Remembering Morrison: Toni Morrison dies at 88

Toni Morrison, who won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved,” was one of the book world’s most regal presences. She had countless admirers, including fellow authors, college students and former President Obama.

Toni MorrisonHer death, at Montefiore Medical Center, was announced by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. A spokeswoman said the cause was complications of pneumonia. Ms. Morrison lived in Grand View-on-Hudson, N.Y.

The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ms. Morrison was the author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections. Among them were celebrated works like “Song of Solomon,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977, and “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Ms. Morrison was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes. Her novels appeared regularly on The New York Times best-seller list, were featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s television book club and were the subject of myriad critical studies. A longtime faculty member at Princeton, Ms. Morrison lectured widely and was seen often on television.

Born on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Chloe Ardelia Wofford was the second oldest of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford, sharecroppers who had migrated north from Alabama. The couple raised their children in an integrated, working-class neighborhood. Morrison would later reportedly tell the New York Times, “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read.”

She displayed an early love for literature, reading the works of many European writers and learning Latin. She also changed her middle name to “Anthony”after converting to Catholicism at age 12. Morrison graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949 and went on to Howard University, where she majored in English and minored in the classics. (She also started using the name “Toni” at Howard, reportedly because it was easier to pronounce.) In Washington, D.C., for the first time, she saw segregation up close. After graduating in 1953, she pursued a graduate degree in English at Cornell University, which she completed in 1955.

Morrison returned to Howard in 1957 to teach English; while there she met Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica.  The couple married in 1958 and had two sons: Harold, born in 1961, and Slade, born in 1964, the same year their marriage ended. The single mother subsequently moved with her children to Syracuse, N.Y., to take a job as a senior editor at a textbook publishing company. A year and a half later, Morrison moved to New York City to become an editor at Random House, where she worked with authors such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also worked on the groundbreaking historical anthology The Black Book (1974).

While teaching at Howard, Morrison joined an informal group of poets and writers. Her first piece was a short story about a young black girl who strongly believed that her impoverished upbringing would be better if she had blue eyes. That story would turn into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. Critics applauded Morrison’s style, though the novel didn’t sell well. Her next work of fiction, Sulawas published in 1973; it told the story of the troubled and complex friendship between two women who grew up together in a small Ohio town. The novel was nominated for the American Book Award.

Song of Solomon, published in 1977, was a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first honor for an African-American author since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. The novel, about Milkman Dead’s journey through the South in search of his roots, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison’s 1981 novel, Tar Baby, which explores the love affair between a black man and woman who connect across very divergent paths, received mixed reviews.

Her 1987 work, Beloved, is generally considered to be Morrison’s masterpiece. It is the story of Sethe, a former slave, who is haunted by her memories of attempting to kill her children to save them from slavery. Morrison received the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 for Beloved, which was later turned into a movie by Oprah Winfrey. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best novel of the past 25 years. In 2005, Time magazine listed it among the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.

As a champion of the arts, Morrison didn’t shy away from speaking her mind on key issues. In 2009, she spoke out against censorship after one of her books was banned at a Michigan high school. She also edited Burn This Book, a collection of essays on censorship and the importance of the written word.

Morrison also offered her views on major political events. During the 1998 impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, she claimed in a New Yorker essay that Clinton was being mistreated because of his “blackness,” writing: “Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Her last published and filmed works, both released early this year, were self-reflective. The Source of Self-Regard gathered together decades of Morrison’s speeches, reflections, and criticism, while a documentary on Morrison’s life and work, The Pieces I Am, emphasized her substantial contributions to American life and letters. Featuring anecdotes from Morrison herself, the film was intended to be a “living memorial,” in the words of her friend Angela Davis.

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