Reference Entry

Morrison, Toni (born 1931), Fiction Writer, Nobel Prize Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Educator

Carolyn C. Denard

in Black Women in America, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195156775
Morrison, Toni (born 1931), Fiction Writer, Nobel Prize Winner, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Educator

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Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town on the shore of Lake Erie, Morrison was the second of four children. Her father was a welder in the steel mills, and her mother was a homemaker. Morrison's parents and maternal grandparents migrated to Lorain from the South in the early 1900s. Her maternal grandparents were sharecroppers in Greenville, Alabama, who had lost their land in the late 1890s and were never able to get out of debt. Her father's family had been sharecroppers in Cartersville, Georgia, and his painful memoirs of racial strife left him with a bitter attitude toward whites. Morrison was thus brought up with a strong distrust of whites and an understanding that the only tangible or emotional aid on which she could depend would come from her own community. Group loyalty was among the earliest values she was taught as a child. It was, her parents believed, one of the most important lessons that she could learn in order to survive the harsh racial environment of the 1930s and 1940s. was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on 7 October 1993. The Swedish Academy, in bestowing the award, described her work as “characterized by visionary force and poetic import.” Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-SandersMorrison's growing years were filled with the jokes, lore, music, language, and myths of African American culture. Her mother sang to the children, her father told them folktales, and they both, she recalled, “told thrillingly terrifying ghost stories.” It was at their knees that she heard the tales of Brer Rabbit and of Africans who could fly; heard the names, the imagery, the rhythm of the language; and observed the naming rituals that would become a significant part of her later work as a novelist. Her grandmother played the numbers by decoding dream symbols, and she had an abiding belief in “signs, visitation, and ways of knowing beyond the five senses: We were intimate with the supernatural.” This rich variety of songs, stories, beliefs, and history would later give Morrison's fiction its wonder, humor, and depth of understanding of the cultural life of African Americans.By their own example, Morrison's parents set a model for the shared role that men and women could play in a family. While her father often worked at three jobs to provide for his family, role division in the household was not enforced on the basis of gender. The possibility held out to her by the example of her parents—the absence of typecasting, the desire for individual excellence, an appreciation for literature, and an abiding belief in the viability of her own culture—would mark Morrison's personality and her success as an artist.The small midwestern community where Morrison grew up was important in developing her sensitivity to the cultural ways of black life that would later become the subject of her novels. The black community of Lorain was composed mostly of migrants who found jobs there when they fled the South in the early 1900s. Having left Georgia and Alabama during the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, her family had a strong sense of community, camaraderie, and defiance. Also, in the 1920s and 1930s, when blacks had not begun to assimilate the ways of the larger culture or forgotten the sustaining cultural values taught in separate cohesive black communities, there was a stronger connection to tradition. Because Lorain was a small, midwestern, working-class community made up of people from various ethnic backgrounds—Greeks, Italians, Irish—the young Morrison became sensitive to the integrity of cultural differences.The people of Morrison's community formed a cast of rich personalities. “People were more interesting then than they are now,” she told Thomas LeClair in an interview. She noted more excesses in women and men, and these were accepted at that time. “In the community where I grew up there was eccentricity and freedom, less conformity in individual habits—but close conformity in terms of the survival of the village of the tribe.” Thus, in all of Morrison's novels, the eccentrics—the rejected, the orphaned, the deformed, the mentally ill, the evil, the wayward—share center stage with the stable and responsible. In her writing, Morrison probed their separate lives and the roles they served in their communities. As she would tell Colette Dowling in a 1977 interview, Morrison wanted to find out “who those people were and why they lived the way they did—to see the stuff out of which they were made.”Young Chloe, as she was called by her family, attended the public schools in Lorain. An intelligent child, Morrison made an early distinctive impression on her teachers. In first grade, she was the only black child in her class. As the only child who could read, she was often asked to help others who were having trouble. Her superiority in reading, however, did not exempt her from rejection on the basis of race. One student, a recent Italian immigrant, was assigned to sit next to her so that she could help with his reading. They read together, Morrison recalled, and were becoming good friends. After a few weeks, however, he suddenly stopping sitting next to or speaking to her. Once he had assimilated and learned the American hierarchy of race, Morrison concluded, he was