Born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is an American novelist, editor and professor who has won a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer Prize. In her work, she examines the lives of black characters who struggle with identity amidst racism and hostility.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison was the second oldest of four children. Her father, George Wofford, worked primarily as a welder, but held several jobs at once to support the family. Her mother, Ramah, was a domestic worker. Morrison later credited her parents with instilling in her a love of reading, music, and folklore.
Living in an integrated neighborhood, Morrison did not become fully aware of racial divisions until she was in her teens. “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read,” she later told a reporter from The New York Times. Dedicated to her studies, Morrison took Latin in school, and read many great works of European literature. She graduated from Lorain High School with honors in 1949.
At Howard University, Morrison continued to pursue her interest in literature. She majored in English, and chose the classics for her minor. After graduating from Howard in 1953, Morrison continued her education at Cornell University. She wrote her thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, and completed her master’s degree in 1955. She then moved to Texas to teach English at Texas Southern University.
In 1957, Morrison returned to Howard University to teach English. There she met Harold Morrison, an architect originally from Jamaica. The couple got married in 1958 and welcomed their first child, son Harold, in 1961. After the birth of her son, Morrison joined a writers group that met on campus. She began working on her first novel with the group, which started out as a short story.
Morrison decided to leave Howard in 1963. After spending the summer traveling with her family in Europe, she returned to the United States with her son. Her husband, however, had decided to move back to Jamaica. At the time, Morrison was pregnant with their second child. She moved back home to live with her family in Ohio before the birth of son Slade in 1964. The following year, she moved with her sons to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for a textbook publisher as a senior editor. Morrison later went to work for Random House, where she edited works for such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones by an African-American author to be a featured selection in the book-of-the-month club since Native Son by Richard Wright. It follows the journey of Milkman Dead as he searches the South for his roots. Morrison received a number of accolades for this work.
and it received a decidedly mixed reaction from critics. Her next work, however, proved to be one of her greatest masterpieces. Beloved (1987) explores love and the supernatural. The main character, a former slave, is haunted by her decision to kill her children rather than see them become slaves. Three of her children survived, but her infant daughter died at her hand. For this spellbinding work, Morrison won several literary awards, including the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book was turned into a movie in 1998, and starred Oprah Winfrey.
Morrison became a professor at Princeton University in 1989, and continued to produce great works. In recognition of her contributions to her field, she received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her the first African-American woman to be selected for the award. The next year, her novel Jazz was published, a story which explored marital love and betrayal.
At Princeton, Morrison established a special workshop for writers and performers known as the Princeton Atelier in 1994. The program was designed to help students create original works in a variety of artistic fields. Outside of her academic work, Morrison continued to write new works of fiction. Her next novel, Paradise (1998), which focused on a fictional African-American town called Ruby, earned mixed reviews.
In 1999, Morrison branched out to children’s literature. She worked with her son Slade on The Big Box, The Book of Mean People (2002) and The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003). She has also explored other genres, writing the play Dreaming Emmett in the mid-1980s and the lyrics for “Four Songs” with composer Andre Previn in 1994 and “Sweet Talk” with composer Richard Danielpour in 1997.
Her next novel, Love (2003), divides its narrative between the past and present. Bill Cosey, a wealthy entrepreneur and owner of the Cosey Hotel and Resort, is the center figure in the work. The flashbacks explore his life, while his death casts a long shadow on the present part of the story. A critic for Publisher’s Weekly praised the work, stating that “Morrison has crafted a gorgeous, stately novel whose mysteries are gradually unearthed.”
In 2006, Morrison announced she was retiring from her post at Princeton. That year, The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best novel of the past 25 years. She has continued to explore new art forms, writing the libretto for Margaret Garner, an American opera that explores the tragedy of slavery through the true life story of one woman’s experiences. The opera debuted at the New York City Opera in 2007.
Morrison traveled back to the early days of slavery in the United States for her next novel, A Mercy. Once again, a woman who is both a slave and a mother must make a terrible choice regarding her child. As a critic from the Washington Post described it, the novel is “a fusion of mystery, history and longing.”
A champion for the arts, Morrison spoke out about censorship in October 2009 after one of her books was banned at a Michigan high school. She served as editor for Burn This Book, a collection of essays on censorship and the power of the written word, which was published that same year. She told a crowd gathered for the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council about the importance of fighting censorship. “The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films&mdashthat thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink,” Morrison said.
In addition to her many novels, Morrison has written several works of non-fiction. One of her most recent works is a collection of her non-fiction writings entitled What Moves at the Margin,
published in 2008. Whether through fiction or non-fiction, however, Morrison will continue to be a vital force in the American literary landscape.
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