Women Writers of the 20th Century

Toni Morrison

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When she looked at you and addressed you by your Christian name, she made it sound like a promise, one that stood on the side of everything that was juicy, smart, black, amused, yours. In the old days, when ladies were “colored” and she herself was just a child, she had learned from those ladies, probably, the same eye-rolling, close-mouthed look of incredulity that she employed when she recounted a glaring error of judgment on someone else’s part, or something stupid someone said or didn’t know they were about to say. After she gave you that look, you never wanted to say anything dumb again, ever. If she took you in as a friend—and this was rare in a world where so many people wanted her time and felt they had a right to her time, given the intimacy of her voice—she was welcoming but guarded. Then, if you were lucky enough and passed the criteria she required of all her friends, which included the ability to laugh loud and long at your own folly, and hers, too, she was less guarded, and then very frank: there was no time for anything but directness.

Once she told me that when she was a young single mother raising her two boys, she would look in on her children as they slept. Here, Toni, the former student-actress, would clutch at her blouse to convey wonder and self-sacrifice as she looked down at her children. “This is the view I had of myself then,” she said, the laughter starting to bubble up in her chest. Because, the truth is, her kids weren’t having it. Indeed, one of her boys asked her not to roam around the room like that at night, it frightened him. And here she would burst out with a laugh that mocked the very idea of self-perception, let alone self-dramatization: they would always be knocked down by someone else’s reality.

She was a wonderful conversationalist with beautiful hands; good manicures were one of her few indulgences after a lifetime of tending to others, washing dishes, cleaning up, making do. When we first met, in 2002, she didn’t have to straighten out anyone else’s mess. Like the older women she described so beautifully in “The Bluest Eye,” she was, by that time, in fact and at last free. Free from the responsibility of having to please anyone but herself. She was excited to be herself. When you visited her, or ran into her at an event, she sat and told stories. She did this without the benefit of an iPhone to look certain details up. The details were in her head; she was a writer. As she described this or that, she drew you in not just by her choice of words but by the steady stream of laughter that supported her words, until, by the end of the story, when the scene, people, weather, were laying at your feet, she would produce a fusillade of giggles that rose and fell and then disappeared as she shook her head.

More truths: she didn’t like something I wrote about one of her books in an early piece and she said so. We were sitting in a large, empty restaurant near her home in Rockland County. She had driven us there with a speed and force that shocked me, but, then again, why should it have? She was Toni Morrison. This was one of the first times that we were alone. (Previously, we always met through friends.) When she said that my criticism displeased her, I turned around; I truly did not know whom she was talking to, and told her so. The person who wrote what she didn’t like was someone I didn’t remember being, someone I no longer identified with, a person who had probably tried to big himself up because ants always think they’re taller crawling on the shoulder of giants. After I said some version of all that, she said that she understood. And then the conversation began in earnest, but not before I had another shock, this one of realization: I had hurt Toni Morrison. Somehow, Toni Morrison could be hurt.

When you were with her, the fabled editor came out, and she saw your true measure as a person, and what you could do, or what she felt you could do, because she came up in publishing when editing was synonymous with care. I think she worried about my tendency to worry and not take up too much space as a writer, to let others go first, to draw a veil between me and the world out of shame and fear and trepidation. She had probably seen this tendency in a number of the women writers she nurtured over the years, and in some of the gay black male artists, such as Bill Gunn, whom she had loved, too. (When he was sick with aids, she went to the hospital to see him with one of her famous cakes. “I knew he couldn’t eat that cake,” she said. “But he was happy to have that cake.”) So when you stepped out, she applauded you. Once, I had gone with a friend to have some shoes made by a cobbler. When the shoes were finished, Toni saw me wearing them at a dinner party. I told her the story. She looked at me, beamed, and said, “That’s right, my shoes.”

Boldness can make you lonely, but she never complained of loneliness. She talked about the world as though it were in conversation with her. I have yet to meet anyone who could “read” the media with that kind of swiftness and sanity that she could. She saw the madness we’re living in now years ago because of certain trends in reporting and in literature. “The complexity of the so-called individual that’s been praised for decades in America somehow has narrowed itself to the ‘me,’ ” she said.