willing to give up his friendship and his tutoring assistance in order to distance himself and thus feel superior to the little girl who was black.Understanding racism as a fact of life, Morrison continued to read on her own. As an adolescent, she eagerly read the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Austen. Reading these writers taught Morrison how the specificity of one's group culture could be captured in a novel. As she explained to Jean Strouse in a 1981 interview, after noting that those novels were not written for a black girl in Ohio, “they spoke directly to me out of their own specificity …. When I wrote my first novel years later, I wanted to capture that same specificity about the culture I grew up in.”At Lorain High School, Morrison was an honor student and participated in many school activities. She was a member of the yearbook staff, the National Honor Society, and the chorus. She was also a library helper and treasurer of the senior class. Her success in writing and journalism classes impressed her teachers so much that her English teacher sent a special note home to her mother. “You and your husband would be remiss if you didn't send this child to college.” Her mother never forgot those words and would later take a job outside the home in order to send her daughter to college, the first in her family to go.After graduating from Lorain High School in 1949, Morrison entered Howard University in Washington, DC. The years at Howard were important years for her later development as a writer and her deeper understanding of black life that extended beyond small towns in the Midwest. Always an avid reader, Morrison majored in English and minored in Classics. She studied dance, joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and was a member of the Howard Repertory Theater. With the theater company, she took memorable trips to the South, where she got a firsthand look at Southern black life. What she saw there echoed the stories her father had told her about the poverty and racism he had known as a young man. During these trips, Morrison was also able to see that within the community of blacks there were many similarities between those Southern black communities she visited and her own in the Midwest. Thus, early in her life she confirmed something about the shared nature of the cultural life of blacks despite regional differences. It was a commonality she learned to trust and would rely on later to write her novels.At Howard, Morrison stopped using her first name and used “Toni” instead, a shortened version of her middle name, because students at Howard had difficulty pronouncing “Chloe.” She graduated from Howard in 1953 with a BA in English. In 1955 she received her master's degree in English from Cornell University. Morrison wrote her master's thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. From 1955 to 1957, she taught at Texas Southern University in Houston. She returned to Howard in the fall of 1957 as an instructor of English.While teaching at Howard, she met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. The couple had two sons, Slade Kevin and Harold Ford. In 1964, after the marriage ended in divorce, Morrison returned to Lorain. A year and a half later, in 1965, she moved to Syracuse, New York, to work as a textbook editor for a subsidiary of Random House. Always sustained by community and family, Morrison had written only for her own pleasure as a teenager and as a member of her writing group at Howard. In Syracuse, away from a nourishing community, she began to approach her writing seriously as a way to connect to the way of life she had left behind.Alone in the evenings after the children had gone to bed, she wrote as a way of keeping in touch with her community and combating her loneliness at a time when she had no one to talk to. Morrison worked on a story that she had begun in her writing group at Howard about a little black girl who wants blue eyes. And while the issue of Anglo-Saxon standards of physical beauty and the problems of growing up black and poor in a society that holds whiteness and middle-class values up as the norms were the major conflicts in the novel, these conflicts, as those in future novels would be, were unraveled against the backdrop of a black community largely sustained by its own cultural values.Told by a young narrator, the nine-year-old protagonist who prays for blue eyes, The Bluest Eye offered an insider view of what happens to a family trapped by standards of beauty and success that exclude them. Recent migrants from the South, the Breedloves cast their hopes on an urban, material, Anglo-Saxon culture that ultimately destroys them. This oppressive and abiding standard renders them ugly and worthless. It leads the father and mother to low self-esteem and mutual hatred and the little girl to madness and victimization by her community and her family. Morrison explored the Breedlove family through the eyes of another little black girl, Claudia McTeer, who is buoyed by the love of her family, though subject to the same demeaning standards. Through Claudia's eyes, we see how self-destruction comes to one black family and how questions and assumptions about black reality can prevent this destruction in another black family. Morrison finished The Bluest Eye, her first novel, in 1969, and after several early rejections, it was finally published in 1970. Although criticized by some reviewers for its episodic development, most reviewers praised Morrison's deft use of language and her sensitive probing of a problematic issue, not often discussed, in the black community.By the time The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, Morrison had moved from the