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.
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.
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 to express the importance of language in the formation of identity. Her novels often employ elements of magic, fantasy, and the supernatural, such as the character in Song of Solomon who can fly, or the ghost of a dead child who appears in Beloved. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is set in the 1940s and addresses issues of race and beauty standards through the figure of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having blue eyes and long, blond hair. After Pecola is raped by her father and becomes pregnant as a result, she descends into insanity and insists that she has “the bluest eyes in the whole world.” Morrison's next three novels, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby (1981), are generally regarded as a trilogy. Sula centers on the powerful bonds of friendship between Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who meet as girls and maintain their friendship into adulthood. This bond is ruptured, however, when Nel finds her husband in bed with Sula. In Sula, Morrison explores the importance of female friendship in the formation of individual identity, which in reality is often superseded by women's relationships with men. Song of Solomon centers on the character of Milkman Dead, who is born in the North but journeys to the South, where he discovers that he is a descendant of Solomon, a member of a mythical West African tribe whose members can fly. According to legend, these Africans, captured and enslaved in America, escaped their bondage by flying back to Africa. Song of Solomon explores issues of African-American history and myth in the formation of individual identity. Tar Baby is set on the Isle de Chevaliers in the Caribbean, in contemporary times. With the character of Jadine Childs, a successful fashion model and student of art history, Tar Baby examines the dilemmas of assimilation and cultural identity among middle-class African Americans. Morrison's subsequent three novels, Beloved, Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998), are often loosely grouped as another trilogy, each set in a different period of African-American history: Beloved takes place during the post-Civil War era, with flashbacks to the years of slavery in the South; Jazz is set during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; and Paradise is set during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. Beloved combines elements of magical realism with the tradition of the African-American slave narrative in the story of Halle, a former slave struggling to raise her children in the post-Civil War era. Halle once killed her own infant in order to save it from a life of slavery, and the ghost of this dead child comes back to haunt her home as an adolescent girl called Baby Suggs. Jazz concerns a romantic triangle between a woman named Violet, her husband Joe, and an eighteen-year-old girl named Dorcas, whom Joe falls in love with. Joe's passion for Dorcas ultimately results in his shooting and killing her. Enraged by her husband's betrayal, Violet goes to the girl's funeral and cuts the face of the corpse with a knife. As Barbara Williams Lewis pointed out in her essay “The Function of Jazz in Toni Morrison's Jazz,” Morrison's narrative structure and voice in Jazz are based on the structural elements of jazz music. Paradise explores the tensions between the all-black town of Ruby and an all-women convent located on the outskirts of the town. Threatened by the empowerment of women within the convent community, the men of Ruby invade it and massacre the women living there. Love (2003) takes place at the site of a once-luxurious vacation resort catering to African-American visitors. Narrated by L., the former cook at the closed-down resort, Love concerns the internecine struggles between two women, Heed and Christine, over the affections of Bill Cosey, the now-deceased owner of the resort. Heed and Christine began as girlhood friends. Their friendship was destroyed, however, when Cosey, Christine's fifty-two-year-old grandfather, purchased the eleven-year-old Heed from her parents so that he could take her as his child bride. Heed and Christine, now old women, both live in the mansion of the closed-down resort, fiercely battling one another over the ambiguous and still-unsettled will Cosey had scribbled on a restaurant menu. Love examines the different types of love felt by Heed, Christine, and several other women for the deceased man who was—and remains after death—the center of their lives.
Morrison's novels have been almost universally praised by reviewers, and have been the subject of numerous academic books and essays in the fields of gender studies, ethnic studies, postmodern theory, literary theory, and cultural studies. Many critics praised Morrison's complex treatment of issues of African-American identity in her novels. Gurleen Grewal expressed Morrison's concern with African-American identity throughout her oeuvre in stating, “African Americans must negotiate a place for themselves within a dominant culture; how they situate themselves with respect to their own history and culture is a pervasive theme of Morrison's novels.” Yvonne Atkinson described Morrison's use of Black English as central to her narrative voice, asserting, “Morrison has enveloped the written word in the oral tradition: the use of words from Black English and rituals and style of the oral tradition enhance her texts, and the systems of language, the style, and the lexicon of Black English that Morrison uses in her novels bear Witness to African-American culture.” Karla K. Holloway examined the ways in which Morrison utilizes a lyrical narrative voice in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon to express African-American experience and construct a sense of cultural identity in the African Diaspora. Holloway asserted, “Morrison's novels recall a West African version of reality that allows the coexistence of the spiritual and physical worlds within the same narrative spaces. In these spaces, mythic voices reconstruct an African-American universe.” Rob Davidson commented on the ways in which Morrison's Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise, loosely grouped as a trilogy, function as meta-narratives about the construction of African-American identity; Davidson stated, “One of the most important concerns in the trilogy is the ‘use value’ of narrative. Storytelling is historiography in Morrison's fiction, and in each novel she carefully examines the role of narrative in the reconstitution of both the individual self and society at large.” In an entry on Toni Morrison for the book Postmodernism: Key Figures, Thomas B. Howe observed that Morrison's use of multiple narrative voices in many of her fictions is a key element of her work. Howe noted, “Morrison's fictions repeatedly challenge cultural traditions defined by patriarchal, assimilationist, and totalizing standards. Ever since her first novel … she has set herself in opposition to the European American white mainstream by portraying and celebrating unique, powerful voices of marginalized women from American history and contemporary American life.”
Love, Morrison's latest novel, has been met with rave reviews. Thulani Davis observed, “A distillation of many of [Morrison's] earlier themes, notably the theft of girlhood and wars over times now gone, Love is a rich parable about the damaging past as a demagogue ruling the present.” Adam Langer commented, “Taut and uncompromising, Love is a compact meditation on the aftermath of the civil rights movement, a chilling ghost story about a friendship destroyed by the whims of a wealthy and respected patriarch, an epic saga about the generation gap, a concise reflection on the African-American experience in the twentieth century.” Deborah E. McDowell noted that Love may be regarded as “a retrospective or compendium” of Morrison's thematic treatment of love in her earlier works. McDowell observed that Morrison's oeuvre as a whole represents “a philosophical journey into the heart of love, at times a darkened continent blazed by Morrison's luminous prose, her dazzling lyricism, her labor of love.”