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Morrison, Toni 1931–

Toni Morrison 1931

Writer

Schooled in Oral Tradition

Found Work Editing

Recovered Black History

Explored Cost of Assimilation

Won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes

Selected writings

Sources

Image not available for copyright reasons

When Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her fifth novel, Beloved, the award brought her the national recognition many critics and fellow artists believed long overdue. Ms. Morrisons versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds, wrote Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review, adding, If there were any doubts about her stature as a preeminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest. But receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature earned the author a dizzingly different slot in history as she became the first black woman ever to win the fields highest honor.

Since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison has earned increasing critical and popular acclaim. Her works are taught in courses on the novel as well as in African American literature courses, and she is a sought after commentator not only on racial issues but on American arts and culture in general. She is held in high esteem by her peers, the reading public, and critics alike.

Paradoxically, Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. Each of her novels highlights the struggles of black people to rediscover and maintain connections to their cultural history and mythologyto their ancestors, as she put it in an essay entitled Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation. Morrison envisions her literature of suffering and survival functioning as did the oral storytelling of the past, reminding members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles.

Morrison has fostered these ends by teaching such courses as African American literature and techniques of fiction at various colleges and universities, as well as by using her position as a senior editor at Random House to publish other black authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, and Henry Dumas. Through her teaching and editing, therefore, as well as her own writing, she has exerted unparalleled influence in the African American literary renaissance of the past several decades.

Schooled in Oral Tradition

Morrisons early life was steeped in the black folklore, music, language, myth, and history that now richly

At a Glance

Born Chioe Anthony Wofford, February 18, 1931, in Lorain, OH; daughter of George and Ramah (Willis) Wofford; married Harold Morrison (a Jamaican architect), 1958 (divorced); children: Harold Ford, Slade Kevin.Education: Howard University, B.A., 1953; Cornell University, M.A., 1955.

Writer. Texas Southern University, Houston, instructor in English, 1955-57; Howard University, Washington, DC, instructor in English, 1957-64; Random House, New York City, senior editor, beginning in the mid-1960s. State University of New York at Purchase, associate professor of English, 1971-72; State University of New York at Albany, Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, 1984-89; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities, 1989-. Visiting lecturer at Yale University, 1976-77, and Bard College, 1986-88.

Awards: National Book Award nomination and Ohioana Book Award, both 1975, both for Sula; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, both 1978, both for Song of Solomon; New York State Governors Art Award, 1986; National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1987, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Robert F. Kennedy Award, both 1988, all for Beloved; Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization for Women (NOW); Nobel Prize for Literature, 1993; founding of The Toni Morrison Society (education and appreciation group), American Literature Associations Coalition of Author Societies, 1993; named one Time magazines 25 Most Influential Americans, 1996; named 1996 Jefferson lecturer, National Endowment for the Humanities; National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, National Book Association, 1996. Honorary degrees more than 15 universifies.

Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, National Council on the Arts, Authors Guild (council member), Authors League of America.

Addresses: Home -Princeton, NJ,

texture her fiction. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, she grew up during the Depression in the small steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had been sharecroppers in Alabama until they migrated north in 1912 to Kentucky, where John Solomon, a violinist, worked in a coal mine. Ardelia took in washing. When they discovered, however, that their daughters knew more mathematics than the one-room school-house teacher, they determined that they must move again. Continuing north, they settled in Lorain.

Morrisons parents displayed the same resource fulness, pride, and creativity that her grandparents had. Her father, George Wofford, was a shipyard welder who took such intense pride in his work that he would write his name in the side of a ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. A tireless worker, he held three jobs simultaneously for 17 years. Morrisons mother, Ramah Wofford, dealt diplomatically with white bill collectors, and once when the meal the family received on relief was bug-ridden, she wrote a long letter of protest to then-U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

George and Ramah thrilled their four children with ghost stories and nourished their pride with stories of black ingenuity. In an essay in the bicentennial issue of the New York Times titled Rediscovering Black History, Morrison captured one such instance: Oh Mama, I cried, everybody in the world must have had sense enough to wrap his feet. I am telling you, she replied, a Negro invented shoes. Morrisons mother sang around the house and in the church choir, and her grandmother kept a dreambook by which she played the numbers. Not surprisingly, Morrison characteristically juxtaposes riveting realism in her novels with what she calls forms of knowledge discredited by the West: lore, gossip, magic, sentiment. Many critics agree that both the searing accuracy of her portrayals of black life in America and the fabulistic qualities for which her work has been praised clearly derive from Morrisons own life experiences in a family of storytellers.

Morrisons appetite for stories led her to read voraciously as a child and adolescent. When she entered the first grade she was the only black child in her class and the only child who could already read. Before she graduated with honors from Lorain High School, she had read widely among the great Nineteenth-century Russian novels and such other European classics as Madame Bovary and the works of Jane Austen. She has cited these novels as particular influences on her, justifying the cultural specificity of her own work with reference to them. These classics, Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Susan Blake quoted her as saying, were not written for a little black girl ...but they were so magnificently done that I got them anyway-they spoke directly to me. She expanded on this comment in an interview with Walter Clemons for Newsweek: When I write, I dont translate for white readers....Dostoevski wrote for a Russian audience, but were able to read him. If Im specific, and I dont overexplain, then anyone can overhear me.

Morrison attended Howard University as an undergraduate, majoring in English and minoring in the classics. At Howard she changed her name to Toni because people consistently mispronounced Chloe. Howard disappointed her in many ways; she found the social life there shallow: It was about getting married, buying clothes, and going to parties, she related, as quoted by Blake. In the summers, Morrison traveled with the Howard University Players, a student-faculty repertory troupe that took plays on tour in the South. These tours, Blake suggested, provided a geographical and historical focus for the sense of cultural identity her parents had instilled in her.

After graduating from Howard, Morrison spent two years at Cornell University earning a masters degree in English. She wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and then went on to teach English for two years at Texas Southern University. Morrison began to write when she drifted into a writers group after returning to Howard in 1957 to teach English. The only rule governing this group was that everyone had to bring something to read. In a conversation with fellow African American novelist Gloria Naylor published in Southern Review, Morrison explained that when she had run out of old junk from high school to bring along, she wrote a short story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes. Out of this story she developed her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a novel that Naylor credits with having inspired her to begin writing seriously.

Found Work Editing

At Howard, Morrison met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architectural student. Though she speaks very little about this difficult period in her life, she has said that the marriage suffered because of cultural differences between them, and eventually it ended in divorce. In the early 1960s, Morrison returned with her two young sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin, to her parents home in Lorain. After about a year and a half, she found an editing job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse. It was there, each night after her children were asleep, that she returned to her short story and developed it into a novel. Though it was rejected many times, Morrison eventually found an editor who read an unfinished version of The Bluest Eye and encouraged her to complete it. In 1970, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published the novel.

The plot of The Bluest Eye is as simple as its implications are staggering. Morrison illuminates the multiple levels of victimization at work in brutally racist and sexist American society by placing at the storys center the quietly tragic figure of Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl on the verge of adolescence, who desperately wants to be loved. Barraged on all sides-from the movies, from teachers at school, from her own family-with the message that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned appearance of Shirley Temple is beautiful, she concludes that the reason she is ridiculed and hated is that she is black and therefore ugly. Violated over and over by other characters reacting to their own victimizations, Pecola finally retreats into insanity, believing that she is the most beloved little girl of all because she has the bluest eyes of all.

The Bluest Eye received a moderate amount of attention, for the most part appreciative. The very features of Morrisons writing that some critics selected for praise prompted negative criticism from other reviewers, and such divergence has been a hallmark of Morrison criticism ever since. For instance, though Frankell Haskell in the New York Times Book Review objected to a fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery and a lack of focus in the novel, Phyllis R. Klotman praised its lyrical yet precise language in Black American Literature Forum.

Later in the 1960s, Morrison moved to a senior editorial position at Random House in New York City. She began to contribute articles and reviews to various journals, most notably the New York Times. At the same time she was writing her second novel, Sula, which was published in December of 1973. I always thought of Sula, Morrison said in an article in the Michigan Quarterly Review,as ...new world black and new world woman....Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable.

Sula explores the life and death of a black community called The Bottom in the town of Medallion, Ohio, by focusing on the friendship from childhood between two very different women, Sula Peace and Nel Wright. Nel grows up to marry, have children, and otherwise conform to all that society and her community expects of her. Sula, on the other hand, embarks on what the narrator terms an experimental life. She becomes a pariah, defining by her rebellious violations the boundaries and social codes of the community: Their conviction of Sulas evil, the narrator tells us, make[s] the townspeople their best selves.