As a gorgeous-looking student at Howard University, in the nineteen-fifties, Toni acted a bit with the Howard Players, a group then nurtured by our mutual friend, the late, great director and writer Owen Dodson. He told me what a superb actress she had been, beautiful in form and voice, and it’s always interesting to me how so many of the women writers I’ve admired—Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni—had, without knowing it, first started to look for themselves, for their writer’s voices, on the stage. Acting and singing requires the performer to do two things simultaneously: be themselves and not be themselves but a character, giving life to a script they did not write.

Of course, that condition is not unknown to women in general, and when Toni used to say, “I didn’t want to grow up to be a writer, I wanted to grow up to be an adult,” she was saying a lot. Because being an adult required a lot, namely taking the human race and one’s role in it seriously. She wrote what she called “village literature,” for the tribe, by which she meant black people. To be understood in the diaspora that we call black life requires a high degree of intellectual alacrity and technical finesse: black people speak many languages in part because they’ve had to survive many different kinds of dominant cultures in order to live, let alone prosper, make things, make a mark. It takes a hugely ambitious artist to say that I will speak to these people—my people—in a voice we can all understand, together, just us, and if anyone else wants to follow, they can. To do that, Toni closed the door on what far too many writers and artists of color become preoccupied with when they make, directly or indirectly, “whiteness” their subject. Toni kicked patriarchy to the curb with barely a backward glance.

Part of the extraordinary power of “Sula” is that it’s a world where men are not the focus. It’s the sound of women’s voices that takes precedence, makes the story. About two-thirds through the book, Sula, an artist without an art, a free colored woman, returns to the town where she grew up and where she was raised, in part, by her grandmother Eva.

Sula threw herself on Eva’s bed. “The rest of my stuff will be on later.”

“I should hope so. Them little old furry tails ain’t going to do you no more good than they did the fox that was wearing them.”

“Don’t you say hello to nobody when you ain’t seen them for ten years?”

“If folks let somebody know where they is and when they coming, then other folks can get ready for them. If they don’t—if they just pop in all sudden like—then they got to take whatever mood they find.”

“How you been doing, Big Mamma?”

“Gettin’ by. Sweet of you to ask. You was quick enough when you wanted something. When you needed a little change or . . . ”

“Don’t talk to me about how much you gave me, Big Mamma, and how much I owe you or none of that.”

“Oh? I ain’t supposed to mention it?”

“OK. Mention it.” Sula shrugged and turned over on her stomach, her buttocks toward Eva.

“You ain’t been in this house ten seconds and already you starting something.”

“Takes two, Big Mamma.”

“Well, don’t let your mouth start nothing that your ass can’t stand. When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.”

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”

“You did.”

“Not by choice.”

“Mamma did.”

“Not by choice, I said. It ain’t right for you to want to stay off by yourself. You need . . . I’m a tell you what you need.”

Sula sat up. “I need you to shut your mouth.”

“Don’t nobody talk to me like that. Don’t nobody . . . ”

“This body does. Just ’cause you was bad enough to cut off your own leg you think you got a right to kick everybody with the stump.”

“Who said I cut off my leg?”

“Well, you stuck it under a train to collect insurance.”

“Hold on, you lyin’ heifer!”

“I aim to.”

“Bible say honor thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land thy God giveth thee.”

“Mamma must have skipped that part. Her days wasn’t too long.”

“Pus mouth! God’s going to strike you!”

“Which God? The one watched you burn Plum?”

“Don’t talk to me about no burning. You watched your own mamma. You crazy roach! You the one should have been burnt!”

“But I ain’t. Got that? I ain’t. Any more fires in this house, I’m lighting them!”

“Hellfire don’t need lighting and it’s already burning in you . . . ”

“Whatever’s burning in me is mine!”


“And I’ll split this town in two and everything in it before I’ll let you put it out!”

“Pride goeth before a fall.”

“What the hell do I care about falling?”

The brilliance of this conversation is in its economy and the reality of the women’s talk: if you grew up anywhere near these types of characters, it’s like listening to a transcript of dialogue that you’ve heard in the privacy of your own home, or a relative’s. Sula shows her ass to show her anger, and then some.

