Celebrated author, essayist, editor, lyricist, playwright, and Princeton University professor emeritus Toni Morrison died Monday at the age of 88. Her longtime publisher Alfred A. Knopf confirmed her death, following a brief illness.
Ms. Morrison’s most famous works included The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. She did not publish her first novel until she was nearly 40.
She was the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, awarded in 1993. The Swedish academy hailed her use of language and her “visionary force.” Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. It would later be adapted into the 1998 film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover that was partially filmed both on location and on sound stages in Philadelphia.
Many of Ms. Morrison’s works, which also included children’s fiction, plays, and several collections of essays, would receive other major American awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1977. She was a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page,” former President Barack Obama tweeted on Tuesday. “Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
Ms. Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities emeritus, joined Princeton in 1989 and was on the faculty of its creative-writing program until her retirement in 2006. Princeton awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 2013. Her papers are housed at the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library there.
“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition," Princeton president Chris Eisgruber said in a statement. "Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors. She revised this University, too. Through her scholarly leadership in creative writing and African American studies, and through her mentorship of students and her innovative teaching, she has inscribed her name permanently and beautifully upon the tapestry of Princeton’s campus and history.”
Best-selling author and former Inquirer reporter Jennifer Weiner took one of Ms. Morrison’s fiction courses at Princeton in the early 1990s. Her poised and commanding classroom presence was an embodiment of black female excellence, Weiner said.
“One of her quotes that always stuck with me was something to the effect of ‘If there is a book on the shelf you need to read and it’s not there, it’s your duty to write it,' " said Weiner. "The things she wrote about and the specificity in which she wrote about them dispensed the idea that literature wasn’t just about a certain set of experiences.”
Ms. Morrison’s work is now considered seminal to the American literary canon, but that came with time, says Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Beavers met Ms. Morrison while he was a 19-year-old junior studying at Oberlin College in the 1970s. But while his college’s African American studies department featured her works, the English curriculum at the time did not value them the same way.
Beavers describes Ms. Morrison as a major American voice whose impact stretched far beyond the publishing world. But within it, she successfully fused African and Western mythology unlike any other writer, and offered powerful insight into the tangled history of America and its relationship to race.
“She taught us how not to be guided by the white gaze. She made it okay for us to really think about how we see the world and really be central in it," Beavers said. "She showed us that we didn’t need white people to explain what our lives meant or even acknowledge it. We could do it ourselves.”
While Ms. Morrison is best known as a literary and social icon, she was also a dedicated advocate for the preservation of African American history.
“There’s really no end to how she expressed herself beyond being a literary figure, especially in terms of reimagining landscapes of American History and preserving memory,” said Craig Stutman, chair of the Toni Morrison Society Bench by the Road Project and associate professor of history and policy studies at Delaware Valley University. (The Bench by the Road Project, inspired by Ms. Morrison, places benches and plaques at important, often-overlooked sites in African American history.)
“Her legacy as an educator, an author, an advocate is correcting what has been a flawed public history," Stutman said. "She has taught future generations not just about historical figures, but the tragedy and the triumph that has existed, and done it in spaces where everyone is involved in seeing and learning that narrative.”
The second of four children of a welder and a domestic worker, Ms. Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town outside Cleveland. She was an honors student in high school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of life spent among black intellectuals.
At Howard, she spent much of her free time in the theater and met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, whom she divorced in 1964. They had two children, Harold and Slade.
In 1964, she answered an ad to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years, she would have an impact as a book editor, and as one of the few black women in publishing, that alone would have ensured her legacy. She championed emerging fiction authors such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, helped introduce U.S. readers to such African writers as Wole Solinka, and worked on a memoir by Muhammad Ali and topical books by such activists as Angela Davis and Black Panther Huey Newton.
By the late ’60s, she was a single mother and a determined writer who had been pushed by her future editor, Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, into deciding whether she’d write or edit. Seated at her kitchen table, she fleshed out a story based on a childhood memory of a black girl in Lorain — raped by her father — who desired blue eyes. She called the novel The Bluest Eye.
Her breakthrough came in 1977 with Song of Solomon, her third novel and the story of young Milkman Dead’s sexual, social, and ancestral education. It was the first work by a black writer since Richard Wright’s Native Son to be a full Book-of-the-Month selection and won the National Book Critics Circle award.
But the mainstream was another kind of education. Reviewing Song of Solomon, author Reynolds Price chided Ms. Morrison for “the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters.” (He later recanted.) When Beloved was overlooked for a National Book Award, a letter of protest from 48 black writers, including Ms. Morrison’s hero Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka, was published in the New York Times Book Review, noting that she had never won a major literary prize.
Beloved went on to win the Pulitzer and Ms. Morrison soon ascended to the very top of the literary world, winning the Nobel and presiding as unofficial laureate of Winfrey’s book club. Winfrey chose Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Paradise, and Sula over the years and would list all of Ms. Morrison’s works as among her favorites.