Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

by Toni Morrison


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The Nobel Prize-winning author 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 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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679745426
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/01/1993
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 46,027
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.32(d)
Lexile: 1260L (what's this?)

About the Author

Toni Morrison is the author of eleven novels, from The Bluest Eye (1970) to God Help the Child (2015). She received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2019.


Princeton, New Jersey, and Manhattan

Date of Birth:

February 18, 1931

Date of Death:

August 5, 2019

Place of Birth:

Lorain, Ohio

Place of Death:

New York


Howard University, B.A. in English, 1953; Cornell, M.A., 1955

Table of Contents

1. black matters

2. romancing the shadow

3. disturbing nurses and the kindness of sharks

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Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
omame on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
interesting and well written. she's got some great ideas that made me wish i had an english class to discuss it with.
whitewavedarling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
ltimmel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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)
Esmeraldus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
RandyMetcalfe on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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.
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