— Hilton As for The New Yorker, excerpt

Susan Sontag

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Seriousness, for Susan Sontag, was a flashing machete to swing at the thriving vegetation of American philistinism. The philistinism sprang from our barbarism—and our barbarism had conquered the world. “Today’s America,” she wrote in 1966, “with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing.” Intellectuals, doomed to tramp through an absurd century, were to inflict their seriousness on Governor Reagan and President Johnson—and on John Wayne, spareribs, and the whole shattered, voluptuous culture.

Sontag's nonfiction prizes ardor her fiction is filled with aching irresolution. Sontag’s nonfiction prizes ardor; her fiction is filled with aching irresolution.Photograph by Bruce Davidson / Magnum The point was to be serious about power and serious about pleasure: cherish literature, relish films, challenge domination, release yourself into the rapture of sexual need—but be thorough about it. “Seriousness is really a virtue for me,” Sontag wrote in her journal after a night at the Paris opera. She was twenty-four. Decades later, and months before she died, she mounted a stage in South Africa to declare that all writers should “love words, agonize over sentences,” “pay attention to the world,” and, crucially, “be serious.”

Only a figure of such impossible status would dare to glorify a mood. Here was a woman who had barged into the culture with valiant attempts at experimental fiction (largely unread) and experimental cinema (largely unseen) and yet whose blazing essays in Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books won her that rare combination of aesthetic and moral prestige. She was a youthful late modernist who, late in life, published two vast historical novels that turned to previous centuries for both their setting and their narrative blueprint; and a seer whose prophecies were promptly revised after every bashing encounter with mass callousness and political failure. The Vietnam War, Polish Solidarity, aids, the Bosnian genocide, and 9/11 drove her to revoke old opinions and brandish new ones with equal vigor. In retrospect, her positions are less striking than her pose—that bold faith in her power as an eminent, vigilant, properly public intellectual to chasten and to instruct.

Other writers had abandoned their post. So Sontag responded to a 1997 survey “about intellectuals and their role” with a kind of regal pique:

What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which, as their participation in these events testifies, they belong.

She held a contrary creed. “I go to war,” she said a decade after witnessing the siege of Sarajevo, “because I think it’s my duty to be in as much contact with reality as I can be, and war is a tremendous reality in our world.”

Behind the extravagant drama, though, was a shivering doubt. Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete, that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance. The feeling flared up abruptly, both when she was thrilled by radical action and when she was aghast at public complacency.

“For Susan Sontag, the Illusions of the 60’s Have Been Dissipated”: this was the smiling headline for a profile of Sontag in the Times. The year was 1980, a hinge for her, and the article—by a twenty-five-year-old Michiko Kakutani—was occasioned by the release of “Under the Sign of Saturn,” Sontag’s fifth book of nonfiction. “Although she maintains that her current attitudes are not inconsistent with her former positions,” Kakutani wrote, “Miss Sontag’s views have undergone a considerable evolution over the last decade and a half.” The gruesome disappointment of the sixties’ militancy had sent shudders through the left-wing intelligentsia of which Sontag had once been a symbol.

So the Times piece presented a woman of dignified prudence, whose deviations are of the mature, domesticated kind. “The sensibility that resides in this particular town house is an eclectic one indeed,” Kakutani begins, as the piece swivels like a periscope to survey the gleaming appurtenances of the life of the mind: the eight-thousand-volume library, the idiosyncratic record collection, and the portraits of iconic writers who keep watch over Sontag’s desk like benevolent household gods—Woolf, Wilde, Proust.

And Simone Weil, the Marxist turned mystic who, during the Second World War, fled her native France and protested the humiliation of her countrymen by starving herself to death. In 1963, Sontag had begun an article on Weil, for the first issue of The New York Review of Books, with a thundering declaration: “The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois.” So, at that point, was Sontag. Weil was a specimen, for her, of a fascinating species: the raving writer, the flagellant writer, the writer impaled on ruthless principle. “No one who loves life would wish to imitate her dedication to martyrdom,” Sontag wrote. “Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it.”

To love seriousness was to quest for electrifying contact with spiritual and ideological extremes. The piece on Weil—a woman “excruciatingly identical with her ideas”—is a hymn to extremity. Extremity shone with the promise of transcendence, which is why Sontag strapped herself to the thrashing energies of the sixties. She was enshrined as an intellectual in revolt, unleashing her polemics on the repressive drabness of “our liberal bourgeois civilization.” Along the way, she learned, as she put it, “the speed at which a bulky essay in Partisan Review becomes a hot tip in Time.” The Weil essay, along with pieces on Alain Resnais, psychoanalysis, Camus, and Cesare Pavese, appeared in Sontag’s first essay collection, which in 1966 boomed cannon-like from the prow of the literary left: “Against Interpretation.”