Morrison speaks of Nel and Sula as two halves of one person; the ideal, she told Bill Moyers on a segment of his PBS television show World of Ideas, would be a Sula with some responsibilities. Nevertheless, Morrison will not allow her readers to rest comfortably in any particular moral stance toward the events or characters in Sula: we wonder whether to admire Sulas grandmother Evas bravery in allowing her leg to be cut off by a train in order to collect insurance money to feed her children, or instead to be repulsed by such self-mutilation, just as we vacillate on whether to celebrate Sulas autonomy or to deplore her selfishness.

Sula garnered more attention than had The Bluest Eye and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Sara Blackburns review in the New York Times Book Review caused a minor controversy because it suggested first that the novel lacked the stinging immediacy of Morrisons nonfiction and then that Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. But Blackburn stood virtually alone in her impression that Morrisons novel was limited by its focus on a black community. Faith Daviss review in the Harvard Advocate was more nearly representative in its assessment that Sula has the capacity to touch all readers: Her citizens of the Bottom jump up from the pages vital and strong because she has made us care about the pain in their lives.

Recovered Black History

In February of 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a volume compiled by Middleton Harris and edited by Morrison. In Rediscovering Black History, Morrison explains that she hopes that The Black Book, a scrapbook of 300 years of black life in America, will enable blacks to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence, and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks now growing up. Amid the photographs, patents, newspaper clippings, advertisements, recipes, etc. that make up the book, Morrison found verification of the stories of black achievement-despite slavery, racism, and sexism-that her parents and grandparents had told her when she was growing up: [I] felt a renewal of pride I had not felt since 1941, when my parents told me stories of blacks who had invented airplanes, electricity, and shoes....And there it was among Spike Harriss collection of patents: the overshoe. The airplane was also there as an airship registered in 1900 by John Pickering. Once again, Morrison had discovered a sustaining connection between her family history and habit of storytelling, black history, and her own sense of identity.

Appropriately, Morrisons third novel, Song of Solomon, charts a similar discovery. Milkman Dead sets out on a trek down south from his home in Ohio in hopes of recovering lost family treasure. What he finds is not gold, however, but the spiritual wealth of his rich family history. For Milkman, the journey becomes not only one from ignorance to knowledge, but also from selfish materialism and immaturity to joy, love, and selfless commitment to community. Morrison casts the narrative in the familiar mythological pattern of the Odyssey and specifically invokes an African American folktale about a group of African-born slaves who rise up from the plantation and fly back home across the ocean. At the end of the novel, Milkman has clearly freed himself from the confinements of materialism and entered into the realm of possibility, but whether or not he will survive his leap into that unknown remains unresolved.

Song of Solomon secured Morrisons place as a major writer of American fiction. A critical and commercial success, it became a paperback bestseller and in 1978 won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Those critics who had reservations about the novel generally felt that Morrison failed to integrate believably the realistic with the mythic elements. Vivian Gamick wrote in the Village Voice: At a certain point one begins to feel a manipulativeness in the books structure, and then to sense that the characters are moving to fulfill the requirements of that structure. Other critics discerned, however, that in Song of Solomon Morrison extended her primary themes across a much broader spectrum of subject matter than she had previously dealt with.Song of Solomon sweeps out from one mans quest for self-discovery to encompass his entire family history-becoming, as Claudia Tate put it in Black Women Writers at Work,a kind of cultural epic by which black people can recall their often obscured slave heritage. Reynolds Price summed up this evolution in the New York Times Book Review: Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives.

Explored Cost of Assimilation

Morrison published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, in March of 1981. It, too, made the New York Times bestseller list, and Newsweek magazine devoted its March 30th cover that year to Morrison. Like Song of Solomon, Tar Baby is a novel saturated in black folklore. It is set primarily on a tiny French West Indian island named Isle des Chevaliers, after a group of mythical African horsemen. According to the legend, these blind horsemen were imported to work as slaves but were never actually enslaved and are said to still be riding the hills. Against this mythological backdrop, Morrison stages a modern adaptation of the African American folktale of Tar Baby and Brer Rabbit, in which a farmer devises tar baby as a lure to trap the rabbit, who has been raiding gardens. Once captured, Brer Rabbit outwits the farmer by begging not to be thrown into the briar patch, which is of course his only real haven.

In Morrisons novel, the character of Jadine parallels that of Tar Baby. Jadine, a jet-setting, Sorbonne-educated black model is the niece of Sydney and Ondine Childs, butler and cook to retired white millionaire Valerian Street. Street has financed Jadines education and treats her like a guest. When the handsome outlaw Son intrudes on the household during a visit by Jadine, hostile racial and sexual undercurrents bubbling beneath the surface of the familial relationships burst forth. Jadine and Son fall in love, but neither can adapt to the life ways of the other. Cut off from the ancient properties of her ancestors, Jadine cannot live with Son in the briar patch, which is the black community of Eloe, Florida; nor can Son adapt to the superficial materialism of Paris or New York society.

A number of critics objected to the convoluted plot structure of Tar Baby, which some felt deprived the characters of credibility. Webster Schott suggested in the Washington Post Book World that the characters actions seem at times determined by Morrisons convictions, not their histories, and in a Nation article, Brina Caplan attributed this heavy-handedness to Morrisons decision to displace the small black communities that nourish her mythology with settings dominated by white culture. Nevertheless, critics agreed in the main that the books flaws, due primarily to the ambitiousness of her project, are outweighed by the power of Morrisons voice and the richness of her language.

Morrisons characters typically yearn for freedom, which, like Jadine, they often narrowly associate with escape from the restrictions placed upon them by their membership in a visible and exploited minority. Morrison suggests that while achieving that freedom may require individual rebellion against an unjust order, it certainly demands a communal effort to confront history and to assume collective responsibility for it and for one another. In her fifth novel, Beloved, published in 1987, Morrison sharpens her focus on the question of personal freedom and the lengths to which one might justifiably go in order to secure it.

More than a decade earlier, while working on The Black Book, Morrison had come across a Nineteenth-century magazine clipping which became the inspiration for Beloved. According to the article, a young runaway slave woman named Margaret Gamer was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had sought refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Facing imminent capture, Garner attempted to kill her four children, and in one case succeeded. All of the accounts of the tragedy remarked on the womans tranquility, Morrison explained in various interviews, but Garner was simply insisting that her children must not be forced to live as she had lived-as a slave.

Beloved has been called Morrisons most technically sophisticated novel to date. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration, and shifting points of view, the author explores in the story the events that have led to protagonist Sethes crime. Sethe lives with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., a fellow slave from the Kentucky plantation to which Sethe refused to return, comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit, or so they believe, until one day a beautiful, young, memoryless stranger arrives, calling herself Beloved. This stranger, the embodiment of Sethes murdered daughter and of the collective anguish and rage of the 60 million and more who have suffered the tortures of slavery, eventually takes control of the household. Feeding on Sethes memories and explanations, Beloved nearly destroys her mother, until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.

Won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes

Beloved sparked controversy soon after its publication. Although widely regarded as Morrisons masterpiece, it failed to win either the annual National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. 48 prominent black writers and critics-outraged over the lack of recognition afforded Morrison for her novel-signed a tribute to her achievements that was published in the New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988. Later that year, Morrison was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved.

Morrison experienced many personal trials during the next few years, including the death of her mother. Morrison stayed busy, however; in 1992 alone, she published another novel, Jazz, as well as two nonfiction works, including a collection essays she edited. Her reward came in 1993, when it was announced that the Swedish Academy had voted her the 1993 Nobel Laureate, a distinction which included an $817,771 monetary award. In winning, the woman who gives voice to the voiceless, according to The Atlanta Constitution, accepted the prize as a redemption of the female writer and black writer categories.

Morrison related her feelings of triumph during an interview with The New York Times Magazine, stating, I felt a lot of Nwe excitement....I felt I represented a whole world of women who either were silenced or who had never received the imprimatur of the established literary world. She added, It was very important for young black people to see a black person [succeed]....Seeing me up there might encourage them to write one of those books Im desperate to read. And that made me happy.

