Inside the Milberg Gallery: Sites of Memory - "Thereness-ness"

The following is the third in a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library - “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory.” 

Curated by Autumn Womack, René Boatman, Jennifer Garcon, Kierra Duncan and Andrew Schlager, the exhibition documents Morrison’s creative process through her research materials, manuscript drafts, day planners, and correspondence. 

In “The Site of Memory,” Morrison describes her writing process as “a kind of literary archeology”: “On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply.” As part of reconstructing worlds in literature, worlds that had been overlooked or erased by dominant narratives and histories, Morrison developed her own system of mapping space and time. Beginning in the 1980s, she sketched blueprints, rendered diagrammatic timelines, and drafted hand- drawn maps of her novels’ key spaces, places, and character arcs. In the process, she quite literally reconstructed and constructed the worlds that her characters would inhabit.

Hand-drawn map of "Ruby," the fictional town from the novel "Paradise," by Toni Morrison from her papers at PUL


“Thereness-ness,” a term that Morrison coined in her revision process, names the wide imagination she had for spaces, places, and how we move through them. “Thereness-ness” registers her careful and precise attention to geography and topography; it demands that we reconsider the centrality of place, mapping, and patterns of movement in her work and to her writing process. “Thereness-ness” also draws attention to the unique and graphically based systems of notation that she used to image narrative perspective and to imagine how characters would inhabit invented territories.

The exhibition is open through June 4, 2023 at the Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Please visit the website to view the gallery’s opening hours and for information about how to visit.

Discover more through the Discovering Toni Morrison Digital Princeton University Library Portal.

Published April 27, 2023.

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications