Toni Morrison: The remarkable life of a remarkable woman

August 13, 2019

African-American novelist Toni Morrison — winner of the Pulitzer Prize (1988), the Nobel Prize for Literature (1993), and many other awards — died on August 5 at the age 88. 

Following the announcement, Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the civil rights organisation NAACP, remarked: "Rest in power to #ToniMorrison, one of the most prolific writers of our time."

"It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," the Morrison family said on August 6.

"She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well-lived life."

Author of a number of famous nonfiction books as well as novels, including Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved, Morrison was renowned for her career as an editor and teacher of African American studies, humanities, and creative writing at Princeton University, where she was professor emeritus.

According to the New York Times: "In awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her 'novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import,' through which she 'gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.'

"Ms Morrison animated that reality in a style resembling that of no other writer in English. Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition. Her plots are dreamlike and nonlinear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.

"Her narratives mingle the voices of men, women, children and even ghosts in layered polyphony. Myth, magic and superstition are inextricably intertwined with everyday verities, a technique that caused Ms. Morrison’s novels to be likened often to those of Latin American magic realist writers like Gabriel García Márquez."

News of her death resulted in streams of condolences and remembrances online from progressive lawmakers, fans and others:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Holding all those touched by Toni Morrison in my heart today.

— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) August 6, 2019'

Toni Morrison was kind, hilarious, effortlessly brilliant, and (if she liked you) surprisingly playful. She was also brutally honest and didn’t suffer fools. I didnt know her well, but I found her to be every bit as amazing in person as I had dreamed. A rare feat among legends.

— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) August 6, 2019

Kibae #ToniMorrison I read each one of your books at least twice... All of them

— Elizabeth Yeampierre (@yeampierre) August 6, 2019

What a life. What a remarkable remarkable life. She not only changed the landscape of American writing, she changed the landscape of America.

— Clint Smith (@ClintSmithIII) August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison was a towering intellect, a brilliant scribe of our nation’s complex stories, a heartbreaking journalist of our deepest desires, and a groundbreaking author who destroyed precepts, walls and those who dared underestimate her capacity. Rest well and in peace.

— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) August 6, 2019

Writing for The New Yorker in 2003, Hilton Als explored how Morrison not only changed the US literary landscape overall, but "fostered a generation of black writers" with her editing career, novels, and teaching.

Offering an overview of her career, Als wrote: "When The Bluest Eye was published, in 1970, Morrison was unknown and thirty-nine years old. The initial print run was modest: two thousand copies in hardcover. Now a first edition can fetch upward of six thousand dollars. In 2000, when The Bluest Eye became a selection for Oprah’s Book Club, Plume sold more than eight hundred thousand paperback copies. By then, Toni Morrison had become Toni Morrison — the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993.

"Following The Bluest Eye, Morrison published seven more novels: Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), and now Love. Morrison also wrote a critical study, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), which, like all her novels since Song of Solomon, became a best-seller. She has edited several anthologies — about OJ, about the Clarence Thomas hearings — as well as collections of the writings of Huey P Newton and James Baldwin.

"With her son Slade, she has co-authored a number of books for children. She wrote the book for a musical, New Orleans (1983); a play, Dreaming Emmett (1986), which reimagined the life and death of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955; a song cycle with the composer André Previn; and, most recently, an opera based on the life of Margaret Garner, the slave whose story inspired Beloved."

"She was an editor at Random House for nineteen years — she still reads the Times with pencil in hand, copy-editing as she goes — and has been the Robert F Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton since 1989."

"I know it seems like a lot," Morrison said. "But I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It's one job."

From Princeton, university president Christopher L Eisgruber said, "Morrison's brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world's literary tradition. Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors."

[Reprinted from Common Dreams.]

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