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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/11/19

Ross Douthat Says Toni Morrison May Be the Last Great American Novelist

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) August 11, 2019: The African American novelist Toni Morrison (born in 1931) died on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88. May she rest in peace. Her death prompted a number of commentaries and tributes.

One commentary was published by the conservative Catholic columnist Ross Douthat (born in 1979): "The Last Great American Novelist: Toni Morrison and the fate of fiction in an age of distraction" in the New York Times (dated August 10, 2019).

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Even though Douthat is not a Trump fan, he makes no comments about Trump in his otherwise wide-ranging column, in which he could have readily worked in a reference to Trump's distracting us with his tweets.

Douthat says that Toni Morrison "was embraced by the tradition that regards novels as keys to interpreting America."

Douthat says, "Is she the last of the species? The last American novelist who made novels seem essential to an educated person's understanding of her country?"

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Douthat says, "The American novel was supposed to be eclipsed long ago by movies and television."

However, Douthat says that "in my own life it's the internet that's killing novel-reading. And specifically the social media/iPhone combination, whose distracting effect is the enemy of the novel more than of other forms of art."

Douthat says, "You cannot jump in and out of serious novel-reading, and a book doesn't claim your gaze the way the movies and television do. You have to enter and remain, undistracted and immersed."

Douthat does not mention the American Jesuit media theorist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955), or the Canadian Catholic media theorist and cultural historian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943), both of whom published important books about the impact of the Gutenberg printing press that emerged in the mid-1450s on Western culture. The rise of the modern novel is one byproduct of the rise of print culture in Western culture.

Even though, Douthat does not mention Ong and McLuhan, he does mention that the novel "was supposed to be eclipsed by movies and television" a specific prediction that neither Ong nor McLuhan made explicitly. Nevertheless, more broadly, both Ong and McLuhan as media theorists and cultural historians intimated that the cultural constellation ushered into Western culture with the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid-1450s was going to be eclipsed by the emerging forms of more oral-aural media such as television.

In general, both Ong and McLuhan describe the process of the interiorization of literacy and literate modes of thought in consciousness in Western culture. At times, Ong more succinctly refers to this process as the inward turn of consciousness in Western culture. No doubt the rise of the modern novel as a prose art form in print culture in Western culture contributed to the waning of the centuries-old tradition of heroic poetry in Western culture, a tradition that includes the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Beowulf, arguably the Divine Comedy, and arguably Paradise Lost. The waning of heroic poetry was followed by the rise of mock-heroic poetry (such as Byron's Don Juan) and eventually by the rise of the anti-hero in serious literature (such as Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses).

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Now, under the influence of computers and the internet, print culture in Western culture is currently still undergoing certain changes, some of which are not conducive to serious novel-reading, as Douthat notes. But the emergence of fresh talent could counter the waning of the modern novel.

In my 2014 e-book Walter J. Ong: How and Why Things Are the Way They Are, which is available at, I have noted that Fr. Ong contributed to the intellectual ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. But American conservatives such as Douthat have used anti-60s rhetoric to demonize the 1960s and 1970s generally. However, in my estimate, they have over-reacted and over-generalized. Figuratively speaking, they have thrown out the baby with the bath water. In effect, Ong's work was collateral damage in their militant over-reaction.

Now, in Ong's sweeping account of our Western cultural history, he suggests that our Western cultural conditioning in print culture is undergoing a deep tectonic shift as a result of the communications media that accentuate sound that reached a certain critical mass around 1960.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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