Few contemporary novelists have achieved the venerated status of Toni Morrison. She has written adored modern classics like Beloved and Song of Solomon that daringly blend the supernatural and the natural with an uncommonly poetic eloquence. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Noble Prize for Literature, and is truly one of America’s most gifted storytellers.
Toni Morrison has been called "black America's best novelist," and her incredible string of imaginative contemporary classics would suggest that she is actually one of America's best novelists regardless of race. Be that as it may, it is indeed difficult to disconnect Morrison's work from racial issues, as they lie at the heart of her most enduring novels.
Growing up in Lorain, Ohio, a milieu Jet magazine described as "mixed and sometimes hostile," Morrison experienced racism firsthand. (When she was still a toddler, her home was set on fire with her family inside.) Yet, her father instilled in her a great sense of dignity, a cultural pride that would permeate her writing. She distinguished herself in school, graduating from Howard and Cornell Universities with bachelor's and master's degrees in English; in addition to her career as a writer, she has taught at several colleges and universities, lectured widely, and worked in publishing.
Morrison made her literary debut in 1970 with The Bluest Eye, the story of a lonely 11-year-old black girl who prays that God will turn her eyes blue, in the naïve belief that this transformation will change her miserable life. As the tale unfolds, her life does change, but in ways almost too tragic and devastating to contemplate. On its publication, the book received mixed reviews; but John Leonard of The New York Times recognized the brilliance of Morrison's writing, describing her prose as "...so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."
Over time, Morrison's talent became self-evident, and her reputation grew with each successive book. Her second novel, Sula, was nominated for a National Book Award; her third, 1977's Song of Solomon, established her as a true literary force. Shot through with the mythology and African-American folklore that informed Morrison's childhood in Ohio, this contemporary folktale is notable for its blending of supernatural and realistic elements. It was reviewed rapturously and went on win a National Book Critics Circle Award.
The culmination of Morrison's storytelling skills, and the book most often considered her masterpiece, is Beloved. Published in 1987 and inspired by an incident from history, this post-Civil War ghost story tells the story of Sethe, a former runaway slave who murdered her baby daughter rather than condemn her to a life of slavery. Now, 18 years later, Sethe and her family are haunted by the spirit of the dead child. Heartbreaking and harrowing, Beloved grapples with mythic themes of love and loss, family and freedom, grief and guilt, while excavating the tragic, shameful legacy of slavery. The novel so moved Morrison's literary peers that 48 of them signed an open letter published in The New York Times, demanding that she be recognized for this towering achievement. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2006, it was selected by The New York Times as the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.
In addition to her extraordinary novels, Morrison has also written a play, short stories, a children's book, and copious nonfiction, including essays, reviews, and literary and social criticism. While she has made her name by addressing important African-American themes, her narrative power and epic sweep have won her a wide and diverse audience. She cannot be dismissed as a "black writer" any more than we can shoehorn Faulkner's fiction into "southern literature." Fittingly, she received the Nobel Prize in 1993; perhaps the true power of her impressive body of work is best summed up in the Swedish Academy's citation, which reads: "To Toni Morrison, who, in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."
Good To Know
Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.
In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole playDreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.
Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University.