arabic book history Intellectual history Literature philology religious history

The Problem of Authorship and Pseudepigraphy in Islamic Intellectual History

By W. Sasson Chahanovich

Why should we care about the author? The answer to this question is not self-evident. While Roland Barthes may have declared the “death of the author” over half a century ago, the author as existential personhood, as cultural celebrity, and as value marker still lives on in both critical theory and in historical research (Barthes, “La mort de l’auteur”). This is what Michel Foucault identified as “author function,” by which he means that the author as ‘name-on-work’ can have more relevance beyond identifying an historical individual or limiting the parameters of what we today call intellectual property (Foucault, Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, 205–222). While the problem of the author has made much methodological headway in fields like the Classics, Jewish and early Christian studies, and literary theory, Islamic intellectual history still lacks a systematic assessment of the concept of the author (e.g. kātib, mu’allif). Moreover, no research exists on the topic of ‘forgery,’ i.e. pseudepigraphy, which is the much-maligned twin of the canonical notion of the trustworthy author.

Specifically, Classicists still remind us that Homer qua actual historical ‘author’ may be fiction. Yet so they also problematize the issue of authorship by simultaneously noting that, while an unknown composer ‘penned’ the textual artifacts known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s name still has value; it limits the meaning of the text. Likewise, historians of Christianity point out time and again the many forgeries (10 to 13) present in the New Testament. They are also quick to point out that this evidently has had little effect on the faith communities who accept them as inspired works. As Karen King notes, “while they, too, were not indifferent about false attribution and forgery, their concerns pertained to authority, prestige, and character rather than to modern economic and legal considerations…”(King, “‘What Is an Author?’,” 17).

In contrast, only a handful of Islamic historians have touched on pseudepigraphy or ‘forgery,’ a normative epithet that should be applied cautiously. This is remarkable given the spans of the textual archive of Islamic intellectual history. After all, three of its major written languages – Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish – functioned as the authorial/scribal language from the Atlantic to Central Asia. Even in the earliest days of Orientalistik, philologically minded German scholars largely ignored the question of authorship. Not even Ignaz Goldziher or Theodor Nöldeke, two of the leading names in the early days of Islamwissenschaft,debated the value of falsified texts. Only the canonical literature counted.

Only more recently have some scholars taken up this neglected field, especially concerning pseudepigraphy. For example, Roberto Tottoli has discussed the eschatological corpora commonly mislabeled as the Conditions of Resurrection (Aḥwāl al-qiyāmah) (Tottoli, “Muslim Eschatological Literature,” 452-477). Michael Pregill has analyzed the early, biblically infused Islamic legend-cum-homiletic material known as the isrā’iliyyāt. In particular, Pregill revisits the “function” of the names of several early, well-attested transmitters and their biographies as Jewish converts to Islam (Pregill, “Isrā’īlliyāt, Myth, and Pseudepigraphy,” 220). In a confessional context, the authorial identity of these names weighs heavy on the concept of religious truth. Gabriel Said Reynolds has addressed the Islamic polemic of Jewish and Christian “distortion” (taḥrīf) of their own holy scriptures. Thus, Muḥammad and the compilers of the Qurʾān-qua-codex implicitly move onto the historical stage as the most trustworthy authors and editors. Historians of Islam stand to enrich our understanding of scientific and cultural output if they were to investigate the modes of authorship and its mutations across genre, linguistic idiom, and cultural context.

The archive of Islamic intellectual history has much more to offer us that remains entirely untouched. Pseudepigraphic material and even outright forgeries are abundant, especially in the early modern period. For example, in the Süleymaniye Archival Library in Istanbul, two copies (Mss. Ayasofya 2246 and 2247) exist of an anti-trinitarian polemic titled the Kind Response (al-Radd al-ğamīl), which is attributed to Abū Ḥāmid al-Ġazālī (d. 1111). This is none other than the clerical curmudgeon and author of the Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahāfut al-falāsifah), who is popularly held to have killed Islamic philosophy. Even august Islamic scholars like Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry took the attribution at face value and promoted the text as a bona fide part of al-Ġazālī’s oeuvre (Massignon, “Le Christ dans les evangiles selon al-Ghazālı̄,” 523-536; Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization, 300-307). Yet an examination of the manuscript quickly throws the certainty of its authorship into question. If we cannot definitively ascertain the authorship, what resonance did al-Ġazālī’s name have for the readers of this text? For now, it is safe to assume that the great theologian’s name exhibited an appeal, much like that of a Paul of Tarsus, that enhanced the theological importance and historical weight of the text.

