Some 30 years ago I was finishing my first book on Faulkner — a labor of love and of critical ambition. The “theory wars” (“deconstruction”!) had erupted in the humanities, and my book sought to reach such theory-informed readers. This labor was exhilarating but exhausting as well. Faulkner had been all but obsessively on my mind ever since 1983. What other novelist, I wondered, could possibly matter to me as he did?

Listening to Toni Morrison read the opening chapter of her unpublished novel, Beloved, at a Faulkner conference in 1985 unexpectedly gave me my answer. Although her voice was soft and her tone unassertive, the story she began to unfold gripped me utterly — ghosts, violence, magic realism, black wounds, all of this conveyed in a rhetoric of quiet and wit-suffused authority. Slavery and its unbearable damage were on the docket. I would have to read this novel-in-the-making.

I did read Beloved as soon as it appeared (1987), and the response generated in me by the author’s earlier reading deepened in resonance. This was the most compelling novel I had read since Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929). I determined, then and there, to launch my next two projects. I would read every novel this woman had written and was yet to write, and I would publish my next book on her. Its title would turn out to be the most haunting phrase in her Song of Solomon, “what else but love?” and its purpose would be to juxtapose America’s two literary giants of the 20th century: Faulkner and Morrison.

I had already read The Bluest Eye, so I reread (and rediscovered) it. I then read her second novel, Sula, and was astonished by its gnomic lyricism. Then came Song of Solomon, a titanic multi-century exploration of race in America, the failure of the black father, the damaged lives flowing from the unstanchable wound of slavery.

I was hooked and I wrote Toni Morrison to say so. I said to her, “Earlier it was Faulkner, now it is you. He died before I could meet him, but I would love to know you a little while I am seeking to learn all I can about your work.”

What she thought of this letter I do not know, but once my book on her and Faulkner came out — What Else But Love? The Ordeal of Race in Faulkner and Morrison — she generously made room for me in her crowded world. For she was, as Faulkner would not have been caught dead being, a person of letters. She thrived on criticism (he claimed never to read it); she loved going to conferences on her work (he shunned them like the plague); she rose to the role of public intellectual (he disavowed it at every turn).

Thus she freely chose, during her later years, a position that he would have regarded as a Dantesque hell with no exit. She became a commanding spokesperson for both her race and for her country.

Someone once said of Kafka that nothing he wrote was without its touch of genius. And nothing in Morrison’s ample output lacks the grace and authority of her mind and her voice. But Beloved stands alone, towering above other novels of its time (including her own). Professional critics get so much wrong, but they got right their widely shared (and published) conviction that the best American novel of the second half of the 20th century is Beloved.

I met Toni Morrison in 1999 and I persuaded her to come to Swarthmore College to speak to my Faulkner/Morrison class in 2014. She was marvelously responsive to them. After a brash young man berated her for insufficient happiness in her novels (he was bothered by all those suicides) she responded: “When Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence, he got to the phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ only on the third draft. Eighteenth-century thinkers were interested in freedom and profit, not happiness. Happiness is overrated.”

My student may not have been persuaded, but I was. And I was delighted that someone of her stature was telling those privileged young people that happiness was not the key to life. Two years later I was able to persuade her once more, while I was teaching my Faulkner/Morrison course at Harvard, to meet with my class. She was there to give the Norton lectures that year and, though sought after on every front, she took the time once more to address my students’ concerns.

When the subject of Trump arose in the Q & A, she quoted his declaring, “I know words!” She paused, looked at us and repeated, while chuckling, “he knows words,” then murmured “God bless” under her breath and turned to another subject.

Playful yet regal, in her mid-80s and wryly aware of the diminished future awaiting her, she turned every challenge that came her way into an opportunity. No one can say which of the two will seem the greater writer a century from now — if anyone then even cares about such things — but Morrison embodied a realm of values that Faulkner never sought or acknowledged. She not only wrote transcendently about life, she loved being alive.

Philip Weinstein is the Alexander Griswold Cummins professor emeritus of literature at Swarthmore College. He lives in Aquinnah and teaches courses at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. This fall’s course, Fictions of Law, begins Sept. 18 and includes Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka.