Toni Morrison

The Life of Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio after her parents moved to the North to escape the problems of southern racism. On both sides of her family were migrants and sharecroppers. She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read avidly, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison's father, George, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to her generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. one of America's most distinguished black college. Morrison continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York where she received her M.A. in 1955.

During 1955-57 Morrison was an instructor in English at Texas Southern University, at Houston, and taught in the English department at Howard. She married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect, in 1958. Together they had two children, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. After 6 years of marriage she divorced Harold in 1964. While working and caring for her children, Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eyes, which appeared in 1970. She continued to write novels and later Morrison was appointed the position Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University in the spring of 1989, becoming the first black woman ever to hold a chair at an Ivy League school. Morrison now continues to teach fiction and live in Princeton, New Jersey.

Awards and Novels

In 1970 Morrison’s literary career began when The Bluest Eye was published. Set in Morrison’s hometown, the novel received critical acclaim but failed to attract the public’s interest. Sula, Morrison’s second novel, was published in 1973, and because of her insightful portrayal of the African-American lifestyle; Sula was nominated for National Book Award and received the Ohioana Book Award. Her next novel, Song of Solomon(1977), was a paper back best seller. Its homage to the richness of the black cultural heritage helped Morrison win two more awards: National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Later, in 1987 Morrison published Beloved. The novel illustrated the horrifying lives of slaves and how one ex-slave’s past haunts her. The novel received international success and was honored with the Pulitzer Prize. Beloved also won other awards including New York State Governor's Arts Award, First recipient of the Washington College Literary award, National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination.

In 1993, Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature as an author "who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality". She became the eighth woman and the first African-American to win the prize. After hearing the news from a colleague at Princeton University she was happy and honored by her achievement. She further explained, “What is most wonderful for me, personally, is to know that the Prize at last has been awarded to an African-American. Winning as an American is very special-but winning as a Black American is a knockout.” After receiving the highest honor in literature, Morrison continued her success and reentered the best sellers list with the publication of Paradise and later wrote with her son The Big Box.

Morrison's Writing Style

Morrison's writings concentrate on rural Afro-American communities and on their cultural inheritance, which she explores with cold-blooded detail and vivid vocabulary. Her intricate writing style does not just tell the reader about issues concerning African-Americans instead she shows them. In Beloved, set in Ohio and a plantation in Kentucky, Morrison shows slavery through flashbacks and stories told by characters. Her word choices give the reader the sense on how slave masters viewed their slaves as savage animals. Her work is described as breath taking, leaving Beloved more then a story; it is a history, and it is a life of its own.

Also growing up in Ohio gives Morrison a distinction as writer. Morrison places the setting in some of her novels there. Morrison explained “I am from the Midwest so I have a special affection for it. My beginnings are always there (Ohio) ... No matter what I write, I begin there ... Ohio also offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto."

“Vivid dialogue, capturing the drama and extravagance of black speech, gives way to an impressionistic evocation of physical pain or an ironic, essay-like analysis of the varieties of religious hypocrisy" -- Margo Jefferson (Newsweek).

“Toni Morrison is an important novelist who continues to develop her talent. Part of her appeal, of course, lies in her extraordinary ability to create beautiful language and striking characters. However, Morrison's most important gift, the one which gives her a major author's universality, is the insight with which she writes of problems all humans face.... At the core of all her novels is a penetrating view of the unyielding, heartbreaking dilemmas which torment people of all races" -- Elizabeth B. House (Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook).

“(Morrison) works her magic charm above all with a love of language. Her ... style carries you like a river, sweeping doubt and disbelief away, and it is only gradually that one realizes her deadly serious intent" -- Susan Lydon (Village Voice).

Morrison and Race

Through out Morrison’s novel she does not use whites for main characters. Often she is criticize for this. She explains her choice of characters by“ I look very hard for black fiction because I want to participate in developing a canon of black work. We've had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people." Furthermore, she stated “the Black narrative has always been understood to be a confrontation with some White people. I’m sure there are many of them. They’re not terribly interesting to me. What is interesting to me is what is going on within the community. And within the community, there are no major White players. Once I thought, ‘What is life like if they weren’t there?’ Which is they way I- we lived it, the way I lived it.”

Morrison’s upbringing has additionally contributed to her character choice, themes in her novel and how she views white people. Her father was the main contributor towards her outlook on whites. Morrison has described her father’s racist attitude towards whites and events in her childhood in interviews. When she was two years old her family’s home was set on fire while they were in it. “People set our house on fire to evict us…” said Morrison. Her father became even more upset with whites after the incident. “He simply felt that he was better and superior to all white people” explained Morrison. When she was asked if she felt the same way that her father felt she responded “No, I don’t feel quite the same way as he did. With very few exceptions, I feel that White people will betray me: that in the final analysis, they’ll give me up.”

More Toni Morrison

Additional resources about Toni Morrison, including a complete list of works, speeches, and conversations can be found here.


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