textbook subsidiary of Random House located in Syracuse to the textbook and later the trade book division at Random House in New York City. She would remain at Random House for nearly twenty years and become a major voice in the publishing industry. As senior editor, Morrison was committed to publishing works by black authors, and she was successful in encouraging the publication of works by Gayle Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Muhammad Ali, Andrew Young, and many others. She was also committed to continuing the cultivation of her own writing. “I would write,” she said, “even if there were no publishers.” Six months after she completed The Bluest Eye, she began work on her second novel. In 1973, Sula was published by Alfred A. Knopf, was met with largely favorable reviews, and was nominated for the 1973 American Book Award. The Time magazine reviewer Peter Prescott called it an “exemplary fable…its brevity belied by its surprising scope and depth.” Margo Jefferson called its language passionate and precise, and Barbara Smith declared it “beautiful, needed, mysterious.” The New York Times reviewer Sara Blackburn, however, caused a stir when she criticized Morrison in her review of Sula by saying that she was “too talented a writer to remain only a marvelous recorder of the Black side of provincial American life.” Her review set off a wave of letters from readers and writers to the New York Times chastising Blackburn for her biased remarks. It was a controversy that would be a pivot point for debates about the merits and drawbacks of fiction by African American writers for years to come.Sula, like The Bluest Eye, was another growing-up story focusing on young black girls. It is the tragic story of two young childhood friends and the separate ways that they approach womanhood. Nel Wright and Sula Peace grow up in opposite households. Nel's house is neat and traditional, and Sula's wayward and filled with a cast of community stragglers. The traditional, safe personality of Nel versus the more innovative and daring personality of Sula become a way for Morrison to talk about what she saw as the dual desire and ability of black women to be both of these kinds of women and about how the black community often demanded the former and punished the latter. The real value of the friendship of Nel and Sula is in their ability to accept and accentuate the differences in one another. “Together,” says Morrison, “they would have been a perfect, marvelous human being.” Written at the height of the women's movement and at the beginning of what would become a renaissance of literary production for black women writers, Sula became a celebrated text. Like The Bluest Eye, however, Sula was also written with a look back at life in the black community as it had once been. The challenges and complexities of that life as well as its sustenance would become a hallmark of Morrison's fiction.An Expanded VisionIn 1973, after the publication of Sula, Morrison began an in-house editing project that would enlarge her understanding and knowledge of the range of black history and culture. The project was called The Black Book (1974). Though Morrison's name appeared nowhere in the book, she was both the originator of the idea and the book's in-house editor. She was so involved in the project that she collected materials from her friends and family to add to the enormous collections of the official editors, Middleton Harrison, Morris Levitt, Roger Furman, and Ernest Smith. The book was filled with information about the struggles and the triumphs of African Americans. In explaining her desire to do this kind of book, Morrison said that she was tired of histories of black life that focused only on leaders, leaving the everyday heroes to the lumps of statistics. She wanted to bring the lives of those who always got lost in the statistics to the forefront—to create a genuine black history book that simply recollected life as lived. Loosely chronological, moving from slavery to roughly the 1940s, the book contained newspaper clippings, bills of sale, sheet music, announcements, dream books, definitions, letters, patents, crafts, photographs, sports files, and other memorabilia taken largely from the collections of its editors, but it also included an array of contributions from the attics, scrapbooks, and trunks of other supporters of the project. The Black Book became a major resource for Morrison's later novels. It provided rich historical background and informed her sense of the magnitude of the struggle and of the persistent heroism of blacks in America. Here were the stories from African American culture of slavery, root-working, dream interpretations, Father Divine, and Harlem, including accounts of the Middle Passage and, most significantly for Morrison, the story of Margaret Garner, the slave who killed her child rather than have her returned to slavery—the story that became the genesis of her Pulitzer Prize– winning novel, Beloved.After the publication of The Black Book, the range of historical connection in Morrison's novels became more expansive. In The Bluest Eye and Sula, Morrison depended mostly on the history of her own life in Ohio. After The Black Book, she traveled places in her novels where she had not gone before. She recorded black life from Ohio to Florida, from New York to Kentucky and the Caribbean and, later, to Oklahoma; her inclusion of black history, myths, songs, folktales, and ways of life was greater and more expansive than it had been in the earlier novels. From the myths of first-generation Africans in the New World and the details of the Middle Passage to the Harlem of the 1920s and the all-black townships of Oklahoma in the 