Toni Morrison Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her work includes some of the most engaging contributions to American literature in the last hundred years.

Early Life

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. She was the second of four children born to George Wofford and Ramah Willis Wofford. Her father’s occupations included car washing, steel mill welding, road construction, and shipyard work, which typified the eclectic labor lifestyle of African American men living during the Great Depression of the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Her mother worked at home and sang in church. Both parents had strong Southern roots. Morrison’s father was from Georgia and had vivid memories of racial violence in his childhood, while her mother’s parents were part of the migration of African Americans from Alabama, via Kentucky, who sought to find a better life in the North.

Morrison’s parents taught her much about understanding racism and growing up in predominantly white America. Her father was not very optimistic about the capacity of whites to transcend their bigotry toward blacks and remained acutely untrusting of all white people. Her mother’s judgment about whites was less pessimistic, although she adhered to the thinking that strength and hope in the black community had to be secured from within that community and not from without. These community values—values of the village—have become the cornerstone of Morrison’s literary and political thinking. Her focus is consistently directed within the black community, a focus that reflects her confidence in the tangible culture of black America and its crucial role in shaping strong and talented people.

In her childhood, Morrison’s eclectic literary tastes introduced her to such literary works as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Jane Austen. Morrison was quite aware of the disparity that existed between the largely white worlds of these works and her own black female experience. Her reading enabled her to understand the value of cultural specificity in literature and the universality of the particular. It also demonstrated that her own culture, values, dreams, and feelings were not being represented in the literature she was reading. In many ways, her movement toward writing fiction was spurred by a need to redress what she felt was a woeful silence about black experience in the literature she read.

After completing high school in Lorain, Morrison went on to receive her B.A. from Howard University. She became involved with theater and had the opportunity to travel through the South performing before black audiences. Those trips gave her a better understanding of the geographical reality of the black American experience, a grounding that would be reproduced in her fiction. In 1953, she went on to Cornell University, where she completed her master’s degree, studying suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. These writers were fitting figures against which she could react as a writer. Faulkner, because of his white vision of the Southern experience, and Woolf, because of her white treatment of the female experience in a male-dominated world, provided Morrison with models upon which she would later improvise.

Morrison taught at Texas Southern University for two years and then taught at Howard. There she honed her political views on black America, arguing against the current desegregation rhetoric by suggesting that blacks needed greater economic independence and needed to be wary of distorting their own culture and values through assimilation.

At Howard she married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect with whom she had two sons. The marriage was not a positive experience for Morrison; it left her feeling powerless and unsatisfied. She left Howard in 1964, divorced her husband, and assumed a post at Random House in New York City as an editor. Morrison continued her teaching career despite her intense work with Random House as a senior editor for so many years. She has taught at Yale University, Bard College, the State University of New York campuses at Purchase and Albany, and Princeton University.

Life’s Work

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of her achievements as a novelist of outstanding talent. The award represented the culmination of a series of accolades that have followed Morrison after the publication of each of her six novels. These novels have become classics in American literature and have been the subject of extensive critical study. Morrison has also published remarkably intelligent discussions of her works in numerous interviews and essays. She forces literary critics to reevaluate their innate suspicion of writers who write and speak about their own works. The combination of the novels and Morrison’s engaging commentaries produces an insight into the deeply committed psyche and spirit of this woman. Her reviews and critical articles published in The New York Times and its Review of Books (to which she has been a regular contributor for years) constitute a significant body of critical approaches to literature and culture. Her commitment is to her African American experience, and her goal has been to evolve a...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four children. Morrison’s father was a shipyard welder. When she was in the first grade, she was the only black student in her class and the only child who was already able to read. Her early literary influences include Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, and Jane Austen. Later, as a student at Howard University, Morrison toured the South with the Howard University Players. She married Harold Morrison in 1958; they had two children before divorcing in 1964.

Morrison received her B.A. in English and minored in classics. She taught at the State University of New York at Purchase as a professor of English in 1971-1972 and was the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at State University of New York at Albany from 1984 to 1989. From 1989 until she retired in 2006, Morrison was Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. During her career, she has also served as trustee of the National Humanities Center and as cochair of the Schomberg Commission for the Preservation of Black Culture. She is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Council on the Arts, the Authors Guild, and the Authors League of America. In addition to her writing, Morrison has become a popular public lecturer, focusing on African American literature.