Morrison also hoped the prize was a signal of her luck changing. She told The New York Times Magazine,In the two years around the Nobel, I had a lot of bad luck, a lot of serious devastations. My mother died, other things. The only thing that...was truly wonderful was the Nobel Prize. So I regard the fact that my house burned down after I won the Nobel Prize to be better than having my house burn down without having won the Nobel Prize. Despite the loss of her personal and sentimental effects, Morrison took small comfort in the fact that her works-in-progress and other papers were saved. Rather than rebuilding her Grand View-on-Hudson, New York home, she relocated to Princeton, New Jersey, where she had been teaching since 1989. Once settled, Morrison got back to the business of writing once again.

Among other published projects, Morrison edited a book by former Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton and revealed her thoughts and observations of regarding The Trial of the Century, that of former football star O. J. Simpson, who was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend. In March of 1995, Morrison delivered that years Charter Day address to the graduating class of her alma mater, Howard University and was bestowed an honorary doctorate by the institution. Morrisons creative energies were sought by Atlantas Cultural Olympiad in April of 1995. The three-day Olympic Gathering featured seven other Nobel Laureates in Literature, all of whom participated in discussion panels, read from their works, and signed autographs. Later that summer she collaborated with dancer Bill T. Jones and jazz drummer Max Roach to present Degga, one of three dance performances commissioned for the American Visionaries series at New York Citys Lincoln Center.

The following year, Morrison received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and was selected as the 1996 Jefferson Lecturer-one of the highest U.S. honors given for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities-by the National Endowment for the Humanities. While all of Morrisons novels had been made available as a boxed set by Alfred A. Knopf Inc. in 1994, Song of Solomon was propelled onto the bestseller lists in 1996, after talk show host Oprah Winfrey recommended the book to her viewers. Early the following year, Winfrey invited Morrison and four regular women who love to read to her Chicago home for dinner. Taped for television and aired in February of 1997, the group of women enjoyed one anothers company, discussed Song of Solomon, and dined on a sumptuous meal of roasted cornish hens, autumn vegetables, and pistachio pear tarts.

The program provided further evidence that Morrison is firmly entrenched in the literary psyche of readers all over the globe. Extremely popular, the writer and educator is greatfun-a woman of subversive jokes, gossip, and surprising bits of self revelation who unwinds to Court TV and soap operas, according to The New York Times Magazine. As Morrison informed the magazine, I would like my work to do two things: be as demanding and sophisticated as I want it to be, and at the same time be accessible in a sort of emotional way to lots of people, just like jazz. Successful on both counts, perhaps thats why she is so beloved.

Selected writings

The Bluest Eye, Holt, 1970.

Sula, Knopf, 1973.

(Editor)The Black Book (anthology), Random House,1974.

Song of Solomon, Knopf, 1977.

Tar Baby, Knopf, 1981.

Dreaming Emmett (play), first produced in Albany, New York, January 4, 1986.

Beloved, Knopf, 1987.

Jazz, Knopf, 1992.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness & the Literary Imagination (lectures), Random House, 1992.

(Editor)Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, & the Construction of Social Reality, Pantheon, 1992.

Nobel Prize Speech, Knopf, 1994.

(Editor) Newtown, Huey P.,To Die for the People, Writers & Readers Publishing, 1995.

Dancing Mind, Random House, 1996.

Birth of a Nationhood: Gaze, Script & Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Trial (nonfiction), Pantheon, 1997.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 55, 1988.

Cooper-Clark, Diana, Interviews With Contemporary Novelists, St. Martins, 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 6:American Writers Since World War II, 1980, Volume 33:Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1981, Gale, 1982.

Evans, James H., Jr.,Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature: Frederick Douglass, Rebecca Jackson, Booker T.Washington, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Mellen, 1987.

Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.

Holloway, Karla F., and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison, Greenwood, 1987.

Jones, Bessie, W., and Audrey L. Vinson, The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism, Kendall-Hunt, 1985.

McKay, Nellie Y.,Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, G.K. Hall, 1988.

Otten, Terry, The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison, University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Ruas, Charles, Conversations With American Writers, Knopf, 1985.

Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1986.

Periodicals

The Atlanta Constitution, April 23, 1995, arts section, p. M13.

Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1979.

Harvard Advocate, 1974.

Jet, February 12, 1996, p. 4.

Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1989.

Nation, May 2, 1981.

Newsweek, March 30, 1981, September 28, 1987.

New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1970, December 30, 1973, June 2, 1974, September 11, 1977, March 29, 1981, September 13, 1987, January 24, 1988.

New York Times Magazine, August 11, 1974, July 4, 1976, May 20,1979; September 11, 1994, pp. 73-75.

Publishers Weekly, November 11, 1996, pp. 17-18.

Southern Review, July 1985.

Village Voice, August 29, 1977.

Washington Post Book World, March 22, 1981.

Other

Additional information taken from a two-part telecast of World of Ideas, hosted by Bill Moyers, Public Broadcasting System, 1990.

Susan Marren

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Morrison, Toni 1931–

Toni Morrison 1931

Writer

At a Glance

Insistence on Cultural Specificity

Attempts to Recover Black History

Explores Cost of Assimilation

Sharpens Focus on the Meaning of Freedom

Awards Controversy Fails to Diminish Literary Stature

Selected writings

Sources

When Toni Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her fifth novel, Beloved, the award brought her the national recognition many critics and fellow artists believed long overdue. Ms. Morrisons versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds, wrote Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review, adding, If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest. Since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison has earned increasing critical and popular acclaim. Her works are taught in courses on the novel as well as in African-American literature courses, and she is a sought after commentator not only on racial issues but on American arts and culture in general. At the same time, her books regularly reach bestseller lists, and she has even appeared on the cover of Newsweek.

Paradoxically, Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. Each of her novels highlights the struggles of black people to rediscover and maintain connections to their cultural history and mythologyto their ancestors, as she put it in an essay entitled Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation. Morrison envisions her literature of suffering and survival functioning as did the oral storytelling of the past, reminding members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles. She has fostered these ends by teaching such courses as African-American literature and techniques of fiction at various colleges and universities, as well as by using her position as a senior editor at Random House to publish other black authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, and Henry Dumas. Through her teaching and editing, therefore, as well as her own writing, she has exerted unparalleled influence in the African-American literary renaissance of the past several decades.

Morrisons early life was steeped in the black folklore, music, language, myth, and history that now richly texture her fiction. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, she grew up during the Depression in the small steel-mill town of Lorain, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had been sharecroppers in Alabama until they migrated north in 1912 to Kentucky, where John Solomon, a violinist, worked in a

At a Glance

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, February 18, 1931, in Lorain, OH; daughter of George and Ramah (Willis) Wofford; married Harold Morrison (an architect), 1958 (divorced); children: Harold Ford, Slade Kevin. Education: Howard University, B.A., 1953; Cornell University, M.A., 1955.

Writer. Texas Southern University, Houston, instructor in English, 1955-57; Howard University, Washington, DC, instructor in English, 1957-64; Random House, New York City, senior editor, beginning in the mid-1960s. State University of New York at Purchase, associate professor of English, 1971-72; State University of New York at Albany, Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, 1984-89; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities, 1989. Visiting lecturer at Yale University, 1976-77, and Bard College, 1986-88.

Awards: National Book Award nomination and Ohioana Book Award, both 1975, both for Sula; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, both 1978, both for Song of Solomon; New York State Governors Art Award, 1986; National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1987, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction and Robert F. Kennedy Award, both 1988, all for Beloved; Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award from the National Organization for Women. Honorary degrees from fifteen universities.

Member: American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, National Council on the Arts, Authors Guild (council member), Authors League of America.

Addresses: Office Random House, 201 East 50th St., New York, NY 10022. AgentLynn Nesbit, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

coal mine. Ardelia took in washing. When they discovered, however, that their daughters knew more mathematics than the one-room schoolhouse teacher, they determined that they must move again. Continuing north, they settled in Lorain.

Morrisons parents displayed the same resourcefulness, pride, and creativity that her grandparents had. Her father, George Wofford, was a shipyard welder who took such intense pride in his work that he would write his name in the side of a ship whenever he welded a perfect seam. A tireless worker, he held three jobs simultaneously for seventeen years. Morrisons mother, Ramah Wofford, dealt diplomatically with white bill collectors, and once when the meal the family received on relief was bugridden, she wrote a long letter of protest to then-U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. George and Ramah thrilled their four children with ghost stories and nourished their pride with stories of black ingenuity. In an essay in the bicentennial issue of the New York Times titled Rediscovering Black History, Morrison captured one such instance: Oh Mama, I cried, everybody in the world must have had sense enough to wrap his feet. I am telling you, she replied, a Negro invented shoes. Morrisons mother sang around the house and in the church choir, and her grandmother kept a dreambook by which she played the numbers. Not surprisingly, Morrison characteristically juxtaposes riveting realism in her novels with what she calls forms of knowledge discredited by the West: lore, gossip, magic, sentiment. Many critics agree that both the searing accuracy of her portrayals of black life in America and the fabulistic qualities for which her work has been praised clearly derive from Morrisons own life experiences in a family of storytellers.

