Words and War: Toni Morrison at West Point

Students at West Point attending a reading by Toni Morrison on Friday. She read from her novel “Home,” which focuses on a Korean War veteran. (Kirsten Luce for The New York Times)

WEST POINT, N.Y. — As thousands of hungry West Point cadets streamed into the mess hall for their 20-minute lunch break here on Friday, they paused from the rush to the tables to give a rousing group cheer to a guest who has received hundreds of accolades, but perhaps none this thunderous.

“I can’t believe this — it’s like a movie,” said Toni Morrison, who sat at one of the 420 wooden tables in the flag-bedecked Washington Hall, a majestic Romanesque structure at the United States Military Academy.

Seated with members of the African-American Arts Forum at West Point, Ms. Morrison ate her Army-issue ravioli and prepared to read from her most recent novel, “Home,” to the freshman cadets, who studied the book in English class this semester.

The novel is the story of Frank Money, a black Georgia native and Korean War veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life in a segregated America, while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I read ‘Home’ last winter and immediately saw that the text touched on so many relevant topics, such as PTSD, as well as race,” explained Lt. Col. Scott Chancellor, who directs West Point’s freshman English program and called Ms. Morrison, a Nobel Prize winner, “the greatest living American writer.”

Knowing that the freshman class would be reading the book, he contacted Ms. Morrison through Princeton, where she is an emeritus professor, and invited her to deliver the academy’s Sol Feinstone Lecture, which has featured luminaries from the arts, science and politics.

After lunch Ms. Morrison moved post, suitably enough, to Robinson Auditorium, named for the Army’s first black four-star general, Roscoe Robinson Jr., who commanded troops in the Korean War. There she settled into a big leather chair placed for her on the stage and faced more than 1,600 cadets in their dress grays to read three passages from “Home.”

In a telephone interview beforehand, she explained that she didn’t rely on medical textbooks or interviews in researching “Home,” but rather drew on David Halberstam’s book “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War” for “its descriptions of the scenery and the weather, especially the brutal cold.” In addition, she found inspiration in an “image of a shellshocked veteran from my hometown, who walked up and down the streets in military garb, shouting.”

Ms. Morrison has been outspoken about her opposition to recent American military interventions; however, she accepted the invitation to West Point immediately. “I am a resident of a Hudson River town and consider myself a neighbor,” she told the audience at the reading. “I’ve sailed by West Point but I’ve never been here. I was thinking I should sail up here today but I just drove.”

During the interview Ms. Morrison said she was concerned about the number of suicides by veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. “I dare you to tell me a sane reason we went to Iraq,” she said.

But exploring the costs of war is not foreign to the school’s curriculum, said Col. Scott Krawczyk, the head of the academy’s English and philosophy programs, who taught “Home” to a section of first-year cadets. (Other works on the syllabus were by Kafka and Plath.)

“At West Point we ensure that cadets are made to struggle with moral ambiguity, so that when they confront tangled scenarios, they will be able to do that well,” said Col. Krawczyk, referring to their future as officers. “Morrison gives us just enough psychological complication of Frank Money to open up an understanding of how desperately malignant the realm of war can be.”

A 1985 graduate of West Point, and the first English major in the history of the academy — where 65 cadets are currently majoring in English — Colonel Krawczyk trained as an Army Ranger and served as an intelligence officer during Operation Desert Storm. Later he was selected by the Army to enter the doctoral program in English at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in British Romantic poetry. But when the reading was over, Colonel Krawczyk reverted to military mode, instructing students to stay put until Ms. Morrison departed for the book signing. There, several hundred cadets queued, copies of “Home” in hand, the line extending out into the street and down the block.

“We related to the book, especially since we signed up for the academy during a time of war,” said Abigail Graves, a freshman, whose father, an Army colonel, was stationed in Iraq for over a year. “Many cadets who graduated last year have been serving, and it’s easy to imagine PTSD happening to someone not that much older than us.”

Another student, LaMar Hawkins, an African-American cadet, recalled his introduction to Ms. Morrison’s work. “I went to see a play version of ‘The Bluest Eye’ with my father at the Goodman Theater in Chicago,” he said, referring to one of her earlier novels. “It was the first time I ever saw him cry.”

article by Abigail Meisel via nytimes.com

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