In the fall of 1993, my coursework, as a Princeton sophomore, included an introductory survey of British literature, an intermediate lesson in Latin, and a seminar, with Toni Morrison, titled Studies in American Africanism. I have no specific recollection of the first two classes, beyond a vague bodily sense of the classrooms themselves and the lingering vibrations of Donne and Catullus. My excitement about meeting a maestro helped to insure my recollection of the third course. My flutter of fear caused by Morrison’s daunting, leonine presence, at the beginning of the semester, quickly settled into cheerful enthusiasm. I remember the firm calm of her velvet voice inspiring more ease than awe. I can see the bouquet of irises that one classmate had the grace to bring Morrison, in October, when the Swedish Academy announced her as a Nobel laureate.

Meanwhile, the substance of the class was indelible. Great writers are always grand readers, and the regular business of watching Morrison go at other authors’ texts, as an analyst and interrogator, was a pleasure. My mind touches daily on the work done in that room—on the lens that Morrison made for examining constructs of blackness in the American imagination.

Studies in American Africanism shared its angle of approach with Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” a critical study that maps some “metaphorical shortcuts”: “the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.” Her idea of Africanism is the neighbor to Edward Said’s Orientalism; we looked into novels with an eye for the Other. We were investigating the national literature of a country where race is constructed as part of a narrative strategy manipulated by those in power. There was a casual graciousness to the way that she, leading the discussions, invited us to traverse terrain that she had already explored.

When, after the Nobel announcement, the Times checked in on Morrison on campus, it quoted a student saying that the seminar had devoted a two-and-a-half-hour discussion to “Moby-Dick,” and “never even once mentioned the whale.” That strikes me as possible, though I don’t recall it. Nor am I certain about the headline’s assertion that she cast a “spell for students.” There was nothing witchy in her performance—she did not stoop to conjurings. What fascinated was her way of demystifying things and her cool patience in cutting through mumbo jumbo. In any case, Herman Melville was on the syllabus, with other makers of the meat of the canon, including Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein and Willa Cather. We looked into big books from the middle of a twentieth century that seems very far away now, including Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King” and William Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner,” together with a slab of essays constituting a panorama of the critical conversation around Styron’s imagining of the life and death of the rebel slave.

The job was not simply to call out what was problematic. You would open up something like Cather’s “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” which is set in antebellum Virginia and concerns a woman’s paranoid sexual jealousy of her chattel, to see how a novel’s particular problems stemmed from their wrestles with, or submissions to, dominant racial ideologies. That this way of reading is, now, essential to the practice of any halfway serious reader or fractionally sentient critic is due, in no small part, to Morrison’s radiating influence. In the class, we were part of a larger community of readers—everyone who imbibed the ideas of “Playing in the Dark” before us or since.

A few months ago, I came across my final paper for the course, twenty pages on Ernest Hemingway’s “The Garden of Eden.” (This posthumously published oddity was, I believe, the only novel on the syllabus with no characters from the African continent or diaspora; it earned its place on the syllabus for the way that its married protagonists, with their ritualized sunbathing and slippery relationship to gender roles, pointed up Hemingway’s unofficial project of inventing a voice that represented white American manhood.) I guiltily supposed that the generous grade inked on the back of its last page, beneath a pithy paragraph of qualified praise, reflected both the benevolence of the teacher and the grade inflation of the era. I definitely did not reread that paper.

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My fondest recollection of Morrison is a kind of a compound memory, compiled from hours of hearing her think aloud as she strolled through the storehouse of her mind. I have spent a quarter century feeling faintly obsessed with Morrison’s distinctive use of the word “thing” in classroom conversations. Enunciated for evocative weight, “thing” was a placeholder for a concept or a process whose correct name either proved elusive in the moment or remained yet to be discovered. “Thing” was a generality that indicated the terrible importance of being specific. The way she would say it—gesturing, as if holding the idea between her fingers—suggested that she was setting a unit of language aside for the moment, awaiting its most perfect formulation.