Insistence on Cultural Specificity

Morrisons appetite for stories led her to read voraciously as a child and adolescent. When she entered the first grade she was the only black child in her class and the only child who could already read. Before she graduated with honors from Lorain High School, she had read widely among the great nineteenth-century Russian novels and such other European classics as Madame Bovary and the works of Jane Austen. She cites these novels as particular influences on her, justifying the cultural specificity of her own work with reference to them. These classics, Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Susan Blake quoted heras saying, were not written for a little black girl but they were so magnificently done that I got them anywaythey spoke directly to me. She expanded on this comment in an interview with Walter Clemons for Newsweek: When I write, I dont translate for white readers. Dostoevski wrote for a Russian audience, but were able to read him. If Im specific, and I dont overexplain, then anyone can overhear me.

Morrison attended Howard University as an undergraduate, majoring in English and minoring in the classics. At Howard she changed her name to Toni because people consistently mispronounced Chloe. Howard disappointed her in many ways; she found the social life there shallow: It was about getting married, buying clothes, and going to parties, she related, as quoted by Blake. In the summers, Morrison traveled with the Howard University Players, a student-faculty repertory troupe that took plays on tour in the South. These tours, Blake suggested, provided a geographical and historical focus for the sense of cultural identity her parents had instilled in her.

After graduating from Howard, Morrison spent two years at Cornell University earning a masters degree in English. She wrote a thesis on the theme of suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and then went on to teach English for two years at Texas Southern University. Morrison began to write when she drifted into a writers group after returning to Howard in 1957 to teach English. The only rule governing this group was that everyone had to bring something to read. In a conversation with fellow African-American novelist Gloria Naylor published in Southern Review, Morrison explained that when she had run out of old junk from high school to bring along, she wrote a short story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes. Out of this story she developed her first novel, The Bluest Eye, a noval that Naylor credits with having inspired her to begin writing seriously.

At Howard, Morrison met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architectural student. Though she speaks very little about this difficult period in her life, she has said that the marriage suffered because of cultural differences between them, and eventually it ended in divorce. In the early 1960s, Morrison returned with her two young sons, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin, to her parents home in Lorain. After about a year and a half, she found an editing job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House in Syracuse. It was there, each night after her children were asleep, that she returned to her short story and developed it into a novel. Though it was rejected many times, Morrison eventually found an editor who read an unfinished version of The Bluest Eye and encouraged her to complete it. In 1970, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published the novel.

The plot of The Bluest Eye is as simple as its implications are staggering. Morrison illuminates the multiple levels of victimization at work in brutally racist and sexist American society by placing at the storys center the quietly tragic figure of Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl on the verge of adolescence, who desperately wants to be loved. Barraged on all sidesfrom the movies, from teachers at school, from her own familywith the message that the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned appearance of Shirley Temple is beautiful, she concludes that the reason she is ridiculed and hated is that she is black and therefore ugly. Violated over and over by other characters reacting to their own victimizations, Pecola finally retreats into insanity, believing that she is the most beloved little girl of all because she has the bluest eyes of all.

The Bluest Eye received a moderate amount of attention, for the most part appreciative. The very features of Morrisons writing that some critics selected for praise prompted negative criticism from other reviewers, and such divergence has been a hallmark of Morrison criticism ever since. For instance, though Frankell Haskell in the New York Times Book Review objected to a fuzziness born of flights of poetic imagery and a lack of focus in the novel, Phyllis R. Klotman praised its lyrical yet precise language in Black American Literature Forum.

Later in the 1960s, Morrison moved to a senior editorial position at Random House in New York City. She began to contribute articles and reviews to various journals, most notably the New York Times. At the same time she was writing her second novel, Sula, which was published in December of 1973. I always thought of Sula, Morrison said in an article in the Michigan Quarterly Review, as new world black and new world woman. Daring, disruptive, imaginative, modern, out-of-the-house, outlawed, unpolicing, uncontained and uncontainable. Sula explores the life and death of a black community called The Bottom in the town of Medallion, Ohio, by focusing on the friendship from childhood between two very different women, Sula Peace and Nel Wright. Nel grows up to marry, have children, and otherwise conform to all that society and her community expects of her. Sula, on the other hand, embarks on what the narrator terms an experimental life. She becomes a pariah, defining by her rebellious violations the boundaries and social codes of the community: Their conviction of Sulas evil, the narrator tells us, make[s] the townspeople their best selves. Morrison speaks of Nel and Sula as two halves of one person; the ideal, she told Bill Moyers on a segment of his PBS television show World of Ideas, would be a Sula with some responsibilities. Nevertheless, Morrison will not allow her readers to rest comfortably in any particular moral stance toward the events or characters in Sula: we wonder whether to admire Sulas grandmother Evas bravery in allowing her leg to be cut off by a train in order to collect insurance money to feed her children, or instead to be repulsed by such self-mutilation, just as we vacillate on whether to celebrate Sulas autonomy or to deplore her selfishness.

Sula garnered more attention than had The Bluest Eye and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Sara Blackburns review in the New York Times Book Review caused a minor controversy because it suggested first that the novel lacked the stinging immediacy of Morrisons nonfiction and then that Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life. But Blackburn stood virtually alone in her impression that Morrisons novel was limited by its focus on a black community. Faith Daviss review in the Harvard Advocate was more nearly representative in its assessment that Sula has the capacity to touch all readers: Her citizens of the Bottom jump up from the pages vital and strong because she has made us care about the pain in their lives.

Attempts to Recover Black History

In February of 1974, Random House published The Black Book, a volume complied by Middleton Harris and edited by Morrison. In Rediscovering Black History, Morrison explained that she hopes The Black Book, a scrapbook of three hundred years of black life in America, will enable blacks to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence, and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks now growing up. Amid the photographs, patents, newspaper clippings, advertisements, recipes, etc. that make up the book, Morrison found verification of the stories of black achievementdespite slavery, racism, and sexismthat her parents and grandparents had told her when she was growing up: [I] felt a renewal of pride I had not felt since 1941, when my parents told me stories of blacks who had invented airplanes, electricity, and shoes. And there it was among Spike Harriss collection of patents: the overshoe. The airplane was also there as an airship registered in 1900 by John Pickering. Once again, Morrison had discovered a sustaining connection between her family history and habit of storytelling, black history, and her own sense of identity.

Appropriately, Morrisons third novel, Song of Solomon, charts a similar discovery. Milkman Dead sets out on a trek down south from his home in Ohio in hopes of recovering lost family treasure. What he finds is not gold, however, but the spiritual wealth of his rich family history. For Milkman, the journey becomes not only one from ignorance to knowledge, but also from selfish materialism and immaturity to joy, love, and selfless commitment to community. Morrison casts the narrative in the familiar mythological pattern of the odyssey and specifically invokes an African-American folktale about a group of African-born slaves who rise up from the plantation and fly back home across the ocean. At the end of the novel, Milkman has clearly freed himself from the confinement of materialism and entered into the realm of possibility, but whether or not he will survive his leap into that unknown remains unresolved.

Song of Solomon secured Morrisons place as a major writer of American fiction. A critical and commercial success, it became a paperback bestseller and in 1978 won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Those critics who had reservations about the novel generally felt that Morrison failed to integrate believably the realistic with the mythic elements. Vivian Gamick wrote in the Village Voice: At a certain point one begins to feel a manipulativeness in the books structure, and then to sense that the characters are moving to fulfill the requirements of that structure. Other critics discerned, however, that in Song of Solomon Morrison extended her primary themes across a much broader spectrum of subject matter than she had previously. Song of Solomon sweeps out from one mans quest for self-discovery to encompass his entire family historybecoming, as Claudia Tate put it in Black Women Writers at Work, a kind of cultural epic by which black people can recall their often obscured slave heritage. Reynolds Price summed up this evolution in the New York Times Book Review: Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives.