In a similar vein, there existed a whole cottage industry of pseudepigraphic authors and misattributions surrounding the name of Islam’s most famous Sufi master, Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). One of the most widely circulated and commented works by these anonymous authors was The Tree of Nuʿmān (al-Šağarah al-nuʿmāniyyah, see Fig. 1). This eschatological and esoteric work not only prophesies the End of the World, but it also identifies the Ottoman sultans as the gatekeepers of the Resurrection. Whoever the real author was, the authorial motivation was in part practical. The prophecy received a wider readership and greater credibility with the name of Ibn al-ʿArabī backing it up. Thus, one may speak, as Laura Nasrallah has done, of both al-Ġazālī and Ibn al-ʿArabī as having lived “authorial afterlives”; the specter of their names lingers down the halls of reader reception (Nasrallah, “‘Out of Love for Paul’,” 93).

Another instance of authorial afterlife and mistaken attribution surrounds the apocalyptic work variably titled the Comprehensive Prognosticon (al-Ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), the Key to the Comprehensive Prognosticon (Miftāḥ al-ğafr al-ğāmiʿ), or the Orderly Pearl (al-Durr al-munaẓẓam) (for example, see Kâtip Çelebi, Kašf al-ẓunūn, 605). As much as the title is unstable, so too is its authorship a moving target. Toufic Fahd attempted to stabilize the situation by attributing the Comprehensive Prognosticon to Ibn Ṭalḥah (d. 1254), a little known esoteric Sufi practitioner, and the Key or the Orderly Pearl as interchangeable titles of a commentary on the former composed by the greater known esoteric Sufi ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmı̄ (d. 1454) (Fahd, La divination arabe, 228-229). This simple distinction does not pan out in the archive, however. Titles are more the product of later scribal hands and therefore subject to variation. One such Prognosticon (Süleymaniye Ms. Bağdatlı Vehbi 915) is even attributed to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib, the Prophet Muḥammad’s cousin, son-in-law, and fourth Caliph (see Fig. 2). Second, the oldest known copy of the Key (Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, dated 899 AH/1493 CE) evinces no awareness of Bisṭāmı̄ as copyist or commentator. More recently, perhaps due to the popularity of Bisṭāmı̄, Ibn Ṭalḥah has been excised from the genealogy of this esoteric corpus. How, in this case, does one author-commentator become preferred over the primary source composer?

A final example of authorial function is the instance of works that never were. Much like in Judaism or Christianity, fabricated texts – real or imagined, canonical or extra-canonical – gained an aura of greater legitimacy when attributed to some ancient and revered figure. Thus, the Book of Daniel is attributed to the legendary hero Daniel, and the apocalypse of Enoch to the antediluvian patriarch Enoch. In Islam, there is an entire esoteric tradition built up around ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. As they developed the Islamic esoteric tradition, Sunnī and Shīʿı̄ Muslims alike imagined a corpus of non-existent books such as the Small Book of Ǧafr (Kitāb al-ğafr al-ṣaġīr) and the Book of ʿAlı̄ (Kitāb ʿAlī) and assigned them to ʿAlī, the last of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. An author’s name thus created meaning both in texts and around the ideas themselves, abstract or imagined though they may be.

The problem of authorship is therefore a promising field of inquiry for scholars of Islamic intellectual history. Perhaps more interesting than the well-established textual tradition, anonymous authors and creative scribes in the archive present us with an opportunity to rethink our approach to title pages. Our blithe certainty about the lives of writers, their texts, and their circulation sets us up for missing the big picture. The forgery needn’t always be bad news.


Fig. 1: Süleymaniye Ms. Beyazıd 4609, fol. 4a. Here, Ps. Ibn al-ʿArabī refers to his own grave in the third person. He also uses the epithet “Reviver of Religion” (muḥyī al-dı̄n), highlighted here in red. This is a superlative used more commonly in the Ottoman empire to refer to their patron saint. Otherwise, in autograph works the great mystic only referred to himself as Abū ʿAbd Allāh.

