Beloved author and Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison has died at the age of 88. Her family confirmed ‘with profound sadness’ that Morrison had passed away on the night of Monday 5 August ‘following a short illness’.
Morrison wove African American voices and experiences – from the history of slavery to the violence that continued – into the fabric of American literary life, both as an editor and also an author of 11 novels over five decades.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, she grew up in a working-class family in the steel-working Ohio town of Lorain. Her parents bore witness to the naked racism of the American south – in particular, Morrison’s father, George Wofford, a shipyard welder, who witnessed the lynching of two men, would hold a distrust of white people for the rest of his life.
After studying English at Howard University (where she took up the name Toni) and graduate work at Cornell where she wrote a thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, Morrison returned to Washington DC to teach. She married the architect Howard Morrison and had two sons. In 1965, a year on from her divorce, she moved to upstate New York to work as an editor. She became the first female African-American editor at Random House, where she worked from 1967 to 1983. She shaped a new literary canon as a champion of writers of colour, publishing authors including Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and Henry Dumas.
In her pursuit of a novel freed from the dominance of the white gaze, Morrison turned to her own writing in earnest. In a 1979 interview with the New York Times, Morrison described how in Syracuse in 1965, she began to write seriously: ‘I had two small children in a strange place and I was very lonely. Writing was something for me to do in the evenings, after the children were asleep.’
Her first book, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, told through the eyes of a black girl, who begs God for blue eyes. Song of Solomon, published in 1977, followed the life of an African-American man in Michigan. It brought Morrison critical acclaim, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award. But Morrison’s best known work is the 1987 book Beloved, which narrated the tribulations of a 19th-century runaway slave, who kills her baby daughter. The book made Morrison a major national literary figure. It was later made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998.
Beloved won Morrison the Pulitzer, and a slew of other major awards soon followed. Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. At the time, the Swedish Academy praised her as a writer ‘who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.’
In 1996 Morrison received the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. And in 2012, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then US president Barack Obama. ‘I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think,’ Obama said at the awards ceremony.
Other works by Morrison included the play Dreaming Emmett (1986) after the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, and the libretto for the 2002 opera Margaret Garner (named after the real-life inspiration behind Beloved). She also wrote children’s books with her son Slade Morrison who died of cancer in 2010. Her last novel was God Help the Child, published in 2015.
The Morrison family – in a statement published by Princeton University, where she taught – paid tribute to a ‘consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others’. It continued: ‘She read voraciously and was most at home when writing […] Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.’
‘We die. That may be the meaning of life’, Morrison said in her Nobel Prize address in 1993. ‘But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’