Explores Cost of Assimilation

Morrison published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, in March of 1981. It, too, made the New York Times bestseller list, and Newsweek magazine devoted its March 30th cover that year to Morrison. Like Song of Solomon, Tar Baby is a novel saturated in black folklore. It is set primarily on a tiny French West Indian island named Isle des Chevaliers, after a group of mythical African horsemen. According to the legend, these blind horsemen were imported to work as slaves but were never actually enslaved and are said to still be riding the hills. Against this mythological backdrop, Morrison stages a modern adaptation of the African-American folktale of Tar Baby and Brer Rabbit, in which a farmer devises tar baby as a lure to trap the rabbit, who has been raiding gardens. Once captured, Brer Rabbit outwits the farmer by begging not to be thrown into the briar patch, which is of course his only real haven. In Morrisons novel, the character of Jadine parallels that of Tar Baby. Jadine, a jet-setting, Sorbonne-educated black model is the niece of Sydney and Ondine Childs, butler and cook to retired white millionaire Valerian Street. Street has financed Jadines education and treats her like a guest. When the handsome outlaw, Son, intrudes on the household during a visit by Jadine, hostile racial and sexual undercurrents bubbling beneath the surface of the familial relationships burst forth. Jadine and Son fall in love, but neither can adapt to the life ways of the other. Cut off from the ancient properties of her ancestors, Jadine cannot live with Son in the briar patch, which is the black community of Eloe, Florida; nor can Son adapt to the superficial materialism of Paris or New York society.

A number of critics objected to the convoluted plot structure of Tar Baby, which some felt deprived the characters of credibility. Webster Schott suggested in the Washington Post Book World that the characters actions seem at times determined by Morrisons convictions, not their histories, and in a Nation article, Brina Caplan attributed this heavy-handedness to Morrisons decision to displace the small black communities that nourish her mythology with settings dominated by white culture. Nevertheless, critics agreed in the main that the books flaws, due primarily to the ambitiousness of her project, are outweighed by the power of Morrisons voice and the richness of her language.

Sharpens Focus on the Meaning of Freedom

Morrisons characters typically yearn for freedom, which, like Jadine, they often narrowly associate with escape from the restrictions placed upon them by their membership in a visible and exploited minority. Morrison suggests that while achieving that freedom may require individual rebellion against an unjust order, it certainly demands a communal effort to confront history and to assume collective responsibility for it and for one another. In her fifth novel, Beloved, published in 1987, Morrison sharpened her focus on the question of personal freedom and the lengths to which one might justifiably go in order to secure it. More than a decade earlier, while working on The Black Book, Morrison had come across a nineteenth-century magazine clipping that became the inspiration for Beloved. According to the article, a young runaway slave woman named Margaret Garner was tracked by her owner to Cincinnati, where she had sought refuge with her freed mother-in-law. Facing imminent capture, Garner attempted to kill her four children, and in one case succeeded. All of the accounts of the tragedy remarked on the womans tranquility, Morrison explained in various interviews, but Garner was simply insisting that her children must not be forced to live as she had livedas a slave.

Beloved has been called Morrisons most technically sophisticated novel to date. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration, and shifting points of view, the author explores in the story the events that have led to protagonist Sethes crime. Sethe lives with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., a fellow slave from the Kentucky plantation to which Sethe refused to return, comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit, or so they believe, until one day a beautiful, young, memoryless stranger arrives, calling herself Beloved. This stranger, the embodiment of Sethes murdered daughter and of the collective anguish and rage of the sixty million and more who have suffered the tortures of slavery, eventually takes control of the household. Feeding on Sethes memories and explanations, Beloved nearly destroys her mother, until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.

Awards Controversy Fails to Diminish Literary Stature

Beloved sparked controversy soon after its publication. Although widely regarded as Morrisons masterpiece, it failed to win either the annual National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Forty-eight prominent black writers and criticsoutraged over the lack of recognition afforded Morrison for her novelsigned a tribute to her achievements that was published in the New York Times Book Review on January 24, 1988. Later that year, Morrison was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Beloved.

Selected writings

The Bluest Eye, Holt, 1970.

Sula, Knopf, 1973.

(Editor) The Black Book (authology), Random House, 1974.

Song of Solomon, Knopf, 1977.

Tar Baby, Knopf, 1981.

Dreaming Emmett (play), first produced in Albany, New York, January 4, 1986.

Beloved, Knopf, 1987.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 10, 1979, Volume 22, 1982, Volume 55, 1988.

Cooper-Clark, Diana, Interviews With Contemporary Novelists, St. Martins, 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 6: American Writers Since World War II, 1980, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Yearbook: 1981, Gale, 1982.

Evans, James H., Jr., Spiritual Empowerment in Afro-American Literature: Frederick Douglass, Rebecca Jackson, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Mellen, 1987.

Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.

Holloway, Karla F., and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison, Greenwood, 1987.

Jones, Bessie, W., and Audrey L. Vinson, The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism, Kendall-Hunt, 1985.

McKay, Nellie Y., Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, G.K. Hall, 1988.

Otten, Terry, The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison, University of Missouri Press, 1989.

Ruas, Charles, Conversations With American Writers, Knopf, 1985.

Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Continum, 1986.

Periodicals

Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1979.

Harvard Advocate, 1974.

Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 1989.

Nation, May 2, 1981.

Newsweek, March 30, 1981, September 28, 1987.

New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1970, December 30, 1973, June 2, 1974, September 11, 1977, March 29, 1981, September 13, 1987, January 24, 1988.

New York Times Magazine, August 11, 1974, July 4, 1976, May 20, 1979.

Southern Review, July 1985.

Village Voice, August 29, 1977.

Washington Post Book World, March 22, 1981.

Additional information taken from a two-part telecast of World of Ideas, hosted by Bill Moyers, Public Broadcasting System, 1990.

Susan Marren

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison (born 1931) was best known for her intricately woven novels, which focused on intimate relationships, especially between men and women, set against the backdrop of African American culture. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel Beloved and the 1993 Nobel Prize for literature.

Chloe Anthony Wofford, better known in the literary world as Toni Morrison, was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931 to Ramah and George Wofford. Her maternal grandparents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had left Greenville, Alabama, around 1910 after they lost their farm. Morrison's paternal family left Georgia and headed north to escape sharecropping and racial violence. Both families settled in the steel-mill town of Lorain on Lake Erie.

Morrison's childhood was filled with the African American folklore, music, rituals, and myths which were later to characterize her prose. Her mother sang constantly, much like the character "Sing" in Song of Solomon, while her Grandmother Willis (reminiscent of Eva Peace in Sula and Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon) kept a "dream book," in which she tried to decode dream symbols into winning numbers. Her family was, as Morrison says, "intimate with the supernatural" and frequently used visions and signs to predict the future. Her real life world, therefore, was often reflected later in her novels. Morrison attributes the breadth of her vision to the precision of her focus. She sees her literature as functioning much as did the oral storytelling tradition of the past that reminded members of the community of their heritage and defining their roles.

Choosing a Literary Career

Morrison cited the difficulty people at Howard University had in pronouncing "Chloe" as the reason for changing her name to Toni. While at Howard she was a member of the Howard University Players, a repertory company that presented plays about the lives of African American people in the South during the 1940s and 1950s. This experience brought into focus her own family's history of lost land and racial violence. Years later this theme would appear time and time again in her fiction.

After receiving the B.A. in English from Howard and the M.A. from Cornell, also in English, Morrison returned to Howard to teach. In 1958 she married Harold Morrison, a young architect from Jamaica who also taught at Howard. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1964, produced two sons, Harold (also known as Ford) and Slade. A year and half later she was in Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House, with two small children, and with lots of free time in the evenings. This environment helped her turn to writing novels.

For several years Morrison continued as a senior editor at Random House, where she became a force in getting other African-American writers published, including Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, and June Jordan. She not only held down this job, but taught part-time and lectured across the country, while at the same time writing novels: The Bluest Eye (1970); Sula (1974), which was nominated for a National Book Award; Song of Solomon (1977), which won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and was chosen as the second novel by an African American to be a Book-of the-Month selection (the first was Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940); Tar Baby (1981); and Beloved (1987) a novel of recovering power out of the devastation of slavery. Meanwhile she served as writer-in-residence at New York State University, first at Stony Brook and later at Albany, before moving to Princeton.

Morrison's novels were characterized by carefully crafted prose, in which ordinary words were placed in relief so as to produce lyrical phrases and to elicit sharp emotional responses from her readers. Her extraordinary, mythic characters were driven by their own moral visions to struggle in order to understand truths which are larger than those held by the individual self. Her subjects were large: good and evil, love and hate, friendship, beauty and ugliness, and death.

