The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, a premier contemporary American novelist, chronicles the African-American experience. Morrison has written six novels and a collection of essays and lectures. Her work has won national and international acclaim and has been translated into 14 languages. Her writing has been described as lyrical and she has been applauded for “writing prose with the luster of poetry.”
Morrison won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Beloved and the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In a released statement, the Nobel Prize Committee of the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Morrison “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
She is the first African-American writer to win the Nobel Prize, the first American woman to win in 55 years, and the eighth woman to win since the Nobel Prize was initiated in 1901.
Morrison’s work, however, is not without controversy. In 1988, 48 African-American writers signed a letter protesting that her novel Beloved was overlooked for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Many white authors and even some male African-American authors complained when she was selected for the Nobel Prize. They felt she received these awards due to preferential treatment based on race and sex.
However, an overwhelming majority of the literary community agrees that such allegations are without merit. “The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded for gender or race,” says Nadine Gordimer, the last woman to win the prize in 1991. “If it were, many thousands of mediocre writers might qualify. The significance of Toni Morrison’s winning the prize is simply that she is recognized internationally as an outstandingly fine writer.”
Often the controversy surrounding such prizes are due in part to fierce competition for the money and prestige that are guaranteed to the recipients. Morrison has been hailed by experts for her ability to “re-imagine the lost history of her people. Others have recognized the Faulknerian influences in her work or that her plots have the sorrow of Greek tragedies. Along with the honor of winning the the Nobel Prize comes a cash award of $825,000. Morrison is currently the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.
Toni Morrison was born Chole Anthony Wofford in Lorrain, Ohio in 1931 during the Great Depression. (Toni is her nickname; Morrison is the name of her ex-husband.) Her grandparents were former sharecroppers who migrated north from Alabama in 1910 to find a better life. Her family’s life was not without economic and racial hardships.
They lived in a largely all-white town. Unpleasant memories of growing up there include being looked down upon because she was black. The only part-time job she could get at age 13 was cleaning people’s homes. In spite of these humble origins, Morrison received a B.A. from Howard University and a M.A. in English from Cornell University. Her master’s thesis was on writer William Faulkner, another Nobel Prize winner, whose work focused on life in the South.
Upon graduation, one of her first round of jobs was teaching at Howard University. One of her students included writer Claude Brown who asked her to look at his 800 page manuscript. His book went on to become the classic urban autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land.
Another one of her students who went on to fame was Stokely Carmichael, a student activist and leader in the Black Power Movement of the sixties. In fact, the idea for her first book, The Bluest Eye, came from the popular slogan “Black is Beautiful.” Morrison placed a twist on that theme by focusing on a little black girl who did not think she was beautiful.
After her teaching stints and the end of her marriage, she raised two sons as a single parent and wrote in her spare time. Morrison was hired by Random House, where she advanced from textbook editor to the position of senior editor. During her 18-year tenure, she helped writers to clean up their manuscripts, edited the Black Book, a collection of African-American memorabilia, and pushed for the publication of works by deserving, but often overlooked, African-American authors.
Some of the authors that came to the limelight under her stewardship were Alice Walker, Gayle Jones, Gloria Naylor, and Toni Cade Bambara. Continuing to use Morrison as a guide, African-American female authors have emerged as a consistent and critical dimension in literature.
In a 1994 interview with Time magazine, Morrison understands the significance of her work for female authors. “I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world. ...Seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books I’m desperate to read.”
Before Morrison, the most successful African-American writers were males. For example, the work of acclaimed African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin had tremendous literary impact in the fifties and sixties. Racial themes were explored as they had never been before in his books Nobody Knows My Name and Go Tell It on the Mountain. Eventually, Baldwin felt uncomfortable living as a second-class citizen in the United States and became an ex-patriate who lived and worked from Paris.
Richard Wright, Baldwin’s predecessor, was also an ex-patriate. Beginning with his autobiography Black Boy in 1945, Wright continued with Outsiders, Uncle Tom’s Children, and his most important work Native Son. Ralph Ellison wrote only one book. Yet Ellison’s Invisible Man won a National Book Award in 1952 and this allowed him to join the ranks of male authors successful at depicting the disenfranchisement of the African-Americans in the United States.
Morrison is recognized as the most distinguished African-American novelist since Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin. In her work as an author, Morrison wanted to continue to broaden the perspective of American literature by telling the stories she felt were never told, stories about African-American girls and women and the racial and social pressures they faced. She wanted to write about people with the sensibilities of the culture she grew up in. Morrison wanted her work to focus on the joys and sorrows of their lives.
