Toni Morrison changed the course of American literature.
A Nobel laureate, novelist, teacher, editor, critic and cultural force, Morrison died Monday night in New York. She was 88.
Her 11 novels would be enough to seat her in the literary pantheon. Crowned by her masterwork, Beloved, they are a mighty body of work rich in luminous prose, fearless storytelling and unforgettable characters. They engage with universal subjects like racism, violence, justice and love in the most intimate and human terms. They gracefully merge powerful realism with magic, dream and folklore. For any author — not any black author, or any female author, but any author — these books are a towering achievement.
I remember the first time I read Beloved, in an early copy, before it took the culture by storm in 1987 (and became a movie in 1998).
From those first lines — “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” — I knew I was reading something unlike anything I’d read before. Morrison takes what seems like a terrible premise, a mother who kills her own child, and turns it into a tale of heartbreaking beauty and a profound exploration of our nation’s original sin of racism. Beloved remains one of the handful of books that have upended my view of the world.
But, spectacular as her fiction is, Morrison accomplished so much more. Before she published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, at age 39, she worked for more than a decade in the 1960s and ‘70s as an editor at Random House. There, in a literary world entirely dominated by white men, she championed the work of African writers, such as Athol Fugard and Chinua Achebe, and African American writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. She edited Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, The Greatest.
Before she had ever published any fiction of her own, she was paving the way for future authors — we might not have the work of such brilliant contemporary writers as Colson Whitehead, Tayari Jones, Marlon James and Zadie Smith without her breaking the ground.
Morrison was also an astute critic and essayist. Her intellectual force can be found in her nonfiction books, from 1992’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination to her most recent book, the timely collection The Source of Self-Regard, published this year.
In its introduction, titled “Peril,” she writes about the current wave of attacks on writers, “because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. ... Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow.”
Morrison wrote short fiction, poetry, plays, children’s books and an opera libretto. Throughout her writing career, she was a teacher of other writers. For 17 years she was on the faculty of the creative writing program at Princeton, where a building is named for her. Among her former students are such notable writers as Ladee Hubbard, Rachel Kadish and David Treuer.
Her writing brought her countless accolades and awards, among them the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, the National Book Foundation Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1993, she became the first black woman of any nationality to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The citation praises her as a writer “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In her Nobel lecture, she spoke of the power of language to shape the world: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
I heard Morrison speak in person only once. In 2015, while I was on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, the organization chose her to receive its Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement, and she agreed to appear at the ceremony at the New School in Manhattan.
She spoke from a wheelchair, but she towered nevertheless — by not talking about her own achievements. In her warm, compelling voice, she saluted NBCC founder John Leonard for being the first critic to take The Bluest Eye seriously. She spoke of the value of critical writing, of its essential place in the literary and intellectual life of our nation.
Such generosity of spirit, such wisdom about the power of paying forward, were typical of Morrison. She made her own enormous mark, but she saw it always as part of a larger arc, as a means for lifting up so many others. In her fiction and in her life, she saw community as the force that redeems us.
In a 2003 interview in O magazine, Morrison summed it up: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”
Rest in power, Queen.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.