Authors: Toni Morrison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize–winning American author, editor, and professor.

February 18, 1931

Lorain, Ohio

Biography

Toni Morrison greatly advanced the American literary canon by producing unselfconscious works about the experiences of African Americans, often focusing in particular on black females, and with a black audience in mind. Yet her novels, many of which have been translated into other languages, have earned heartfelt popular and critical approval through their universal appeal.

Morrison, the second of four children, was born Chloe Anthony Wofford into a poor but loving household composed of siblings, parents, grandparents, and sometimes friends. Both of her parents, George and Ramah (née Willis) Wofford, emigrated to her native Lorain, Ohio, from the South, her mother at age six coming from Alabama with parents, her father as a teenager from Georgia. Overall, Morrison’s formative years were rich with experiences specific to African Americans and black communities, and her novels often include attempts to recapture in words that universe and time which she and the rest of the world have left behind. Growing up during the Great Depression in that multiethnic, blue-collar steel town just west of Cleveland, Ohio, on Lake Erie, Morrison learned early the dynamics of familial relations, sexuality, marriage, segregation, and racism. Hers was a world unified by pain and violence as much as by love and respect, and it is the world of pain and violence for poor black girls that she presents in her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The story of Pecola Breedlove is not autobiographical, but there is a connection between the book and what Morrison remembered of the loneliness and struggle of other black girls whom she saw or knew. She would claim that her first novel, narrated by a little girl, gives voice to black female children’s wonder of and response to a hostile universe that discredits and abuses them.

Toni Morrison, Miami Book Fair International, 1986

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Toni Morrison speaking at "A Tribute to Chinua Achebe - 50 Years Anniversary of 'Things Fall Apart'". The Town Hall, New York City, February 26th, 2008.

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Morrison knew segregation as a habit and physical beauty as superficial, so she cultivated the serious habits inherited from her parents. In her first-grade class, she was the only African American and the only child who could read. Her adolescence was studious and industrious; she read Fyodor Dostoevski, Gustave Flaubert, and Jane Austen, and she worked cleaning houses from age thirteen. Her goal was to become a dancer and do some acting. Having graduated from high school with honors in 1949, Morrison enrolled at Howard University in Washington, DC, expecting to be immersed in learning and progress alongside serious, involved young black people like herself. Her disappointment with the typical college scene, where appearances rule and values are suspended, was assuaged by her studies as an English major with a minor in classics. She also acted with the Howard University Players and with a repertory troupe that spent summers performing in the South. While an undergraduate, she began to go by the nickname Toni. Having earned an undergraduate degree in 1953 and feeling unsure about what to do next, Morrison proceeded to Cornell University in upstate New York for a master’s degree in English. Her thesis (in 1955) was concerned with suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and she later published criticism on Faulkner.

Morrison taught English courses for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, followed by a return to Howard University to teach English and the humanities there until 1964. While she was at Howard the second time, many important developments occurred for Morrison: She married in 1958, began writing in 1961, bore a child, and separated from her husband during her second pregnancy. She returned to her hometown with her three-year-old son, Harold, and soon gave birth to another son, Slade. She would generally refrain from publicly discussing her former husband, Harold Morrison, but did disclose that in the marriage she had lost feelings of purpose, self-worth, and autonomy. In 1967 Morrison and her two sons moved to Syracuse, New York, where she took a job editing textbooks for a subsidiary of Random House. While there she wrote The Bluest Eye, which grew out of a short story written half-seriously when she was part of a creative writing group. The loneliness accompanying the rearing of two small boys in a strange place needed to be pacified, and writing the novel was her way of connecting her present situation with a satisfying past and establishing continuity.

The distance between past and present life grew larger when Morrison was transferred to New York City in the early 1970s, to assume the position of book editor at Random House. The conflict between the woman from small-town Ohio and the woman who left for the big city emerges in Sula as the conflict between Nel Wright and Sula Peace—that is, the conflict between two childhood friends who are reunited years later only to betray each other. Significantly, it is Nel, the woman who stays in the small town (Medallion, Ohio), who survives the conflict, although the author endorses Sula’s point of view. Like Sula, Morrison educated herself and expanded her wisdom of people by moving on; as Sula returns to Medallion and applies what the world has taught her, so Morrison when writing returns to rural heartlands to reinterpret her past. At the same time, she shares the flavor and texture of her culture with a public that has either never seen or forgotten it. Morrison indeed triumphed in the big city, as she had in writing: Sula was nominated for the National Book Award in 1974. She also found success as an editor, with some of the better-known books she edited including the autobiographies by Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis, as well as fiction by writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones.