1890s, Morrison's voice became larger, her historical depth greater, her awareness of the mythical possibilities of her fiction more revealing. Perhaps no experience had greater influence on the cultural and historical depth of her later novels than editing The Black Book.In 1977, Morrison published Song of Solomon, her third novel and the first since her work on The Black Book. Song of Solomon was a triumphant endorsement of knowing and accepting ancestral heritage. All of the knowledge of The Black Book, all of the sensitivity to the needs of ancestral connection for a contemporary generation moving rapidly toward a materialist, upwardly mobile culture, was used by Morrison to create a rich and powerful novel. Moving away from her focus on women in her first two novels, Morrison wrote Song of Solomon as a tribute to her father and grandfather. Her father had been a fiercely proud man, unequivocal in his hatred and distrust of whites. John Solomon Willis, her great-grandfather, though not as angry as Morrison's father, was just as hopeless about the potential for coexistence with whites. His family history was particularly implicated in Song of Solomon. Willis was a musician, and his father, like the title character in the novel, had married an Indian woman and had his land stolen by whites. Song of Solomon was a way for her to assume the perspective of black men like her father and grandfather, who suffered the physical and psychic wounds of racism, and to better understand the love of danger and adventure, and the desire for flight held by her sons.It is the story of a black middle-class Michigan family in the 1950s and 60s, whose patriarch, Macon Dead, steadily loses touch with the sustaining values of family and culture as he struggles to maintain black middle-class power and position. In the process, he mistreats his wife, rejects his sister, holds his daughters up as emotionless trophies, and ultimately has nothing to pass on to his son but schemes for how to make more money. Everyone, including Macon, is emotionally bereft in the Dead household, and what finally saves the son, Milkman, is his relationship with his Aunt Pilate, the sister his father rejects because of her total disregard for money and power and the trappings of middle-class influence. The story is the tale of Milkman Dead who, in a quest to find gold, inadvertently at first and then intentionally and with great triumph finds the story of his ancestry, of his great-grandfather, a native-born African, who could fly.In Song of Solomon, Morrison also considered the limitations of two political options available to blacks in the wake of the civil rights movement: rapid financial advancement by blacks and violent retaliation against whites. She attacks both materialism, represented by Milkman's father, and vigilantism, represented by Milkman's friend, Guitar. Morrison showed the emptiness of self-definition in economic terms, the shortsightedness of the willful violence of revenge, and the healing growth possible in individuals when they know and are nourished by the history and culture of their ancestry. The heroes and heroines in the novel are not financial kings or outlaws, but rather those who find their solace, their wealth, their sense of joy in community and ancestry.Heralded for its language, its cultural richness in song, its folklore, and its myths, Song of Solomon was a triumphant endorsement of the possibility of renewal and transcendence through ancestral reconnection. It became the most celebrated novel by a black writer since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). In 1977, Song of Solomon was chosen as the Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, a recognition no novel by a black writer had received since Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). By 1979, more than 570,000 copies had been sold. In addition to the National Book Critics' Circle Award for fiction, Song of Solomon brought Morrison an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award and inclusion in the widely respected public television series Writers in America. The novel was printed in five languages and sold over three million copies through 1990. When it was chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection in 1997, twenty years after its first publication, its sales rose again, to phenomenal levels. Many critics, despite the Pulitzer Prize for her later work, Beloved, considered Song of Solomon to be Morrison's best work.Still concerned with the challenges of contemporary postintegration society, and more comfortable now than she had ever been in her role as writer, Morrison completed her fourth novel, Tar Baby, in 1981. In Song of Solomon, Morrison had been concerned with the effect of materialism on a young black man. This time, her concern was its effects on a young black woman. In Tar Baby, as in Song of Solomon, Morrison relied on myth to validate the need for her protagonist to remain connected with the African past.Coming after the celebrated publication of Song of Solomon, Tar Baby was received with great fanfare. The novel appeared on the New York Times bestseller list less than a month after its publication. Morrison appeared on the 30 March 1981 cover of Newsweek magazine. It was the first time a black woman had been on the cover of a national news magazine since Zora Neale Hurston had been so in the 1940s. By 1981, Morrison was fast becoming a literary icon on the American scene.Though thematically similar to Song of Solomon, Tar Baby was a more stylistically innovative novel, wherein Morrison mythologized the landscape as well as the history of the Isle de Chevaliers: “Clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion. Fish