Biography.comToni Morrison (February 18, 1931) is a Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved. Morrison has won nearly every book prize possible. She has also been awarded honorary degrees.
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.
African-American Literary Star
Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. It told the story of a young African-American girl who believes her incredibly difficult life would be better if only she had blue eyes. The book received warm reviews, but it didn’t sell well. Morrison continued to explore the African-American experience in its many forms and time periods in her work. Her next novel, Sula (1973), explores good and evil through the friendship of two women who grew up together. The work was nominated for the American Book Award.
Song of Solomon (1977) became the first work 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.
A rising literary star, Morrison was appointed to the National Council on the Arts in 1980. The following year, Tar Baby was published. The novel drew some inspiration from folktales, 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. Ten years later, in 1998, the book was turned into a movie starring 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 following year, she published the novel Jazz, which explores 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 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.” In addition to her many novels, Morrison has written several works of non-fiction. She published collection of her non-fiction writings entitled What Moves at the Margin in 2008.
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—that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink,” Morrison said.
Now in her 80s, Morrison continues to be one of literature’s great storytellers. She published her latest novel, Home, in 2012. She once again explores a period of American history—this time the post-Korean War era. In choosing this setting, “I was trying to take the scab off the ’50s, the general idea of it as very comfortable, happy, nostalgic. Mad Men. Oh, please. There was a horrible war you didn’t call a war, where 58,000 people died. There was McCarthy,” Morrison explain to the Guardian newspaper. Her main character, Frank, is a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
While writing the novel, Morrison experienced a great personal loss. Her son Slade, an artist, died in December 2010. The pair had collaborated together on a number of children’s books, including Big Box (1999) and Little Cloud and Lady Wind (2010).
In addition to Home, Morrison also debuted another work in 2012: She worked with opera director Peter Sellars and songwriter Rokia Traoré on a new production inspired by William Shakespeare’s Othello. The trio focused on the relationship between Othello’s wife Desdemona and her African nurse, Barbary, in Desdemona, which premiered in London in the summer of 2012.