Tuesday 17 September 2019

Obituary: Toni Morrison

Nobel Prize-winning American writer whose novel 'Beloved', about an escaped slave, was hailed as a masterpiece

President Obama awards Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Photo: AP
President Obama awards Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Photo: AP

TONI Morrison, the novelist and essayist, who died last Monday aged 88, was in 1993 the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and one of the most original and challenging literary voices of the 20th century.

Though she took up writing relatively late in her career - to "postpone the melancholy" of a failed marriage - her work came to enjoy great critical and commercial success, prompting The New York Times to describe her as "the nearest America has to a national novelist".

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Drawing heavily on her own experiences growing up poor, female and black, Toni Morrison sought to convey the experiences of African-Americans through a prose style of lyrical simplicity that could also be unsettling in its intensity.

She was forthright when describing her writing, and its intended audience: "I want to participate in developing a canon of black work," she once declared, "writing about black Americans, for black Americans."

Despite favourable reviews, her first two novels, The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973), did not sell well, and it was not until the publication of Song of Solomon in 1977 and, particularly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved a decade later that her reputation was guaranteed.

A later work, Paradise, was published in 1998 to a mixed reception - yet the book sold more than a million copies, thanks in no small part to being endorsed by Oprah Winfrey, and confirmed Toni Morrison's status as one of the foremost talents of her generation.

Unsurprisingly, she was no stranger to controversy. Though the Nobel panel praised a "literary artist of the first rank", some critics felt that Morrison was the fortunate beneficiary of the new climate of "political correctness". Beloved was panned by Stanley Crouch in The New Republic as being "written in order to enter American slavery into the big-time martyr ratings contest".

Toni Morrison fiercely rejected such accusations, and saw her writing as based on intensely personal experience. Not as political as Alice Walker, she also resisted the temptation to sensationalise her own history in a manner akin to her other great black American contemporary, Maya Angelou.

Her admirers felt that she transcended the politics of race and gender.

However, Toni Morrison herself never forgot her roots. Of winning the Nobel, she declared: "I felt representative. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever."

The second of four children of George and Ramah Wofford, Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in the gritty steel town of Lorain, Ohio ("neither plantation nor ghetto", she would later write). She changed her name at college because Chloe was difficult to pronounce - a decision she would later regret as pandering to convention.

The family had moved to Ohio from the southern states to escape racial tensions. But she also recalled the Wofford household as "basically racist". George Wofford believed that whites were "genetically evil", and distrusted "every word and every gesture of every white man on Earth".

Her mother Ramah, though, was fired by the belief that the power of the community could overcome man's inhumanity to man. A brave and determined woman, she would tear off the eviction notices put on the Wofford house, and write to President Roosevelt if there were maggots in her flour - an attitude which would prove influential to her daughter's narratives.

Toni Morrison attended the multiracial Lorain High School, then moved to Washington DC to enrol at the all-black Howard University.

Having graduated with a BA in English in 1953, she went on to a Master's degree at Cornell University mainly because, in her words, she had "nowhere to go", submitting what she later admitted was a "shaky" thesis on the theme of suicide in William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

After two years of teaching English at Texas southern University she returned to Howard as an instructor in the same subject in 1957. While at Howard she met the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison; the couple married in 1958, and had two sons. But the marriage was not a happy one and Toni turned to writing as a means of escape.

"It was as though I had nothing left but my imagination," she recalled, "no will, no judgment, no perspective, no power, no authority, no self - I wrote like someone with a dirty habit, Secretly. Compulsively. Slyly."

Joining a small, informal group of poets and writers, and one day finding herself short of any material to take to the meeting, she dashed off a story about a little black girl named Pecola Breedlove who wanted blue eyes - the genesis of The Bluest Eye.

She resigned from Howard in 1964, the year of her divorce, and took a job as a textbook editor for Random House. She soon found herself forced to juggle the various demands of full-time employment with raising two sons, and she would rise at 4am to fit writing into this crowded schedule.

The Bluest Eye was finished in 1969; the novel, praised for its emotional range and poetic lyricism, explored the destructive consequences of what Morrison saw as the most superficial aspect of human identity, aesthetic beauty.

The relationship between women was a theme Morrison continued to explore in Sula. Set in the 1930s, and narrating the 40-year friendship between two sharply contrasting personalities, the text was widely admired for the depth of its characterisation.

Morrison turned to a new challenge for her third novel, Song of Solomon, which concerned the personal odyssey of Malcolm "Milkman" Dead Jr, her first male protagonist, to find his roots and identity, symbolised by a mythic treasure hidden somewhere in the Deep South.

The book was a triumphant success, carrying off both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1978.

In recognition of her achievements, President Jimmy Carter appointed Morrison to the National Council on the Arts in 1980. The following year she published her fourth novel, Tar Baby, which addressed the issue of racial interaction set in a Caribbean location.

Morrison left Random House in 1983 to concentrate on writing and teaching, and in 1984 she took up the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Albany, a position she held for five years until accepting the Robert F Goheen Professorship in the Council of Humanities at Princeton in 1989, where she remained until her retirement in 2006 - the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League University.

The story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1851 tried to kill her children rather than "have them suffer as she had done", formed the basis of Beloved, commonly considered Morrison's masterpiece.

The book was dedicated to the 60m people who died as a result of the slave trade, and powerfully explored the brutality of, in James Baldwin's words, "this past, the Negro's past, of rope, torture, castration, infanticide, rape".

With her determination to uncover passages of history that America, a country she perceived as obsessed with the myth of innocence, had tried to forget, even Morrison herself was surprised at the acclaim she won for the book: "I had thought this has got to be the least read of all the books I'd written because it is about something that the characters don't want to remember, I don't want to remember, black people don't want to remember, white people don't want to remember. I mean, it's national amnesia."

Not only did Beloved become a bestseller, it was subsequently turned into a film through the efforts of Oprah Winfrey, who bought the screen rights and took the role of Sethe, and the Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme. She also wrote the libretto for an opera by Richard Danielpour, Margaret Garner, first performed in 2005 at the Detroit Opera House.

Jazz (1992), set in 1920s Harlem and echoing to the improvisational strains of black jazz music, was the second instalment of the trilogy begun by Beloved and completed by Paradise in 1998.

The novel had a mixed reception, some commentators complaining of convoluted plotting, sensationalist characterisations and a gothic melodramatic style in the manner of Solzhenitsyn.

But Toni Morrison brushed off such criticisms: "I'm a child of the Depression, I'm scared of doing nothing," she said in 1998.

"My father taught me that unemployment was a bad thing. Give me a stipend, a little office and a little bit of health insurance - I'll be fine. Writing is my work but not my job."

Toni Morrison would write four more novels. Love (2003); A Mercy (2008); Home (2012). Her final novel was, God Help the Child (2015).

In addition to her novels she published two plays, Dreaming Emmett (1986) and Desdemona (2011) and an influential critical work on race relations in literature, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).

In 2012, President Obama awarded Toni Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

She is survived by a son. Her second son predeceased her.


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