Fig. 2: Süleymaniye Ms. Hafid Efendi 204, fol. 5a. The title given in red identifies the work as The Big Prognosticon and attributes the text to ʿAlī b. Abı̄ Ṭālib. Yet in the first line, highlighted here in red, we are presented with the title Comprehensive Prognosticon more commonly associated with Ibn Ṭalḥah. This manuscript does not match the standard opening of Ibn Ṭalḥah’s work but does contain overlaping sections and diagrams.

W. Sasson Chahanovich is a Ph.D. candidate in Islamic Intellectual History at Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, where he is writing his thesis on Ottoman eschatological enthusiasm. Sasson is also currently developing a project that reconsiders the connections between Islamic, Jewish, and Christian apocalypticism in the early modern period.

French history Intellectual history Interview Literature Podcast Political history

In Theory: John Raimo interviews Gisèle Sapiro on Writers and Politics in France

John Raimo, a founding editor of the JHI Blog and PhD candidate at New York University, interviews Professor Gisèle Sapiro, director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and the director of studies at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. They discuss her new book, Les écrivains et la politique en France: De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie (Seuil, 2018).

We have attached a diagram and bibliography to accompany the discussion.



Gisèle Sapiro, Les écrivains et la politique en France : De l’affaire Dreyfus à la guerre d’Algérie. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2018.

 “A Field.” Politika. Encyclopedia of the social sciences of politics.

La guerre des écrivains. 1940-1953. Paris: Fayard, 1999. (The French Writers’ War, 1940-1953. Trans. Vanessa Doriott Anderson and Dorritt Cohn. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

“Responsibility and freedom: foundations of Sartre’s concept of intellectual engagement.” Journal of Romance Studies. Vol. 6. N° 1-2 (2006), pp. 31-48.

“How Do Literary Works Cross Borders (or Not)? A Sociological Approach to World Literature.” Journal of World Literature, N. 1 (2016), pp. 81-96.

« Le champ est-il national ? La théorie de la différenciation sociale au prisme de l’histoire globale », Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, N. 200 (2013/5), pp. 70-85. English translation: “Field theory from a transnational perspective”, in T. Medvetz, J. Sallaz, Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2018, p. 161-182.

La responsabilité de l’écrivain : Littérature, droit et morale en France (XIXe-XXIe siècle). Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2011.

The debate on the writer’s responsibility in France and the United States from the 1920s to

the 1950s.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society.Vol. 23, N. 2-3 (2010), pp. 69-83.

 “Rethinking the Concept of Autonomy for the Sociology of Symbolic Goods.” Jean-Yves Bart, trans. Bien Symboliques / Symbolic Goods, N. 4 (2019), pp. 1-50.

La sociologie de la littérature. Paris: La Découverte, 2014.

Mathieu Hauchecorne, La gauche américaine en France. La réception de John Rawls et des théories de la justice (CNRS Éditions, 2019).

Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Mur Méditerranée (Sabine Weispier, 2019).

György Dragomán, The Bone Fire (Ottile Mulzet, trans. Mariner Books, 2021); Le Bûcher (Joëlle Dufeuilly, trans.; Gallimard, 2018).

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dragonfly Sea (Knopf, 2019).

Ancient Classics Early modern Europe Literature

Translating the Canon

By Contributing Writer Julian Koch

Unless we are unashamed linguistic chauvinists, some, maybe most, of the works of literature we consider to be part of any form of literary canon are inevitably written in languages we do not understand, and we read them in translation. Thus, a notion of translation tacitly underlies any notion of canonicity. Yet, our understanding of translation and its place in our thinking—and consequently its bearing on our conception of the canon—has undergone a remarkable but relatively unnoticed change between the Latin Middle Ages and our present day. Today, in English, we take the word translation inevitably to mean the transfer of a work from one language to another. What is translated how, when, and where is fundamental to whether a work can receive admission into the canon.

But this notion of translation as a cross-linguistic transfer is a relatively recent one. It was preceded by a notion of translation that we only rarely stumble upon today: the transfer of something from one place or time to another. The Latin translatio simply means “to carry over,” and in the Latin Middle Ages the term was used accordingly broadly—as the Latin term for metaphor or as the ceremonial transfer of a saint’s relics from one place to another, among many other meanings. The most relevant use of translatio for the notion of canon in the Latin Middle Ages, however, was the idea of a translatio studii et imperii as a spatio-temporal transfer of learning and power. This idea was used by European kings to legitimize their hold on power or by institutions of learning to establish intellectual pedigree. For instance, Chrétien de Troyes writes in his Prologue to Cligès:

Our books taught us Greece was extolled


for learning and for chivalry.

