Becoming Coherent In The World: The Extraordinary Career of Toni Morrison

Image credit: Britannica

Image credit: Britannica

Today marks the eighty-fourth birthday of the distinguished Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who was born in Lorain, Ohio, a town near Cleveland, Ohio on February 18, 1931. Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford to George and Rahmah Willis Wofford, who had both moved north from the deep south to better their lot. She attended local schools, graduating from Lorain High in 1949, then went on to Howard University, where she became known as Toni and received a B.A. in English literature. Following graduation from Howard she earned a Master of Arts in English at Cornell University. She taught for one year at Texas Southern University in Houston, than went back to Howard to teach. At Howard she met her future husband, an architect named Harold Morrison from Jamaica.

Founders Library at Howard University. Photo by David Monack

Founders Library at Howard University. Photo by David Monack

It may surprise readers to know that during these early years Morrison had no real interest in writing fiction. She was mostly interested in broadening her knowledge of literature and teaching, and was busy raising their two sons, Slade and Kevin. But she felt unfulfilled at some level, and joined a local writing group in 1961. At first she shared old pieces she had written in high school, but decided to write a short story about a young black girl who wanted to have blue eyes. This w story was the basis for her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She had discovered what was missing in her life. She later told Mel Watkins of the New York Times Book Review that writing was “the most extraordinary way of thinking and feeling–it became one thing that I was doing that I had no intention of living without.” She also told the scholar Thomas LeClair (a former professor of mine at the University of Cincinnati) that “Writing became a way to become coherent in the world.”

Toni Morrison as a young woman (Image credit: Colorlines).

Toni Morrison as a young woman (Image credit: Colorlines).

In 1965 she divorced Harold Morrison and left Howard, returned briefly to Ohio, then took a job as an editor for a Random House subsidiary in Syracuse, New York. Two years later she was at Random House headquarters in New York City. She became the firm’s specialist in black fiction, helping to launch the careers of writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis, and editing nonfiction books by noted figures such as former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and boxer Muhammad Ali. Toni Morrison would spend a total of eighteen years with Random House.

Toni Morrison’s work explores a wide variety of themes: the tangled relationships among family members and within communities scarred by the long-festering wounds of racial oppression; issues of identity and self-worth; the search for love and fulfillment; the power of communities to help or hinder the growth and healing of people wounded by life. Elements of mysticism and magic are in her work, along with elements of the literary form known as “magical realism.”

Toni Morrison (far left) at Lorain High School (Photo credit: Lorain Hist. Society).

Toni Morrison (far left) at Lorain High School (Photo credit: Lorain Hist. Society).

But I think it’s also accurate to say that Toni Morrison is a novelist deeply concerned with history and memory, and the devastating effects on both individuals and families from the entire complex of intertwined problems created by racism in the United States. She goes still deeper than that—like any writer she is concerned with the multitudinous dimensions of human behavior, but her work clearly examines the lives of black Americans and the forces of history, family, and community upon them.

Place and community are important parts of her work as well. Three of her best known works have Ohio settings—The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved—and Morrison has spoken of the advantage of Ohio in her work, telling one interviewer that Ohio “offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto.” Morrison paints vivid pictures of the communities and their inhabitants in her novels, ranging from “The Bottom” in Sula (which is paradoxically and ironically located on a hillside) to the New York City of the 1920s in Jazz to the deserted coastal hotel that carries such significance in her recent novel Love.

Image credit: Indiewire

Image credit: Indiewire

Morrison’s publishing career commenced with The Bluest Eye, which tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an Ohio girl in the early 1940s whose life is marred by sexual abuse, poverty and racism. It was published in 1970 to excellent reviews. She followed it with Sula in 1973. Sula tells the story of a friendship between two women, one wild and rebellious–who longs for the bluest eyes possible–and the other staid and conventional . The story examines issues of good and evil and relations between family and community members in a small town in Ohio, along with questions about black self-image and self-worth. During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison also began teaching courses in creative writing and African-American literature at institutions such as Yale and Bard. Clearly her star was on the rise.

