof. Morrison dehumanizing is the *comparison* of her complexion to *a weathered stone* (in addition to descriptions like “growls”). Mr. JJ’s reading is sloppy, simply *inaccurate*, and blatantly so.

    Second, Mr. JJ does not seem to understand what “self-contradiction” means. The (only) example Mr. JJ supplies is this: “claiming the use of the word ‘welfare’ by whites is a ‘code word’ when Prof. Morrison herself has argued publicly that welfare creates dependency.” Note that Mr. JJ’s contention is a matter of logic: only whether the two claims *contradict* each other, not whether each claim is indeed true. Here, Mr. JJ ought recognize that, even *supposing* that welfare does create some kind of dependency or other, it *may* nonetheless be wielded as “code words” by a group of people. Logic does not rule that scenario out. So, Mr. JJ ought recognize that jointly asserting the two claims does *not* flout logical consistency. There is simply no “self-contradiction” here.

    Third, consider Mr. JJ’s third line of argument:
    “there were many other equally gifted writers of her generation who didn’t get the attention she did.”
    Well, I doubt anyone would deny that being a great and famous writer requires luck and circumstance in addition to talent, and that many aspiring writers, even though perhaps equally talented, simply will not make it to fame and greatness due to sheer lack of luck and circumstance! Surely, that much is a pervasive (though tragic) truism that applies to most professions if not all parts of life, *regardless of* race, gender, and setting (and regardless of Oprah). How is this truism even a criticism at all *against* a specific great and successful author, or a great and successful author of a specific gender or race at that? It is not.

    So, even if we (very absurdly) suppose Mr. JJ’s three main claims are true, not a single one of them would even come close to substantiating his conclusion that Prof. Brodsky’s comments in this interview here is “an obvious [sic] attempt [sic] by Brodsky to say that the author of the piece was a racist.” Mr. JJ’s reasoning is simply invalid.

    Mr. JJ’s comment demonstrates that he has neither the basic reading skills nor the baseline grasp of basic logical reasoning to critically engage with a piece of writing.

    Mr. JJ may pretend that he can legitimately dismiss all facts and claims contrary to his worldview as merely due to alleged “acolytes” or alleged “political commitments in the liberal academy.”

    Or he can “grow up” [his words, not mine!] by brushing up on his reading and reasoning skills, at least up to baseline standards expected of an average college freshman. Time and geographical location permitting, I would strongly urge him to audit a few seminars in comparative literature with Prof. Brodsky. It would certainly help him in that regard, amongst much else.

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