Toni Morrison Essay - Morrison, Toni (1931 -)

Morrison, Toni (1931 -)

Introduction

TONI MORRISON (1931 -)

(Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford) American novelist, essayist, playwright, critic, author of children's books, and editor.

In 1993, Morrison became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her fiction was noted for its "epic power" and "unerring ear for dialogue and richly expressive depictions of black America" by the Swedish Academy, while exploring the difficulties of maintaining a sense of black cultural identity in a white world. Especially through her female protagonists, her works consider the debilitating effects of racism and sexism and incorporate elements of supernatural lore and mythology. Many of Morrison's novels—particularly The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987)—have become firmly established within the American literary canon, while simultaneously working to redefine and expand it.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah Willis and George Wofford. She was the second of four children. Her father was originally from Georgia, and her mother's parents had moved to Lorain after losing their land in Alabama and working briefly in Kentucky. Morrison's father worked in a variety of trades, often holding more than one job at a time in order to support his family. To send money to Morrison during her school years, her mother also took a series of hard, often demeaning positions. Music and storytelling—including tales of the supernatural—were a valued part of family life, and children as well as adults were expected to participate. Morrison became an avid reader at a young age, consuming a wide range of literature, including Russian, French, and English novels. Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953. She went on to earn a master's degree in English from Cornell University in 1955, and spent two years teaching at Texas Southern University in Houston. From 1957 to 1964 she served as an instructor at Howard. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, with whom she had two sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. The marriage ended in divorce in 1964, and Morrison and her children returned briefly to her parents' home in Ohio. During this period she began to write, producing the story that would eventually become her first novel, The Bluest Eye. In 1966 she moved to Syracuse, New York, and took a job as an editor for a textbook subsidiary of Random House. She relocated again in 1968, this time to New York City, where she continued editing for Random House. She oversaw the publication of works by prominent black fiction writers such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, as well as the autobiographies of influen-tial African Americans, including Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. In 1987, Morrison left Random House to return to teaching and to concentrate on her writing. She has taught at numerous colleges and universities, among them the State University of New York, Bard College, Yale University, Harvard University, and Trinity College, Cambridge. Morrison currently serves on the faculty at Princeton University.

MAJOR WORKS

Although critics have noted certain Gothic elements in her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon (1977) was Morrison's first novel to explicitly incorporate mythical and supernatural elements into the narrative as a way for characters to transcend their everyday lives. The novel juxtaposes the pressures experienced by black families that feel forced to assimilate into mainstream culture with their unwillingness to abandon a distinctive African American heritage. Tar Baby, published in 1981 and set in the Caribbean, again uses myth and ghostly presences to mitigate the harshness of lives in which all relationships are adversarial—particularly in cultures where blacks are opposed to whites and women are opposed to men. In 1987 Morrison published Beloved, a novel based on the true story of a slave who murdered her child to spare the child from a life of slavery; the book won the Pulitzer Prize. In her exploration of slavery in Beloved, Morrison deals with her recurrent theme of family. The characters are deprived of all aspects of ancestry—mates, children, forebears and the sense of selfhood and dignity that they hold, and, most importantly, the ability to love. Also of central purpose to her theme is the importance of memory: the past is revealed in fragments, as if the characters' memories were too overwhelming to be presented at one time. The elements of the mythical and supernatural that have marked all of Morrison's works are prominent in Beloved, particularly in her characterization of the title character.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

According to critics, architecture figures heavily into Morrison's portrayal of the Gothic. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, featured an American South version of the trademark Gothic castle in the form of the central character's home, a cavernous, run-down, one-room storefront. Song of Solomon, although set in urban Detroit, features a decaying mansion populated by a mournful old woman. The house in Beloved, known only by its address (in contrast to the plantation house "Sweet Home," which also appears in the novel), stands isolated and becomes haunted by a family's painful memories. Critics have also discussed at length Morrison's use of ghosts, often representing tragic histories or giving voice to the silenced. Katherine Piller Beutel likens these ghosts to the mythological figure Echo, a distinctly female voice. Critics have also underscored the psychological, and perhaps political, necessity of Morrison's ghosts, who speak of traumatic events that do not necessarily fit into a conventional historical narrative.