She followed Sula with Song of Solomon, which critic Harold Bloom believes is Morrison’s strongest novel. This work won her the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Friends of American Writers Award. Song of Solomon tells the story of a man named Macon Dead III, known to friends and family as “Milkman,” and in doing so explores multiple generations of his family’s history.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Tar Baby (1981) followed Song of Solomon, and in this novel Morrison turned her attention to contemporary times. Tar Baby is the story of a light-skinned young black woman named Jadine who is a successful model with a degree from the Sorbonne. She becomes involved with a man named Son, an American fugitive hiding out on a Caribbean island. Jadine returns to New York with Son, and also visits his family in the rural south. Tar Baby examines different aspects of black experience in America as reflected in these two characters. It also contrasts the African-American experience in rural and city settings.

In 1987 her powerful novel Beloved was published, later made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Beloved is based on the true story of the slave Margaret Garner, who escaped from a farm in Boone County, Kentucky and killed one of her own children rather than see her enslaved again. Beloved won Toni Morrison the Pulitzer Prize. Beloved is also the first book in a trilogy corresponding to the three famous works of Dante: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. Beloved is clearly her Inferno work–a portrait of the hellish world of slavery.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Morrison followed Beloved with Jazz, published in 1992, which is set in the New York City of the 1920s while also exploring the experiences of a group of people through five generations. This was followed in turn by Paradise, published in 1998 and concerning an attack by a group of men on five women living collectively in a building known as “the Convent.” The novel Love (2003) concerns the legacy of a hotel owner named Bill Cosey and the memories of the women who knew him and their tangled relationships in the years after his death. A Mercy appeared in 2008. A Mercy is Morrison’s foray into early American history. She explores the lives of a Dutch settler in New York along with a black slave, an American Indian woman who labors on his farm, and the Dutchman’s wife. Her most recent novel is Home, published in 2012, concerning a black Korean War veteran struggling to adjust to life in the segregated America of the early 1950s, and revisiting the shadows of his past. Home is dedicated to her son Slade, who died of pancreatic cancer while his mother was writing this novel. The two had collaborated on Toni Morrison’s four children’s books. Slade was only forty-five years old.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's "The Modern Medea" was inspired by the Margaret Garner story.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s “The Modern Medea” was inspired by the Margaret Garner story.

Her next novel, entitled God Help The Child, is scheduled for publication in April of 2015.

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize. She is the seventh native-born American to win the honor, and only the second woman (the other is Pearl Buck).

She has also written plays and the libretto for Margaret Garner, an opera based on the life of the enslaved woman whose story helped inspire Beloved, and has published nonfiction as well. Her nonfiction works include The Black Book (1974), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004), a book for younger readers. She has also edited a number of works and written children’s books as well.

After her years at Random House, Toni Morrison taught English at branches of the State University of New York and also the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University. She also held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton, New Jersey from 1989 to 2006. During that time she created and developed a program called the “Princeton Athelier.” This is an educational experience in which world-renowned artists collaborate with students to create works of art that are unveiled at the semester’s end. Artists in various disciplines, including writing, work with the students. The program is highly respected, proof that Toni Morrison has made a mark as an educator as well as a writer.

Mural in Vitoria, Spain depicting Toni Morrison (photo by Zarateman).

Mural in Vitoria, Spain depicting Toni Morrison (photo by Zarateman).

Toni Morrison has received numerous honors in her lifetime, some of which are mentioned in this post. She was most recently honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. The Tony Morrison Society has been established to study the work and contributions of Toni Morrison. The Society is headquartered at Oberlin University in Oberlin, Ohio, an appropriate place given the university’s long and honorable connection with movements to create social justice. Oberlin was the first institution of higher learning to admit black and female students as well as white men during the 1800s.

Toni Morrison has come a long way from her early days in Lorain, Ohio. She has become not only coherent in the world, but magnificently eloquent—a literary voice recognized and honored across the globe, a novelist exploring the mysteries of human nature and portraying the dignity of people who are vital and alive, struggling for self-definition despite the forces of history, memory, and society that surround them.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins: New York. 1991.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors. Article on Toni Morrison by Marilyn J. Atlas. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Toni Morrison. Edited And With An Introduction By Harold Bloom (Bloom’s Major Novelists). Chelsea House Publishers: Broomall, PA. 2000.

Toni Morrison. Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Twayne Publishers: Boston. 1990.

Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion (Critical Companions To Popular Contemporary Writers), Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Greenwood Press; Westport, CT and London, 1998.

Wikipedia entry on Toni Morrison.

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