Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison M.A. ’55, had a joyous homecoming yesterday in a packed Bailey Hall, which welcomed the renowned writer with a standing ovation. Morrison, who graduated from Cornell 54 years ago, read from her most recent offering to the literary world, A Mercy, published last year.
“My memories are strong about this place,” Morrison said. “The two times I’ve been here for sustained periods of time were extraordinary.”
Morrison comes to Cornell as part of the Program of Creative Writing’s Centennial Plus Five celebration, which features a year-long reading series to commemorate 105 years of creative writing at Cornell. The author was preceded by an animated welcome address from Prof. Kenneth McClane, English, and a brief introduction from President David Skorton.
"We need to see those who have argued best in words, where wonder begets wonder,” McClane said. “I can tell you that, years from now, each of you will remember this moment.”
Morrison prefaced her reading of A Mercy by describing the challenges and excitement the novel brought for her.
“A Mercy for me, was entering into a completely unknown, almost unarticulated place and time,” Morrison said.
A Mercy explores the lives of slaves in the early days of American colonization in the late 1600s. This pre-Revolutionary period, according to Morrison, has rarely been developed cogently in fiction.
In her rich reading voice that almost won her a Grammy last year, Morrison read aloud a chapter that described the experience of Florens, a slave working on an upstate New York farm, in her typically ornate and beautifully woven prose. Audience members reacted strongly to the 10-minute reading, driven to a second standing ovation after Prof. McClane came on stage to thank the 78-year-old writer. Some audience members later noted Morrison’s “speaking voice” as being one of the most memorable aspects of her reading.
“She was powerful,” said Thomas Naples ‘11. “It’s obvious the amount of work and passion she puts into her writing. As a student in Cornell’s creative writing program, it was really nice to see one of our distinguished alumni come back.”
Patrick Cambre ‘12 echoed Naples sentiments.
“It reinforces a sense of Cornell pride in seeing alumna speak,” Cambre said. “You can see people who, not too long ago, were in the same room doing the same thing we are.”
The author’s fame attracted academics and literary fans from outside the University as well.
“She’s a legend, so I thought, why not come if she’s in town,” said Prof. Nick Kowalczyk, an assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College. Kowalczyk is from Lorraine, Ohio, the same town Morrison grew up in.
“It’s inspiring to see her. To see the journey she made to this place, it’s a staggering journey,” Kowalcyzk said.
After spending her adolescence in the rust-belt town of Lorraine, Morrison received her B.A. in English from the traditionally black Howard University. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970 to acclaim. Her book Song of Solomon received more national attention. However, it wasn’t until she published Beloved in 1988 that her fame in the literary community was cemented, as she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel was named the best American novel published in the past 25 years by the New York Times Book Review in 2006. Her crowning achievement is perhaps her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 — Morrison was the first black woman to win the coveted prize.
She was also nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Spoken Word Album for Children, for her work Who’s Got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? The Lion or the Mouse? Poppy or the Snake?
Students will have a chance to meet with Morrison today at 2:30 p.m. in Uris Auditorium, as she participates in a conversation with McClane and Prof. Margo Crawford, English, and partakes in a Question and Answer session afterward.
“Toni Morrison is one of my favorite authors,” Bertram Strachng ‘12 said. “It’s exciting to see somebody you’ve admired for a long time. I thought it would be a very powerful experience, and it was.”