heard their hooves as they raced off to carry the news of scatterbrained river to the peaks of hills and the tops of the champion daisy trees.” The novel was not as well received by critics as had been the earlier novels. Susan Lardner of the New Yorker called the prose labored; Wilfred Sheed of the Atlantic called it “heavy handed.” “We have experienced Morrison,” Sheed concluded, “half at her very best, and the other half presumably having fun.” Valerie Smith, in a more serious assessment of the novel, while noting the excesses of the descriptions of the landscape, concluded that “the deft characterization, flawless ear for dialogue, and free play of imagination that one expects from Morrison are as evident here as they are [in her other novels].” Tar Baby stretched Morrison's geographical range beyond the United States—from Paris to the Caribbean. It also differed in the contemporary nature of its conflict: a successful black woman of the postintegration 1970s struggles with whether to wrap herself in the trappings of European success, which will necessarily distance her from the black community, or to abandon success, stay close to her community, and choose the “culture-bearing role” expected of women in traditional black communities. Despite its less auspicious reception, the novel sold well and firmly established Morrison as a major American novelist. The Newsweek cover story and a stunning lineup of promotional tours increased sales and catapulted Morrison into enduring fame. She was, one reviewer claimed after the publication of Tar Baby, “the toast of the literary world.” Both Song of Solomon and Tar Baby were widely read in college courses and were translated into several languages.After the publication of Tar Baby, Morrison became comfortable saying that she was a writer. She had been a major force in the publishing world as an editor, overseeing the works of many black writers. With four novels to her credit, visiting lectureships at Yale, Bard College, Rutgers, and Stanford, and with a growing number of literary awards, Morrison became highly sought-after in the literary world beyond Random House. Considered by 1984 to be a major American writer in her own right, Morrison left her job as senior editor at Random House and accepted an appointment to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany.There, Morrison began work on a commissioned play for the first anniversary celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The play, Dreaming Emmett, was performed at the Capitol Repertory Theater of Albany on 4 January 1986. It was a dream reenactment of the murder of Emmett Till and the incident leading up to it. Reviewers praised the language and the innovative stage production. The play won the New York Governors Award in the arts.BelovedWhile at SUNY, Morrison also began work on her fifth, and perhaps most famous, novel, the story of a slave woman who escapes slavery with her four children from Kentucky to Ohio. She appears to have taken a more expansive look at her novelistic work and begun work on what she conceived of as a trilogy of African American history. The first of this three-part work, Beloved, was a major work based on the life of Margaret Garner, the slave woman who tried to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery. The artistic and textual complexity of Beloved, with its embedded time shifts, its recall of the horror, machinery, and degradation of slavery, its brave movement into a ghost-world consciousness, and the great moral depth and complexity of the story, was a major literary achievement. Beloved won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Morrison was recognized in many literary and academic arenas for what was considered the most grand and riveting of all of her novels. For it, she received the Ainsfield Wolf Award in Race Relations (1987), the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Fiction (1988), the Melcher Book Award (1988), the Robert Kennedy Book Award (1988), the Modern Language Association of America Commonwealth Award in Literature (1989), the Sara Lee Corporation Front Runner Award in the Arts (1989), and, from Italy, the Chianti Ruffino Antico Fattore International Literary Prize (1990). Beloved was also chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection upon its publication.Morrison's first four novels had dealt with issues of growing up and identity in a world negotiated by race and how that negotiation affected individual relationships within families and between men and women. With Beloved, Morrison began a more expansive project. It was clear that Morrison wanted to write the narratives that would give metaphorical import to all of African American history. She had outlined just such a project for herself, and Beloved was to be the beginning of an historic trilogy that would move from the era of slavery to the 1970s. The novel engaged literary critics like no other novel had done in recent memory. Over one hundred dissertations in the next ten years would include Beloved as a subject. Books and hundreds of essays were devoted to the implications of its meaning. Motherhood, slavery, the Middle Passage, the supernatural, the afterlife, and the artistic challenge of its creation all became the subjects of literary analysis. In 1988, Oprah Winfrey, television mogul, actor, and avid reader of literature by African American women, bought the film rights to Beloved. It was a novel as stunning in its artistry as in its thematic and interpretive import. Its publication heralded a transforming moment in American literature and in Morrison's stature as a great American writer.In 1989, Morrison accepted the