Writing and reading notoriously take place in solitude, and are often kind to people who welcome it, making public recognition of writing a sometimes awkward affair. Literary people have been known to blink a few times when stepping into the spotlight, in spite of literature’s ancient origins in performance. Every now and then, though, a public literary occasion manages to tap into the primary encounter of the reader with the word on the page, invoking the individual awe of an experience of reading, reminding us how powerful this experience can be.
Last week New York City saw back to back two of literary America’s most illustrious rituals—a National Book Awards ceremony and a memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the latter for novelist Toni Morrison—and literary America’s podium-readiness was tested and came out soaring.
The National Book Awards are handed out every year in a grand hall downtown before a crowd of sparklingly attired publishing types (you can see a list of the winners and nominees here and view the ceremony here; we posted poet Mark Wunderlich’s introduction to the award for poetry earlier this week). The National Book Foundation, which administers the awards, has wrestled with the meaning of award-giving—squaring the celebration of a single book with literature’s call to be multiple, to meet with language all of human variety—by zeroing in on an essential question: What good can we do with the moment of attention to books that the impulse to single one out affords?
NBF director Lisa Lucas, a dynamic and personable emissary for reading with a vivacious Twitter presence, in a dress with an American flag rippling through it, told this year’s NBA audience, “There is a reader in every single nook and cranny of this country,” and the Foundation’s job is to “keep reminding everybody, no matter where they are situated, that books are for them.” Goal number one was to broaden the pool of those receiving the awards. As Laura McGrath argued in an article on diversity in publishing earlier this year (discussed in one of our Notebooks), the NBA’s honorees these days are considerably more diverse than the output of publishing as a whole, whether measured in volume or earnings. LeVar Burton, whose career as an emissary of reading has touched millions, was the evening’s presenter and said in his opening monologue that “for me to be a well-known literary advocate in this nation, a place where only a scant few generations ago it would have been illegal for me to read—it’s no small thing.” Novelist Edmund White, recognized for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, recalled that he was once, in the view of a British glossy magazine, the “most maligned man in America” for his novels’ open depictions of gay sex; he said “To go from being the most maligned to a highly lauded writer in a mere half-century is astonishing indeed.” The podium of the NBA has become a place where these milestones are marked and celebrated.
When it’s not handing out awards, the NBF is giving away books in housing projects and sending laureates around the country to meet and talk with readers often outside the ambit of the standard book tour. They hold a “teen press conference” every year for high school students to engage with the nominees. The insight here is that having conferred chosenness (however murkily defined) upon a writer, the Foundation can redistribute it to readers—offer readers who are not often in the presence of a renowned person the feeling of specialness and attention that an encounter like this confers, and link that feeling to reading. When you read a book, this person, this accomplished, insightful, dedicated person, is speaking to you. The NBF works all year to shower on readers the attention it gives, for one night, to a few writers and those who support them.
Though the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is in fact a church (it manages to be the “largest cathedral in the world” because, unlike, say, St. Peter’s in Rome, it is the seat of a bishop), it has long fostered engagement with the wider culture, aspiring, in the words of one of its deans, to be a “a holy place for the whole city.” It has sponsored art, music, and conservation; trained neighborhood residents in stonemasonry during its construction; and recognized writers via a poet in residence program and a “Poet’s Corner.” Unlike England’s Westminster Abbey, though, where the original Poet’s Corner resides and where writers (Chaucer, Dickens, C.S. Lewis) are actually buried, the New York Episcopal diocese is not the seat of a national church. A church celebrating American literature must be a refuge for people of all sorts of origins and experience and religious affiliation. The group of poets who memorialized poet W.H. Auden in St. John the Divine a few days after his death in Kirchstetten, Austria, were recognizing a poet who had chosen to be American, indeed, whose Americanness was a contested piece of his history. Poet Joseph Brodsky, also an American by choice, organized an anniversary of Auden’s memorial at St. John’s and was memorialized there himself a decade later. Madeleine L’Engle, who served as the church’s librarian in order to find a quiet place to write outside her one-bedroom apartment, was memorialized in St. John’s and prompted the landmarking of its Diocesian House.
For those who gathered there last Thursday to remember Toni Morrison, another precedent was a radiant memory: the actual funeral of James Baldwin at St. John the Divine thirty years before, the first funeral in the Cathedral since Duke Ellington’s a decade before that. Baldwin’s memorial included musicians Hugh Masekela, Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, and singer Odetta. Raw footage (shown in 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center) was the basis for Karen Thorsen’s celebrated filmThe Price of the Ticket. Among the historic gathering of African American intelligentsia, including Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison herself powerfully eulogized Baldwin: “You made American English honest. You stripped it of ease and false comfort … You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it. In your hands, language was handsome again.” The crowd repaired after the service a few blocks away to the jazz club Mikell’s, where Baldwin’s brother had been a bartender and which, poet Quincy Troupe opined, Baldwin had chosen to be a Harlem-adjacent outpost from his adopted Greenwich Village.
Notwithstanding this precedent, the formidable gathering of illustrious black writers and intellectuals (video here) who came together a week ago to remember Morrison—including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jesmyn Ward, Angela Davis, Edwidge Dandicat, Kevin Young, and Oprah Winfrey—seemed to find this call to retrospection on Morrison’s career to be a sort of threshold, a moment of arrival and transcendence, in the midst of dark times, for both black writers and black readers. It is often remarked of Morrison that she wrote not to “represent” black people but for black people; her work both mapped out spacious new possibilities for the literature of black experience and summoned its readership as a readership. In a poetic parable of black American historical consciousness Jesmyn Ward told the gathering, “[We were] chained to the work, our will and agency stolen … They stole our song, but still we sang new ones, we sang even as we toiled … We wandering children heard Toni Morrison’s voice, and she saved us … she made us experience and understand ourselves with kindness, with deeper knowing of all we had survived, all we had not, all we had made, all we had unmade, all we had become, all we could be, how she knew us.” Edwidge Dandicat echoed several speakers in acknowledging the power of her presence beyond American borders: “You led this foreigner to a different kind of home.” (Michael Ondaatje: “I feel I’m speaking today as one of many writers, some of them are here, who grew up elsewhere, in Pakistan or Nigeria, Trinidad, Bogata … Sometimes we find our true ancestors in other countries and become enlarged because we know … those paragraphs that becalm us, or devastate us, so we no longer remain solitary in that distance.”) Several speakers acknowledged the importance of the work she did as an editor. Ta-Nehisi Coates remembered the anthology The Black Book, published by Morrison as an editor at Random House in 1974, which he had stumbled on as a child. His father “considered [it] to be one of the most magical books he’d ever encountered, and that’s because this book was all about him, all about black people … My dad had never seen anything like it. He wondered how it could be that the white folks in publishing had brought such a thing to be. There was no author identified on the cover of this book and thus no way of knowing that this book of magic … was the work of Toni Morrison.”
In the cathedral’s majestic space, filled with three thousand listeners whose applause and occasional finger-snapping swelled through the vaulted air like a wave, it seemed possible—even necessary—that, in this country of many origins and many religions, riddled with injustice and hurt, literature can offer a kind of life-giving transcendence, answering violence and shame by naming and facing them, making of solitary toil a vessel of togetherness, articulating a collective spiritual and moral summons. As we gather at our different tables to try once again to create an enduring way to be together, perhaps the way of books offers us a path.
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Image: The audience at “A Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison,” Cathedral of St. John the Divine, November 21, 2019. Credit Book Post