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.