1993, Stockholm: A Prize for Toni
On 24 January 1988, the New York Times Book Review published a letter under the heading ‘Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison’. The letter was in two parts. The first part was an appreciation of Toni Morrison’s writing in general and of Beloved, just published the year before, in particular. The first part appeared above the names of June Jordan and Houston A. Baker Jr, an eminent poet and an eminent academic, both African-American. The second part, which was preceded by the word ‘STATEMENT’, took the more recognisable form of a letter to a newspaper with its ‘We, the undersigned’. The undersigned lamented the ‘oversight and harmful whimsy’ of failing to award Morrison either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, the ‘keystone honors’ of national recognition in the US, and offered their own tribute as an affirmation of ‘our pride, our respect and our appreciation’ for the writer and for Beloved. The letter was signed by forty-eight African-American writers and academics of varying ages, achievements and persuasion, including Maya Angelou, Toni Cade Bambara, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Rosa Guy, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker and John Edgar Wideman. The letter became notorious in some circles as an example of the special pleading that accompanied discussions of ‘race’ and writing. When Toni Morrison’s Beloved did go on to receive the Pulitzer Prize three months later, the Prize spokesman was constrained to deny that the letter had had any influence on the decision. Morrison herself expressed some relief at the Pulitzer Committee’s decision. Beloved, she said, ‘had begun to take on a responsibility, an extraliterary responsibility that it was never designed for’ (Mitgang 1988: 5).
Prizes are almost always contentious, which is what makes them compelling to the media and as public events. Even when the award of the prize reflects a consensus, someone will feel compelled to ginger up the story with derision or hyperbole. The 1993 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Toni Morrison was thought to have settled the issue about her greatness, although it briefly revived the letter episode. To those who had got round to reading Toni Morrison’s writing, and particularly for her African-American readers, the controversy about prizes and tributes would have seemed thoroughly pointless, as the writing’s power and originality was self-evident.
In the case of Morrison, and perhaps of other African-American reputations, issues of ‘race’ are tangled with an unease that affirmative action in this context is unnecessarily assertive. There is a perception, declaimed sometimes nervously, sometimes with bravado, that what constitutes the canon is being enlarged for conscience-stricken reasons. This is not necessarily a matter of ‘race’. Ralph Ellison, for example, himself a winner of the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, thought the letter a mistake, and imagined