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 by dramatising the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race, has died.
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 2012, Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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, 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. “Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me,” she said in her Nobel lecture. “It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge.”
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, she was one of the book world’s most regal presences, with her expanse of greying dreadlocks, dark, discerning eyes and warm, theatrical voice, able to lower itself to a mysterious growl or rise to a humorous falsetto.
TV presenter Oprah Winfrey idolised Morrison and helped greatly expand her readership. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labelling one of her novels, Love, as “perfect” and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet acceptance. “Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it,” Morrison said in 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 honours student in high school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of a life spent among black intellectuals. At Howard, she spent much of her free time in the theatre, later taught there and also met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, whom she divorced in 1964. They had two boys, Harold and Slade.
In 1964, she answered an advert to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years she would have an impact as an 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 US readers to such African writers as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, worked on a memoir by Muhammad Ali and topical books by such activists as Angela Davis and Black Panther Huey Newton. By the late 1960s 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 wanted to 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.
Her debut as an author came at the height of the Black Arts Movement and calls for literature as political and social protest. Morrison was political because of what she didn’t say. Racism and sexism were assumed; she wrote about their effects, whether in The Bluest Eye or in Sula, a story of friendship and betrayal between two black women.
Setting her stories in segregated communities, where incest and suicide were no more outrageous than 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.
Morrison’s breakthrough came in 1977 with Song of Solomon, her third novel, 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 centre on a male character, a novel that enabled her to “get out of the house, to de-domesticate the landscape”.
But the mainstream was another kind of education. 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 favourites. Winfrey also starred in and helped produce the 1998 film version of Beloved.
As with so many other laureates, Morrison’s post-Nobel fiction was viewed less favourably than her earlier work. Morrison received no major competitive awards after the Nobel and was criticised for awkward plotting and pretentious language in Love and Paradise. But a novel published in 2008, A Mercy, was highly praised. Home, a brief novel about a young Korean War veteran, came out in 2012.
Morrison’s other works included several children’s books co-authored with her son, Slade Morrison (who died of cancer in 2010). She taught for years at Princeton University, from which she retired in 2006, but also had an apartment in Manhattan and a 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.