Then chivalry came next to Rome;

now all that knowledge has come home

to France, where, if God has ordained,

God grant that it may be retained.

(ll. 25-42)

Frenchmen drew on the theme of the translatio studii in order to establish the Université de Paris as the center of learning by evoking a temporal continuity between the university and the ancient centres of learning (cf. Jeauneau, Translatio studii, 24-36). If such a historical and locational transfer from venerable ancient institutions was perceived to be successful by enough scholars, legitimacy was bestowed upon the institution that so claimed its lineage.

Similarly, Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire, better known as Barbarossa, legitimated his power by tracing it, in an act of translatio imperii, to Charlemagne’s which, in turn, was understood to have renewed—and therefore received its legitimacy from—the Roman Empire (Curtius, European Literature, 29). Certainly, such claims of translatio studii or translatio imperii were not uncontested by other centers of learning (especially Oxford and Cambridge) or other emperors. Yet, such rivalries shared the core idea that legitimacy was derived from translatio studii et imperii. Whoever established themselves as the translator of knowledge and empire, so to speak, would occupy (or at least claim to) center stage in Christendom and would trace their lineage back to the ancients. The notion of time, which is at the heart of this spatio-temporal translation, was understood to be continuous and linear (Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 165). Likewise, the spatial horizon implied in the translatio studii et imperii is a universal, not national, one (Curtius, European Literature, 29; on medieval space cf. Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, 138, 165).

This notion of spatio-temporal translation was fundamental to the understanding of canonicity in the Latin Middle Ages. The canon was universal and eternal, irrespective of the fact that the works thought to be comprised within it differed depending on whom was asked.

While spatio-temporal translation was central, cross-linguistic translation played no role in this understanding of canonicity. Even though canonical texts—first and foremost the Old Testament—were often read in (cross-linguistic) translation, this was not acknowledged. In fact, the Church actively suppressed any notion of the Vulgate being a translation of the (mostly Hebrew) Old Testament (Weissbort and Eysteinsson, Translation, 100), and interdicted any translation of it into other languages.

How we view canonicity along the lines of languages as well as time and space changed considerably with Dante’s Convivio and De vulgari et eloquentia (both written in the first decade of 1300). Dante made the canon malleable by language and thereby gave the canon spatial and temporal specificity. Certainly, in his Convivio, written in vernacular, Dante holds that: “Latin is eternal and incorruptible, while the vernacular is unstable and corruptible” (Book 1, Chapt 5). Yet, despite the eternal status of Latin, Dante writes most of his works in (Tuscan) vernacular. Dante’s conflicting relationship with the vernacular is perhaps most apparent when his De vulgari et eloquentia emphatically communicates the possibility of a vernacular aesthetics rivaling that of Latin, despite the work itself being written in Latin. His Magnum Opus the Divina Commedia, of course, is written in vernacular. The Commedia’s reception into the canon inevitably introduced the vectors of time and space into the notion of canonicity, since  “our [vernacular] language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but […] it must vary according to distances of space and time” (De vulgari et eloquentia, Book 1, Chapt 9). Despite these developments, the crucial role of translation in creating the canon was still awaiting full acknowledgement.

Five-hundred years later, it was Goethe who went beyond the mere inadvertent admission of the canon’s changeability because it now comprised works written in languages reflecting the spatio-temporal vicissitudes of daily life. Goethe rethought the notion of canonicity altogether. Goethe’s canon—his Weltliteratur (world literature)—comes into being through a different notion of translation. Whereas the Latin Canon relies on the mechanism of historical transfer with implicit claims to universal validity in its translatio studii et imperii situating the canon in a realm beyond time and space, Goethe’s world literatureis characterised by a geographical and temporal concurrency enabled by cross-language translation.

