The Nobel Prize–winning author’s lecture at the Harvard Divinity School as well as a rich collection of scholarly illumination of the religious dimensions of her fiction.
In 2012, Morrison (The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, 2019, etc.) was invited to give the 95th annual Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard. Those exploring her work were not literary critics and scholars but a pan-disciplinary group of “scholars of religion, history, theology, and ethics.” According to the editors’ introduction, “Morrison’s work has become a kind of sacred text, and reading her a spiritual practice for many.” The close readings of her work in these critical essays build strong cases for such a focus while never subverting the purely literary value of her work or reducing it to theological dogma. Her lecture provides the starting point: “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination” shows how the novel, which once reflected a world in balance—“Dickens, Hardy, and Austen all left their readers with a sense of the restoration of order and the triumph of virtue”—has changed dramatically. Now, she writes, “Evil has a blockbuster audience; Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech; Goodness bites its tongue.” As these essays suggest, Morrison has addressed evil throughout her fiction and has steeped her work in it while also meeting its challenge with love and a spirit of redemption. “Religion and the religious dimensions of African American life permeate her novels, sometimes in Christian tones, sometimes in African tones, always through the strange stuff of existence,” writes Davíd Carrasco in “The Ghost of Love and Goodness.” A Mexican American historian of religion at Harvard, Carrasco provides a bookend to the lecture with his 2017 interview with Morrison, which reflects on the lecture and its themes and her powerful assessment of slavery as “the story [of] people who were treated like beasts [but] did not become beastly.” Instead, they created “a culture that this country could not do without.”
A volume that attests to Morrison’s singularity, with a cultural
resonance that extends well beyond literature.