In describing the literary greatness of Toni Morrison—winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature, the first awarded to an African-American woman—the Nobel Foundation said that Morrison “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She pursued and fulfilled that mission throughout her prodigious literary career. According to her publisher, Morrison died on Monday evening in a New York hospital, the Washington Post reports. She was 88 years old.
Knopf spokesman Paul Bogaards confirmed her death but didn’t announce an immediate cause.
Born on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, Chloe Ardelia Wofford was the second oldest of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford, sharecroppers who had migrated north from Alabama. The couple raised their children in an integrated, working-class neighborhood. Morrison would later reportedly tell the New York Times, “When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read.”
She displayed an early love for literature, reading the works of many European writers and learning Latin. She also changed her middle name to “Anthony” after converting to Catholicism at age 12. Morrison graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949 and went on to Howard University, where she majored in English and minored in the classics. (She also started using the name “Toni” at Howard, reportedly because it was easier to pronounce.) In Washington, D.C., for the first time, she saw segregation up close. After graduating in 1953, she pursued a graduate degree in English at Cornell University, which she completed in 1955.
Morrison returned to Howard in 1957 to teach English; while there she met Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. (She also became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.) The couple married in 1958 and had two sons: Harold, born in 1961, and Slade, born in 1964, the same year their marriage ended. The single mother subsequently moved with her children to Syracuse, N.Y., to take a job as a senior editor at a textbook publishing company. A year and a half later, Morrison moved to New York City to become an editor at Random House, where she worked with authors such as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also worked on the groundbreaking historical anthology The Black Book (1974).
While teaching at Howard, Morrison joined an informal group of poets and writers. Her first piece was a short story about a young black girl who strongly believed that her impoverished upbringing would be better if she had blue eyes. That story would turn into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970. Critics applauded Morrison’s style, though the novel didn’t sell well. Her next work of fiction, Sula, was published in 1973; it told the story of the troubled and complex friendship between two women who grew up together in a small Ohio town. The novel was nominated for the American Book Award.
It was her next novel, however, that would bring her broad national attention. Song of Solomon, published in 1977, was a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the first honor for an African-American author since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940. The novel, about Milkman Dead’s journey through the South in search of his roots, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison’s 1981 novel, Tar Baby, which explores the love affair between a black man and woman who connect across very divergent paths, received mixed reviews.
Her 1987 work, Beloved, is generally considered to be Morrison’s masterpiece. It is the story of Sethe, a former slave, who is haunted by her memories of attempting to kill her children to save them from slavery. Morrison received the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 for Beloved, which was later turned into a movie by Oprah Winfrey. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best novel of the past 25 years. In 2005, Time magazine listed it among the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.
Morrison taught at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006, where she held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities. During that time, she formed a special workshop for writers and performers called the Princeton Atelier, which enables students to collaborate with established artists to produce original works for public presentation.
While continuing to write novels, from Jazz in 1992 to God Help the Child in 2015, Morrison expanded into other art forms. She wrote a libretto for the opera Margaret Garner, which told the story of slavery through the life of one woman, as well as the play Desdemona.
As a champion of the arts, Morrison didn’t shy away from speaking her mind on key issues. In 2009, she spoke out against censorship after one of her books was banned at a Michigan high school. She also edited Burn This Book, a collection of essays on censorship and the importance of the written word.
Morrison also offered her views on major political events. During the 1998 impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton, she claimed in a New Yorker essay that Clinton was being mistreated because of his “blackness,” writing: “Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”
Ten years after that controversial commentary, in 2008, Morrison would endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary—her first public endorsement of a presidential candidate, as she wrote in a letter to Obama: “[O]f one thing I am certain: this opportunity for a national evolution (even revolution) will not come again soon, and I am convinced you are the person to capture it.”
When Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, he said, “Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt...The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.”
Her last published and filmed works, both released early this year, were self-reflective. The Source of Self-Regard gathered together decades of Morrison’s speeches, reflections, and criticism, while a documentary on Morrison’s life and work, The Pieces I Am, emphasized her substantial contributions to American life and letters. Featuring anecdotes from Morrison herself, the film was intended to be a “living memorial,” in the words of her friend Angela Davis.
“The theme of Toni Morrison’s work has been a very deep engagement with race,” Davis told The Root, adding that Morrison’s work helped her not just think differently, but to see and feel differently. “Her work can play a foundational role in the new conversations we need to be having during this period...of what kind of world we need to envision for the future.”
It is not hyperbole to say that Morrison’s contributions—as a novelist, as a champion of black writers, as a moral voice in a country seemingly incapable of squaring honestly with its own demons—went far beyond shaping generations of writers who came after her. She reconfigured the American literary landscape, which is to say, she shaped this very country—a country that, facing its most profound moral crisis since the turn of the century, must now grapple with her loss.
Morrison summarized her own approach to mortality accordingly: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Monée Fields-White is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.
Maiysha Kai and Anne Branigin contributed to this report.