By Danny R. Johnson/Washington, DC Correspondent
“I’m interested in how men are educated, how women relate to each other, how we are able to love, how we balance political and personal forces, who survives in certain situations and who doesn’t and, specifically, how these and other universal issues relate to African Americans. The search for love and identity runs through most everything I write.”
Toni Morrison, 1992
In this comment from a 1992 interview, Toni Morrison gave an eloquent description of the complex range of issues she explored in her massive body of literature, which spanned over 45 years. Which is why the literary world was stunned and saddened by the death of Morrison on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88 in New York City. Morrison was widely recognized as one of the most influential American writers, and her novels are taught in literature, history, women’s studies, and African American studies courses across the United States and around the world. She has received numerous honorary degrees, prizes, and awards, including the prestigious “Nobel Prize for Literature.” Above all, Morrison will be remembered for her rich, lyrical prose, which fuses the rhythms and imagery of African American speech and music with other literary influences to create a discourse of its own.
In a 1977 interview, she said that it “seemed to [her] African American people’s grace has been what they do with language.” Morrison is unparalleled in her ability to capture that grace on the page.
Nearly everyone, including the author, was startled when the Swedish Academy awarded the 1993 “Nobel Prize for Literature” to the American novelist Toni Morrison. For one thing, the academy has shown a fondness for spreading the prize around geopolitically and linguistically; because the last two winners at the time–Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and Derek Walcott a year ago–wrote in English, the 1993 year’s winner figured to be one who works in another language. For another, the U.S. authors rumored to be in contention for the prize were Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates; Morrison’s name did not appear in the speculations.
Once the surprise wore off, though, the recognition that Morrison was the first African American, and only the eighth woman at that time, to receive literature’s most prestigious award, worth $825,000 at the time, provoked widespread elation. Inevitably, some people privately suspected that Morrison won because she was an African American female. Had the prize gone to Pynchon, of course, the same skeptics would not have assumed it was because he was a white man? No one can understand, and probably laugh at, this double standard better than Morrison. Over the decades since she dealt with it, triumphantly, throughout her life and through her fiction.
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, in a small, racially mixed steel town. Her grandparents were all originally from the South, and Morrison credits her family with giving her a rich foundation in the language and rhythms of African American culture. She has said she was born into a family of storytellers, and considers her father’s folktales and her mother’s singing as examples of the uniquely African American language she absorbed as a child. After graduating with honors from Lorain public schools, Morrison received a bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1953. In 1955 she earned a master’s degree in English from Cornell University, where she wrote her thesis on alienation in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She taught at Texas Southern University for two years before accepting a teaching position at Howard.
Her English master’s degree qualified her to teach English, which she did, first in Texas and then back at Howard; but her familiarity with Faulkner’s work proved invaluable when she later began to write fiction. Incantatory Faulknerian cadences crop up in all her novels, including her first, “The Bluest Eye” (1970), as in a description of women “old enough to be irritable when and where they chose, tired enough to look forward to death, disinterested enough to accept the idea of pain while ignoring the presence of pain.”
The two are closely akin. Although her novels contain few autobiographical traces, they constitute intensely imaginative responses to the specific historical and social pressures she experienced as an African American woman in the U.S. The imagination are all hers; the pressures have been the inheritance of millions, including, now, those who have read her books.
While an instructor at Howard, she married a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison and had two sons. As the marriage turned sour, Morrison began to seek privacy and consolation in writing, like, as she later remarked, “someone with a dirty habit.” One of the stories she produced, about a little African American girl who prays to be given blue eyes so that others will find her beautiful, later inspired her first novel.
For many years, though, her writing was confined to the off-hours when she was not being a mother or a breadwinner. After her 1964 divorce and resignation from Howard, Morrison and her children moved to Syracuse, New York, where she edited textbooks at a subsidiary of Random House. In 1968 she moved to Random House’s trade division in Manhattan, becoming their first African American woman senior editor. There, she focused on African American authors and edited books by Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and Muhammad Ali. Morrison also continued writing her own fiction at night, after her sons were asleep, and in 1970 published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye.”
“The Bluest Eye” tells the story of a nine-year-old African American girl in a 1940s Ohio town who prays for blue eyes, thinking that will stop the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse she receives from her peers and the adults around her. Morrison became part of a new generation of African American women writers, including Jones, Bambara, and Alice Walker, who were interested in telling African American women’s stories, and stories set wholly within the African American community. “The Bluest Eye” received critical praise, and Morrison became sought-after for book reviews and articles on African American literature and culture.
By almost any measure except her own, Morrison moved easily and successfully through the overwhelmingly white provinces of publishing and academe. At the same time, while working to improve other people’s manuscripts, she had territories of her own in mind. Where in contemporary American literature were the African American girls and women she had known and been? Where were the fictional counterparts of her relatives back in Lorain, portrayed in all their loving, feuding, straitened complexity?
