Where to Start Reading the Transcendent Work of Toni Morrison

The Nobel laureate and towering figure of American letters Toni Morrison died Monday at the age of 88.  She leaves behind a unique and indispensable catalog of works of fiction and nonfiction, explorations of the experiences — often the traumas —  of African Americans across multiple eras,  captured via narratives of breathtaking complexity and great beauty. Her most famous works were her novels, including The Bluest Eye (1970), Song of Solomon (1977), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987); but she also published powerful works of nonfiction, including many speeches and essays, notably collected earlier this year in The Source of Self-Regard.  In remembrance of her life and work, we are re-sharing the post below, originally published in 2015, with the aim of introducing new readers to her legacy.

The incomparable Toni Morrison looms large in American literature. She’s the only living American novelist who has won the Nobel Prize in literature, and only the second American female writer to ever win it. Other honors for her 11 novels include the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To the uninitiated, Morrison’s reputation for genius can make her work seem unapproachable, but it would be a shame to miss out on the talents of this singular storyteller, whose lyrical prose seems to be shot through with a live current of electricity. If you’ve never read Morrison, or are looking to explore more of her work, we suggest starting with these five can’t-miss books.

The Bluest Eye
Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, and her first novel, set in her hometown, might offer first-time readers the best entry to her world. “Quiet as it’s kept,” Morrison writes, “there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.” The story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a confused, mistreated African American girl who wishes for eyes as blue as Shirley Temple’s, was revolutionary when it hit bookstores in 1970, and remains startling for the depth of its revelations.

Morrison’s riveting 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner is the novel that shows off the most of her gifts at once: her poetic prose that almost seems as though it’s meant to be sung, her fierce storytelling instincts, her ability to channel folklore and history into a tale all her own, and her knack for creating an unconventional structure that underscores the impact of the story. This harrowing novel, set after the Civil War, concerns a ghost named Beloved who haunts her mother, Sethe, a woman who killed her child rather than let her be taken into captivity by a posse seeking runaway slaves in 1856.

Song of Solomon
Next to Beloved, Song of Solomon is probably Morrison’s most lauded book, winning the National Book Critics Circle award and a boost from Oprah’s Book Club decades after its publication. This novel is one of Morrison’s only books to feature a male protagonist, the unforgettable Macon “Milkman” Dead III, so named because he kept breastfeeding long past babyhood and was teased for it. In this coming-of-age story set in Michigan, Macon must navigate the complications of growing up as a black man in America, including a rift between his parents and a young woman’s obsessive, unrequited love for him.

Morrison’s Jazz hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of her other books, but it’s a favorite of mine, in part because of its fascinating setting: Harlem in the 1920s. Morrison incorporates rhythms of African American music into the book’s structure. It opens with its narrator discussing a bit of neighborhood gossip, the sad tale of doomed love at the novel’s heart: “He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” The language in Jazz is as sensuous as the passions are unbridled.

God Help The Child
God Help The Child tells the story of Bride, a woman whose light-skinned mother rejected her because she was born “midnight black, Sudanese black.” Bride tries to attract her mother’s attention any way she can, and ends up accusing an innocent person of a crime. When Bride grows up, she tries to make amends for her lie, drives off her lover with a revelation, and then sets out to regain him. Morrison’s writing feels loose and fresh in this novel, as she delves into magical realism. “What you do to children matters,” Morrison writes, underscoring a theme to be found in many of her novels, “And they might never forget.”

Which of Toni Morrison’s works have you experienced?

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