She wrote her first novel when she was in her 30s. The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, is about a black girl who feels she has no beauty. If only her eyes were blue and her skin was white, then she could be someone who could be loved. The book received respectable attention. The Bluest Eye became the first of many of Morrison’s explorations into the identity, self-esteem, and impact of racial discrimination on what she believes to be the most vulnerable—women and children.
Sula, published in 1973, shows two friends, black and female, and how they fit and don’t fit into their community. With the publication of Song of Solomon in 1977, Morrison won critical and commercial success and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. By the time her next novel Tar Baby was due in the bookstores in 1981, she was featured on the cover of Newsweek.
Ever expanding on the theme of telling stories untold, it is said her book Beloved was written in memory of the millions of lives lost during slavery. The plot centers around an ex-slave Sethe who would rather kill her own children than risk that they be re-enslaved. The ghost of Sethe’s dead child tries to remain close to her mother and wreaks havoc when she cannot. All of the characters in Beloved, Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, try to recover from the personal and collective indignities of slavery.
“I was trying to make it a personal experience,” says Morrison in a question and answer interview with Time magazine. “The book was not about the institution—Slavery with a capital S. It was about these anonymous people called slaves. What they do to keep on, how they make a life, what they’re willing to risk, however long it lasts, in order to relate to one another—that was incredible to me,” she says.
In 1992 Morrison published Playing in the Dark, a collection of her Harvard lectures. In this collection she coins a new term, once again reinventing an already established concept. She teaches a humanities course that changes the term African-American to American Africanisms. This same year she also published Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power, essays on the controversy surrounding the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
In her novel Jazz, also published in 1992, Morrison continues her theme of giving a voice to the voiceless. Once again, she does everything she can to stretch the imagination. The novel makes both racial and historical statements about the inequities of life for African-Americans in the post-slavery era.
With the writing of Jazz, Morrison takes on new tasks and new risks. Jazz, for example, doesn’t fit the classic novel format in terms of design, sentence structure, or narration. Just like the music this novel is named after, the work is improvisational. In this work, she is influenced not only by the jazz, blues, and gospel music she was reared on, but also by the folklore, tall tales, and ghost stories that her family told for entertainment. The result is a writing style that has a unique mix of the musical, the magical, and the historical.
Jazz is the story of a husband and wife living in Harlem, New York in the 1920s. Joe and Violet Trace’s marriage has experienced the usual ups and downs, but in the winter of 1926, their lives are nearly destroyed by Joe’s infidelity with 18-year-old Dorcas whom he shoots to death. Because there are no witnesses, Joe is not arrested or made to pay for his crime in the traditional sense. Instead, he punishes himself.
His wife Violet is humiliated and outraged by Joe’s betrayal of their love. Her reaction is to blame the dead girl and to strike out against her. Violet attends Dorcas’ funeral to see what makes this girl so beautiful and why her husband loves her so fiercely.
At the funeral, Violet tries to attack the corpse with a knife. Violet is physically thrown from the funeral service. Now both Joe and Violet are the subjects of ridicule in their community.
However, neither of them is concerned. Joe is too busy crying. Violet spends her days trying to find out more about her husband’s dead lover. Violet still considers Dorcas her rival for Joe’s affections.
Violet becomes more and more mentally unglued. She is willing to do anything to hold on to her husband and to keep herself from going crazy. Violet becomes friends with the dead girl’s aunt Alice Manfred and with Dorcas’ best friend Felice.
As the story unfolds, we find out what causes the anguish suffered by Joe and Violet. Joe wanted recognition from a mother who was unable to give it to him. Violet is haunted by her mother’s suicide. Her mother threw herself down a well when the burden of having no money to care for her five children became too much.
These private agonies eventually cause the couple to pull away from each other. Joe’s involvement with Dorcas broadens the barrier between them. By the time spring comes, the couple have forgiven each other.
Around this time Dorcas’ best friend, Felice, becomes their friend and helps them return their lives to normal. From the beginning of the novel, the reader is led to believe that Joe shot Dorcas dead. But in the final pages Felice reveals some missing details, details that help the couple figure out what Dorcas was really like and how much responsibility Joe should take for his part in ending her life.
Estimated Reading Time
The novel Jazz is not divided into chapters, but stops and starts in short, unnamed and unnumbered parts. Extra time will be needed to get used to the rhythm and style of the writing. Many sentences need to be reread because they are long and have a complex construction. Other sentences need to be reread because they are beautiful examples of Morrison’s way with words.