Principal Works

The Bluest Eye (novel) 1970
Sula (novel) 1973
The Black Book [editor] (nonfiction) 1974
Song of Solomon (novel) 1977
Tar Baby (novel) 1981
Dreaming Emmett (play) 1986
Beloved (novel) 1987
Jazz (novel) 1992
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (criticism) 1992
Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 1992
Lecture and Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature (speech) 1994
The Dancing Mind: Speech Upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (speech) 1996
Paradise (novel) 1998
The Big Box [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 1999
I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence [with Deba Foxley Leach, Suzanne Wright, and Deborah J. Leach] (juvenilia) 2001
The Book of Mean People [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2002
Love (novel) 2003
Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? [with Slade Morrison] (juvenilia) 2003

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Primary Sources

SOURCE: Morrison, Toni. “Foreword.” In Beloved. 1987. Reprint edition, pp. xv-xix. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

In the following essay, her foreword to Beloved, first published in 1987, Morrison recounts the personal experiences that inspired her to write Beloved, and provides insight into the essence of the “haunted house” in the novel and the characters that inhabit it.

In 1983 I lost my job—or left it. One, the other, or both. In any case, I had been part-time for a while, coming into the publishing house one day a week to do the correspondence-telephoning-meetings that were part of the job; editing manuscripts at home.

Leaving was a good idea for two reasons. One, I had written four novels and it seemed clear to everyone that writing was my central work. The question of priorities—how can you edit and write at the same time—seemed to me both queer and predictable; it sounded like “How can you both teach and create?” “How can a painter or a sculptor or an actor do her work and guide others?” But to many this edit-write combination was conflicting.

The second reason was less ambiguous. The books I had edited were not earning scads of money, even when “scads” didn’t mean what it means now. My list was to me spectacular: writers with outrageous talent (Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Gayle Jones, Lucille Clifton, Henry Dumas, Leon Forrest); scholars with original ideas and hands-on research (William Hinton’s Shen Fan, Ivan Van Sertima’s They Came Before Columbus, Karen DeCrow’s Sexist Justice, Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us); public figures eager to set the record straight (Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton). And when there was a book that I thought needed doing, I found an author to write it. My enthusiasm, shared by some, was muted by others, reflecting the indifferent sales figures. I may be wrong about this, but even in the late seventies, acquiring authors who were certain sellers outranked editing manuscripts or supporting emerging or aging authors through their careers. Suffice it to say, I convinced myself that it was time for me to live like a grown-up writer: off royalties and writing only. I don’t know what comic book that notion came from, but I grabbed it.

A few days after my last day at work, sitting in front of my house on the pier jutting out into the Hudson River, I began to feel an edginess instead of the calm I had expected. I ran through my index of problem areas and found nothing new or pressing. I couldn’t fathom what was so unexpectedly troubling on a day that perfect, watching a river that serene. I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. I went back to the house to examine this apprehension, even panic. I knew what fear felt like; this was different. Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty. Enter Beloved.

I think now it was the shock...

(The entire section is 1356 words.)

General Commentary

SOURCE: Beutel, Katherine Piller. "Gothic Repetitions: Toni Morrison's Changing Use of Echo." West Virginia University Philological Papers 42-43 (1997–98): 82-7.

In the following essay, Beutel maintains that Morrison adapts the ancient myth of Echo to produce Gothic effects with ghostly characters in her works.

In responding to an interviewer's observation about her novels, Toni Morrison once claimed, "I am very happy to hear that my books haunt."1 If her works are in fact haunting for most readers, in their disturbing and unforgettable characters and events, they also include haunting of a more ghostly sort....

(The entire section is 3164 words.)

Title Commentary

LILIANE WEISSBERG (ESSAY DATE 1996)

SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. "Gothic Spaces: The Political Aspects of Toni Morrison's Beloved." In Modern Gothic: A Reader, edited and with an introduction by Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, pp. 104-20. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Weissberg traces Morrison's utilization of the Gothic house as a structure of confinement in Beloved.

There is a blue house that sits on this river between two bridges. One is the George Washington that my bus has just crossed from the Manhattan side, and the other is the Tappan Zee that it's heading...

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Further Reading

Bibliographies

Middleton, David L. Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1987, 186 p.

Includes considerable criticism on Morrison's first four novels, as well as other writings, interviews, and anthologies.

Mix, Debbie. "Toni Morrison: A Selected Bibliography." Modern Fiction Studies 39, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1993): 795-818.

Bibliography covering selected criticism on Morrison's novels.

Criticism

Britton, Wesley. "The Puritan Past and Black Gothic: The Haunting of...

(The entire section is 650 words.)