You are here

Goodness and the Literary Imagination

Harvard's 95th Ingersoll Lecture with Essays on Morrison's Moral and Religious Vision
Toni Morrison. Edited by David Carrasco, Stephanie Paulsell, and Mara Willard

BUY Cloth · 256 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813943626 · $27.95 · Oct 2019
BUY Ebook · 256 pp. · ISBN 9780813943633 · $27.95 · Oct 2019

What exactly is goodness? Where is it found in the literary imagination? Toni Morrison, one of American letters’ greatest voices, pondered these perplexing questions in her celebrated Ingersoll Lecture, delivered at Harvard University in 2012 and published now for the first time in book form.

Perhaps because it is overshadowed by the more easily defined evil, goodness often escapes our attention. Recalling many literary examples, from Ahab to Coetzee’s Michael K, Morrison seeks the essence of goodness and ponders its significant place in her writing. She considers the concept in relation to unforgettable characters from her own works of fiction and arrives at conclusions that are both eloquent and edifying. In a lively interview conducted for this book, Morrison further elaborates on her lecture’s ideas, discussing goodness not only in literature but in society and history—particularly black history, which has responded to centuries of brutality with profound creativity.

Morrison’s essay is followed by a series of responses by scholars in the fields of religion, ethics, history, and literature to her thoughts on goodness and evil, mercy and love, racism and self-destruction, language and liberation, together with close examination of literary and theoretical expressions from her works. Each of these contributions, written by a scholar of religion, considers the legacy of slavery and how it continues to shape our memories, our complicities, our outcries, our lives, our communities, our literature, and our faith. In addition, the contributors engage the religious orientation in Morrison’s novels so that readers who encounter her many memorable characters such as Sula, Beloved, or Frank Money will learn and appreciate how Morrison’s notions of goodness and mercy also reflect her understanding of the sacred and the human spirit.


"The publication of this extraordinary book could not have arrived at a more propitious moment. At a time when the country as a whole seems tormented by the corrosive presence of a new kind of evil that is trying to banish any memory, much less evidence, of its opposite, Goodness and the Literary Imagination reminds readers of evil’s opposite, but in forms that Morrison’s fiction renders again strange. Its publication should be treated as a major event; its contribution to American literary and religious studies is absolutely assured."

Giles Gunn, University of California, Santa Barbara, Emeritus, author of The Pragmatist Turn: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Formation of American Literature

The Nobel Prize–winning author’s lecture at the Harvard Divinity School as well as a rich collection of scholarly illumination of the religious dimensions of her fiction.... The close readings of her work in these critical essays build strong cases for such a focus while never subverting the purely literary value of her work or reducing it to theological dogma.... A Mexican American historian of religion at Harvard, [Davíd] Carrasco provides a bookend to the lecture with his 2017 interview with Morrison, which reflects on the lecture and its themes and her powerful assessment of slavery as 'the story [of] people who were treated like beasts [but] did not become beastly.' Instead, they created 'a culture that this country could not do without.' A volume that attests to Morrison's singularity, with a cultural resonance that extends well beyond literature.

Kirkus Reviews

Here, in these pages, we meet one of our greatest literary artists and thinkers, Toni Morrison, and a group of her most engaging interlocutors as they illuminate the centrality of 'goodness' in her oeuvre. Taking a backward glance at her life’s work, Morrison insists 'Writing and trying to find a language for goodness is all I’ve ever done in the novel.' Throughout she has given us characters who embody goodness and characters who acquire self-knowledge only through practicing it. This volume places her efforts in a context that best illuminates the moral, ethical and religious dimensions of her work. In so doing it provides an enormous contribution to our multi-dimensional understanding of Morrison, while also speaking directly to our times, reminding us of the importance of goodness, imagination, vision, and moral clarity as we cultivate a worthy antidote to the evils that threaten to consume us.

Farah Jasmine Griffin

This eloquent, wide-ranging collection comprises Morrison’s 2012 Ingersoll lecture at Harvard Divinity School, "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination"; scholarly essays on her fiction; and a spirited interview with the late novelist.... This volume highlights Morrison’s invaluable contribution to American letters and suggests her influence will be felt for years to come.

Publishers Weekly

In her 2012 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard, Nobel Prize–winning author Morrison (1931–2019) talked about goodness and literary imagination, suggesting that evil gets all the theatrics and attention while its counterpart is silent backstage.... VERDICT Interestingly, the essayists here, rather than literary experts, specialize in religion, history, theology, and ethics, which provides a refreshing analysis and perspective on Morrison’s work and a valuable contribution to Morrison scholarship.

Library Journal, starred review

Toni Morrison’s 2012 Harvard Divinity School lecture—included as the first ten pages of this book—occasioned this remarkable collection of essays on the question of goodness and evil in Morrison’s canon. The essays Carrasco (Harvard Divinity School), Paulsell (Harvard Divinity School), and Willard (Boston College) have gathered look at many of Morrison’s works and cover the evolution and breadth of Morrison's career.... The collection as a whole offers a fascinating look at Morrison and at American literature and ethics more generally. Summing Up: Highly recommended.


Interested in this topic?
Stay updated with our newsletters:

Related Books