The reading should be divided into the following parts and time slots:
Parts 1 & 2 1 1/2 hours
Part 3 1 hour
Part 4 45 minutes
Part 5 1 hour
Parts 6 & 7 45 minutes
Part 8 45 minutes
Part 9 15 minutes
Upon finishing the book, spend another ten minutes rereading the first paragraph of Part 1. Your total reading time for this book is approximately six hours.
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jazz is an account of both the personal and the historical. While focusing on the lives of Joe and Violet Trace, the novel also provides an account of African American life in the South from the mid-nineteenth century through the Great Migration that brought millions north beginning in the 1870’s and continuing in a steady stream into the twentieth century. The story of the Traces’ move in 1906 from Virginia to Harlem is part of the African American story.
The novel opens and closes with the puzzling relationship of Joe, Violet, and Felice. The narrator, a strong and critical voice throughout the book, has access to the information readers will need to understand a fifty-year-old man who “fell for an...
(The entire section is 962 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Jazz, Toni Morrison’s sixth novel, is a lyrical, multifaceted narrative that explores the Harlem lives and back-country roots of a number of African American characters in the years from 1873 to 1926. In keeping with the loose, improvisational nature of the music that gives the book its title, Jazz is composed of ten untitled, unnumbered chapters. The principal first-person narrator is an unnamed omniscient observer with a distinctly subjective personality who knows Harlem and the main characters well. The novel also includes first-person passages narrated by Joe, Violet, Dorcas, and Felice, that give the reader a rich and sometimes conflicting range of perspectives on the characters and action.
(The entire section is 834 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A three-month affair between Joe Trace and the young Dorcas Manfred ends when Joe shoots Dorcas at a party. At the young woman’s funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet Trace, is nicknamed Violent after she tries to cut the face of the corpse. For months, Violet and Joe grieve. They have only a photograph of Dorcas. The narrator believes that another scandalizing threesome is about to occur, as Dorcas’s friend, Felice, visits the couple.
The childless, withdrawn Violet had once collapsed in the street. At another time she had intended to take someone else’s baby home. Violet’s public craziness differs greatly from the determined and vocal woman she used to be. After Dorcas’s funeral, Violet even cast out the parrot who...
(The entire section is 1147 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Much as in Beloved and in Paradise, Morrison focuses in Jazz on a particular period of African American history: the 1920’s, sometimes called the Jazz Age. African Americans migrated in large numbers to urban areas of the Northeast in the early part of the twentieth century. They came to escape the racial discrimination so prevalent in the South and to find economic opportunity that urban centers in the Northeast promised. Their migration, sometimes called the Great Migration, created all-black areas in cities such as Chicago and New York City. Harlem is the most famous of these and is the setting for Jazz. The existence of large numbers of people of African descent in places such as Harlem...
(The entire section is 605 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part 1 Summary and Analysis
Violet Trace: Joe’s wife of 20 years. She is starting to lose her mind
Joe Trace: The husband of Violet. He has an affair with 18-year-old Dorcas
Dorcas Manfred: Joe’s 18-year-old girlfriend who is eager to explore her sexuality
Alice Manfred: Dorcas’ aunt. She cares for Dorcas when her parents are killed
Malvonne: Joe and Violet’s upstairs neighbor. She feels guilty about allowing Joe and Dorcas to meet in her apartment
Gistan and Stuck: Joe’s two best friends. Their names are always mentioned in the same breath
Very quickly the narrator lays out the story of Violet’s...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Part 2 Summary and Analysis
Sheila: One of Joe’s customers that he was making a delivery to
Wild: Joe’s mother. She lived in the cane fields. She was incapable of loving and caring for him
Sweetness (aka William Younger): Malvonne’s nephew. He stole mail to look for money
After the funeral, Violet lets her birds go. Her birds are the only creatures she can speak to and they speak back to her. Yet without the responsibility of caring for the birds, Violet finds herself without routine to her life. Now that they are gone, not caring for them causes her to have trouble sleeping.
Furthermore, Dorcas’ memory casts a pall on the house. Like a sickness, Violet feels...
(The entire section is 1018 words.)
Part 3 Summary and Analysis
Felice: Dorcas’ best friend
The Miller Sisters: Frances and Neola: They care for Dorcas and other neighborhood children while their mothers are working
This section of the novel opens with a funeral parade in protest of the killings and riots in East St. Louis in July of 1917. Blacks march quietly but forcefully down 5th Avenue. Dorcas’ parents were the victims of the racial attack and the protest is in their honor. Alice Manfred began caring for her sister’s nine-year-old orphaned child. Alice tries to find comfort from the tragedy in the beat of the drums and the looks on the marchers’ faces.
