Tuesday, August 6, 2019 3:23 pm
Her Life and Writings
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah (née Willis) and George Wofford. She was the second of four children in a working-class, African-American family. Tomes have been written on her by literary critics, biographers and journalists, all of which are on Wikipedia as follows. Her mother was born in Greenville, Alabama, and moved north with her family as a child. Her father grew up in Cartersville, Georgia. When he was about 15, white people lynched two black businessmen who lived on his street. Morrison said: “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.” Soon after the lynching, George Wofford moved to the racially integrated town of Lorain, Ohio, in hopes of escaping racism and securing gainful employment in Ohio’s burgeoning industrial economy. He worked odd jobs and as a welder for U.S. Steel. Ramah Wofford was a homemaker and a devout member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
When Morrison was about two, her family’s landlord set fire to the house they lived in, while they were home, because her parents couldn’t pay the rent. Her family responded to what she called this “bizarre form of evil” by laughing at the landlord rather than falling into despair. Morrison later said her family’s response demonstrated how to keep your integrity and claim your own life in the face of acts of such “monumental crudeness.”
Morrison’s parents instilled in her a sense of heritage and language through telling traditional African-American folktales and ghost stories and singing songs. Morrison also read frequently as a child; among her favorite authors were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She became a Catholic at the age of 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony (after Saint Anthony), which led to her nickname, Toni. Attending Lorain High School, she was on the debating team, the yearbook staff, and in the drama club.
Adulthood and editing career: 1949–1974
In 1949, she enrolled at the historically black Howard University, seeking the company of fellow black intellectuals. The University is in Washington, D.C., where she encountered racially segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. She graduated in 1953 with a B.A. in English and went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. Her Master’s thesis was Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated. She taught English, first at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years, then at Howard for seven years. While teaching at Howard, she met Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, whom she married in 1958. She was pregnant with their second son when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
After the breakup of her marriage, she began working as an editor in 1965 for L. W. Singer, a textbook division of publisher Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Two years later she transferred to Random House in New York City, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department.
In that capacity, Morrison played a vital role in bringing black literature into the mainstream. One of the first books she worked on was the groundbreaking Contemporary African Literature (1972), a collection that included work by Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and South African playwright Athol Fugard. She fostered a new generation of African-American authors, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Gayl Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered, and she brought out the autobiography of boxer Muhammad Ali, The Greatest. She also published and publicized the work of Henry Dumas, a little-known novelist and poet who was shot to death by a transit officer in the New York City subway in 1968.
Among other books Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book (1974), an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and other documents of black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1970s. Random House had been uncertain about the project, but it got good reviews. Alvin Beam reviewed it for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, writing: “Editors, like novelists, have brain children—books they think up and bring to life without putting their own names on the title page. Mrs. Morrison has one of these in the stores now, and magazines and newsletters in the publishing trade are ecstatic, saying it will go like hotcakes.”
First writings and teaching, 1970–1986
Morrison had begun writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University who met to discuss their work. She attended one meeting with a short story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Morrison later developed the story as her first novel, The Bluest Eye, getting up every morning at 4 am to write, while raising two children alone.
The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 when Morrison was thirty-nine. It did not sell well at first, but the City University of New York put the novel on its reading list for its new black-studies department, as did other colleges, which boosted sales. The book also brought her to the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, an imprint of Random House. Gottlieb would go on to edit most of Morrison’s novels.
In 1975, Morrison’s second novel Sula (1973), about a friendship between two black women, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), brought her national acclaim. The book was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded to Morrison its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction, for writing novels that create “a new vision of American life.”
Morrison gave her next novel, Tar Baby (1981), a contemporary setting. In it, a looks-obsessed fashion model, Jadine, falls in love with Son, a penniless drifter who feels at ease with being black.
In 1983, Morrison left publishing to devote more time to writing, and lived in a converted boathouse on the Hudson River. She taught English at two branches of the State University of New York and at Rutgers University: New Brunswick Campus. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, The State University of New York.
Morrison’s first play, Dreaming Emmett, is about the murder by white men of black teenager Emmett Till in 1955. It was performed in 1986 at the State University of New York at Albany, where she was teaching.
