Toni Morrison examined slavery and its legacy with unflinching detail

American Nobel laureate enjoyed commercial and critical successes

Author Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, died on Monday aged 88. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Author Toni Morrison, the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, died on Monday aged 88. Photograph: Damon Winter/The New York Times

 

Toni Morrison, the 1993 Nobel laureate in literature, whose work explored black identity in America and in particular the experience of black women, died of pneumonia in hospital in New York City on Monday night. She was 88.

The first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison was the author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections. Among them were Song of Solomon, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Morrison was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes. Her novels appeared regularly on The New York Times bestseller list, were featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s television book club and were the subject of myriad critical studies. A longtime faculty member at Princeton University, Morrison lectured widely.

In awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her “novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import,” through which she “gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.

Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez.

Novelist Toni Morrison smiles with US president Barack Obama as he prepares to award her a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington in May 2012. Photograph: Reuters
Novelist Toni Morrison smiles with US president Barack Obama as he prepares to award her a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington in May 2012. Photograph: Reuters

In Sula, a woman blithely lets a train run over her leg for the insurance money it will give her family. In Song of Solomon, a baby girl is named Pilate by her father, who “had thumbed through the Bible, and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome.” In Beloved, the spectre of a murdered child takes up residence in the house of her murderer.

Throughout Morrison’s work, elements like these coalesce around her abiding concern with slavery and its legacy. In her fiction, the past is often manifest in a harrowing present – a world of alcoholism, rape, incest and murder, recounted in unflinching detail.

Identity

It is a world, Morrison writes in Beloved (the novel is set in the 19th century but stands as a metaphor for the 20th), in which “anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind”. “Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you,” she goes on. “Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up.”

But as Morrison’s writing also makes clear, the past is just as strongly manifest in the bonds of family, community and race – bonds that let culture, identity and a sense of belonging be transmitted from parents to children to grandchildren. These generational links, her work unfailingly suggests, form the only salutary chains in human experience.

“She is a friend of my mind,” a character in Beloved, a former slave, thinks about the woman he loves. “She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

Morrison’s singular approach to narrative is evident in her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), written in stolen moments between her day job as a book editor and her life as the single mother of two young sons. Reviewing the novel in The New York Times, John Leonard commended Morrison for “prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry”.

The novel prefigures much of Morrison’s later work in its preoccupation with history – often painful – as seen through lens of an individual life; with characters’ quests, tragic or successful, for their place in the world; with the redemptive power of community; and with the role women play in the survival of such communities.

Toni Morrison speaks in New York on January 14th, 1986. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York Times
Toni Morrison speaks in New York on January 14th, 1986. Photograph: Jack Manning/The New York Times

Morrison explored these themes even more overtly in her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), the book that cemented her reputation. She published Beloved, widely considered her masterwork, in 1987. Widely acclaimed by book critics, Beloved was made into a 1998 film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Winfrey.

The milieu of her books, typically small-town and Midwestern, “offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto”. It was in just such a setting that Morrison was reared. The daughter of George Wofford and the former Ella Ramah Willis, she was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18th, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, an integrated working-class community about 48km west of Cleveland. At 12, Chloe joined the Roman Catholic Church. She took the baptismal name Anthony, hence the nickname Toni.

First novel

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in Washington, she earned a master’s in English from Cornell in 1955. She taught English for two years at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard as a faculty member. There, she joined a fiction workshop and began work on a story about a black girl who craves blue eyes – the kernel of her first novel.

In 1958, she married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica; they were divorced in 1964. In interviews, Morrison rarely spoke of the marriage, though she intimated that her husband had wanted a traditional 1950s wife – and that, she could never be.

After her divorce, Morrison moved with her sons to Syracuse and then New York, New York City and worked as an editor for Random House, where her authors included Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.

“I look very hard for black fiction because I want to participate in developing a canon of black work,” Morrison said. The Black Book (1974), compiled by Morrison, is a lavishly illustrated scrapbook spanning three centuries of African American history. Researching it, Morrison came across a 19th-century article about a fugitive slave named Margaret Garner who, on the point of recapture near Cincinnati, killed her infant daughter. The story would become Beloved. In 2006, The Book Review named the novel the best American work of fiction of the previous quarter-century.

Morrison’s other novels include Jazz (1992), set in 1920s New York; and Home (2012), about a black Korean War veteran’s struggles on returning to the Jim Crow South.

She is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Another son, Slade, with whom she collaborated on the texts of many books for children, died in 2010.

– (New York Times service)

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