Toni Morrison Exhibit at Princeton Honors a Lifetime of Work, Down to Her Post-Its

From sticky notes to typed manuscripts, the materials—many on public view for the first time—reconstruct Morrison's evolution and creative process.

Toni Morrison poses for a publicity photo for her novel "Jazz"

Toni Morrison poses for a publicity photo for her novel JazzImage courtesy of Toni Morrison Papers/special collections at Princeton University Library; photo by Brandon Johnson

Toni Morrison once told a reporter, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

As the exhibition “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” at Princeton University Library’s Milberg Gallery, which runs from now until June 4, demonstrates, that means writing on sticky notes if you have to.

Thirty years after Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the exhibit is being held to honor a lifetime of literary work, as well as her 17 years teaching at Princeton.

Morrison, who died in 2019, is among the university’s most famous professors.

In 2014, eight years after she left the lecture halls, she gave its library 400 boxes of material.

In those boxes were typewritten manuscript pages from books including Jazz, legal pads covered in the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s handwriting, outlines, exchanges with editors about drafts of her novels, datebooks and, yes, Post-its that she scrawled on when she had only moments to get down a thought.

When her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, Morrison was still working full-time as an editor, the first Black woman at Random House to hold that job.

Much of the material on view at Princeton has been off limits to the public until now. Jennifer Garcon, a librarian for modern and contemporary special collections at Princeton, said lead curator Autumn Womack started piecing together the show in 2020 as a way of reconstructing Morrison’s evolution and process for fans, scholars and artists of all stripes.

“One of the things the show does is it allows people to ruminate on their own kinds of creative practice,” she says. “It gets you thinking about how one gets to a finished product.”

Sometimes, as with Morrison, it’s a “recursive, meandering, personal process that isn’t straightforward and, to allow for creative possibilities, probably shouldn’t be.”

“Sites of Memory” situates New Jersey at the center of a national spotlight aimed at the Nobel laureate this spring: In March, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Toni Morrison Forever stamp.

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