Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison, known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist. Among her best-known novels include Song of Solomon, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye, which happens to be her first novel published in 1970.
Who Was Toni Morrison?
Toni Morrison was a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, editor, and professor famed for her exquisite language and richly detailed African American characters central to their narratives. In 1970, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She won the National Book Critics Cycle Award for her critically acclaimed novel, Song of Solomon. She also won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Early Life and Education
Toni Morrison was born February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second of four children. Her father George Wofford, mainly worked as a welder for U.S. steel, while her mother, Ramah, was a homemaker.
Morrison’s family landlord set their house on fire when Morrison was about two years old because her parents could not afford to pay rent. Instead of falling into despair, Morrison’s family responded by laughing at the landlord. Speaking years later about how her family responded to this “bizarre form of evil,” Morrison said her parent’s response demonstrated how to keep your integrity and claim your own life even in the face of acts of such “monumental crudeness.”
At the age of 12, Morrison became a Catholic and was given the baptismal name Antony (after Anthony of Padua), which led to her nickname, Toni. In 1953, Morrison graduated from Howard University with a B.A. in English. In 1955, she earned a master’s degree in American Literature from Cornell University. In the late 1960s, Morrison became the first black female editor in fiction at Random House in New York.
Morrison started working as an editor for L. W. Singer, a textbook division of publisher Random House, in Syracuse, New York, in 1965. She later transferred to Random House in New York City two years later, where she became their first black woman senior editor in the fiction department. She played a key role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream by fostering a new generation of Afro-American writers, including radical activist Angela Davis and poet and novelist Toni Cade Bambara.
In 1975, Morrison brought to publication the autobiography of the well-known boxing champion Muhammad Ali, The Greatest: My Own Story. Morrison also did remarkable work by promoting the work of Henry Dumas, a little-known novelist and poet who was shot dead by a transit officer in 1968.
The Black Book (1974), which documents Black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1920s, is also among the books developed and edited by Morrison while at Random House. At first, Random House had been uncertain about the project, but its publication received positive reviews. Alvin Beam reviewed the anthology for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, writing: “Editors, like novelists, have brain children- books they think up and bring to life without putting their own names on the title page. Mrs. Morrison has one of these in the stores now, and magazines and newsletters in the publishing trade are ecstatic, saying it will go like hotcakes.”
“The Bluest Eye”
Morrison began writing fiction as part of an informal group of poets and writers at Howard University. She developed The Bluest Eye as her first novel, always getting up every 4 am to write.
In 1970, when Morrison was aged 39, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston published The Bluest Eye. John Leonard of The New York Times favorably reviewed the novel, praising Morrison’s writing style as being “a prose so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry … But The Bluest Eye is also history, sociology, folklore, nightmare, and music.”
At first, the novel did not sell well, but the City University of New York put The Bluest Eye on its new Black studies department’s reading list, hence boosting sales. The novel also received the attention of the acclaimed editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf, who later edited most of Morrison’s novels.
In 1973, Morrison published her second novel, Sula, about a friendship between two Black women. The novel is packed with formal moves against social structures. It became a useful tool for inventing new ways of thinking. The novel provided a way for women of color feminists to imagine new possibilities outside of the constraints of nationalism since it provided an extensive illustration of alternative social relationships. In 1975, Sula was nominated for the National Book Award.
“Song of Solomon”
In 1977, Morrison published her third novel, Song of Solomon, which follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, from birth to adulthood, as he discovers his heritage. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It also became the first novel by a Black writer, being the main selection of the Book of the Month Club.
“Pulitzer for ‘Beloved’”
Toni Morrison was appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1980. The following year, she gave her next novel, Tar Baby (1981), a contemporary setting. The novel received a mixed reaction from critics. Her next work, Beloved (1987), proved to be one of her greatest masterpieces. As a result, she won several literary awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Winfrey, Danny Glover, and Thandie Newton.
Toni Morrison met her husband, Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect while teaching at Howard University from 1957 to 1964. They got married in 1958, and Toni took his last name and became known as “Toni Morisson.” She gave birth to their first son, Harold Ford, in 1961. She was pregnant with their second son, Slade Kevin Morrison, when she and Harold divorced in 1964.
On December 22, 2010, her son Slade Morrison died of pancreatic cancer. At the time, Morrison was halfway through writing her novel Home, which she had to pose for a year and completed later. Home was published in 2012.
On August 5, 2019, Toni Morrison died from pneumonia complications while at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx, New York City. She was 88 years old.
On November 21, 2019, a memorial tribute was held for Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City. At the gathering, she was eulogized by Edwin Danticat, Oprah Winfrey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fran Lebowitz, David Remnick, Michael Ondaatje, and Angela Davis among others. David Murray, the jazz saxophonist performed a musical tribute.