Celebrated Author Toni Morrison, Who Centered the Black Experience in Literature, Dies at 88

Award-winning American author, editor, and professor Toni Morrison died after a brief illness on August 5, at the age of 88. Morrison was the author of a number of celebrated novels centering the experiences of African Americans—most often women—including The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015).

Toni MorrisonAward-winning American author, editor, and professor Toni Morrison died after a brief illness on August 5, at the age of 88. Morrison was the author of a number of celebrated novels centering the experiences of African Americans—most often women—including The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015), as well as several volumes of children’s literature coauthored with her late son Slade, plays, and the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner.

Morrison’s nonfiction addressed race, writing, and social justice; her most recent, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations , was published in February, and her upcoming Goodness and the Literary Imagination, based on her 2012 Harvard University Ingersoll lecture, is scheduled to come out from the University of Virginia Press in October.

She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon, received the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and was the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She gave the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture in 1996, and that year was also honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In addition, Morrison was awarded the 2011 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, and in 2012 President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A longtime member of PEN America, Morrison was a 2008 PEN Literary Service Award winner and received the 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. In April, the American Academy of Arts and Letters recognized Morrison with a Gold Medal for Fiction.

Morrison also holds the distinction of being one of the authors of color whose works have been most often banned and challenged in libraries, according to the American Library Association’s lists. In 2006, The Bluest Eye and Beloved were in the top ten most challenged books. Beloved made the list again in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Libraries have long appreciated and defended Morrison’s work, and she, in turn, has spoken up for the power of libraries. In a 2018 guest post on New York Public Library’s (NYPL) blog, urging city leadership to step up and fund libraries, she wrote: “My second job as a teenager was shelving books at the only library in Lorain, Ohio. Every shift started with a tall stack of returned books—fiction, history, drama, poetry, everything. It didn't pay much, but it was magical. Then I got fired. The trouble was that instead of replacing the books on the shelves, I kept reading them. A title would catch my eye, I'd crack the book open for just a quick look, and pretty soon I'd forget the stack of returns. I didn't get far in my career as a librarian, but that experience opened my eyes and shaped my future. That's what libraries do.”

Toni Morrison has been a member of NYPL's Board of Trustees since 1985, and was named a Life Trustee in 2006. She was also named a Library Lion in 1982. In 2016, she dedicated a bench at NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem to honor its role archiving, preserving, and sharing the Black experience. On August 6, NYPL adorned the bench with flowers in Morrison's honor.

Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, Morrison grew up in working-class Lorain, and attended Howard University, graduating with a B.A. in English in 1953. She earned a master’s in English from Cornell in 1955, and taught English at Texas Southern University in Houston for two years before returning to teach at Howard. Morrison married, divorced, and moved with her two young sons to Syracuse, NY, where she worked as an editor for L.W. Singer, a textbook division of Random House, and wrote in what little spare time she had. She later moved to New York City, where she served as an editor at Random House’s trade book division from 1967–83.

Morrison held teaching positions at Howard, Yale University, Bard College, SUNY Purchase, Rutgers University, and Princeton University, where she was most recently the Robert F. Goheen Professor Emeritus; her papers are collected and digitized at Princeton’s Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library. In honor of Morrison’s contributions to Princeton, the university dedicated Morrison Hall, formerly West College, in 2017.

Throughout her career, Morrison’s work has been the recipient of both critical and popular regard. Her last novel, God Help the Child, received a starred review from LJ, in which Prepub Editor Barbara Hoffert commended Morrison’s “powerful portraits in lean prose” and noted that “the pieces all fit together seamlessly in a story about beating back the past, confronting the present, and understanding one's worth.”

LJ ’s review of her most recently published essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, cited Morrison’s “sense of outrage or compassion that makes readers feel as if they are in the presence of an author who deeply cares about literature and the themes that engage her” and recommended it highly.

Morrison narrated her own audiobooks; in an interview on the blog Audiobook History, she said “I have heard people say that after they heard the recording, they understood things better. The recording made a difference in their understanding or intimacy or relationship to the material.” LJ’s review of the audiobook edition of Beloved notes that “in Morrison's controlled reading, the words and images linger powerfully in our mind's eye.”

“Toni Morrison’s strong voice and stories touched her readers to the soul offering them hope and inspiration,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said in a statement. “The Library of Congress joins the nation in mourning this American literary icon and humanitarian…. Her words and books will forever be etched in this country’s collective culture and history.” Hayden told LJ that Morrison, whom she met several years ago, was “regal in every way, but warm.”

In an August 6 statement, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said, “Her unmatched ability to use story to kindle empathy and rouse the imaginations of millions to contemplate lived experiences other than their own has transformed our culture. Her faithfulness to fellow writers and the cause of literature was unparalleled. To have her voice silenced at this moment is an almost unbearable loss. Our society would do well to recall her maxim just now, ‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.'”

Morrison herself, in a 2015 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, spoke to the ecstasy and escape of her work. “The writing is—I'm free from pain. It's the place where I live; it's where I have control; it's where nobody tells me what to do; it's where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I'm writing. It is dangerous because I'm thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.”

Her family gave testimony to her love of her craft as well: “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.”

For more thoughts and tributes from the literary community, see SLJ ’s remembrance and LJ's twitter thread on Morrison.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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