Goethe envisions a highly unusual notion of cross-language translation, as he explains in his notes to the West-Eastern Divan. He believes that there are three successive epochs of translation, and in the third, most radical epoch, the translation takes the original’s place and assumes its identity (258; for this interpretation see also Olschner 153). We could not imagine a more decisive departure, at least in theory, from the principles of the medieval canon which was thought to comprise timeless and placeless original works. As we saw, even if the Vulgate Bible was a translation, its canonical status was possible only by the Church’s rigorous exorcising of the notion that it was not an original. Goethe, however, believes that, at least in the third, most mature, epoch of translation, the duality of the original and its translation is transcended (256).

Unfortunately, Goethe remained famously opaque on how these epochs are reached, and it is unclear exactly what transcending the duality of translation and original means for translation in practical terms. Furthermore, Goethe did not always practice what he preached. Indeed in some of his musings on the German language, Goethe seems to attempt a form of translatio studii when he claims that the German language is the true inheritor of Greek and Latin (Krobb, “Priapean Pursuits,” 6).

Goethe’s flaws in formulating notwithstanding, his message of the age of world literature enabled by translation gained currency. Perhaps surprisingly, given that he was later ennobled, Goethe’s message resonated with two figures who sought to fundamentally transform European politics: Marx and Engels. Perhaps the most radical pronunciation and enactment of world literature by cross-linguistic translation is found in their Communist Manifesto (published anonymously). The Manifesto embraces world literature and in so doing its perspective is decidedly geopolitical and contemporaneous. All trace of translatio studii et imperii is gone. Rather, the Manifesto’s purpose was to spread the idea of Communism presently and as far as possible—a task only achievable through translation.

Thus, in order to facilitate translations, it seems that Marx and Engels resorted to a remarkable ploy: they concealed the Manifesto’s original language. Consequently, we have the curious situation that the authors call for the Manifesto to be published in—and thus translated into—a variety of languages without giving any indication of the original language (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution, 51). In accordance with such ideas of linguistic and translational relativity, the Manifesto was, at times, even translated from translations (Puchner, Poetry of the Revolution 53).

Endowing translation with such importance may seem exaggerated, especially given that translations only make up 3% of the UK and US book market. However, a look at canons tells a different story. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canonlists Henryk Ibsen, among 13 other non-English authors (out of a total of 26), whose original works would be intelligible only to Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish speakers—a group comprising only about 20 million people. Broader and more multicultural, the recent Norton Anthology of World Literature consists almost entirely of translated works. Cross-language translation is so prominent in canons that they do not exist without it. Given the near-universal presence of (cross-language) translation in canons, we are well into Goethe’s third epoch and the real issue is to remain aware that many, probably most, of “our” canonical works are only accessible to us as translations.

Julian Koch is a German and Translation Studies Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. His research interests include Translation, Post-WWII German and French poetry, narratology, documentaries on genocide, analytical approaches to continental philosophy (esp. Kant), and philosophical notions of the imagination (18-19th century).

East Asia Japan Literature

Lu Xun (1881–1936) and Uchiyama Kanzō (1885–1959)

By guest contributor Joshua Fogel

Several years ago, I was invited to give a paper at a workshop organized by graduate students at University of California, Berkeley. The topic was friendship in East Asia—with no specified time period or country or discipline. I have worked in the field of the cultural relations between Chinese and Japanese for several decades now, and I have long been intrigued by the friendship between the two men given in my title—the former China’s best-known writer of the twentieth century and the latter the Japanese owner of a bookstore in Shanghai, who lived in China for thirty years. I knew something of their ties, but this invitation gave me an opportunity to plunge into it head-first. The workshop did not produce a volume of proceedings, but I continued with my paper and came up with a short book published earlier this year (2019) by the Association for Asian Studies in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun was one of the best-educated men of his era, a thoroughgoing iconoclast in many realms and, at the same time, a man deeply attached to many of his own cultural traditions. He managed to alienate almost all of the political types who came into contact with him—Communist or Nationalist—because he simply couldn’t abide empty slogans and did not suffer fools, and he was a virtual magnet for young writers and artists, and of course journalists. He was an open Japanophile (culturally, not politically) at a time when that was anything but politically correct, and mercilessly critical of countless aspects of Chinese behavior. The Communists have adopted him (posthumously, of course), although in the 1930s they attacked him pitilessly; since his death (when he no longer had the capacity to affect his image), he has become an icon in China and the center of a publishing cottage industry, with journals, and schools, and parks, and museums named after him. In fact, for the longest time, he was for Western Sinology the only twentieth-century Chinese writer worthy of more than one book. I never dreamed that I might add to that section of the library.

