Islanders Read the Classics: Two veteran racial explorers join forces

Philip Weinstein will lead the first "Islanders Read the Classics" with a discussion of "Beloved." — Photo courtesy of Philip Weinstein

Starting Thursday, March 3, one of the many literary experts on the Island will speak each month about a classic work of their choosing at one of the six town libraries. Islanders Read the Classics (IRTC), as the new series is known, was conceived by Martha’s Vineyard Arts & Ideas editor Kate Feiffer, who recruited local librarians to help recruit the instructors. It might be just the thing for you if you were force-fed “Hamlet,” “Moby-Dick,” or “Ulysses” — because they were the classics, damn it — before you knew enough to appreciate them.

First up in the IRTC series is Philip Weinstein, who on March 3 will discuss “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven, hosted by that town’s library. “Beloved” won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993 Ms. Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Beloved is the novel that takes on most imaginatively and movingly — as probably only a black writer could — the curse of American slavery,” Mr. Weinstein told librarian Betty Burton. “Its origins in the Middle Passage, its traumatic damage in the mid-19th century, its fallout later on.”

beloved.jpgThe novel was built on the framework of an 1855 newspaper account that Ms. Morrison came across while researching another book. Rather than let her children be returned to slavery after she was caught escaping with them, a woman named Margaret Garner tried to kill the children. To Ms. Garner — and to Ms. Morrison, by extension — it was a rational, if heartrending, choice. As Ms. Morrison told the New York Times in 1987, Ms. Garner “kept saying, ‘No, they’re not going to live like that. They will not live the way I lived.’” It’s hard to imagine a more compelling story, especially when it’s in the hands of a writer as gifted and bold as Ms. Morrison, whose writing, according to her Nobel citation, “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

In the forward to “Beloved,” Ms. Morrison wrote, “I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted …; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive.” Of the character inspired by Ms. Garner, she wrote, “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror … [and] claim her own freedom.”

A seasonal turned permanent resident of Aquinnah, Mr. Weinstein was a professor of English literature at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania from 1971 to 2014. This spring he is teaching a course at Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. and taught for four years before “escaping” — his word, expressed with zest — to Swarthmore.

An accessible, notably eloquent academic, Mr. Weinstein’s passion for his subjects comes up both in casual conversation and in the choice of subjects for the eight books he has published, four of them focused on William Faulkner. In 1996 he published “What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison.” He first met Ms. Morrison at a Faulkner conference in 1985, where he presented a scholarly paper and she read from the manuscript of “Beloved.” At his invitation, she came to Swarthmore to talk to his English classes and to the student body at large.

Beginning some eight years ago at the tiny Aquinnah library, Mr. Weinstein started offering literary “discussions” at local libraries. For the past three years they have been organized by Betty Burton of the Vineyard Haven library, where “they have been received with great enthusiasm,” said librarian Amy Ryan. “Our patrons have requested more of this type of program, and we are looking forward to the whole series.” Copies of each month’s book will be available at the libraries, even though attendees need not have read the book.

Why, now that he’s retired, does he continue to teach? “It’s my calling,” Mr. Weinstein said in a recent conversation, although he worried that his choice of words might sound pompous. “I know myself as a guy who takes trips with literature, and I invite others to come along with me.” It’s hard to turn down an invitation like that, especially when most of his itineraries are routed through the South, rooted in the realities and consequences of racial segregation.

“I grew up in the segregated South — Memphis, Tennessee — and we had a black maid whom I loved,” Mr. Weinstein said. “My twin brother and I, and my older brother, could not bear the word ‘nigger.’ I had to get that straight, and I had a debt to pay.

“All white people are born advantaged. We inherit privilege, even if it’s not our choice, and our debt is that we owe them. It’s not clear how we repay it, but we need to get to a place where we are looking at a black body without a set of preconceptions about who they are.

“I explore that through literature, within the frame of my calling.” And who better to help us explore our fractured national narrative than Toni Morrison, still going strong at 85? On March 2, she will give the first of six lectures at Harvard, where she is the 2016 Norton Professor. Maybe Mr. Weinstein can persuade her to come to the Island the next day to sit in on his talk on “Beloved.”

Islanders Read the Classics is sponsored by The MVTimes and The Martha’s Vineyard Library Association, in collaboration with Arts & Ideas Magazine.

IRTC schedule

Thursday, March 3, 7 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre. Philip Weinstein on Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”

Tuesday, April 19, 6:30 pm, Oak Bluffs library. John Crelan on Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” An Oak Bluffs resident, Mr. Crelan has taught English and creative writing at Emerson College and published satire, plays, poetry, and book reviews.

Wednesday, May 19, 5:30 pm, Chilmark library. Holly Bergon on Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” Ms. Bergon, who lives in Oak Bluffs and in Colorado, has published poems in the Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, and many other journals.

Tuesday, June 28, 7 pm, West Tisbury library. Novelist and writing instructor John Hough of West Tisbury on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.”

Thursday, July 14, 7 pm, Edgartown library. Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Dan Sharkovitz on William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”


This article by Whit Griswold originally appeared on