Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison documented the African-American experience through a series of popular and critically acclaimed works, including Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and God Help the Child (2015), over the course of a four-decade career. Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison credited her parents - father George Wofford, who worked as a welder, and mother Ramah, a domestic work - for installing in her a love for reading, storytelling and folktales. A voracious reader and dedicated student, she graduated from Lorain High School with honors in 1949 and studied English literature at the prestigious Howard University. Upon graduating in 1953, she earned her master's degree at Cornell University before taking teaching positions at Texas South University and later, at Howard. After marrying architect Howard Johnson, with whom she had two sons, in 1958, Morrison began working on what would become her first novel, The Bluest Eyes, in a Howard campus writers group. Her marriage to Johnson would not last long - he returned to Jamaica in 1963, and Morrison moved to Syracuse, New York, where she took a job as an editor at Random House in 1965. While there, she published Eyes in 1970, for which she adopted the nom de plume Toni Morrison, a nickname taken in part from her baptismal name, Anthony. The novel, about an African-American girl obsessed with white ideals of beauty, did not sell well, but its follow-up, Sula, about a friendship between two women in Ohio, received critical praise and earned a nomination for the American Book Award. Morrison reached a wider audience with her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), a poetic take on a man's search for his identity, which became the first book by an African-American author to be chosen by the Book of the Month Club. Solomon also earned Morrison the National Book Critics Circle Award and paved her way to a position on the National Council on the Arts in 1980. The following year saw the release of a folktale-driven work, Tar Baby, which fared less well than its predecessor, but her next book, Beloved, was an unqualified critical success. The novel, about the terrible choices inflicted on a runaway slave, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among numerous other laurels, and served as the inspiration for the 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey. After accepting the position of Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University, Morrison - the first African-American to ever hold a chair at an Ivy League school - taught fiction while also continuing to write her own work. A collection of criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), preceded Jazz (1993), a romance set during the Harlem Renaissance, and Paradise (1997), which concerned life in a fictional African-American town, both of which formed a trilogy with Beloved that Morrison encouraged readers to consume together. Between these efforts, Morrison earned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, delivered the 1996 Jefferson Lecture, the United States government's highest honor for intellectual achievement, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1998. The following year, Morrison made her debut as a children's author with The Big Box, which she co-wrote with her son, Slade; the pair would write several more books for young readers between 2002 and 2010, while Morrison worked in several different mediums, including lyrics for composer Andre Previn and the libretto for an opera called Margaret Garner (2007), about the real-life former slave on which Beloved was based. She also continued to publish novels, including Love (2003), about a deceased hotel owner and the women in his life. Morrison retired from Princeton in 2006 and penned the historical novel A Mercy (2008), which examined the impact of racism on African-American and Native American women. For much of the next decade, Morrison moved between various mediums, penning another opera, Desdemona (2011), about the tragic female figure in Shakespeare's Othello, a collection of essays about censorship titled Burn This Book (2009), and a new novel, Home (2012), about a Korean War veteran's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Oberlin College paid homage to her work by giving the Toni Morrison Society, which studied her work, a permanent home in 2012, the same year that President Barack Obama awarded Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her eleventh and final novel, God Help the Child, about a dark-skinned African-American woman working in the cosmetics industry, was published in 2015. Her long and storied career was feted through numerous literary awards and honorary doctorates, as well as two documentaries: "Imagine - Toni Morrison Remembers" (BBC One, 2012) and "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am" in 2019, the same year Morrison contracted the pneumonia that would end her life at the age of 88 on August 5, 2019.