Uchiyama Kanzō

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Uchiyama dropped out of school at age twelve, held a number of menial dead-end jobs, and then found God, converted to Christianity, and became a traveling salesman in the Lower Yangzi region on the Chinese Mainland. Somehow, he acquired sufficient Chinese to do this and then with his wife opened a bookstore in Shanghai in the late 1910s. The store grew and grew until it held the largest collection of Japanese books in the city. This was a time when thousands of Chinese who had earlier studied in Japan and returned home were now trying to keep abreast of the world, and doing so via Japanese publications and translations was the means of choice. They flocked to Uchiyama’s bookstore and made it a success.

Lu Xun showed up several days after moving to Shanghai in 1927, and the two men—despite their entirely different backgrounds—hit it off immediately and became the closest of friends. As the political world of Shanghai was closing in on Lu Xun—there were several attempts on his life—Uchiyama repeatedly found safe houses for him and his family to relocate to, including the second story of his own store. He also handled all of Lu Xun’s mail and royalties through the bookstore—which also meant that Lu Xun’s address would not be public knowledge. When Lu Xun tried to popularize Chinese woodcuts, a project which became extremely important to him, on several occasions Uchiyama found space in the city for exhibitions and even imported his brother from Tokyo to teach the craft to Chinese students. Woodcuts were an ancient Chinese art (or craft), but the technique had largely been forgotten in the country.

Under normal circumstances, Lu Xun would appear every day at the Uchiyama Bookstore and spend hours “holding court” with younger writers and journalists, smoking non-stop—in fact, there was a special rattan chair that Uchiyama placed in the bookstore which everyone knew was reserved for Lu Xun. Tea and sweets were always in served by the Uchiyamas, especially in wintertime.

Lu Xun (left) and his acolytes

His daily presence rendered the bookstore a kind of latter-day salon, and his followers constituted a who’s who of Chinese culture.

My book follows the friendship between these two men, how they helped each other, and what each may have gained from the other’s friendship. Friendship is a difficult concept about which to generalize—being culturally, temporally, and personally bound in so many ways. Nonetheless, Uchiyama provided Lu Xun with a safe space in his bookstore where he could meet and converse with dozens and dozens of Chinese and Japanese poets, novelists, screenwriters, publishers, artists of all stripes, and many others, a space relatively free of fractious political world outside. And, he could smoke (in the bookstore!) to his heart’s content.  It was Lu Xun’s happiest place, other than his home, to spend time over the last decade of his life. Uchiyama, of course, looked up to Lu Xun, as did almost everyone in the cultural world of Shanghai. He also arranged an assortment of meetings between Lu Xun and Japanese publishing houses—and even with visiting dignitaries, such as George Bernard Shaw.

Lu Xun’s chain-smoking caught up with him in 1936, while Uchiyama lived another twenty-plus years before suddenly succumbing to a heart attack while on a visit to China. He is buried in the international cemetery in Beijing. Writing this book over the past few years has thrown into relief just how hard it can be for people with totally different backgrounds, nationalities, religions, and politics to remain friends. If anything, it was probably harder in Shanghai in the late 1920s and 1930s, as total war was soon to engulf the region; one year after Lu Xun’s death, the Japanese military launched an attack on Shanghai. That same year, on the anniversary of his death, Mao Zedong (then hiding in the caves of far-off Yan’an) wrote a eulogy for the man he dubbed a “sage” (shengren). I’m sure Lu Xun is still turning in his grave.

Joshua Fogel holds a Canada Research Chair in history at York University, and is the author of numerous books, most recently A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzō, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War (Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2019).

Intellectual history Literature music Think Piece US history

Toni Morrison, Historian

By Editor Spencer Weinreich

I read the news today, oh boy. As Shakespeare’s Richard II almost said,

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of queens.

The world mourns the loss of its greatest storyteller today, the incomparable Toni Morrison. Storyteller, and historian—for they amount to the same thing. A. J. P. Taylor once reflected on the many languages in which the word for “story” and the word for “history” are one and the same: historia, storia, histoire, Geschichte.

It would save much trouble if we had the same coincidence of words in English. Then perhaps we should not be ashamed to admit that history is at bottom simply a form of story-telling.

