Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who illuminated the joys and agonies of black American life through breathtakingly vital works like Beloved, Song of Solomon and A Mercy, died on Monday night her publisher Knopf confirmed. She was 88 years old.
Over her six-decade career, she wrote 11 novels, five children’s books, two plays, a song cycle and an opera. She served as an editor and professor, mentoring generations of young writers of color. After being largely ignored as a writer for a decade in the ‘70s, Morrison went on to win accolade after accolade, from the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Morrison widened the nation’s literary canon, serving as its conscience through trying times and establishing herself as the keeper of its marginalized histories. Through her inventive turns of phrase, graceful incorporation of African-American vernacular, textured character portraits, sharp historical gaze and tragic plot turns, she is one of the most accomplished and impactful writers in the history of American literature.
“What was driving me to write was the silence — so many stories untold and unexamined,” she told The New Yorker in 2003.
Her early years
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in the rust-belt town of Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children born to Ramah (née Willis), a homemaker, and George Wofford, a shipyard welder. Both of her parents witnessed the unbridled racism of the south firsthand: her father, as a child, saw the lynching of two men, and harbored a deep distrust of white people for the rest of his life. The family’s life in the more integrated Lorain was nevertheless extremely trying, especially during the Great Depression: When Morrison was about two, her family’s landlord set their apartment on fire for not being able to afford the rent.
Stories were an integral part of family life. Her parents told her ghost stories and traditional African-American folktales; so did her grandmother Ardelia Willis, who also lived with them. “She told us stories to keep us working at tedious tasks,” Morrison wrote of her grandmother in the foreword to Tar Baby, “picking through baskets of wild grapes to sort out the bruised; to take our minds off pain and chickenpox; to split open the dreary world to expose an enchanted one.”
Morrison was a precocious reader who devoured works by Jane Austen, Richard Wright, Mark Twain and many more. She converted to Catholicism when she was 12, and as a teenager she joined her school’s yearbook staff and debate team. To make money she cleaned houses for white families and worked as a secretary to the head librarian at the Lorain Public Library.
When Morrison reached college age she decided to attend Howard University — her father took on another job in order to afford the tuition, flouting union rules. There, she studied humanities under Alain Locke — the acknowledged “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance — and joined the Howard University Players, the school’s theatrical group, with which she toured the segregated south. After graduating in 1953 she went on to Cornell, where she received a master’s degree in English and wrote her thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
Launching her writing career
After graduating from Cornell, Morrison embarked on her teaching career, first landing a job at Texas Southern University, and then back at Howard, where she taught the soon-to-be civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. It was there that she met Harold Morrison, an architect, and the couple wed 1958; the pair went on to have two children (Ford and Slade) before divorcing in 1964.
During this era she began work on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which depicted a victimized adolescent black girl obsessed by white beauty standards, and who begs God to turn her eyes blue. “I wanted to read this book and no one had written it, so I thought that maybe I would write it in order to read it,” she told The Guardian in 2015. She hoped to write a novel devoid of the white gaze, which she felt hovered over the work of even the most celebrated black writers like Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass.
“I’ve spent my entire life trying to make sure the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books,” she said in the 2019 documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.
The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 to a minimal response, although the New York Times reviewed it positively, calling her a “writer of considerable power and tenderness.” To earn a living for herself and her two children, Morrison worked as an editor at Random House, encouraging black writers like Gayl Jones and Angela Davis to embrace their own unique and culturally-specific voices. “The way black people talk is not so much the use of non-standard grammar as it is the manipulation of metaphor,” she said in a 1994 interview with Nellie McKay.
In 1974, she published The Black Book, an anthology of African-American life and history that greatly influenced the perception of black anthropology and culture. Two years later, she fought for the publication and marketing of Muhammad Ali’s autobiography The Greatest, despite his controversial rejection of the Vietnam War.