Robert Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she taught literature and creative writing. While at Princeton, Morrison also began work on her sixth novel, Jazz (1992), and she would also assume a more prominent role as literary and cultural scholar. In 1989, she delivered the Robert O. Tanner Lectures at the University of Michigan; in 1990, the Massey Lectures at Harvard University. She would later publish the Massey lectures, a reflective collection of essays on the African presence in canonical American literature, as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992). Playing in the Dark became a much-used text in American literary criticism, as much for the exemplary rigor of its analysis as for the subject of its critical gaze. After Morrison's analysis, the covert uses of race in American literature by white writers became a growing subject of critical inquiry in American literary scholarship. Morrison also edited scholarly responses to two major political trials in the 1990s that had important implications for race and gender in American society. The first was a response to the Clarence Thomas–Anita Hill hearings, which had captured the imagination of the American people in 1991: Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power (1992). The other was a scholarly response to the implications of the O. J. Simpson trial in 1996: Birth of a Nation'hood (1997). Morrison also wrote important scholarly articles on African American literature that became theoretical touchstones for literary critics; among them were “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The African American Presence in American Literature” (1989) and “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (1984).During the early 1990s, Morrison also published Jazz (1992), her sixth novel and the second in the historic trilogy she began with Beloved. She began Jazz in much the same way she began Beloved. Jazz evolved from a piece of history that Morrison had seen while working on The Black Book in 1974. James Van der Zee, an important historical photographer in Harlem during the 1920s, took pictures of everyday life in Harlem—from dapper young men strolling on Lenox Avenue to children at play, to city policemen, and to young women who had died love-sick deaths laid out in their coffins. One such photo from the latter scenario, collected in Camille Billops's manuscript The Harlem Book of the Dead, was accompanied by a story that recounted that the woman in the photograph, who had been shot by her boyfriend, told friends, when they asked who had shot her, “I'll tell you tomorrow. I'll tell you tomorrow.” The boyfriend got away and the young girl died. “Who loves that intensely any more?” Morrison asked rhetorically in an interview in 1973 with Paula Giddings.Nearly twenty years later, Morrison was able to take the kernel of the passion and write the story of the working, loving, dying, and displaced black folks outside of the literary circles of the Harlem Renaissance. Understanding those Harlemites would require long looks at the psyches of the migrants who had come to New York in the 1920s to escape a lifetime of emotional pain, who had come to the city hoping to be lifted emotionally just by the size and tempo of the city itself. The story of how the city both fails and succeeds in this effort is the story of Jazz. The central characters are migrants from the South, Joe and Violet Trace, both motherless runaways whose bizarre behavior in the North can only be explained by taking the winding road back to the South to see what sent them running and what they were hoping to find. There are also other characters, though, who have arrived in New York hoping to forget past wrongs and move on with their lives: Alice Manfred and her niece Dorcas, who dies at Joe Trace's hand and who lost her family in a fire in the East St. Louis riots in 1917; Malvone and Felice, more at ease than the other characters with the city and the catalysts, finally, for helping Joe and Violet find their way.In the novel, Joe Trace, a recent migrant, chauffeur, and door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra cosmetics products, kills Dorcas, a dreamy-eyed eighteen-year-old who was his lover three months before she breaks off the relationship. At the funeral, Violet, Joe's wife, who is “given to stumbling into dark mental cracks,” tries to cut the dead girl's face with a knife. The real story in Jazz, however, as in all of Morrison's novels, is not about who shot whom but why. The novel, mimicking the riffs and improvisational form and meaning of jazz music, is a tour de force of rhythm, voice, and upbeat and layered revelations of the past and present and how the two combine to give a real-life story of the pain, the spontaneity, the improvisational quality of human desire represented by the music. Jazz was praised for its vision of a metaphorical connection between the inherent pain and joy in the music and the life of blacks who actually lived day to day in that celebrated period of history referred to as the Jazz Age.With a narrator who questions his or her own reliability and admits what he does not know and what he needs to know in order to figure the characters out, Jazz gave literary and cultural critics the complete package: a work that is technically advanced and written in a way that is representative of the cultural, social, and psychological changes that occur within a society.After a twenty-year career that had included eighteen years as senior editor at Random House, six novels, one Pulitzer Prize, and an established preeminence as one of the most distinguished novelists and intellectuals of the twentieth century, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on 