Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a pioneer and giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and other works transformed American letters, has died at age 88.
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced that Morrison died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Morrison’s family issued a statement through Knopf saying she died after a brief illness.
“Toni Morrison passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” the family announced. “She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing.”
Few authors rose in such rapid, spectacular style. She was nearly 40 when her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” was published. By her early 60s, after just six novels, she had become the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, praised in 1993 by the Swedish academy for her “visionary force” and for her delving into “language itself, a language she wants to liberate” from categories of black and white. In 2019 she was featured in an acclaimed documentary, “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.”
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has passed away aged 88. She was one of the most powerful and influential literary forces of our time.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) August 6, 2019
Morrison helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country’s past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call “the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment.” In her novels, history black history was a trove of poetry, tragedy, love, adventure and good old gossip, whether in small-town Ohio in “Sula” or big-city Harlem in “Jazz.” She regarded race as a social construct and through language founded the better world her characters suffered to attain. Morrison wove everything from African literature and slave folklore to the Bible and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the most diverse, yet harmonious, of literary communities.
Her admirers were countless from fellow authors, college students and working people to Barack Obama, who awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom; to Oprah Winfrey, who idolized Morrison and helped greatly expand her readership. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labeling one of her novels, “Love,” as “perfect” and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet acceptance.
Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while. pic.twitter.com/JG7Jgu4p9t
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) August 6, 2019
Winning the Nobel prize was fabulous’
“Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it,” Morrison told The Associated Press during a 1998 interview. “When she was writing her first book, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ I was an editor at Random House. She was having such a good time, and she never said, ‘Who me? My little book?’
“I decided that … winning the (Nobel) prize was fabulous,” Morrison added. “Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time.”
The second of four children of a welder and a domestic worker, Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town outside of Cleveland. She was encouraged by her parents to read and to think, and was unimpressed by the white kids in her community. Recalling how she felt like an “aristocrat,” Morrison believed she was smarter and took it for granted she was wiser. She was an honors student in high school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of life spent among black intellectuals.
In 1964, she answered an ad to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years, she would have an impact as a book editor, and as one of the few black women in publishing, that alone would have ensured her legacy. She championed emerging fiction authors such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, helped introduce U.S. readers to such African writers as Wole Solinka, worked on a memoir by Muhammad Ali and topical books by such activists as Angela Davis and Black Panther Huey Newton. A special project was editing “The Black Book,” a collection of everything from newspaper advertisements to song lyrics that anticipated her immersion in the everyday lives of the past.
By the late ‘60s, she was a single mother and a determined writer who had been pushed by her future editor, Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf, into deciding whether she’d write or edit. Seated at her kitchen table, she fleshed out a story based on a childhood memory of a black girl in Lorain raped by her father who desired blue eyes. She called the novel “The Bluest Eye.”
Setting her stories in segregated communities, where incest and suicide were no more outrageous then a sign which reads “COLORED ONLY,” Morrison wrote of dreamers for whom the price was often death, whether the mother’s tragic choice to murder her baby girl and save it from slavery in “Beloved,” or the black community that implodes in “Paradise.”
Burdened by the legacy
Like Faulkner, her characters are burdened by the legacy, and ongoing tragedy, of slavery and separation. For Faulkner’s white Southerners, losers of the Civil War, the price is guilt, rage and madness; for Morrison’s slaves and their descendants, supposedly liberated, history follows like the most unrelenting posse.
“The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind,” Morrison wrote in “Beloved,” in which the ghost of the slain daughter returns to haunt and obsess her mother.
“And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem.”
Morrison’s breakthrough came in 1977 with “Song of Solomon,” her third novel and the story of young Milkman Dead’s sexual, social and ancestral education. It was the first work by a black writer since Richard Wright’s “Native Son” to be a full Book-of-the-Month selection and won the National Book Critics Circle award. It was also Morrison’s first book to center on a male character, a novel which enabled her “get out of the house, to de-domesticate the landscape.”
But the mainstream was another kind of education. Reviewing “Song of Solomon,” author Reynolds Price chided Morrison for “the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters.” (He later recanted). When “Beloved” was overlooked for a National Book Award, a letter of protest from 48 black writers, including Angelou and Amiri Baraka, was published in The New York Times Book Review, noting that Morrison had never won a major literary prize.
“Beloved” went on to win the Pulitzer and Morrison soon ascended to the very top of the literary world, winning the Nobel and presiding as unofficial laureate of Winfrey’s book club, founded in 1996. Winfrey chose “Song of Solomon,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Paradise” and “Sula” over the years and would list all of Morrison’s works as among her favorites. Winfrey also starred in and helped produce the 1998 film version of “Beloved.”
She taught for years at Princeton University, from which she retired in 2006, but also had an apartment in downtown Manhattan and a riverfront house in New York’s Rockland County that burned down in 1993, destroying manuscripts, first editions of Faulkner and other writers and numerous family mementoes. She had the house rebuilt and continued to live and work there.
“When I’m not thinking about a novel, or not actually writing it, it’s not very good; the 21st century is not a very nice place. I need it (writing) to just stay steady, emotionally,” she told the AP in 2012.
“When I finished ‘The Bluest Eye,’ … I was not pleased. I remember feeling sad. And then I thought, ‘Oh, you know, everybody’s talking about “sisterhood,’” I wanted to write about what women friends are really like. (The inspiration for ‘Sula’). All of a sudden the whole world was a real interesting place. Everything in it was something I could use or discard. It had shape. The thing is — that’s how I live here”