Few authors have such a profound sense of their own voice to power prose as did Toni Morrison, the writer of such novels as “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon” and the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
While many authors use actors to record their works, Morrison, who died Aug. 5 at 88, insisted on her own unique voice. She would sit, a pillow behind her back, and read for hours, according to a 2015 story in the New York Times.
Often overlooked in Morrison’s life story is her 17-year tenure at Princeton University, her years as a book editor at Random House – one of the few black women in publishing at the time – and a private life as the single mother of two sons in an age when black single motherhood still carried a cultural stigma.
She was a playwright, essayist, lyricist and children’s fiction writer. But it is her novels, written in a “visionary voice,” as described by the Nobel Academy, that made her a legend and contributed to an authoritative understanding of the black experience in America.
Morrison was nearly 40 when she published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” the story of a young black girl who believes she is ugly and prays to have blue eyes. Ten more novels in Morrison’s unique voice followed.
“Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition, reads her obituary in the New York Times. “Her plots are dreamlike and non-linear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”
“Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination,” tweeted former President Barack Obama, who awarded Morrison the presidential Medal of Freedom. “What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg credited Morrison with enhancing her reading experience.
“I marveled at the way she pulled plot threads together, weaving her characters more and more tightly until the novel ended in a way I hadn’t expected, but that felt inevitable once I had arrived there,” writes Rosenberg. “And I marveled at Morrison’s ability to both construct the whole edifice of a novel and also to write novels that felt like the individual sections of stained-glass windows.”
As an editor, Morrison championed black writers who were previously unknown and unnoticed, as well as books by Muhammad Ali and activist Angela Davis. Her public commentary was widely noted, including when she called Bill Clinton “our first black president.”
“Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” Morrison wrote in the New Yorker in the late 90s. “After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Born in Ohio as Chloe Wofford, Morrison changed her name to Toni when she attended Howard University. She went on to earn a master’s from Cornell, and later returned to Howard to teach. It was during that time that she took part in a fiction workshop,” according to the Washington Post, and began to develop what would later become “The Bluest Eye.”
After a brief marriage that produced two sons, Morrison spent 20 years at Random House, during which she oversaw the publication of “The Black Book,” according to the New York Times. The book explored three centuries of African-American history through newspaper stories, photographs and print ads.
Next was “Beloved,” the novel that earned her a Pulitzer Prize and set her on the road to literary greatness. In conjunction with a documentary on Morrison that opened in June, writer Fran Lebowitz had this to say about the author’s work.
“I actually think Toni is an underrated writer,” Lebowitz told the Wall Street Journal. “I know that’s a crazy thing to say given that she is so lauded, but truthfully she’s often been reviewed or perceived as having limitations because of her gender and her race. It’s ridiculous.
“Toni invented a whole avenue for other types of books,” she added. “She literally widened the idea of literature.”