Taylor, Essays in English History, 9

The tale is all in the telling, of course, even (or especially) when the tale is a history. As Taylor suggests, every historian, whether they like it or not, is a storyteller, with choices to make that are narrative and stylistic as well as analytic and forensic. Indeed, Hayden White’s Metahistory famously challenged any such distinction, arguing that the intellectual work of historiography is quintessentially narrative. For White, it is a historian’s choice of “emplotment”—is the story a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire?—that guides the arguments they make and the conclusions they draw. The medium is the message.

Toni Morrison receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Stockholm, Sweden, 1993 (photo credit: Associated Press)

In her Nobel Prize Lecture of 1993, Morrison radically affirmed this unity:

Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. 

The Lecture is a magnificent reflection on the nature of language and the nature of power, together with the shared work of making meaning. Any writer, anyone who uses language, should put their hands to the tapestry Morrison weaves with her words. Just as Taylor insisted that “the original task of the historian is to answer the child’s question: ‘What happened next?'” (9), so I posit that the opening words of Morrison’s Nobel Lecture are in spirit the opening words of every work of history ever written: “Once upon a time…”

Yet if the historian is willing to borrow the storyteller’s mantle, it would be churlish not to return the hospitality. I have no hesitation in adding “historian” to Morrison’s many achievements and accolades. The publicity material for her final novel, God Help the Child (2015), a searing exploration of childhood trauma, declared it “the first book by Toni Morrison to be set in our current moment.” And so it proves: a glance back at her oeuvre reveals a singular preoccupation with the past, from her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), set in 1941, to her magnum opus, Beloved (1987), set just after the American Civil War, to her penultimate book, Home (2012), which takes place in the 1950s. Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and More,” the countless victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade, whose agonies and unfathomable experiences the novel unflinchingly chronicles.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble, The Modern Medea (1867), based on the story of Marget Garner

True, Beloved is a work of fiction, albeit based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her two-year-old daughter rather than permit her to be returned to the South as a slave. And historical fiction and a work of history are not the same thing, though Morrison undertook immense historical research to write the book and even more to write the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner (2005). She delivered keynote remarks at the Princeton & Slavery Project Symposium in November 2017 that speak to her own sweeping historical vision, her keen-eyed analytical powers, and her deep engagement with the work of academic historians.

More to the point, the monographs and journal articles with which we are most comfortable constitute only one form of historical work. Morrison’s close friend and fellow visionary talent James Baldwin picked out this narrowness when writing about jazz.

That music is produced by, and bears witness to, one of the most obscene adventures in the history of mankind. It is a music which creates, as what we call History cannot sum up the courage to do, the response to that absolutely universal question: Who am I? What am I doing here?

Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption, 150–51

But of late history has been growing braver, or at least certain historians are, and we need not shy away from these questions anymore. Thus, for example, Sarah Haley, whose pathbreaking monograph No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (2016) marshals blues music, prison songs, and poetry to imagine the experiences of black women under Jim Crow. Vitally, Haley does more than mine these works as primary sources or ego documents, she vindicates their writers and singers as historians and interpreters of their own experiences. The same is true for those, like Morrison, at a farther remove from the events they envision. Nina Simone’s haunting “Four Women,” written in 1966, is nevertheless, as Thulani Davis put it, “an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become” (2003).

One of our finest living historians, Peter Brown, wrote,

In the middle of an exacting history course, it takes a high degree of moral courage to resist one’s own conscience: to take time off; to let the imagination run; to give serious attention to reading books that widen our sympathies, that train us to imagine with greater precision what it is like to be human in situations very different from our own. It is essential to take that risk.

Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, 4

An argument for the benefits of reading, listening, viewing, and learning widely, to be sure, but also a broader vision of what it means to do history. Morrison’s evocations of the horrors of the Middle Passage, the wilderness of the colonial Chesapeake, the ordinary and extraordinary lives of African Americans across the centuries are works of genius, not simply as masterpieces of literary craft, but also as a virtuosic historiography of the United States’s past.

“To imagine with greater precision what it is like to be human in situations very different from our own” is the very essence of the historical imagination and it is the work to which Morrison’s words call us. And we are all called, for the task is universal. As her Nobel Lecture concluded of the project that is language, “Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.”