The search for continuity of existence and heritage makes itself felt in Morrison’s three following novels and her work on a musical. This theme works most strongly in her third novel, Song of Solomon. Here she focuses on male characters, one of whom is tortured by the past and one who wants simply to find his past. There is an interesting parallel between Morrison’s father and the character Guitar Baines. George Wofford believed that white people are inherently evil (by their methods and position of dominance), while black people are the only truly humane race. Guitar’s belief is the same as George Wofford’s; in fact, he belongs to an underground group that executes a white person whenever an African American is lynched by whites. Song of Solomon challenges extreme racist thinking, with an eye toward neither integration nor segregation but toward definition and identification. The odyssey of the character Milkman Dead is that of the black Everyman, capable of owning houses but lacking a home, and Morrison’s message is that people must find value in themselves as humans, not in reaction to what is inhuman.

Tar Baby, Morrison's 1981 best-seller, looks at the social stratification among African Americans and poses the young, European-educated American black woman Jadine as a rising star. The epitome of social success and beauty in a white-defined cosmos, she feels troubled, as if something is missing in her identity and values because she does not fit into the black society she considers home. She tries to recapture a familiar identity through a relationship with a chance acquaintance she met while in the Caribbean. The man, Son, is the archetypal outsider whose identity changes continuously as he moves from place to place. Submitting to the hardships of the male-dominated life of a rural village does not suit Jadine; she has grown beyond familiar black female identities. Jadine represents the problems accompanying black women who are educated and thus alienate themselves from their root culture, problems Morrison herself experienced as a rising professional who was black, female, and urban. There is a parallel between fiction and author: Morrison created Jadine after the enormous success of Song of Solomon and after she had become a visiting lecturer at Yale University in 1976.

While editing The Black Book: Three Hundred Years of African American Life in 1974, Morrison came across the story of a Kentucky slave woman who tried to kill her children in order to save them from lives of slavery. This woman became Morrison’s inspiration for the character of Sethe in her fifth novel. Beloved provides an unexpected view of the horrors of black heritage. It again explores complex notions of identity, race, and family. As a dual-purpose work, Beloved was arguably Morrison’s most political book at the time of its release, but it builds on themes raised in the earlier four novels, such as mother-daughter conflicts and questions concerning the strength of the female community and the supernatural. Set in the early aftermath of slave times, the story suggests that a community of women can be strong even under racial and sexual oppression. In this book, Morrison wrestles with metaphysical aspects of black experience. For her, female power has not sprung up in the late twentieth century; rather, it has always existed, even during slavery. Sethe and her friends triumph over tyranny as much as Jadine does.

By this time Morrison was established as a critical and commercial success, winning various awards and other recognition. The Bluest Eye appeared in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, 1985; a condensed version of Sula was published in Redbook magazine in 1974; Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1977 and was a selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club; and Tar Baby quickly became a nationwide best-seller. The highly acclaimed Beloved won for Morrison the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1988.

In 1990 Morrison was asked to participate in a photographic exhibit at the Museum of African American History in Detroit. She had reservations, however, asking if young black women really have a greater need for role models than young women of different races. Remaining committed to both writing and teaching, in 1989 she accepted the Robert F. Goheen Professorship in the Humanities at Princeton University, breaking racial and gender barriers by becoming the first African American woman to hold such a prestigious position in an Ivy League university. In 1992 she published Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which examines the impact that racial separation has had, and continues to have, on writers. In this book, Morrison considers writers such as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Willa Cather, and Edgar Allan Poe, discussing their character roles and central themes. Also in 1992, Morrison’s novel Jazz was published as a follow-up to Beloved and the second book in a planned trilogy.

The next year, 1993, Morrison became the first African American and only the eighth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for Beloved. She was later awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (1996) and the National Humanities Medal (2001). Her first novel after winning the Nobel Prize, Paradise, begins with the murder by nine men of four women—women whose individual races are never made entirely clear—at a convent outside of the all-black town of Ruby, Oklahoma. Morrison explores the ways in which the oppressed can become oppressors, the victims victimizers, by laying out the long history of Ruby and its families, from the freed slaves who founded the town after the Civil War to the turbulent social changes set in motion by the Civil Rights movement.

Morrison continued publishing into the twenty-first century. Her novel Love (2003) focused on an examination of the titular theme, through the lens of the family experience. She also collaborated with her son Slade on a series of books for children, including The Ant or the Grasshopper (2003) and The Lion or the Mouse? (2003). She also continued to develop nonfiction works, including Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004), again using a unique approach to take a fresh look at a historical chapter of the African American experience. Morrison also branched into new literary territory in writing the libretto to the opera Margaret Garner (2005), which tells the tale of the slave woman that served as the basis for Beloved The well-reviewed novel A Mercy, about early slavery in the Americas, followed in 2008.