The novel starts to unfold Alice Manfred’s...
(The entire section is 1257 words.)
Part 4 Summary and Analysis
True Belle: Violet’s grandmother. She was taken away when a slave, to help her mistress in Baltimore. She returns to help her daughter and granddaughter when she hears they are in trouble
Rose Dear: Violet’s mother. The strain of trying to single-handedly feed five children and the humiliation of being evicted cause her to eventually commit suicide
Father: Violet’s father is unnamed. He left his family when he could no longer bear the hunger and hopelessness of the land. He would return periodically with presents for everyone
In this part of the novel, we get a chance to go inside Violet’s head and see what she is thinking and feeling. She...
(The entire section is 819 words.)
Part 5 Summary and Analysis
Victory Williams: Joe’s childhood friend. They were raised as brothers and both were excellent woodsmen
Rhoda and Frank Williams: Victory’s guardians. They treated Joe as if he were their own son
Hunter’s Hunter: A skilled outdoorsman who taught Joe and Victory the ways of the woods
Spring has come to the city. The narrator begins by making observations about the community waking up from the hibernation of the winter of 1926. In addition to all of the physical and psychological changes the spring will bring, the community looks for signs of change in Joe and Violet. Everyone is tired of waiting to see what revenge Violet will seek or if Joe...
(The entire section is 1919 words.)
Part 6 Summary and Analysis
Golden Gray: The son of Vera Louise. He is raised as a white child by his mother and True Belle. At age 18 he is told his father is African-American
Vera Louise Gray: Golden Gray’s mother. A white female that was ostracized by her parents for getting pregnant by a slave
Colonel Wordsworth Gray: Vera’s father. He is outraged when he learns of his daughter’s relationship with a slave. He gives her a suitcase full of money to start a new life elsewhere
Mrs. Gray: Vera’s mother. What her daughter has done is so unacceptable that she turns her back on her forever
Henry Lestory: Golden Gray’s father. He had a sexual relationship with Vera Louise when...
(The entire section is 1345 words.)
Part 7 Summary and Analysis
Golden Gray wonders what his reaction will be when the wild woman opens her eyes. Stories were told that Wild, so named by Hunter’s Hunter, liked men with hair the same color as the golden corn fields. Wild lived in the cane fields. She was like a creature that could be as gentle as a deer or as fierce as a tiger.
There was something about her look, her touch, and her laugh that drove men crazy. Older men were particularly vulnerable because they saw her once in their youth and wanted to see her again. To others, her existence was more like a tall tale. According to local lore, the gaze of a wild woman could mark a man for the rest of his life. That is exactly what happened to Golden Gray....
(The entire section is 995 words.)
Part 8 Summary and Analysis
Acton: Dorcas’ new boyfriend. He is young and cocky and quite sought after
The opening of this section sets the scene for the shooting. On January 2, a cold, cold day of continued Happy New Year celebrations, Joe finally locates Dorcas. At this time Dorcas starts to tell her side of the story.
She didn’t mean to hurt Joe’s feelings, but he wouldn’t let her go. Dorcas is proud of the progress she has made in her life. She has a new look, a new boyfriend, and a new personality. At last she has everything she has always wanted. Yet she is aware that Joe is coming after her.
Joe walks through the party unnoticed and shoots Dorcas before she...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
Part 9 Summary and Analysis
Felice’s mother and father: Live in servants that worked upstate in Tuxedo, New York. Because of their jobs, they could rarely spend time with Felice
Felice’s grandmother: She raised Felice in her parents’ absence
Spring has produced one of the most beautiful days of the year and Harlem responds to the weather. From the street corners to the roof tops, the music sounds glorious and adds another dimension to the spring fever that is rampant. We also find the environment slightly improved in the Trace household. Joe doesn’t cry as much or as loudly. Violet seems to have gotten a grip on her sanity.
On this beautiful day, Felice pays a visit...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
Part 10 Summary and Analysis
The narration ends just as it began—with a conversation. The topic of the conversation is pain. Pain in the narrator’s life and pain in the lives of others. Here the narrator does some soul searching and admits having no purpose in life but to observe the lives of others.
The narrator is hurt and disappointed about being totally wrong about Joe and Violet, that something was missed that caused the wrong conclusion to be drawn about the outcome of their relationship. The narrator jumped to the wrong conclusion about Joe, about Violet, and about what would happen when they met Felice. The narrator predicted that the Dorcas thing would happen all over again.
The narrator sees where the...
(The entire section is 643 words.)