7 October 1993. The Swedish Academy, in naming Morrison, praised her for a body of work “characterized by visionary force and poetic import [that] gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Morrison became the eighth woman, the fourth American, and the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison was understandably effervescent, and she was thrilled that she could represent so many areas, women, and her race. “I know it seems like I'm spreading like algae when I put it this way, but I'd like to think of the prize being distributed to these regions and nations and races.”In a celebrated event in Stockholm, Sweden, in December of that year, Morrison accepted the prize and gave a stirring Nobel Lecture on the power of language. “Word work is sublime,” she concluded in her speech. “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” As if she had been given too much good news in the space of the fall and winter, Morrison's house burned to the ground later in December of 1993. It was a devastating emotional and professional loss. Many of her early manuscripts were lost in the fire. She began the process of retrieval and recovery, and what original manuscripts she could save were preserved in a special collection at Princeton University.By 1994, Morrison had already began to expand her range as an artist when she was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 1992 to collaborate with composer André Previn to write the lyrics for Honey and Rue, a six-song cycle for the opera singer Kathleen Battle. After her own experience with artistic collaboration, she established in 1994 the Princeton Atelier, a creative workshop that brought together guest artists from different media to create works of art that involved both the creators and the students. Though each Atelier project culminated in a public performance of a new work, the focus of the Atelier was on the process of creating a work of art rather than on the finished product. Morrison directed the highly regarded Atelier program at Princeton, and she brought together a stunning group of guest artists to participate in the program with students and Princeton faculty, including Jacques d'Amboise, director of the National Dance Institute; the novelists A. S. Byatt and Gabriel Garcia Marques; the musicians Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer; the composers André Previn and Richard Danielpour; and the filmmaker Louis Massiah. Morrison also continued her own artistic collaborations, including writing the lyrics for song cycles for Jessye Norman with Richard Danielpour—Sweet Talk (1997)—and with Judith Wier—Woman. Mind. Song (2000). Morrison also composed lyrics for Sylvia McNair with Andre Previn—Four Songs (1997)—and she wrote the lyrics for the production of Margaret (2005), an opera based on the life of Margaret Garner with music by Richard Danielpour.The publication of the novel Paradise in 1998 was a much-heralded achievement, with Morrison garnering the cover of the January issue of Time magazine. Paradise was an immediate bestseller and was widely reviewed. It was also chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, a choice guaranteeing an even wider readership. It would be safe to say that, by April of 1998, there was hardly an individual in the United States who listened or read even a trickle of news who did not know who Toni Morrison was and the title, if not the story line, of her seventh novel. As she had done in Beloved and Jazz, Morrison seized an important historical moment as the pivotal point in Paradise.> In the 1890s, after the disappointments and lawlessness of Reconstruction, many blacks, mostly from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana, migrated west to Oklahoma. All-black towns were one of the results of this migration. After reading a newspaper invitation for homesteaders while doing archival research, Morrison noticed the phrase “come prepared or don't come at all.” The lack of charity and the haughtiness in that statement coming from blacks seemed shocking for a group or people who themselves had just recently fled the oppression of others in the South.“I suppose being a novelist, I was interested in what on earth it must have felt like to have come all that way and look at some other Black people who said you couldn't come in.” Morrison felt that such behavior was symbolicof what can happen when those who have been oppressed begin to use power in the same way as their oppressor. And so Paradise became the story of a group of dark-skinned black Oklahoma homesteaders who seek to keep their town all black and, on the surface at least, pure. The conflict, complexities, hypocrisy, and violence that erupt from that effort become the story of Paradise.> In this case, the scapegoat for all the fears of the town guardians was a reckless group of wayward women, who have also taken refuge just outside their town. Paradise was Morrison's most feminist text. It made the most scathing indictment on the ill uses of power and the particular way in which black men use it against women. The novel also engages a post-civil-rights debate among blacks about whether or not affirmative action programs should continue.In 1998 the film adaptation of Beloved was released. The film received mixed reviews and did not attract the viewer base that Winfrey had expected. A period piece with the riveting story of slavery and infanticide proved to be too much for popular audiences. Morrison's popular readership did increase tremendously during the 1990s, however, after four of her novels were selected for the Oprah Book Club. Thanks to the Book Club selections and the televised discussion of her novels, Morrison enjoyed the