Making Her Point Through Fiction

The Bluest Eye depicted the tragic life of a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wanted nothing more than to have her family love her and to be liked by school friends. These rather ordinary ambitions, however, were beyond Pecola's reach. She surmised that the reason she was abused at home and ridiculed at school was her black skin, which was equated with ugliness. She imagined that everything would be all right if she had blue eyes and blond hair; in short, if she were cute like Shirley Temple. Unable to withstand the assaults on her frail self-image, Pecola goes quietly insane and withdraws into a fantasy world in which she was a beloved little girl because she has the bluest eye of all.

Against the backdrop of Pecola's story was that of Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, who managed to grow up whole despite the social forces which pressured African-Americans and females. For them, childhood was much like it was for Morrison herself in Lorain; their egos were comforted and nurtured by family members, whose love did not fail them.

Sula was about a marvelously unconventional woman, Sula Pease, who becomes a pariah in her hometown of Medallion, Ohio, which was much like Lorain. With the discovery at the age of 12 that she and her friend Nel Wright "were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be." Nel married and her life follows convention, while Sula's life evolved into an unlimited experiment. Not bound by any social codes, Sula was first thought to be unusual, then outrageous, and eventually evil. In becoming a pariah in her community, she was the measure for evil and, ironically, inspired goodness in those around her. At her death both the community and Nel learned that Sula was their life force; she was the other half of the equation. Without Sula, Nel felt incomplete.

The female vantage point shifted to an African-American male perspective in Song of Solomon, which traced the process of self-discovery for Macon Dead III. Macon, or "Milkman" as he was called by his friends, set out on a series of journeys to recover a lost treasure in his family's past, but instead of discovering economic wealth, he uncovered something more valuable. He gathered together the details of his ancestry, which he thought had been lost to him forever. In a larger context Milkman's odyssey became a kind of cultural epic for all African-American people; it mapped in symbolic fashion the heritage of a people, from a mythic African past, through a heritage obscured by slavery, to a present built upon questioned values.

Tar Baby, Morrison's fourth novel, moved beyond the small Midwestern town setting to an island in the Caribbean. As the title suggested, the story employed a folktale about how a farmer used a tar baby to catch a troublesome rabbit. When the tar baby doesn't return the rabbit's greeting, he hits the tar baby and gets stuck. He begs the farmer to skin him alive, to do anything but throw him into the briar patch. The farmer throws him in the briar patch, where the rabbit escapes.

As the story opens, Jadine (also called Jade) has left Paris, where she was a fashion model, to visit Valerian and Margaret Street in the Caribbean. Jade, who was orphaned at an early age, has been cut off from her black heritage. She was raised and educated by Valerian Street, a rich, white, retired candy magnate and employer for her aunt and uncle, Sydney and Ondine. Valerian has paid for Jade's French education, and she has substituted Valerian's cultural heritage of wealth and status for her black heritage of struggle and survival. Therefore, Jade was an orphan in the literal sense of the word, with no personal attachments.

On Christmas Eve a young black vagrant, Son, jumped ship and intruded on their lives. His presence brings to the surface years of their locked up secrets and forced them to give expression to their violent racial, sexual, and familial conflicts. Jade and Son became passionately entangled with one another. Because she had no racial past, no tribe, to cling to—no briar patch, as it were—she cannot share his life with him, but he does not want to live without her. She flees from him, and he searches for her.

Beloved, Morrison's fifth novel, has been called her most technically sophisticated work to date. Using flashbacks, fragmented narration and shifting viewpoints, Morrison explored the story of the events that have led to the protagonist Sethe's crime. Sethe lived with her surviving daughter, Denver, on the outskirts of Cincinnati in a farmhouse haunted by the tyrannical ghost of her murdered baby daughter. Paul D., fellow slave from Kentucky comes to live with them. He violently casts out the baby spirit or so they think, until one day a beautiful young stranger with no memory arrived, calling herself 'Beloved'. The stranger was the embodiment of Sethe's murdered daughter and the collective anguish and rage of sixty million and more who have suffered the tortures of slavery. She eventually takes over the household, feeding on Sethe's memories and explanations to gain strength. Beloved nearly destroyed her mother until the community of former slave women who have ostracized Sethe and Denver since the murder join together to exorcise Beloved at last.

Although the work was considered Morrison's masterpiece, she failed to win either the National Book Award or the National Book Critic's Award. Forty-eight prominent African-American writers and critics who were outraged and appalled at the lack of recognition for the novel, signed a tribute to her achievement that was published in the New York Times in January 1988. Later that year Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved. She won the Nobel Prize for literature based upon the quality of her work in 1993. In 1996, the National Book Awards presented her with its NBF Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. During her acceptance speech Morrison said "writing is a craft that seems solitary but needs another for its completion, that requires a whole industry for its dissemination. At its best, it offers the fruits of one person imaginative intelligence to another without restraints."

Further Reading

For biographical information see the following periodical pieces: Colette Dowling, "The Song of Toni Morrison," The New York Times Magazine (May 20, 1979); Charles Ruas, "Toni Morrison's Triumph," The Soho News (March 11, 1981); and Jeane Strouse, "Black Magic," Newsweek (March 30, 1981). For critical information see the following books: Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists (1981); Barbara Christian, Black Feminist Criticism (1985); Mari Evans, "Toni Morrison" in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980 (1983); and Claudia Tate, Black Women Writers at Work. The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Black Book, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Dreaming Emmett, Beloved, Jazz, and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination are a few of Morrison's works. □

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Morrison, Toni

Toni Morrison

Born: February 18, 1931
Lorain, Ohio

African American writer

Toni Morrison is the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is best known for her novels focusing on intimate relationships, especially between men and women. These stories are set against the backdrop of African American culture.

Birth and family history

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. She was the second of four children born to Ramah and George Wofford. Her mother's parents, Ardelia and John Solomon Willis, had left Greenville, Alabama, around 1910 after they lost their farm because of debts that they could not repay. Morrison's father's family left Georgia and moved north to escape sharecropping (a system of farming in which a farmer works on someone else's land and pays the owner a share of the crop) and violence against African Americans in the South. Both families settled in the steel-mill town of Lorain on Lake Erie. Morrison grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, a time of severe economic hardship. Her father supported the family by working three jobs for seventeen years.

Folklore, music, and history

Morrison's childhood was filled with African American folklore, music, rituals, and myths. Her family was, as Morrison says, "intimate with the supernatural" and frequently used visions and signs to predict the future. Storytelling was an important part of life in the Wofford family and both the children and the adults would share stories with one another. Morrison sees her writing functioning much like storytelling did in the past. It reminds people about their heritage and shows them their place in the community. She has said that she uses her childhood memories to help her start writing. Her real-life world, therefore, is often included in her novels.

Once Morrison learned how to read, it became one of the things in life that she loved spending time doing. When she was in high school, she began to read the works of great authors such as Jane Austen (17751817), Leo Tolstoy (18281910), and the nineteenth-century French writer Gustave Flaubert (18211880). Morrison was impressed by the specific way these writers portrayed the things that they were familiar with. Their talents motivated her to write in such a way about the things she was most familiar with, particularly her African American culture.

Attends university and becomes a teacher

In 1949 Morrison went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study English. She changed her name to Toni because people at Howard had trouble pronouncing the name Chloe. While at Howard she was a member of the Howard University Players, a theater company that presented plays about the lives of African American people. Morrison received her bachelor of arts degree in English from Howard in 1953. After she received her master's degree in English from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1955, she taught for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston. Then she returned to Howard University to teach.

Marriage, family, and a career as an editor

While at Howard, Toni met Harold Morrison, a young architect from Jamaica who also taught at the university. The couple married in 1958 and had two sons, Harold (also known as Ford) and Slade, before divorcing in 1964. Then Morrison went to Syracuse, New York, and began working as an editor for a Random House company. She had two small children and free time in the evenings. This environment helped her turn her attention to writing novels.

In 1968 Morrison moved to New York City, where she continued working as an editor for Random House. She eventually became a senior editor and was the only African American woman to have that job in the company. While there she helped to publish books by African American writers, including Toni Cade Bambara (19391995), Gayl Jones (1949), and June Jordan (1936). She also taught part-time, lectured across the country, and wrote many novels.

Morrison's novels

Morrison began writing her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), while she was in a writers' group at Howard University. The story is about an African American girl who wishes that her eyes were blue and fit a different image of beauty. Thirty years later the book still speaks to a universal audience and was chosen to be an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection. Sula (1974), Morrison's second novel, was nominated for a National Book Award. Her third book, Song of Solomon (1977), won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. It was also chosen as the second novel by an African American to be a Book-of-the-Month selection. Tar Baby was published in 1981. Beloved (1987) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Jazz was published in 1992 and Paradise followed in 1997. Meanwhile, Morrison worked as writer-in-residence at the State University of New York, first at Stony Brook and later at Albany, before moving on to Princeton University in New Jersey.