It was crucial to be against: against fustiness, against the horror in Vietnam, against the leering excesses and calculated impoverishments of the global capitalist order. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”—Sontag’s phrase from the book’s title essay—is now imprinted on the public imagination because it sent the ecstasies of the youth movement hurtling toward the arena of aesthetic taste.

I wish I had a house like yours so I could do something nice with it. “I wish I had a house like yours so I could do something nice with it.” “Styles of Radical Will,” Sontag’s best book, was published three years later, and contained an essay on Godard in which she gave full-throated expression to the spirit of revolution that had swept up the poor, the dark, the sensuous, and the young. “The great culture heroes of our time,” Sontag announced, again, “have shared two qualities: they have all been ascetics in some exemplary way, and also great destroyers.”

This was in 1968—the year she flew to Hanoi and visited the Vietcong, publishing an account in Esquire. It was the apex of her militant commitment. Although she had long since turned up her nose at the “philistine fraud” of the American Communist Party, the North Vietnamese had inspired her, the struggle filling her mind with a vision of a changed world. “The Vietnamese are ‘whole’ human beings, not ‘split’ as we are,” she marvelled.

But, while she was being led around by terse, determined guerrillas, it struck her that her elaborate American appetites for rock and psychology and The New York Review of Books were marks of the very luxury she longed, in those days, to abolish. “I live in an unethical society,” she wrote in her journal,

that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures. Those who don’t enjoy (in both senses) my pleasures have every right, from their side, to regard my consciousness as spoiled, corrupt, decadent.

She yearned to be identical to her ideas, to display the punishing consistency of Weil, but her ideas jostled and sparked, exploding her sense of what she was, or wanted to be.

— Tobi Haslett for The New Yorker, excerpt

Zora Neale Hurston

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Yuval Taylor’s “Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal” is an overdue study of the famous yet underdiscussed friendship and literary collaboration between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. “It is so easy to see how and why they would love each other,” the epigraph, taken from a 1989 essay by Alice Walker, reads. “Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny. A lot of attention has been given to their breakup … but very little to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other’s company.”

That final line encapsulates Taylor’s ambitious project. The dramatic fallout between Hurston and Hughes, triggered by their collaboration on the ill-fated and controversial play “Mule Bone,” has been fetishized in literary circles for its dramatic nature. Stories of their heated fights, rumors of a love triangle involving their typist, Louise Thompson, and the involvement of lawyers have all made the rounds. Consequently, the qualities that initially drew these artists together — their shared sense of mission and pride in ordinary black people — have long been overlooked. “Zora and Langston” refocuses our attention on the positive aspects of their relationship, while doing its best to explain — through historical records and firsthand research — what really brought their friendship to an end.

In July 1927, Hurston and Hughes embarked on a tour of the Deep South — part business, part pleasure — which began with a chance meeting in downtown Mobile, Ala., where the two ran into each other outside the train station. Hurston was there to interview Cudjo Lewis, the last living former slave born in Africa; Hughes was giving readings and performing his own research. Hughes, a Northerner, was out of his element, while the Alabama-born and Florida-bred Hurston was firmly in hers, traveling with a gun in her shoulder holster. On this trip, Hughes and Hurston grew conscious of their shared interest in black folklore and everyday people, and their pronounced taste for adventure. This chance encounter kicks off the book’s most exciting chapter, imbued with the “pleasure” Hurston and Hughes inspired in each other.

Soon after their meeting, the book describes the pair enjoying a meal of fried fish and watermelon. While most black people would have recoiled at such a meal because of its evocation of racial stereotypes, Hurston and Hughes reveled in defying such expectations. They visited Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University, where the only surviving photographs of Hughes and Hurston together were taken, the pair smiling on campus and looking impossibly young and carefree — a highlight of the book’s somewhat anemic visual offerings.