The Beloved Trilogy and the Nobel Prize: 1987–1998
In 1987, Morrison published her most celebrated novel, Beloved. It was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman, Margaret Garner, a piece of history that Morrison had discovered when compiling The Black Book. Garner had escaped slavery but was pursued by slave hunters. Facing a return to slavery, Garner killed her two-year-old daughter but was captured before she could kill herself. Morrison’s novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost, Beloved, to haunt her mother and family.
Beloved was a critical success, and a best-seller for 25 weeks. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that the scene of the mother killing her baby is ”so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp time before and after into a single unwavering line of fate.” Canadian writer Margaret Atwood wrote in a review for the New York Times, “Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds. If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, ‘Beloved’ will put them to rest.”
Not all critics praised Beloved, however. African-American conservative social critic Stanley Crouch, for instance, complained in his review in The New Republic that the novel “reads largely like a melodrama lashed to the structural conceits of the miniseries”, and that Morrison “perpetually interrupts her narrative with maudlin ideological commercials”.
Despite overall high acclaim, Beloved failed to win the prestigious National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight black critics and writers, among them Maya Angelou, protested the omission in a statement that The New York Times published on January 24, 1988. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” they wrote.
Two months later, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It also won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. That same year, Morrison took a visiting professorship at Bard College.
Beloved is the first of three novels about love and African-American history, sometimes called the Beloved Trilogy. Morrison has said they are intended to be read together, explaining, “The conceptual connection is the search for the beloved – the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you.”
The second novel in the trilogy, Jazz, came out in 1992. Told in language that imitates the rhythms of jazz music, the novel is about a love triangle during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. That year she also published her first book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), an examination of the African-American presence in white American literature.
Before the third novel of the trilogy came out, in 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her citation reads: Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, Morrison talked about the power of storytelling. To make her point, she told a story. She spoke about a blind, old, black woman who is approached by a group of young people. They demand of her, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? … Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story.”
For her exceptional writing career, in 1996 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for “distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.” Morrison’s lecture, entitled “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations”, began with the aphorism: “Time, it seems, has no future.” She cautioned against the misuse of history to diminish expectations of the future.
Morrison was also honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which is awarded to a writer “who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work.”
The third of her Beloved trilogy, Paradise, about citizens of an all-black town, came out in 1997. The next year, Morrison was on the cover of Time magazine, only the second female writer of fiction and second black writer of fiction to appear on what was perhaps the most significant U.S. magazine cover of the era.
Beloved onscreen, and “the Oprah effect”
Also in 1998, the movie adaptation of Beloved was released, directed by Jonathan Demme and co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, who had spent ten years bringing it to the screen. Winfrey also stars as the main character, Sethe, alongside Danny Glover as Sethe’s lover, Paul D, and Thandie Newton as Beloved.
The movie flopped at the box office. A review in The Economist suggested that “most audiences are not eager to endure nearly three hours of a cerebral film with an original storyline featuring supernatural themes, murder, rape and slavery.” Film critic Janet Maslin, however, in her review “No Peace from a Brutal Legacy” called it a “transfixing, deeply felt adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel. …Its linchpin is of course Oprah Winfrey, who had the clout and foresight to bring ‘Beloved’ to the screen and has the dramatic presence to hold it together.”
In 1996, television talk-show host Oprah Winfrey had selected Song of Solomon for her newly launched Book Club, which became a popular feature on her Oprah Winfrey Show. An average of 13 million viewers watched the show’s book club segments. As a result, when Winfrey selected Morrison’s earliest novel The Bluest Eye in 2000, it sold another 800,000 paperback copies. John Young wrote in the African American Review in 2001 that Morrison’s career experienced the boost of the “Oprah Effect, …enabling Morrison to reach a broad, popular audience.”
Winfrey selected a total of four of Morrison’s novels over six years, giving Morrison’s novels a bigger sales boost than they got from her Nobel Prize win in 1993. The novelist also appeared three times on Winfrey’s show. Winfrey said, “For all those who asked the question ‘Toni Morrison again?’… I say with certainty there would have been no Oprah’s Book Club if this woman had not chosen to share her love of words with the world.” Morrison called the book club a “reading revolution.”
The early 21st century
Morrison continued to explore new art forms when she returned to Margaret Garner’s life story, the basis of her novel Beloved, to write the libretto for a new opera, Margaret Garner. Completed in 2002, with music by Richard Danielpour, the opera was performed by the New York City Opera in 2007. Meanwhile, Love, her first novel since Paradise, came out in 2003. In 2004, Morrison put together a children’s book called Remember to mark the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 that declared racially segregated public schools to be unconstitutional.
