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Toni Morrison Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Chloe Anthony Wofford, Lorain, Ohio, 1931. Education: Howard University, Washington, D.C., B.A. 1953; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, M.A. 1955. Career: Instructor in English, Texas Southern University, Houston, 1955-57, and Howard University, 1957-64; senior editor, Random House, publishers, New York, 1965-84; associate professor, State University of New York, Purchase, 1971-72; visiting lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1976-77, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1983-84, and Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1986-88; Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, State University of New York, Albany, 1984-89; Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1987; Santagata Lecturer, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, 1987. Since 1989 Golheen Professor of the Humanities, Princeton University, New Jersey. Awards: American Academy award, 1977; National Book Critics Circle award, 1977; New York State Governor's award, 1985; Book of the Month Club award, 1986; Before Columbus Foundation award, 1988; Robert F. Kennedy award, 1988; Melcher award, 1988; Pulitzer prize, 1988; MLA Commonwealth award in literature, 1989; Nobel prize, 1993, for literature; Pearl Buck award, 1994; Condorcet medal (Paris), 1994; Rhegium Julii prize, 1994, for literature; National Book Foundation Medal, 1996. Honorary degree: College of Saint Rose, Albany, 1987. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Bluest Eye. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1970; London, Chatto andWindus, 1980.

Sula. New York, Knopf, and London, Allen Lane, 1974.

Song of Solomon. New York, Knopf, 1977; London, Chatto andWindus, 1978.

Tar Baby. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1981.

Beloved. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1987.

Jazz. New York, Knopf, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.

Paradise. New York, Knopf, 1998.

Play

Dreaming Emmett (produced Albany, New York, 1986).

Other

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, Harvard University Press, 1992.

Conversations with Toni Morrison, edited by Danille Taylor-Guthrie. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Lecture and Speech of Acceptance upon the Award of the Nobel Prize for Literature. London, Chatto and Windus, 1994.

Four Songs for Soprano, Cello, and Piano (poems), by Andre Previn. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, England, Music Sales, 1995.

The Dancing Mind: Speech upon Acceptance of the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on the Sixth of November, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Xix. New York, Knopf, 1996.

The Big Box (for children), illustrated by Giselle Potter. New York, Hyperion Books for Children/Jump at the Sun, 1999.

Editor, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York, Pantheon, 1992; London, Chatto and Windus, 1993.

Editor, To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton. New York, Writers and Readers Publishing, 1995.

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Film Adaptations:

Beloved, 1998.

Bibliography:

Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography by David L. Middleton, New York, Garland, 1987.

Critical Studies:

New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison by Karla F.C. Holloway, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1987; The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Toni Morrison by Terry Otten, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1989; Toni Morrison by Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems, Boston, Twayne, 1990; Toni Morrison edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1990; Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Trudier Harris, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1991; Folk Roots and Mythic Wings in Sarah Orne Jewett and Toni Morrison: The Cultural Function of Narrative by Marilyn Sanders Mobley, Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1991; Toni Morrison's Developing Class Consciousness by Doreatha Drummond Mbalia, Selinsgrove, Susquehanna University Press, and London, Associated University Presses, 1991; The Voices of Toni Morrison by Barbara Hill Rigney, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1991; The Novels of Toni Morrison: The Search for Self and Place Within the Community by Patrick Bryce Bjork, New York, Lang, 1992; The Dilemma of "Double-Consciousness": Toni Morrison's Novels by Denise Heinze, Athens and London, University of Georgia Press, 1993; Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah, New York, Amistad, 1993; Toni Morrison by Douglas Century, New York, Chelsea House, 1994; Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994; A World of Difference: An Inter-Cultural Study of Toni Morrison's Novels by Wendy Harding and Jacky Martin, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1994; The Discourse of Slavery: Aphra Behn to Toni Morrison, edited by Carl Plasa and Betty J. Ring, London and New York, Routledge, 1994; Toni Morrison by Linden Peach, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Toni Morrison and the American Tradition: A Rhetorical Reading by Herbert William Rice, New York, P. Lang, 1996; Toni Morrison's Fiction by Jan Furman, Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1996; Toni Morrison: An Intricate Spectrum, edited with an introduction by Alladi Uma, New Delhi, Arnold Associates, 1996; Toni Morrison: Critical and Theoretical Approaches, edited by Nancy J. Peterson, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1997; Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison, edited by Nellie Y. McKay and Kathryn Earle, New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1997; The Female Bildungsroman by Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston: A Postmodern Reading by Pin-chia Feng, New York, P. Lang, 1998; Circles of Sorrow, Lines of Struggle: The Novels of Toni Morrison by Gurleen Grewal, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1998; Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion by Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1998; The Novels of Toni Morrison: A Study in Race, Gender, and Class by K. Sumana, New Delhi, Prestige Books, 1998; Toni Morrison and Womanist Discourse by Aoi Mori, New York, P. Lang, 1999; The Broom Closet: Secret Meanings of Domesticity in Postfeminist Novels by Louise Erdrich, Mary Gordon, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Jane Smiley, and Amy Tan by Jeannette Batz Cooperman, New York, Peter Lang, 1999; Prophets of Recognition: Ideology and the Individual in Novels by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and Eudora Welty by Julia Eichelberger, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1999; Quiet As It's Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison by J. Brooks Bouson, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2000; Toni Morrison, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Broomall, PA, Chelsea House, 2000; The Artist As Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf by Lisa Williams, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2000; Toni Morrison Explained: A Reader's Road Map to the Novels by Ron David, New York, Random House, 2000; Toni Morrison: Historical Perspectives and Literary Contexts by Linden Peach, New York, St. Martin's Press, 2000.