Morrison's novels are carefully written to produce poetic phrases and strong emotional responses from her readers. Her characters try to understand the truth about the world they live in. The subjects she writes about include good and evil, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, friendship, and death.

Morrison's masterpiece

Beloved, a story about life after slavery, is considered Morrison's masterpiece. In 1993, when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the body of her work, the Nobel Commit tee cited Beloved as Morrison's outstanding work. In 1996 she received a Medal for Dis tinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.

In 1999 Morrison's first children's book, The Big Box, was published. She worked on the book together with her son Slade. The story is a dark look at childhood in America that pushes children and parents to take a new look at the rules and values that make up their lives. The book shows the ways in which well-meaning adults sometimes block children's independence and creativity.

Honored by the president

In 2001 Toni Morrison was given a National Arts and Humanities Award by Pres ident Bill Clinton in Washington, D.C. The president gave a speech during the award ceremony and said that Morrison had "entered America's heart."

For More Information

Blashfield, Jean F. Toni Morrison. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.

Jones, Amy Robin. Toni Morrison. Chanhas sen, MN: Child's World, 2002.

Kramer, Barbara. Toni Morrison, Nobel PrizeWinning Author. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1996.

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Morrison, Toni

Toni Morrison, 1931–, American writer, b. Lorain, Ohio, as Chloe Ardelia (later Anthony) Wofford; grad. Howard Univ. (B.A., 1953), Cornell (M.F.A., 1955). Her fiction is noted for its poetic language, lush detail, emotional intensity, and sensitive observation of American life as viewed from a variety of African-American perspectives. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), is the story of a girl ruined by a racist society and its violence. Song of Solomon (1977; National Book Award) established her as one of America's leading novelists. It concerns a middle-class man who achieves self-knowledge through the discovery of his rural black heritage. Her later fiction includes Beloved (1987; Pulitzer Prize), a powerful account of mother love, murder, and the legacy of slavery; and Jazz (1992), a tale of love and murder set in Harlem in the 1920s. Her other novels are Sula (1973), Tar Baby (1981), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015).

Among Morrison's other works are the essay collections Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power (1992) and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992); several children's books, including The Big Box (2000), written with her son, Slade; a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986); a song cycle, Honey and Me (1992), written with André Previn; an opera libretto, Margaret Garner (2003); and, in collaboration with Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, Desdemona (2011), a dramatic and musical reinterpretation of Shakespeare's Othello. Awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was the first African American to win the coveted prize. Morrison, who was an influential editor at Random House for nearly two decades, has been a professor at Princeton since 1989 and was the founder (1994) of the Princeton Atelier, a writers' and performers' workshop.

See D. Taylor-Guthrie, ed., Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994) and C. Y. Denard, ed., Toni Morrison: Conversations (2008); studies by B. W. Jones (1985), A. I. Vinson (1985), N. Y. McKay, ed. (1988), H. Bloom (1990, repr. 2005), H. L. Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, ed. (1993), P. Page (1995), N. J. Peterson, ed. (1997), L. Peach (1995 and, as ed., 1998), D. L. Middleton, ed. (2000), S. A. Stave, ed. (2006), J. L. Carlacio (2007), S. N. Mayberry (2007), J. L. J. Heinert (2008), L. V. D. Jennings (2008), R. Lister (2009), and K. Zauditu-Selassie (2009).

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Morrison, Toni

MORRISON, Toni

Nationality: American. Born: Chloe Anthony Wofford, Lorain, Ohio, 18 February 1931. Education: Howard University, Washington, D.C., B.A. 1953; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, M.A. 1955. Family: Married Harold Morrison in 1958 (divorced 1964); two sons. Career: Instructor in English, Texas Southern University, Houston, 1955-57, and Howard University, 1957-64; senior editor, Random House, publishers, New York, 1965-84; associate professor, State University of New York, Purchase, 1971-72; visiting lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1976-77, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1983-84, and Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1986-88; Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, State University of New York, Albany, 1984-89; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1987; Santagata Lecturer, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1987. Since 1989 Golheen Professor of the Humanities, Princeton University, New Jersey. Awards: American Academy award, 1977; National Book Critics Circle award, 1977; New York State Governor's award, 1985; Book of the Month Club award, 1986; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1988; Robert F. Kennedy award, 1988; Melcher award, 1988; Pulitzer prize, 1988; MLA Commonwealth award in literature, 1989; Nobel prize, 1993, for literature; Pearl Buck award, 1994; Condorcet medal (Paris), 1994; Rhegium Julii prize, 1994, for literature; National Book Foundation Medal, 1996. Honorary degree: College of Saint Rose, Albany, 1987. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Address: Department of Creative Writing, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

The Bluest Eye. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970; London, Chatto andWindus, 1980.

Sula. New York, Knopf, and London, Allen Lane, 1974.

Song of Solomon. New York, Knopf, 1977; London, Chatto andWindus, 1978.

Tar Baby. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1981.

Beloved. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Jazz. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Paradise. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Play

Dreaming Emmett (produced Albany, New York, 1986).

Other

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, Harvard University Press, 1992.

Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Lecture and Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.

Four Songs for Soprano, Cello, and Piano (poems), by Andre Previn. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England, Music Sales, 1995.

The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on the Sixth of November, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Xix. New York, Knopf, 1996.

The Big Box (for children), illustrated by Giselle Potter. New York, Hyperion Books for Children/Jump at the Sun, 1999.

Editor, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York, Pantheon, 1992; London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Editor, To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton. New York, Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995.

*

Film Adaptations:

Beloved, 1998.

Bibliography:

Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography by David L. Middleton, New York, Garland, 1987.

Critical Studies:

New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison by Karla F.C. Holloway, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1987; The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison by Terry Otten, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1989; Toni Morrison by Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems, Boston, Twayne, 1990; Toni Morrison edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1990; Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Trudier Harris, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1991; Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative by Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1991; Toni Morrison's Developing Class Consciousness by Doreatha Drummond Mbalia, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press, and London, Associated University Presses, 1991; The Voices of Toni Morrison by Barbara Hill Rigney, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1991; The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place Within the Community by Patrick Bryce Bjork, New York, Lang, 1992; The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness": Toni Morrison's Novels by Denise Heinze, Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1993; Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah, New York, Amistad, 1993; Toni Morrison by Douglas Century, New York, Chelsea House, 1994; Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994; A World of Difference: An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison's Novels by Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1994; The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, edited by Carl Plasa and Betty J. Ring, London and New York, Routledge, 1994; Toni Morrison by Linden Peach, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Toni Morrison and the American Tradition: A Rhetorical Reading by Herbert William Rice, New York, P. Lang, 1996; Toni Morrison's Fiction by Jan Furman, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1996; Toni Morrison: An Intricate Spectrum, edited with an introduction by Alladi Uma, New Delhi, Arnold Associates, 1996; Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches, edited by Nancy J. Peterson, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1997; Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1997; The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading by Pin-chia Feng, New York, P. Lang, 1998; Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Gurleen Grewal, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1998; Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion by Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998; The Novels of Toni Morrison: A Study in Race, Gender, and Class by K. Sumana, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1998; Toni Morrison and Womanist Discourse by Aoi Mori, New York, P. Lang, 1999; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, New York, Peter Lang, 1999; Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999; Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison by J. Brooks Bouson, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2000; Toni Morrison, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Broomall, PA, Chelsea House, 2000; The Artist As Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf by Lisa Williams, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000; Toni Morrison Explained: A Reader's Road Map to the Novels by Ron David, New York, Random House, 2000; Toni Morrison: Historical Perspectives and Literary Contexts by Linden Peach, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000.

* * *

A comparison of Toni Morrison with Joyce and Faulkner is irresistible. One dominant aspect of her work is an exhaustive, mythical exploration of place. Another is the search for the nexus of past and present. She is to the black milieu of Lorain what Joyce and Faulkner are to Dublin and Oxford, and her Medallion is as curiously fascinating as Anderson's Winesburg. Her stories translate a multiplicity of places, often superficially tawdry, into a rich cultural matrix. Likewise, the times of her forebears and herself in Ohio are a duration, not a chronology. She thus makes the legendary altogether new, and discovers in colloquial habit and naming the altogether legendary. Legend includes not only the tales of her black folk, but the myths of world literature. She has excluded Caucasians from her fiction more than Joyce and Faulkner have excluded ethnic "others" from theirs. But her focus on personality and character (in the moral sense) is indisputably universal. Her pervasive irony and paradox are not merely adroit but ethically motivated. At times they accentuate an erosion of the dignified, reliable courtlines of ancestral blacks, the more profound because it was maintained through the grossest depredations in American history. She is able to say of her contemporaries: "We raised our children and reared our crops; we let infants grow, and property develop." It is a deep regard for craftfor verbal nuance, metaphor image, point of viewthat enables Morrison not merely to discourse upon but to animate social process and existential crisis.