Awards also continued to stream in for Morrison. She was named to France's Legion of Honour in 2010, and in 2012 she received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. 2012 also saw the publication of her novel Home, which shows the effects of racism and post-traumatic stress disorder on a war veteran. Morrison's next novel was God Help the Child (2015), which tackled issues of child abuse along with familiar themes of race and identity. She was presented with the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Bluest Eye, 1970 Sula, 1973 Song of Solomon, 1977 Tar Baby, 1981 Beloved, 1987 Jazz, 1992 Paradise, 1998 Love, 2003 A Mercy, 2008 Home, 2012 God Help the Child, 2015 Drama: Dreaming Emmett, pr. 1986 Desdemona, pr. 2011 Nonfiction: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992 Conversations with Toni Morrison, 1994 (Danille Taylor-Guthrie, editor) Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, 1997 Remember: The Journey to School Integration, 2004 What Moves in the Margin: Selected Fiction, 2008 (Carolyn C. Denard, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Big Box, 1999 (with Slade Morrison and Giselle Potter) The Book of Mean People, 2002 (with Slade Morrison) The Lion or the Mouse?, 2003 (with Slade Morrison) The Ant or the Grasshopper?, 2003 (with Slade Morrison) The Poppy or the Snake?, 2003 (with Slade Morrison) Peeny Butter Fudge, 2009 (with Slade Morrison) The Tortoise or the Hare, 2010 (with Slade Morrison) Little Cloud and Lady Wind, 2010 (with Slade Morrison) Please, Louise, 2013 (with Slade Morrison) Edited Texts: To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P.Newton, 1972 The Black Book: Three Hundred Years of African American Life, 1974 Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality, 1992 Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, 1996 (of Toni Cade Bambara) Burn This Book, 2009 Miscellaneous: Margaret Garner, 2005 (libretto) Bibliography Bloom, Harold, ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. A selection of criticism on Morrison, with an introduction by Bloom and an extensive bibliography. Conner, Marc C., ed. The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. A collection of essays concentrating on the imagery and stylistics of Morrison’s writings and her ability to convey the "unspeakable" aspects of African American experience. Fultz, Lucille P. Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. An examination of Morrison’s approach to differences (for example, black and white, male and female, wealth and poverty) in her intricate narratives. Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison’s Fiction. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Part of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series, this book addresses such topics as black womanhood, male consciousness, and community and cultural identity in Morrison’s novels. Includes bibliography and index. Furman, Jan, ed. Toni Morrison’s "Song of Solomon." New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. The essays collected in this volume represent the major critical responses to Morrison’s novel; intended as a starting point for students first encountering the book. Ghansah, Rachel Kaadzi. "The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison." The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2015, https:/www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017. Provides an overview of Morrison's life and career, focusing on her vision of African American literature. Harris, Trudier. Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991. A collection of essays that examine Morrison’s novels from an African and African American mythological and folkloric perspective and examine the archetypes and antiheroes that pervade her stories. An important scholarly guide to understanding the subtext of Morrison’s work. Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An excellent source of literary criticism. Contains bibliography and index. McKay, Nellie Y., ed. Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. This volume, part of a series on American literature, firmly places Morrison on the list as one of the "most important writers in America." A compilation of reprinted essays by various authors, nine of which are original and written specifically for this publication. Also includes reviews, interviews, and literary criticism of Morrison’s first four novels. No bibliography. Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1987. The articles and essays by Morrison and the interviews with her listed here are arranged chronologically to present clearly the evolution of her ideas. Includes critical reviews of her fiction and a listing of honors and awards. Subject index provided. Otten, Terry. The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989. In this groundbreaking study of Morrison’s first five novels, Otten explores the mythic substance in her writings by tracing the motif of the biblical fall, with close attention to the historical and literary backdrop. Peach, Linden, ed. Toni Morrison. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Focuses on interpretation and criticism of Morrison’s works and examines African American women in literature. Provides bibliography and index. Samuels, Wilfred D., and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Toni Morrison. Boston: Twayne, 1990. This study analyzes five of Morrison’s novels, including Beloved. The authors explore common themes such as black folklore and mysticism in Morrison’s writings. Contains excerpts from interviews. Tally, Justine, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2007. Morrison’s novels and short stories are discussed in this collection of essays, which delves into questions of gender, race, and class. This volume also offers readers a comprehensive look at the author’s political views and how they manifested themselves in her writing. Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. This book is made up of interviews with Morrison and other black women writers. The Morrison interview contains some of her most cogent and forthright expressions of her commitment to politics in writing and a black or Afrocentric aesthetic.

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