The Source of Self-Regard is as fitting a closing chapter for one of America’s great writers as any of her legendary fiction.
When Toni Morrison died last year, the United States lost not only its finest novelist of the last half-century but one of its most forceful moral intellectuals. In essays and speeches, Morrison fleshed out the unifying thesis of her fiction, that of foregrounding the voices consciously omitted not merely by history but literature, and of considering the ways that rectifying the aesthetic omissions of the latter can be a bridge to belatedly honoring the former. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations collects transcripts of such works ranging from the course of her career. Befitting an author who displayed such an adept command of memory, these pieces are arranged out of chronological order, instead sequenced to build a series of arguments as if uniting Morrison’s entire public life into several interlinked themes.
The book is divided into three sections titled “The Foreigner’s Home,” “Black Matters,” and “God’s Language.” The first broadly considers questions of American identity and who gets to claim it. The section opens with Morrison’s eulogy for the victims of the September 11 attacks, which is notable for the lack of bile that was nearly universal across the mainstream political spectrum in the days after the event. “Speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood,” she writes. “Too holy an act for impure thoughts.” The restraint of a tangible anger in search of a more constructive language is a defining trait of Morrison’s writing, and she notes here how in the aftermath of the attacks the term “American” seemed, for the first time, to truly encompass all who dwelled within its borders. The rest of the section, however, considers how “American” is defined as white by default. In several contemporaneous speeches, she notes that minorities are never defined as Americans exclusively but by modifiers that let you know where they’re “really” from (i.e. African-American). She also makes frequent reference to the increasing trends of global migration due to globalized job markets and increasing political and natural disasters, which has further diluted the actual meanings of identity while nationalistic ones are ever more rigidly locked in place.
What’s remarkable about these articles, which focus mostly on the political upheavals of the ‘90s and ‘00s, is how much Morrison’s social commentary clearly derives from the intense scrutiny she honed as an editor and an author. Rather than make sweeping statements about the neoliberal failures of the Clinton administration or the War on Terror, Morrison hones in on the subtle manipulations of rhetoric with the keen eye of a critic. In “Wartalk,” originally delivered to Oxford in late 2002, she considers the language of war via its early use in heroic poems and eddas of Greeks, Vikings and so forth and compares it to the “vaguely prepubescent” language of the current era, when no one can outright claim a desire for imperial supremacy and so is instead reduced to a childlike demand for unity in the face of societies that no longer see war as the default means of foreign relations. Morrison charges her audiences with moral responsibility, going so far as to denounce the pursuit of happiness in a commencement address to a graduating class at Sarah Lawrence for its innate selfishness compared to the need to build a more just world.
Literature, Morrison contends, is a weapon against this kind of fragmentation and alienation. In “Peril,” an essay that prefaces “The Foreigner’s Home,” Morrison writes “Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.” Yet she also calls out how literature has too often projected instead of illuminated, reduced instead of expanded. Morrison criticizes white projections onto black people and the obscuring of African and African-American voices. In a speech regarding Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, the author considers how the bulk of the book is tied to the perspective of a mixed-race woman named Melanchta, yet it is she, the natural-born American, who is depicted as most foreign when the two white women Stein also explores are immigrants. Morrison does not condemn white writers for awkwardly and self-possessedly exploring black characters, but she does point out that their literature can be more revealing about wider social views of blacks and how white artists exploit the Other to traverse taboo topics.
Morrison’s thoughts on the deficiencies and inadvertent revelations of American literature peak with the book’s centerpiece, a 1988 University of Michigan lecture entitled “Unspeakable Things Unspoken.” This massive work begins as an idle reflection on then-novel debates over diversifying the American literary canon to include authors of color before pivoting into an upheaval of the prevailing wisdom that the classics of white authorship are oblivious to black life in America, instead arguing that the constant political and social awareness and debates over slaves and freedmen throughout the nation’s history makes these omissions deliberate, either from discomfort in dealing with America’s glaring inequalities and cruelties or, in some cases, a more subtle attempt to reckon with those sins to a white audience that would be scared off of direct confrontation. She both criticizes and lauds Huckeberry Finn for what it reveals both about the lengths of white disgust toward slavery and the fundamental limits of even Mark Twain’s imagination to conceive of an equal America, and her reading of Moby Dick, which argues that Melville grappled with the full madness of whiteness as a concept of immutable power, is the single most eloquent, eye-opening interpretation of that novel ever proposed. Finally, Morrison ends by explaining how her own work centers those kept at the margins of literature using nothing more than the first sentence of each of her novels, in each case showing how her simple prose immediately invites the reader into perspectives not commonly featured, as well as how her concise sentences are arrived at after intense workshopping and, occasionally, a concession to an editor that she rues for giving up her own authority. Taken as a whole, the lecture is one of the most singular pieces of literary criticism ever crafted.
The Source of Self-Regard is filled with Morrison’s strong and unbending voice, the voice of conviction that she channeled through even her most lost and despairing characters, but there are moments of confessional self-doubt sprinkled throughout the collection. A brief tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. contains her fretfulness that she might not be living up to the charge that King imparted upon all Americans, and her eulogy for James Baldwin teems with the mournful gratitude toward a dear friend whose respect nonetheless contained the compulsion to be worthy of it. Even in such moments of humility, however, Morrison never doubts the power and responsibility of artists toward society (and, crucially, society to artists). “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity,” she writes in one of the collection’s earliest pieces. Morrison’s natural cadences as an author are present throughout; even the passages and witty remarks that she recycles across several speeches delivered on similar topics have her gift of using repetition as an anchor. Contending with historical and artistic outrages but never herself lost to outrage, Morrison consistently comes across as a voice of guidance, and The Source of Self-Regard is as fitting a closing chapter for one of America’s great writers as any of her legendary fiction.