The Bluest Eye tells of the incestuous rape of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove by her father. The girl's need to be loved (pushed to the extreme when she observes her mother, a "domestic," heaping upon a little white girl affections Pecola has only dreamed of) takes the doomed form of a yearning for blue eyes. The insanity of this flight from reality comes to fruition after the death of the baby, when she actually believes herself to have acquired them. With her ubiquitous metaphor of flight, Morrison sums up this personal fate and the novel's powerful theme:

The damage was total. She spent her days walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reachcould not even seebut which filled the valleys of the mind.

We are led to conclude that the narrator, Claudia Macteer, and her sister Frieda probably dodged this perversion by directing an ordinate malice at their Shirley Temple dolls and by being born to a family that, though rough and austere, did know how to breed love.

Sula explores equally an extraordinary consciousness and the gap between generations. Sula Mae Peace and her grandmother, Eva, share a great deal in common. Both left the same home in Medallion's "Bottom" only to return and inhabit it in willful isolation. Both shun tender expressions of love. Both have authored another's death. But in her indifference to family bonds, Sula is her grandmother's opposite. Where Eva left to save her family, Sula left to indulge her fancy. Where Eva returned for her children (though only content alone on the second floor), Sula returned from boredom and put her grandmother in a home. Where Eva, with tragic awareness, ignited her son's drug-addicted body, Sula dropped the little boy "Chicken" to his death with a weird inadvertence. And where Eva maimed herself trying to save her flaming daughter Hannah, Sula watched her mother's immolation with distant curiosity.

Yet this portrait is not simply a paean to the old ways. There is sympathy for Sula because as a child she had misconceived Hannah's remark about her, "I love her, I just don't like her," and because of her vain effort to save "Chicken." Of that the narrator remarks that it has exorcised "her one major feeling of responsibility." Moreover, her temperament blends "Eva's arrogance and Hannah's self indulgence" in an "experimental life" which itself seems a precondition for seeing and acting upon hard social truths. And finally, she seems like Pecola Breedlove, whose "guilt" mysteriously sanctified those around her. Sula performs the original Eve's purpose; as a community "witch," she provides others with a scapegoat, a model of such evil conduct that their own is actually elevated thereby.

Song of Solomon is a work of enormous breadth. Macon and Ruth Dead complete an often devastating characterization of genteel blacks begun with Geraldine and Helene in the earlier novels. Self-serving and cool, their son "Milkman" has given full life to the family name. Burdened by his parents' merciless marriage and prompted by his saintly aunt, Pilate, he sets out for Virginia and the skeletons in his family closet. But lore steadily leads and yields to more interesting truth, in the form of persons who correct his myopic view. He discovers his dead grandmother, Sing, so called because she was half Indian, Singing Bird, but also the daughter of a white Virginian named Byrd. And he discovers his great-grandfather, Solomon, who once proudly flew the coop of slavery and about whom the country black kids still sing: "O Solomon don't leave me." Song and flight make life endurable and beautiful in Morrison's world. Having discovered these true ancestors, Milkman forgets the mundane, taking his best friend Guitar's advice to heart: "[If you] wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." The murderous conflict that had developed between the two (Guitar is a consummate study of an extremist racial approach toward which the novel displays both sympathy and disgust) is ended: "For now [Milkman] knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."

The design of Tar Baby, so allegorical and symbolic, probably overextends the mythic note of Song of Solomon. Folk legend is provided by the title, but elsewhere little is quite so down to earth and the supporting realism is undercut by both the fabulous Haitian settings and Morrison's anthropomorphizing of them. The key figures are Jadine and Son. Their union and divorce embody a black man's search for an authentic, natural past and a black woman's estrangement from it. Committed to materialistic white values, she ends by fondling her sealskin coat. He ends, more unbelievably than the airborne Milkman, by entering a jungle so humanoid that it "make[s] the way easier for a certain kind of man," Morrison's archetype.

Beloved, properly, earned Morrison the Pulitzer prize. The plot entails the struggle of Sethe (Suggs), from the summer of 1873 to the spring of 1874, to bear the resurgent impact of her past, particularly the moment 18 years earlier when she had drawn a handsaw across the throat of her baby girl, named Beloved. She had done so rather than hand the child and her siblings to a vicious plantation manager who had come to Cincinnati, in the name of the "Fugitive Bill," for the family of escaped Kentucky slaves. Once again using magic realism, Morrison simply allows the child's ghost to cross back into her mother's world, in the form of a living and troubled young woman. Readers will struggle to see it otherwise, but this seems the only viable interpretation of the latter-day Beloved. The plot moves constantly between the present in a spuriously free North and an exactingly drawn past in the South before the Civil War. The detail Morrison provides here about plantation existence for slaves, chain gang existence for black convicts, and the terrors of the runaway's passage to freedom is potently authentic. But all is cast in highly lyrical terms.

In 1992, Morrison offered her readers Jazz, a continuation of her look at excessive love, which began with maternal love in particular in Beloved. Set in America's Jazz Age, Jazz presents Joe and Violet Trace, a door-to-door salesman and hairdresser, respectively. Displaced after they are evicted from their home in Virginia and enchanted by their perception of Harlem, they migrate to New York in 1906 but quickly become "people enthralled, then deceived by the music the world makes." Joe takes a teenage lover, Dorcas, who makes him "so sad and happy he [shoots] her just to keep the feeling going" after she jilts him. Violet tries to cut Dorcas's face at the funeral home and, after being forced to leave, runs home to free her primary companions, the birds she keeps in their home. Avoiding a strict chronology is typical for Morrison's work, but here, reading the narrative is often like listening to jazz music as it moves with seamless improvisations, unveiling not only the complexities of romantic love but also the disappointments many blacks faced upon migrating North in the early twentieth century.

In 1993, Morrison was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, making her the first African-American woman to receive the award. Her next novel, Paradise, again focuses on love, this time the love of God and of humans for one another, in the all-black community of Ruby, Oklahoma. This novel returns to fundamental themes of Morrison's work: a sense of place and the interconnectedness of past and present. The citizens of Ruby feel that their "paradise," established by a group of freed slaves who found strength in their religious faith, is being corrupted by the "outside." As the novel covers events between 1890 and 1976, Ruby faces an increasing amount of "sin"violence, disease, infidelity. As in The Bluest Eye and Sula, a society blind to its own inadequacies seeks a scapegoat; here, it finds the Convent, the refuge for five downtrodden and outcast women. In the conflict between traditional religion, symbolized by the Oven, and the unconventional "magic" which takes place at the Convent, the values of past and present do battle.

Structurally reminiscent of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Paradise is divided into sections according to narrative point of view, not chronology, leaving the reader to assemble the narrative as one would a puzzle. The novel begins with the culmination of Ruby's frustrations: an act of violence against the women of the Convent. The opening sentence of the novel reads, "They shoot the white girl first." Using a tactic she uses in her obscure short story "Recitatif," Morrison never explicitly reveals the race of the Convent's women but leaves the reader to decide: which woman is white? More importantly, however, the struggle to solve this riddle leads one to ponder other questions: in this particular act by the citizens of Ruby, is race relevant? Does the victim's race somehow justify her murderers or vilify them even more? Although Morrison often searches the issues particular to the black race, she is at her best in conundrums like this one. From The Bluest Eye to Paradise, her work compels readers to consider issues that involve race but also transcend it, as they often see their own world, and perhaps even themselves, reflected in the pages of each novel.

David M. Heaton,

updated by Melissa Simpson

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Morrison, Toni

Morrison, Toni (1931– ) US writer, b. Chloe Anthony Wofford. Morrison's debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), established her as a major voice in American literature. Her chronicles of African-American experience in the rural South include Song of Solomon (1977) and Tar Baby (1981). Beloved (1987), a powerful indictment of slavery, won a Pulitzer Prize. Other works include Jazz (1992). She was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. She is a professor in the council of humanities at Princeton University(1987– ).

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