Toni Morrison Morrison, Toni (Vol. 194)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Morrison 1931-

(Born Chloe Anthony Wofford) American novelist, nonfiction writer, essayist, playwright, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Morrison's career through 2003. See also Toni Morrison Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 4, 10, 22.

Morrison was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African American to win this honor. Morrison's novels explore issues of African-American female identity in stories that integrate elements of the oral tradition, postmodern literary techniques, and magical realism to give voice to the experiences of women living on the margins of white American society. As a best-selling African-American female author, Morrison represented a breakthrough for other black women novelists to succeed in the mainstream publishing industry. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Song of Solomon (1977), the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved (1987), and the 1996 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Four of her novels were chosen for the Oprah Winfrey national book club, and Beloved was adapted to film as a major motion picture produced by and starring Winfrey.

Biographical Information

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, where her father worked as a ship welder. She was very close in age to her sister, with whom she formed a strong bond that has continued throughout her life. Morrison was encouraged by her family to read, and spent much of her childhood at the local library. She graduated with a B.A. from Howard University in 1953, and went on to complete an M.A. in English literature at Cornell University in 1955. She was married in 1958 and had two sons, but divorced in 1964, and became a single mother. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she worked as an instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston and at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She served as an editor for Random House publishers from 1965 to 1983. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was expanded from a short story she had written while still in college. Although The Bluest Eye received scant notice at first, Morrison's career as a nationally recognized author was launched with the success of Sula (1973), her second novel, after which The Bluest Eye was retrospectively given renewed consideration as an important work of fiction. While continuing to write novels and children's books, as well as editing several essay collections on issues of race in America, Morrison has taught as a guest professor in English and humanities at a number of colleges and universities, including the State University of New York at Albany and at Purchase, Yale University, Bard College, Harvard University, and Trinity College at Cambridge University in England. Since 1989, she has maintained a post as professor of humanities at Princeton University.

Major Works

Morrison's overarching thematic concern throughout her oeuvre is with issues of African-American female identity in the contemporary world. Her novels offer complex examinations of problems within the African-American community, power dynamics between men and women, and issues of racism in relations between black and white America. Morrison's primary interest lies with the experiences of African-American women, whose quests for individual identity are integrally intertwined with their community and their cultural history. Her fictions are self-consciously concerned with myth, legend, storytelling, and the oral tradition, as well as with memory, history, and historiography, and have thus been recognized as postmodern meta-narratives. Morrison's stories are conscious of African cultural heritage as well as African-American history, thus demonstrating the importance of the past to the struggles of contemporary African Americans. She employs strong elements of Black English in her dialogue and narration...

(The entire section is 89,237 words.)