Toni Morrison’s Papers go on Exhibit

Princeton University is presenting items from author’s archives for the first time alongside an extensive programming series
Credit: Toni Morrison, Knopf Jazz Promo Photos, 1991

Toni Morrison publicity photo for the novel Jazz, from the Toni Morrison Papers, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

At the conclusion of Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s essay, “The Site of Memory,” she details how, when working on a piece, she would doggedly rewrite until it appeared flawless. Many of us might mistakenly believe that the literary geniuses of our time could create masterworks without the painstaking efforts that mere mortals would necessarily endure. Not so.

Morrison, who died in 2019, taught at Princeton University for seventeen years (1989-2006) and donated 400 boxes of her personal papers to the university in 2014. This spring, some of that archive has its first showing in Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory, an exhibition featuring approximately 100 archival items at the university’s Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Curated by Autumn Womack, assistant professor of English and African American studies, with curatorial contributions from Jennifer Garcon, librarian for modern and contemporary special collections, and several other university members, the exhibition is the anchor for an extensive series of community-wide programming, exploring how the author’s archive continues to influence the past, present, and future.

Toni Morrison novels and first editions
Credit: Brandon Johnson, Princeton University Library (2)

Toni Morrison novels and first editions in Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Typed manuscript page of Jazz with handwritten edits
Photo credit: Princeton University Library Digital Imaging Studio

Typed manuscript page of Jazz with handwritten edits, from the Toni Morrison Papers, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Handwritten manuscript page of The Bluest Eye
Photo credit: Princeton University Library Digital Imaging Studio (2)

Handwritten manuscript page of The Bluest Eye, from the Toni Morrison Papers, Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

The exhibition takes its name from Morrison’s titular essay, in which she discusses the “literary archeology” she employed for constructing the interior lives of her characters. Known for iconic novels such as The Bluest Eye (1970), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987), Morrison spent much of her writing career giving voice to generations of the Black community who were historically denied the opportunity. Her characters blaze to life in the pages of these works of literature.

Running through June 4, the exhibition is curated into six categories. “Beginnings” charts Morrison’s emergence as a writer and editor. “It’s interesting to think about the ways in which she was already a success, putting her stamp on the broader literary genre through some of the work she’s editing (at Random House),” said Garcon.

“Each section is an experience of Morrison’s creative process. They all can be their own thing and, in that way, what’s really exciting about it is that they are in conversation with one another. ‘Writing Time’ functions as the spine of the exhibition and is probably one of the standouts,” said Garcon. Featuring three of the author’s day planners, it’s evident that Morrison was writing whenever and wherever she could. There are handwritten notes with travel information, flight times, and work reminders. Snippets of multiple novels she’s working on appear on the pages alongside editorial feedback for authors and a reminder to reach out to Angela Davis about a writing project.

The gem of this particular collection is the only known draft of Song of Solomon, seen in the margins of her planner. “To find what we believe is the only existing draft of Song of Solomon is particularly special and to see the ways she’s writing it alongside just living her daily life. That’s a powerful statement about the ways that people produce…not in sustained, artificial environments. The creative process can be messy and part of a larger lived experience,” said Garcon.

Credit: Brandon Johnson, Princeton University Library

Lead exhibition curator Autumn Womack.

In “Thereness-ness,” visitors can see drawings of architectural spaces for novels like Beloved and Paradise (1998). The team was surprised to find notes with mathematical computations, determining the size of a character’s space and the number of steps it would take to move between rooms. “You can’t even imagine the depth of research that goes into a sentence or a paragraph until you see the archive. Morrison was a meticulous researcher,” said Garcon. “That kind of granularity is important to the work and it isn’t taken for granted by Morrison. She’s very precise and knew what she wanted and that it was necessary for the story to work to have that precision.”

For all of Morrison’s precision, the archive illustrates how nonlinear the writing process can be. The items on display reveal a much more circuitous route of completion than readers might imagine. “Wonderings and Wanderings” stages Morrison’s creative process and shows how her published work holds a capacious archive of Black life. “There’s a meandering path, not rigid in structure or format,” said Garcon. It’s apparent that she was writing multiple works simultaneously, refining the narrative landscape for her characters, and exposing the chaos of the writing process.

“Genealogies of Black Feminism” uses correspondence between Morrison and other Black women to excavate an alternate account of Black feminist thought in the 1960s and 1970s. This section of the exhibition looks at the network that Morrison was building with her peers, featuring correspondence with the likes of singer-songwriter Nina Simone, author Toni Cade Bambara, and others. “It highlights the relationships that are necessary to advance and succeed as a creative and to have that rooted in one’s Blackness and one’s femaleness … they were helping one another get things into production,” noted Garcon.

The final section of the exhibition, “Speculative Futures,” spotlights unfinished projects and unrealized possibilities that only live in the collection, containing fragments of ideas, the materials indicating the continuing nature of Morrison’s boundless imagination.

“In imagining this initiative—from exhibition to symposium to partner projects—I wanted to show the importance of the archive to understanding Morrison’s work and practice. But I also wanted to show how this archive in particular is a site that opens up new lines of inquiry and inspires new kinds of collaboration,” said Womack, in a statement from the university.

That inspiration and inquiry is evident in the accompanying programming, including two concurrent exhibitions, Cycle of Creativity: Alison Saar and the Toni Morrison Papers at Art @Bainbridge (through July 9) and They’ve Got Game: The Children’s Books of Toni & Slade Morrison at Cotsen Children’s Library (through June 4), as well as performances and lectures throughout the spring.

“There is not a corner of Princeton University, Black creative life, and cultural production that Toni Morrison has not impacted,” said Womack. “This initiative, we hope, will begin to bring to the surface new aspects of that wide impact.”