rare combination, for a novelist, of both a popular and critical audience.In 1999, Morrison began to write children's books. She was the co-author of The Big Box (1999), in which she gave a rhythmic and rhyming homily for freeing the independent spirit of young children; The Book of Mean People (2002) in which, from the point of view of a child, the character names a surprising list of mean people in his family and community. The last three works were part of an eight-book series that revised and updated the Aesop fables, called Who's Got Game? The books in that series included Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper?; Who's Got Game: The Lion or the Mouse?; and Who's Got Game?: Poppy or the Snake? In the midst of collaborating on operas, lecturing, and co-writing children's books with her son, Morrison published her eighth novel, Love, in October 2003.While Paradise had had early mixed reviews, Love enjoyed unreserved acclaim. A concise novel, Love was called Morrison's most tightly woven tale. Her editor, Richard Gottlieb, said of the novel, “It knows the story it wants to tell and it's found the language to tell it. Nothing is there that shouldn't be, and everything that should be there is there.” Another reviewer said, “Morrison is at the top of her game.” Adam Langer of Book magazine called the novel “a powerhouse.”Reminiscent of Sula, Love looks back at a pre-1960s, preintegration black community, the resort town of Silk, New Jersey, where a prominent black businessman, Bill Cosey, had once owned a resort hotel. The story revolves around the many women who have a place in Cosey's life: Julia, his first wife; Heed, his twelve-year-old second wife; May, his daughter-in-law; Christine, his granddaughter and a close friend of Heed's; L and Vida, his former employees; and Celestial, the true love of his life. The narrative, with many revelatory flashbacks, details what's left of Silk and the resort after Cosey dies. His widow, whom he married when she was eleven and he fifty-two, and his granddaughter, once his wife's best friend, are determined to get what they both believe is rightfully theirs from the Cosey estate. As in other Morrison novels, most notably Tar Baby, what they're searching for is not what they find.In the course of the novel, many of the emotionally damaging secrets—sexual, financial, criminal, familial—that the community has kept close in order to survive are revealed. Unraveling the secrets and understanding what they have meant in the moral world of this community is the challenge of reading Love. Morrison again calls upon her reader to explore the love-driven, in-group dimensions of the black community lived on their own terms for survival. Love is, like Sula, a novel about women's friendships. With Heed and Christine, as she did with Nel and Sula, Morrison cautions women against the ability of self-absorbed men to create a wedge of distraction within the often lifesaving friendships of women. “We could have been living our lives hand in hand instead of looking for Big Daddy everywhere.” And she once again heralds the defiant “sporting woman” who rejects the demands of the community and breaks its rules, but who also serves as a model—albeit risqué—of hope and survival for black women.With Love, Morrison also reminded contemporary readers of the rich complexity of the life of all-black communities in a preintegration period when they had the wisdom, the restraint, and the fortitude to know how and when to keep community secrets. “Nowadays silence is looked on as odd and most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little.” In all of these levels of meaning, Morrison concluded, as evident in the novel's title, the cause and the solution for most of the conflicts in the novel, those told and those kept secret, is love—too much, not enough, ill begotten, or carelessly used.For her remarkable literary corpus, Morrison received honor and critical acclaim from around the world. In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Morrison was recognized for her long career of literary achievements by receiving the Condorcet Medal and the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from France in 1994; the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1996; the Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club in 1998; the 2000 National Humanities Medal from the President of the United States; and, all in 2001, the Jean Kennedy Smith Creative Writing Award from New York University; the Pell Award for Lifetime Achievement; the Cavore Prize, Tureen, Italy; the Fete du Livre, Cite du Livre, Les Ecritures Croisees, from France; and the Enoch Pratt Free Library Lifetime Achievement Award.Since beginning to write in 1970, Toni Morrison achieved an esteemed and commanding place in the American literary canon. Her works are anthologized in every literary history of major American writers. The Toni Morrison Society enjoyed a growing international presence as an intellectual and archival base for Morrison scholars. More than three hundred dissertations and thirty books have been published about her work. Her works are taught in nearly every college course on major American writers, women writers, or African American literature. Toni Morrison came a long way from the culture-rich nurturing of her family in Lorain, Ohio, but, cognitively and emotionally, she took that culture with her to all the places she traveled and used it as a lens through which she and her readers could imagine a new literary world. Morrison holds a firm, revered, and revolutionary place in the annals of American letters.See also Children's Literature and Fiction.

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