Toni Morrison, Acclaimed American Storyteller, Dies at 88

Toni Morrison - August 29, 2002 - Getty -H 2016
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The novelist won a Pulitzer for 'Beloved' and then a Nobel Prize for her distinctive, poetic body of work that also includes 'The Bluest Eye' and 'Song of Solomon.'

Toni Morrison, the Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning author whose richly detailed, powerful body of work vividly painted a portrayal of the black experience in America, has died. She was 88.

Morrison died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York after a short illness, according to her publisher.

“It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," Morrison's family said in a statement. "She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life. While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”

Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, said, “She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more.”

Beginning with her 1970 debut novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison quickly established herself as a strong, distinctive voice of her generation. Telling a story about Pecola, an 11-year-old black girl coping with feelings of inferiority because of her looks and the color of her skin as she comes of age in a white society, Morrison penned the novel while teaching at Howard University and raising two sons on her own.

In his review for The New York Times, John Leonard wrote that Morrison "exposes the negative of the Dick-and-Jane-and-Mother-and-Father-and-Dog-and-Cat photograph that appears in our reading primers, and she does it with a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."

Morrison's second novel, Sula, released in 1973, was nominated for a National Book Award. Her third, 1977's Song of Solomon, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named a main selection of the Book of the Month Club. It was the first work of a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940.

Song of Solomon put Morrison in the national spotlight, but it was her fifth novel, Beloved, that proved to be her most celebrated work.

Inspired by the true story of African American slave Margaret Garner, Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave who murders her child rather than allow her to be raised in slavery. Years later, a woman called Beloved appears to haunt Sethe in her home in Cincinnati. Sethe believes Beloved might be her daughter.

Beloved became an instant sensation when it was published in 1987. After it was overlooked for a National Book Award, 48 prominent black intellectuals and writers, including Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alice Walker and Quincy Troupe protested.

The following year, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in 1998, the book was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. In a 2006 New York Times survey of writers and literary critics, it was named the finest work of American fiction of the previous 25 years.

The novel's success fueled Morrison's fame. As Hilton Als wrote in a 2003 profile in The New Yorker, "The actor Marlon Brando would phone to read her passages from her novels that he found particularly humorous. Oprah had her to dinner — on TV. By the time the film of Beloved was released, Morrison's fame was inescapable. I recall walking along the West Side piers in Manhattan and hearing a Puerto Rican queen, defending one of her "children," say to an opponent, "You want me to go Beloved on your ass?"

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, the first black woman to be so honored. On its website, the organization states about the author: "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

Never one to shy away from voicing an opinion, Morrison raised eyebrows in 1998 with an essay she wrote for The New Yorker that dubbed Bill Clinton "the first black president," noting that he had been persecuted his entire political career.

"African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President," she wrote. "Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Clinton supporters embraced Morrison's characterization, celebrating the idea that he was in tune with minority struggles.

“Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books," said Sonny Mehta, chairman of Knopf. "I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.”

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison was the second of four children in a working-class family. Having moved north to shield their children from racism in the South, her parents, Ramah and George, were determined to expose their family to their heritage by telling African American folk tales.

Morrison showed an interest in literature at an early age, citing Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy among her favorite authors. In 2012, she told The Guardian that she became a Catholic when she was 12. Her baptismal name was Anthony. It also was the origin of her nickname, Toni.

After graduating from Howard in 1953 with a BA in English, Morrison attended Cornell University and earned a master's in 1955. The subject of her thesis was "Virginia Woolf's and William Faulkner's Treatment of the Alienated." For two years, she taught English at Texas Southern University. She then served seven years as an English professor at Howard.

While at the Washington, D.C., university, Morrison met Jamaican architect Harold Morrison, and they married in 1958. Before their divorce in 1964, the couple had two children. After the split, Morrison moved to Syracuse, N.Y., to work as an editor for a textbook publisher.

Two years later, she joined Random House in New York, eventually becoming a senior trade book editor. Morrison took the opportunity to promote black literature, introducing such authors as Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones to mainstream audiences.

Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye as a short story in the early 1960s while participating in a writers group at Howard, later expanding it into her first novel. She published 11 novels in total, including 1981's Tar Baby, 1992's Jazz, 1997's Paradise, 2003's Love, 2008's A Mercy, 2012's Home and 2015's God Help the Child.

However, the prolific author's career extended beyond the novel. In collaboration with her son, painter and musician Slade Morrison, she wrote three children's books — The Big Box in 1999, The Book of Mean People in 2002 and Peeny Butter Fudge in 2009. Slade died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, and Morrison dedicated Home to him.

For the stage, Morrison wrote the plays Dreaming Emmett (1986) and Desdemona (2011) and the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner.

She also participated in several nonfiction efforts. She was involved in compiling the material for 1974's The Black Book, a collection of writing, photographs and images recounting the black experience in America. In the forward, Morrison wrote, "I am not complete here; there is much more/ but there is no more time and no more space…and I have journeys to take…which is what this book is — an amazing journey through time and through bygone (but not forgotten) history. It's like a museum on page — there's newspaper clippings, bills of sale for slaves, promotional posters for cakewalks, ads for hair products and historical documents chronicling the role Africans have played in the Western world since the 15th century."

Her 1992 literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, was based on a lecture series Morrison gave at Harvard. She edited the 1992 book Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality; co-edited the 1997 book Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case; and served as editor on 2009's Burn This Book: Essay Anthology.

Morrison's other nonfiction efforts include Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004) and What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (2008).

Morrison was a member of the editorial board of The Nation and enjoyed an impressive career in academia. During the 1970s, she taught English at Yale, at two branches of the State University of New York and at Rutgers. In 1984, the University at Albany appointed her to an Albert Schweitzer chair. She held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University from 1989 until her retirement in 2006.

Barnard College honored Morrison at its 1979 commencement with its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. In 2005, she received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Oxford. Rutgers presented her with an Honorable Doctors of Letters Degree in 2011. A year later, she established a residency at Oberlin College.

In May 2012, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid," President Obama said during the ceremony, "and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think."