Toni Morrison Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford; her family was blue-collar Midwestern. Her parents had migrated from the South in search of a better life. From her parents and grandparents, Morrison acquired a background in African American folklore; magic and the supernatural appear with frequency in her work.

At Howard University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, she changed her name to Toni. After receiving a master’s degree in English from Cornell University, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard, where she met Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. Their marriage ended after seven years. A single mother, Toni Morrison supported herself and two sons as a senior editor at Random House, where she encouraged the publication of African American literature. She has continued to teach at various universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Originally, Morrison did not intend to be a writer. She has said she began to write because she could not find herself, a black woman, represented in American fiction. In a conversation with novelist Gloria Naylor, published in Southern Review, Morrison speaks of reclaiming herself as a woman and validating her life through the writing of her first book, The Bluest Eye, in which a young black girl prays for the blue eyes that will bring her acceptance.

Morrison celebrates the culture of strong black women that she remembers from her childhood, especially in Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. She believes that being able to recognize the contribution and legacy of one’s ancestors is essential to self-knowledge. Her characters are forced to confront their personal and social histories and are often drawn back to their African heritage.

Some black male critics have challenged Morrison on the grounds that her male characters are too negative, but the literary world has honored her. In 1988, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1993, Morrison became the second American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Toni Morrison has advanced the African American literary canon by producing unselfconscious works about the experiences of blacks in America for a black audience. Yet in spite of the specificity of her subject matter, her novels, some of which have been translated into other languages, have earned a heartfelt popular and critical approval through their universal appeal.

Morrison, the second of four children, was born Chloe Anthony Wofford into a poor but loving household composed of siblings, parents, grandparents, and sometimes friends. Both of her parents, George and Ramah (née Willis) Wofford, emigrated to her native Lorain, Ohio, from the South, her mother at age six coming from Alabama with parents, her father...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Chloe Anthony Wofford was born in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, the second of George and Ramah Willis Wofford’s four children. As an adult, Morrison was to view her father, who had been a child in Georgia in the early part of the twentieth century, as an antiwhite racist but also as someone who encouraged excellence and impressed upon his daughter a positive self-image to help her achieve such excellence. Her mother, on the other hand, maintained an optimistic, integrationist perspective, which was nevertheless tempered by a good deal of suspicion of the violence done by whites against blacks.

Morrison was an extremely bright child who, as the only black student in her class, was already able to read in the...

(The entire section is 1446 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

All of Morrison’s work focuses on the attempts to construct a life out of the violence and destruction of the past. She emphasizes that the true violence of the past is something that takes courage to face, and not all of her characters can face it. Faulkner said that the past is never over; “it isn’t even past.” In Morrison’s novels, the past pursues the present, and, unless people can face it, it will overtake the present and repeat itself in its worst aspects. However, in truly confronting the reality of death and violence, human beings create miraculous shadows that are impressed indelibly upon those who come after them in folklore, myth, music, and art.

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Her name at birth was Chloe, and she was the second oldest of the four children of George and Ella Ramah Wofford.

When she was eighteen, Morrison entered Howard University, in Washington, D.C., where she majored in English. In 1955, she graduated from Cornell University, in New York, with a master's degree, also in English. For two years, Morrison taught English at Texas Southern University in Houston before returning to Howard University as an instructor. It was at Howard that Morrison met and later married Harold Morrison, who also taught at the school. The couple stayed together for six years and produced two sons.


(The entire section is 367 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford to George and Rahmah Wofford in 1931. The second of four children, Morrison was raised in the...

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Toni Morrison Biography

(Novels for Students)
Toni Morrison Published by Gale Cengage

From her childhood days in Lorain, Ohio Toni Morrison learned from her parents, Ramah Willis Wofford and...

(The entire section is 597 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Novels for Students)

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. Growing up during the Depression, Morrison witnessed the...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Novels for Students)

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children of...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Toni Morrison Biography

(Novels for Students)

Like her character Milkman Dead, Toni Morrison came of age in a family that had only recently left the South and moved to the Midwest. Her...

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