From 1997 to 2003, Morrison was an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
Oxford University awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in June 2005.
In 2006, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best work of American fiction published in the previous 25 years, as chosen by a selection of prominent writers, literary critics, and editors. In his essay about the choice, “In Search of the Best,” critic A. O. Scott said: “Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison’s novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, ‘Beloved’ has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic. This triumph is commensurate with its ambition, since it was Morrison’s intention in writing it precisely to expand the range of classic American literature, to enter, as a living black woman, the company of dead white males like Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain.”
In November 2006, Morrison visited the Louvre Museum in Paris as the second in its “Grand Invité” program to guest-curate a month-long series of events across the arts on the theme of “The Foreigner’s Home.”
A Mercy came out in 2008. Morrison set this novel in the Virginia colonies of 1682. Diane Johnson, in her review in Vanity Fair, called A Mercy “a poetic, visionary, mesmerizing tale that captures, in the cradle of our present problems and strains, the natal curse put on us back then by the Indian tribes, Africans, Dutch, Portuguese, and English competing to get their footing in the New World against a hostile landscape and the essentially tragic nature of human experience.”
From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, Morrison held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University. She said she doesn’t think much of modern fiction writers who reference their own lives instead of inventing new material, and she used to tell her creative writing students, “I don’t want to hear about your little life, OK?” Similarly, she chose not to write about her own life in a memoir or autobiography.
Though based in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton, Morrison did not regularly offer writing workshops to students after the late 1990s, a fact that earned her some criticism. Rather, she conceived and developed the Princeton Atelier, a program that brings together students with writers and performing artists. Together the students and the artists produce works of art that are presented to the public after a semester of collaboration. In her position at Princeton, Morrison used her insights to encourage not merely new and emerging writers, but artists working to develop new forms of art through interdisciplinary play and cooperation.
Morrison speaking in 2008
Inspired by her curatorship at the Louvre Museum, Morrison returned to Princeton in fall 2008 to lead a small seminar, also entitled “The Foreigner’s Home.”
On November 17, 2017, Princeton University dedicated Morrison Hall (a building previously called West College) in her honour.
Home and final years: 2010–2019
In May 2010, Morrison appeared at PEN World Voices for a conversation with Marlene van Niekerk and Kwame Anthony Appiah about South African literature, and specifically, van Niekerk’s novel Agaat.
Morrison wrote books for children with her younger son, Slade Morrison, who was a painter and a musician. Slade died of pancreatic cancer on December 22, 2010, aged 45. Morrison’s novel Home was half-completed when her son died.
In May 2011, Morrison received an Honorary Doctor of Letters Degree from Rutgers University during commencement where she delivered a speech of the “pursuit of life, liberty, meaningfulness, integrity, and truth.”
Morrison debuted another work in 2011: She worked with opera director Peter Sellars and Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré on a new production, Desdemona, taking a fresh look at William Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. The trio focused on the relationship between Othello’s wife Desdemona and her African nursemaid, Barbary, who is only briefly referenced in Shakespeare. The play–a mix of words, music, and song– premiered in Vienna in 2011.
Morrison had stopped working on her latest novel when her son died. She said that afterward, “I stopped writing until I began to think, He would be really put out if he thought that he had caused me to stop. ‘Please, Mom, I’m dead, could you keep going . . . ?'”
She completed Home and dedicated it to her son Slade Morrison. Published in 2012, it is the story of a Korean War veteran in the segregated United States of the 1950s, who tries to save his sister from brutal medical experiments at the hands of a white doctor.
Morrison in 2013
Oberlin College became in 2012 the home base of the Toni Morrison Society, an international literary society dedicated to scholarly research of Morrison’s work.
God Help the Child, Morrison’s eleventh novel, was published 2015. It follows Bride, an executive in the fashion and beauty industry whose mother tormented her as a child for being dark-skinned––a childhood trauma that has dogged Bride her whole life.
Morrison was a member of the editorial advisory board member of The Nation, a magazine that was started in 1865 by Northern abolitionists.
Morrison died on the night of August 5, 2019, according to a source at her publisher, Knopf. She was 88 years old.