There are less personal reasons why Morrison might be interested in distancing herself from Winfrey and the school of lyrical uplift. In colleges, she worries about being a slave to intellectual fashion. She remembers visiting the University of Michigan a few years ago and perusing its course catalogues. “My books were taught in classes in law, feminist studies, black studies. Every place but the English department.” Since then, she’s encouraged work that ties her to older departments like classics, and even sits in on academic lectures about her—both as subject and guest of honor.
Brodsky believes Morrison’s insecure place in academe is symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem. “White women have a very strong—‘You are the wise black women who will take care of my innermost’—relationship with her,” Brodsky says. “They’re like, ‘How dare she not be this mammy?’ That [role] works if there’s one book and it’s life-affirming in this very obvious way. I think it’s because you can’t quite mammy-ify her entirely that there’s a great resentment.”
Morrison has written two novels since Paradise and Love. A Mercy was a deliberate effort to transcend racial politics: a lyrical work set in early Colonial Virginia, “a place before slavery was equated with race.” Home is a very different kind of book: a linear, stripped-down narrative about racist brutality. More than most writers in late life, Morrison defies any kind of narrative arc about the direction of her work.
The next novel looks like another zigzag. It’ll be her first foray since the lesser-known Tar Baby into contemporary times and themes—perhaps even a poach on DeLillo territory. She won’t discuss it in detail but says it “is about a certain kind of intellectual, an artistic intellectual. All the men I know are intellectuals,” including Slade, “but I’ve never written about them.” Another character is deeply into fashion, which is why Morrison is currently fascinated with Lady Gaga. “She’s done it,” Morrison says approvingly. “Fashion with a capital F.”
After our talk, Morrison walks me to the back window, which overlooks a pier on the river. It’s brand-new; the old pilings blew away in a storm last year. “It’s stronger now than my house,” she says. So is an incongruously colorful bench on the dock, donated by a scholarly fan club known as the Toni Morrison Society. “A bunch of kid artists” decorated it, making it look more like an MTA-commissioned piece of public art than the setting for a literature Nobelist’s quiet contemplation. “I thought, Oh great, it’ll fade in the weather, and it won’t look so cartoonish.” But the man who built the dock told her it wasn’t outdoor wood; they had to lacquer it. So the bench, with its childlike tms scrawled over the back, might well outlast its famous occupant.
Morrison parries questions about posterity, about what becomes of Toni Morrison after Chloe Wofford passes on. “I do think about what they call ‘my papers,’ ” she says. She told her older son, Ford: “Put them someplace where no one can write some stupid biography.” Last year she canceled a contract for a memoir: “I am not interesting to me. There’s no discovery there.” She declines to correct Who’s-Who directories, and she’s repeatedly turned down offers from Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s project to trace the roots of African-Americans. She’d rather preserve a sense of mystery—the source of fiction, after all. And if the biographers insist on knowing, she says, “I think I’d prefer they got it wrong.”