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A comparison of Toni Morrison with Joyce and Faulkner is irresistible. One dominant aspect of her work is an exhaustive, mythical exploration of place. Another is the search for the nexus of past and present. She is to the black milieu of Lorain what Joyce and Faulkner are to Dublin and Oxford, and her Medallion is as curiously fascinating as Anderson's Winesburg. Her stories translate a multiplicity of places, often superficially tawdry, into a rich cultural matrix. Likewise, the times of her forebears and herself in Ohio are a duration, not a chronology. She thus makes the legendary altogether new, and discovers in colloquial habit and naming the altogether legendary. Legend includes not only the tales of her black folk, but the myths of world literature. She has excluded Caucasians from her fiction more than Joyce and Faulkner have excluded ethnic "others" from theirs. But her focus on personality and character (in the moral sense) is indisputably universal. Her pervasive irony and paradox are not merely adroit but ethically motivated. At times they accentuate an erosion of the dignified, reliable courtlines of ancestral blacks, the more profound because it was maintained through the grossest depredations in American history. She is able to say of her contemporaries: "We raised our children and reared our crops; we let infants grow, and property develop." It is a deep regard for craft—for verbal nuance, metaphor image, point of view—that enables Morrison not merely to discourse upon but to animate social process and existential crisis.

The Bluest Eye tells of the incestuous rape of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove by her father. The girl's need to be loved (pushed to the extreme when she observes her mother, a "domestic," heaping upon a little white girl affections Pecola has only dreamed of) takes the doomed form of a yearning for blue eyes. The insanity of this flight from reality comes to fruition after the death of the baby, when she actually believes herself to have acquired them. With her ubiquitous metaphor of flight, Morrison sums up this personal fate and the novel's powerful theme:

The damage was total. She spent her days … walking up and down, up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear. Elbows bent, hands on shoulders, she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly. Beating the air, a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.

We are led to conclude that the narrator, Claudia Macteer, and her sister Frieda probably dodged this perversion by directing an ordinate malice at their Shirley Temple dolls and by being born to a family that, though rough and austere, did know how to breed love.

Sula explores equally an extraordinary consciousness and the gap between generations. Sula Mae Peace and her grandmother, Eva, share a great deal in common. Both left the same home in Medallion's "Bottom" only to return and inhabit it in willful isolation. Both shun tender expressions of love. Both have authored another's death. But in her indifference to family bonds, Sula is her grandmother's opposite. Where Eva left to save her family, Sula left to indulge her fancy. Where Eva returned for her children (though only content alone on the second floor), Sula returned from boredom and put her grandmother in a home. Where Eva, with tragic awareness, ignited her son's drug-addicted body, Sula dropped the little boy "Chicken" to his death with a weird inadvertence. And where Eva maimed herself trying to save her flaming daughter Hannah, Sula watched her mother's immolation with distant curiosity.

Yet this portrait is not simply a paean to the old ways. There is sympathy for Sula because as a child she had misconceived Hannah's remark about her, "I love her, I just don't like her," and because of her vain effort to save "Chicken." Of that the narrator remarks that it has exorcised "her one major feeling of responsibility." Moreover, her temperament blends "Eva's arrogance and Hannah's self indulgence" in an "experimental life" which itself seems a precondition for seeing and acting upon hard social truths. And finally, she seems like Pecola Breedlove, whose "guilt" mysteriously sanctified those around her. Sula performs the original Eve's purpose; as a community "witch," she provides others with a scapegoat, a model of such evil conduct that their own is actually elevated thereby.

