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.
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.
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.
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.