The novels she proceeded to write constitute provisional and consummately artful answers to these questions. “Sula” (1973) examines the stormy friendship of two African American women and the opposing imperatives to obey or to rebel against the mores of their beleaguered community. “Song of Solomon” (1977), her only novel with a male protagonist, proved a critical and commercial breakthrough for Morrison; the phantasmagoric saga of an African American man in mystical pursuit of his past won the author rapturous praise and a greatly enlarged circle of readers.
Those who did not find “Song of Solomon” Morrison’s best book almost invariably choose “Beloved” (1987), an intricate, layered, harrowing story about what an escaped slave did to save her child from bondage and the rippling effects of this act through many years and lives. In 1988, after “Beloved” had been passed over by judges for the National Book Awards and the National Book Critics Circle, a group of 48 African American authors signed and sent a letter to the New York Times Book Review complaining that Morrison had never won an NBA or a Pulitzer Prize. The gesture was well meant but unfortunate. Two months later, when “Beloved” received the Pulitzer–based on merit, the judges insisted, not the public protest–the honor could hardly fail to be perceived, at least in some quarters, as tainted.
No such reservations should attend Morrison’s Nobel. The Swedish Academy sometimes works in mysterious ways, but it cannot be lobbied. It made an honorable, correct choice in Morrison, but probably for at least one wrong reason. In the statement explaining Morrison’s selection, the academy wrote, in part, “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” This is wrong, as have been the many critics over the years who have praised Morrison for “transcending” the African Americanness of her characters and bestowing on them an abstract universality that everyone can understand.
In practice–and this is the great lesson that her fiction has to teach–Morrison did just the reverse. White authors are seldom praised for “transcending” the whiteness of their characters, and Morrison has demanded, through the undeniable power of her works, to be judged by the same standards. She has insisted upon the particular racial identities of her fictional people–African American women and men under stresses peculiar to them and their station in the U.S.–because she knows a truth about literature that seems in danger of passing from civilized memory. The best imaginative writing is composed of specifics rather than platitudes or generalities; it seeks not to transcend its own innate characteristics but to break through the limitations and prejudices of those lucky or wise enough to read it. Madame Bovary is not Everywoman; she is a living complex of new knowledge and experience in the lives of all who have met her. Sethe, the tormented former slave in “Beloved,” is not Everywoman either; she is Toni Morrison’s gift to those who desperately need to know her.
It is universally acknowledged Morrison truly rose to prominence as a novelist, however, with her third book, “Song of Solomon” (1977).
Like both of her earlier novels, “Song of Solomon” is set mainly in a Midwestern town, one of Morrison’s innovations in African American fiction, which is traditionally set in either the urban North or the rural South. But unlike the others, “Song of Solomon’s main character is male, and the book has been described as incorporating more traditionally Western and male themes of flight, journey, and violence into its narrative of a particular African American community and a particular African American family. “Song of Solomon” was chosen a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, the first novel by an African American author to become one since “Native Son” (1940), by Richard Wright. It also won Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award and appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Council of the Arts. Twenty years after its publication, the book was again featured as a national book club selection—this time, for the popular television feature “Oprah’s Book Club” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Morrison’s next novel, “Tar Baby” (1981), received similar acclaim. It was the first of her novels to be set primarily outside of the United States (on a Caribbean island), and in the historical present, and to feature several white main characters. “Tar Baby” was also a bestseller. But Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved (1987), is her most celebrated work. Beloved is loosely based on a news clipping that Morrison read years earlier while editing a book on African American history. The clipping told the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who ran away with her four children, and when captured, tried to slit their throats-and with one child, succeeded-rather than see them returned to slavery. In its fullness, “Beloved” becomes a novel about slavery, about history, about community, about possession—and, ultimately, about love. “Beloved” was another national bestseller, was internationally reviewed, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988.
Morrison has said that “Beloved” is the first novel in a trilogy about love. The second novel in that trilogy, “Jazz,” was published in 1992. Set in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, the novel pieces together the story of a love triangle in a narrative form that imitates the rhythms of jazz music. The third novel, “Paradise,” was published in 1998. It portrays the lives of the townspeople of Ruby, Oklahoma, who believe their community is “the one all-African American town worth the pain,” and the women who inhabit the abandoned convent just outside town, whom the townspeople wish to exclude from their Eden.
Morrison taught at several universities and in 1989 was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. Her reputation as one of the most influential American writers rests not only on her fiction, but also on her work as a literary and cultural critic. Her essays and speeches have been included in numerous journals and books, and in 1992 she published her first volume of literary criticism, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.” That same year she also edited “Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power,” a collection of essays on the Hill-Thomas hearings. In 1996 she coedited a second essay collection, “Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case,” about the former professional athlete who was tried for murder in a highly publicized case. Morrison has also written a play, “Dreaming Emmett,” first produced in New York in 1986.
Through all of these works Morrison has had a tremendous impact on the American and the African American literary landscapes. Her novels are widely accessible to readers and internationally praised for the quality of their prose, yet they remain dedicated to exploring nuances of African American culture and language.
In “African American Women Writers,” a 1984 book by poet Mari Evans, Morrison states that to her the best art “is unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time,” a standard many readers believe she has met in all of her work.