Charlotte Osgood Mason, a white Manhattan socialite and philanthropist who took on both Hughes and Hurston as a patron at nascent points in their careers, was a central figure in both their friendship and their subsequent estrangement. Mason was introduced to both artists by the academic Alain Locke, whose 1925 anthology “The New Negro” defined the Harlem Renaissance and cemented his position as its “dean.” Locke was gay but in the closet, and he and Hughes entered into a correspondence that culminated in Locke showing up at Hughes’s flat in Paris. Nothing happened — Locke’s infatuation was probably only semi-requited — but he nonetheless ensured Mason’s patronage of Hughes, and Hughes, in turn, recommended Hurston to Mason.

Mason was a major collector of African art who espoused primitivist views — in vogue at the time— to an uncomfortable degree. She believed African-Americans and Native Americans were “younger races unspoiled by white civilization.”Her philanthropy was fueled by the idea that American culture could be re-energized by exposing it to these “primitive” ones. True to her views, Mason demanded complete devotion from her Negro clients, who she insisted call her “godmother.” Mason provided Hughes and Hurston with generous monthly stipends, but consequently considered Hurston’s work her property. Hurston wasn’t even allowed to show anyone her work without Mason’s permission. Surprisingly, Hughes was the first to break ties with Mason, while Hurston remained on friendly terms with Mason for most of the rest of the elder woman’s life.

Mason’s stewardship is one of the most glaring and fascinating contradictions in “Zora and Langston,” simultaneously echoing those at the heart of both writers’ legacies. Although demeaning, Mason’s patronage allowed Hurston and Hughes to produce some of their most enduring works. It also sustained them through low points in their careers, as well as through the Great Depression, when many of their confreres drifted into obscurity.

Chief among the book’s strengths is that it does not shy away from pointing out similar contradictions in the relationship at its heart. While that eventually reached an explosive end, Hurston and Hughes shared many years of peaceful and rewarding friendship. The book presents several possible explanations for their falling-out: Hurston’s jealousy (whether romantic or platonic remains unclear) of the relationship between Hughes and Thompson, the beautiful, young aspiring writer hired by Mason to be their secretary; disagreements over the authorship of “Mule Bone” (Taylor, a book editor and the author of “Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy From Slavery to Hip Hop” and “Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music,” sides with Hurston, who claimed to be the play’s principal author); and miscommunication caused by delays in correspondence.

The book also reproduces the admiring letters Hurston and Hughes sent to their “godmother,” whose fawning obsequiousness is enough to make one’s skin crawl. At key moments throughout the book, Taylor takes care to remind his readers that although both writers were pioneers who brought blackness into the literary canon, they simultaneously contributed to the adoption of negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Unfortunately, this idea appears reinforced by their long, mostly subservient relationship with Mason.

During their tour of the Deep South, Hurston and Hughes visited the family plantation of the Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer. There they met one of Toomer’s distant relatives, who reminded Hughes (as he later recalled in his autobiography) of Uncle Remus, the folk character once used to justify the practice of slavery. Hughes became enamored of the man’s hat and, in the end, Hurston paid $3 to keep it. The Remus story is one of several revelatory details Taylor highlights in his layered portrait of these two artists. As Taylor correctly concludes, Hurston and Hughes were the first American writers to create great bodies of work that were unmistakably — and proudly — black. The corpus of African-American literature that has grown in their wake owes them a great deal.

However, their delight in the concept of blackness could occasionally veer into the exploitative, sometimes propagating negative stereotypes of black people. Their legacies should account for both tendencies, and the greatest feat of “Zora and Langston” perhaps lies in Taylor’s loving yet evenhanded portraits of both figures. There are times when Taylor tries to be too balanced. After all, Hurston famously expressed troubling political views, including her insouciant Red-baiting and her critique of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Taylor largely excuses these, attributing the backlash Hurston received to her unpopularity with the more politically engaged writers of the era. He meanwhile draws a false equivalency with Hughes’s and Hurston’s attitudes toward whites. All of this is belied by much of the evidence presented in the book itself. And, not to mention, Taylor’s analysis would also surely have benefited from a more probing critique of the sexism inherent in Hurston’s reception during her lifetime.

None of these minor flaws detract from the book’s overall achievement. It is a highly readable account of one of the most compelling and consequential relationships in black literary history, and the time is ripe for this story to reach a new generation of readers.

— Zinzi Clemmons for The New York Times, excerpt