Song of Solomon is a work of enormous breadth. Macon and Ruth Dead complete an often devastating characterization of genteel blacks begun with Geraldine and Helene in the earlier novels. Self-serving and cool, their son "Milkman" has given full life to the family name. Burdened by his parents' merciless marriage and prompted by his saintly aunt, Pilate, he sets out for Virginia and the skeletons in his family closet. But lore steadily leads and yields to more interesting truth, in the form of persons who correct his myopic view. He discovers his dead grandmother, Sing, so called because she was half Indian, Singing Bird, but also the daughter of a white Virginian named Byrd. And he discovers his great-grandfather, Solomon, who once proudly flew the coop of slavery and about whom the country black kids still sing: "O Solomon don't leave me." Song and flight make life endurable and beautiful in Morrison's world. Having discovered these true ancestors, Milkman forgets the mundane, taking his best friend Guitar's advice to heart: "[If you] wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." The murderous conflict that had developed between the two (Guitar is a consummate study of an extremist racial approach toward which the novel displays both sympathy and disgust) is ended: "For now [Milkman] knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."

The design of Tar Baby, so allegorical and symbolic, probably overextends the mythic note of Song of Solomon. Folk legend is provided by the title, but elsewhere little is quite so down to earth and the supporting realism is undercut by both the fabulous Haitian settings and Morrison's anthropomorphizing of them. The key figures are Jadine and Son. Their union and divorce embody a black man's search for an authentic, natural past and a black woman's estrangement from it. Committed to materialistic white values, she ends by fondling her sealskin coat. He ends, more unbelievably than the airborne Milkman, by entering a jungle so humanoid that it "make[s] the way easier for a certain kind of man," Morrison's archetype.

Beloved, properly, earned Morrison the Pulitzer prize. The plot entails the struggle of Sethe (Suggs), from the summer of 1873 to the spring of 1874, to bear the resurgent impact of her past, particularly the moment 18 years earlier when she had drawn a handsaw across the throat of her baby girl, named Beloved. She had done so rather than hand the child and her siblings to a vicious plantation manager who had come to Cincinnati, in the name of the "Fugitive Bill," for the family of escaped Kentucky slaves. Once again using magic realism, Morrison simply allows the child's ghost to cross back into her mother's world, in the form of a living and troubled young woman. Readers will struggle to see it otherwise, but this seems the only viable interpretation of the latter-day Beloved. The plot moves constantly between the present in a spuriously free North and an exactingly drawn past in the South before the Civil War. The detail Morrison provides here about plantation existence for slaves, chain gang existence for black convicts, and the terrors of the runaway's passage to freedom is potently authentic. But all is cast in highly lyrical terms.

In 1992, Morrison offered her readers Jazz, a continuation of her look at excessive love, which began with maternal love in particular in Beloved. Set in America's Jazz Age, Jazz presents Joe and Violet Trace, a door-to-door salesman and hairdresser, respectively. Displaced after they are evicted from their home in Virginia and enchanted by their perception of Harlem, they migrate to New York in 1906 but quickly become "people enthralled, then deceived by the music the world makes." Joe takes a teenage lover, Dorcas, who makes him "so sad and happy he [shoots] her just to keep the feeling going" after she jilts him. Violet tries to cut Dorcas's face at the funeral home and, after being forced to leave, runs home to free her primary companions, the birds she keeps in their home. Avoiding a strict chronology is typical for Morrison's work, but here, reading the narrative is often like listening to jazz music as it moves with seamless improvisations, unveiling not only the complexities of romantic love but also the disappointments many blacks faced upon migrating North in the early twentieth century.

In 1993, Morrison was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, making her the first African-American woman to receive the award. Her next novel, Paradise, again focuses on love, this time the love of God and of humans for one another, in the all-black community of Ruby, Oklahoma. This novel returns to fundamental themes of Morrison's work: a sense of place and the interconnectedness of past and present. The citizens of Ruby feel that their "paradise," established by a group of freed slaves who found strength in their religious faith, is being corrupted by the "outside." As the novel covers events between 1890 and 1976, Ruby faces an increasing amount of "sin"—violence, disease, infidelity. As in The Bluest Eye and Sula, a society blind to its own inadequacies seeks a scapegoat; here, it finds the Convent, the refuge for five downtrodden and outcast women. In the conflict between traditional religion, symbolized by the Oven, and the unconventional "magic" which takes place at the Convent, the values of past and present do battle.

Structurally reminiscent of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Paradise is divided into sections according to narrative point of view, not chronology, leaving the reader to assemble the narrative as one would a puzzle. The novel begins with the culmination of Ruby's frustrations: an act of violence against the women of the Convent. The opening sentence of the novel reads, "They shoot the white girl first." Using a tactic she uses in her obscure short story "Recitatif," Morrison never explicitly reveals the race of the Convent's women but leaves the reader to decide: which woman is white? More importantly, however, the struggle to solve this riddle leads one to ponder other questions: in this particular act by the citizens of Ruby, is race relevant? Does the victim's race somehow justify her murderers or vilify them even more? Although Morrison often searches the issues particular to the black race, she is at her best in conundrums like this one. From The Bluest Eye to Paradise, her work compels readers to consider issues that involve race but also transcend it, as they often see their own world, and perhaps even themselves, reflected in the pages of each novel.

David M. Heaton,

updated by Melissa Simpson

Additional topics

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