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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (original 1992; edition 1993)

by Toni Morrison

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703613,474 (3.89)9
Member:KaylaVO
Title:Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination
Authors:Toni Morrison
Info:Vintage (1993), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 91 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:Litterary critcism, Race in Literature

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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison (1992)

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Sometimes I wish that all literary critics were obligated to first serve an apprenticeship as great writers of fiction. Surely, like Toni Morrison, they would then be better able to appreciate the practical challenges and choices writers face. And that might make them more sensitive to what those choices reveal. Although she was well taught as a reader, Morrison says that, “books revealed themselves rather differently to me as a writer.” In Playing in the Dark, Morrison turns that writerly attention on the canon of American literature and asks what effect the largely unspoken Africanist presence in America has had on the choices that writers make. The answer is fascinating.

The writing here sometimes explodes in flourishes of enthusiasm, almost poetic. And at times it seems that Morrison is presenting a prolegomena to a future body of criticism, or a platform of work for future students of American literature, rather than critical analysis itself. But when she does turn to specific texts, such as Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl or Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, her insights are piercing. Her scrutiny of Hemingway’s syntactically awkward locution “saw he had seen” in order to enforce the narrative silence of his black shipmate is a case in point. Morrison’s concern is with the choice made by the writer just there. Perhaps only a serious writer can appreciate the import of such choices.

Morrison says that, “thinking about these matters has challenged me as a writer and as a reader.” It’s the kind of thinking that we could each use more of as readers. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Feb 15, 2012 |
Morrison's essays are both striking and gracefully woven. Her powerful ideas about not just American literature and race, but American identity and ideas of freedom, are unique literary explorations well worth reading for anyone interested in American history and identity or literature. As compositions, the essays come together to form questions on statements regarding freedom and identity which are both thought-provoking and frightening. This book is one worth exploring and re-exploring. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Dec 28, 2010 |
This is an interesting essay (composed as three lectures) focusing on the tremendous importance of what Morrison calls "Africanism" for the white literary tradition in the US. Morrison writes: "Studies in American Africanism, in my view, should be investigations of the ways in which a nonwhite, Africanist presence and personae have been constructed-- invented-- in the United States, and of the literary uses this fabricated presence has served. In no way do I mean investigation of what might be called racist or nonracist literature, and I take no position, nor do I encourage one, on the quality of a work based on the attitudes of an author or whatever representations are made of some group....My project is to avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served."(90)

Still, it is interesting that her discussion of Cather's Sapphira and the Slavegirl reveals that the novel's failures are in some sense enabled by a certain obtuseness in its depiction of and use of its black characters. And repeatedly, Morrison notes the necessity of the presence "Africanism" for depicting freedom, individualism, and difference. Looking at a variety of instances where the protagonist meets an impenetrable field or wall of whiteness, Morrison notes "Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say."(59) ( )
  ltimmel | May 1, 2010 |
Toni Morrison is brilliant, as usual. I can't think of another scholar I admire more.

I've read her criticism and her novels, and loved both, but her criticism is the most lucid and perceptive...I can't get over it. Her gifts as a novelist bring something to her critical work that few have ever matched.

Maybe no one working today. She elevates criticism to poetry:

"For young America, [Romance] had everything: nature as subject matter, a system of symbolism, a thematics of the search for self-valorization and validation--above all, the opportunity to conquer fear imaginatively and to quiet deep insecurities. It offered platforms for moralizing and fabulation, and for the imaginative entertainment of violence, sublime incredibility, and terror--and terror's most significant, overweening ingredient: darkness, with all of the connotative value it awakened."

Highly recommended, highly readable, and very short. You can get this into an afternoon easily, although I didn't, and it deserves re-reading. ( )
  Esmeraldus | May 10, 2009 |
An examination of 'whiteness' in American literature, particularly in the works of Hermann Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Willa Cather.
  zenosbooks | Feb 25, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
In Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison argues that the "africanist" or black presence is inextricable from American history and therefore American literature, and in order to understand and interpret American literature one should not ignore this crucial presence of the oppressed souls of "sixty million and more" africana people who have died to give birth to America. Further she discusses that " the contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our [American] national literature and should not be permitted to over at the margins of the literary imagination" (Playing 5).
Although slavery has an important role in the history of socio-economic structure of all society for many years and slavery of in the New World was not a new phenomenon, but being enslaved due to skin color and race was a new thing altogether. Over centuries it has had a great impact on both oppressed and oppressor that being ignorant to it is almost impossible.
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These chapters put forth an argument for extending the study of American literature into what I hope will be a wider landscape.
Preface: Some years ago in 1983 I believe, I read Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say It.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679745424, Paperback)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Jazz now gives us a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism that promises to change the way we read American literature even as it opens a new chapter in the American dialogue on race.

Toni Morrison's brilliant discussions of the "Africanist" presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential characteristics of our literary tradition. She shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree--and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires.

Written with the artistic vision that has earned Toni Morrison a pre-eminent place in modern letters, Playing in the Dark will be avidly read by Morrison admirers as well as by students, critics, and scholars of American literature.

"By going for the American literary jugular...she places her arguments...at the very heart of contemporary public conversation about what it is to be authentically and originally American. [She] boldly...reimagines and remaps the possibility of America."
--Chicago Tribune

"Toni Morrison is the closest thing the country has to a national writer."
The New York Times Book Review

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:39 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved and Jazz now gives us a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism that promises to change the way we read American literature even as it opens a new chapter in the American dialogue on race. Toni Morrison's brilliant discussions of the "Africanist" presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway leads to a dramatic reappraisal of the essential characteristics of our literary tradition. She shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree--and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires. Written with the artistic vision that has earned Toni Morrison a pre-eminent place in modern letters, Playing in the Dark will be avidly read by Morrison admirers as well as by students, critics, and scholars of American literature. "By going for the American literary jugular...she places her arguments...at the very heart of contemporary public conversation about what it is to be authentically and originally American. [She] boldly...reimagines and remaps the possibility of America."… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 2 descriptions

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