Toni Morrison

Introduction to Toni Morrison

The early years

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel-mill town on Lake Erie, in 1931. The second of four children, she was a Depression-era baby in a large and close-knit family whose roots stretched deep into the South. Her maternal grandfather was five when he crawled under a bed to hide from the coming "Emancipation Proclamation." As a violinist and carpenter in his adult years, he lived with and often expected the hypocrisy of many white Americans. His wife was an optimist, however. She believed that with faith and action, anything was possible.

Morrison's parents mirrored those philosophies in much the same way. Her father, a native of Georgia and a shipyard worker who held three jobs off and on for 17 years, once threw a white man down the steps. Her mother wrote a letter to then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt complaining of the food quality when the family was forced to go on relief; she got action. Morrison says of her childhood, "I grew up in a basically racist household with more than a child's share of contempt for white people."

 

Out of that experience came the traditions that exist in her work today. Everywhere in her life there was a reverence for the language and lore, the traditions, myths and rituals of black people. She spent hours listening to the ghost stories her parents would tell. Her grandmother kept a dream book, using it to decipher images and symbols in order to play the numbers. Her mother, a member of the choir, sang constantly. These things find their home in Morrison's fiction.

In high school, she learned Latin and discovered Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Jane Austen's novels, and other great literature, including the Russian novels. Always a good student, she graduated as a member of the National Honor Society, and went on to Howard University in Washington, D.C. She wanted to be a dancer, but recalls that what she did well was read.

Beyond Ohio

At Howard, Chloe Anthony became Toni. She also traveled with the university's repertory company, which gave her the opportunity to see firsthand the black South of the late 40s and early 50s. She drew connections as a result of this experience, and the ties to and reverence for her ancestors were cemented further.

After Howard, Morrison attended Cornell University for a Master's Degree in English. Later, she taught briefly at Texas Southern University, returning to Howard as an instructor in 1957. In the dawn of the civil rights struggle, she taught many of the students who would one day be at the forefront of the movement-Stokeley Carmichael, Andrew Young, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and others. She also joined a writers' group where she began the short story that would later become her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

During this period, she also met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architecture student. The marriage lasted six years and in 1964 with one child and one on the way, Morrison found herself divorced. With no prospects of gainful employment, she returned to her parents' home in Lorain. A little more than a year later, she was back on the east coast, having accepted a job in Syracuse, New York, as a textbook editor, with the proviso that she would soon be transferred to the textbook department at Random House in New York City.

Against this backdrop, Morrison began to write seriously. The Bluest Eye, published in 1970 to respectable reviews but limited success, was written out of the turmoil of a young woman in a strange place with two children and very few friends. It wasn't long before she was on to New York and Random House.

Bright lights, big city

An editor at Random House for 18 years, Morrison began in the textbook department and was quickly transferred to trade as a consequence of the black cultural awakening of the late 60s-early 70s. Her work-almost exclusively with black writers-included books by Muhammad Ali and black woman authors such as Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Gayle Jones. She also worked on The Black Book, a compendium of black American life that dates back 300 years, and Ivan Van Sertima's They Came Before Columbus.

Between working and raising two sons, Morrison started Sula, her second novel which, she says, was partly composed during her commute from her home in Queens to work in Manhattan. Published in 1973, the book debuted to rave reviews and earned the author national recognition as a talent to watch.

Song of Solomon came four years later to an even warmer reception. A best-seller, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction. It was also the first black novel selected to be a Book-of-the-Month-Club offering since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940.

In 1981, among more critical acclaim, Morrison's fourth novel, Tar Baby, appeared, earning its author a spot on the cover of Newsweek magazine. It also became a best-seller. At the time Morrison believed that her writing days were over. "I would not write another novel to either make a living or because I was able to," she told the Wall Street Journal. "If it was not an overwhelming compulsion or I didn't feel absolutely driven by the ideas that I wanted to explore, I wouldn't do it. And I was content not to ever be driven that way again."

Morrison did put her skills to use, however. In 1983, she wrote the book and lyrics for a little known musical called New Orleans and in 1986, her play, Dreaming Emmett, premiered in Albany to mark the first annual celebration of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a national holiday.

The seeds of Beloved

For Beloved, Morrison reached back into her editorial experience at Random House and her work on The Black Book. From a newspaper clipping contained in that work, she found an idea compelling enough for her to return to the novel form. The article, entitled "A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child," was one account of a reporter's meeting with Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky, who in 1855 tried to kill her children rather than face a return to slavery. She succeeded in killing one and it is her story that forms the germ of Morrison's book. It was to be only the beginning, however, as Morrison's intention to create a novel that followed the lives of her slave-turned-free characters and their descendants into the twentieth century became a trilogy. Beloved is the first installment.

Controversy and the Pulitzer Prize

Beloved appeared in 1987 to much critical acclaim. The novel was, by turns, nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ritz-Hemingway Prize in Paris and finally the Pulitzer Prize. As a result of her failure to receive the 1987 National Book Award, a group of 48 black writers published a letter of protest in the New York Times Book Review questioning why such a talented author had not received so prestigious an award as the Book Award or the Pulitzer. It was to become a moot point, for on March 31, 1988, Toni Morrison won the latter. She told the New York Times, "In the end I feel as though I have served the characters in the book well and I have served the readers well and I hope the Pulitzer people are as proud of me as I am of them."

Toni Morrison, the writer

Morrison has been cited for the lushness and vitality of her language and challenged for her often brutal exploration of black life. She has also accepted the labeling-black writer, woman writer, black woman writer. She contends that the strength of her writing lies in the language, its oral quality, its ability to draw the reader in and to establish a participatory relationship with him or her.

Morrison, by her own admission, writes "village" or "peasant" literature. Written for black people, it is universal because the stories and themes within touch all who read it. Peasant literature serves an important function in that it is didactic, a means of reasserting the rules of survival. In a New Republic interview, Morrison summed it up this way: "I think long and carefully about what my novels ought to do. They should clarify the roles that have become obscured; they ought to identify those things in the past that are useful and those things that are not; and they ought to give nourishment."

To that end, Morrison works with cliches and metaphors, milking them until they reflect the very essence on which they are founded and lifting simple truths into the complex reality of our world for all to see.