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 INFORMATIONMorrison 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 influential 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.
Among her best known novels, The Bluest Eye recounts the tragic story of Pecola Breedlove, a poverty-stricken black child who longs for the blue eyes and blond hair that are prized by the society in which she lives. Evidenced by the superiority exhibited by light-skinned black characters in the novel—as well as the self-loathing of those, like Pecola, whose dark skin and African features mark them as unattractive and unlovable—the work explores black acceptance of white standards of female beauty. In 1973, Morrison published Sula, a novel chronicling the lives of two women. One woman assumes a traditional role in the community; the other leaves her hometown, returning only to resist established female roles and to assert her own standards and free will. Song of Solomon (1977) 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. More so than in her earlier novels, Morrison incorporates mythical and supernatural elements into the novel's narrative as a way for characters to transcend their everyday lives. 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 it from a life of slavery; the book won the Pulitzer Prize. Jazz (1992) features dual narratives: one set during Reconstruction, the other during the Jazz Age. The novel explores the lasting effects of slavery and oppression on successive generations of African Americans. Morrison's most recent novels are Paradise (1998), featuring the lives of nine black families who settle a tiny farming community in Oklahoma in the 1940s, and Love (2003), a story that portrays the owner of a once-popular East Coast seaside resort for African Americans.
In addition to her novels, Morrison has written a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986), a collection of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and several books for young readers in collaboration with her son Slade. Her children's works include The Big Box (1999), The Book of Mean People (2002), and Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003).
Although some critics expressed reservations about the book's literary merits, The Bluest Eye received an impressive amount of attention for a first novel, garnering reviews by many prestigious publications. Sula met with more popular success, was serialized in Redbook magazine, and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award. By the time Song of Solomon appeared, Morrison occupied a secure place as one of America's top novelists. Morrison's reputation was further enhanced by receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Morrison is frequently faulted for her representations of a matriarchal culture that features poor, uneducated black females, with few positive black male characters and almost no white characters. Jacqueline Trace contends that this is partly attributable to Morrison's attempt to create a theology that is specifically black and specifically feminist.
Several critics have discussed Morrison's work—particularly The Bluest Eye—as a critique not only of the standards of female beauty prescribed by the dominant white culture, but of acceptance of those standards by blacks themselves. Pin-chia Feng discusses the development of the two young girls in the novel, concluding that "Claudia survives to tell the story by resisting social and racial conformity. Pecola fails the test precisely because of her unconditional internalization of the dominant ideology." Vanessa D. Dickerson (see Further Reading) contrasts Morrison's treatment of the black female body with its historical construction "as the ugly end of a wearisome Western dialectic: not sacred but profane, not angelic but demonic, not fair lady but ugly darky." Morrison, however, reappropriates black female representation within her fiction, particularly in The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved. "In each of these novels," Dickerson asserts, "Morrison summons us to the validation of the black female body."