The Life and Work of Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison, a premier contemporary American novelist, chronicles the African-American experience. Morrison has written six novels and a collection of essays and lectures. Her work has won national and international acclaim and has been translated into 14 languages. Her writing has been described as lyrical and she has been applauded for “writing prose with the luster of poetry.” Morrison won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her novel Belovedand the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In a released statement, the Nobel Prize Committee of the Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Morrison “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She is the first African-American writer to win the Nobel Prize, the first American woman to win in 55 years, and the eighth woman to win since the Nobel Prize was initiated in 1901.
Morrison’s work, however, is not without controversy. In 1988, 48 African-American writers signed a letter protesting that her novel Beloved was overlooked for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Many white authors and even some male African-American authors complained when she was selected for the Nobel Prize. They felt she received these awards due to preferential treatment based on race and sex. However, an overwhelming majority of the literary community agrees that such allegations are without merit. “The Nobel Prize in Literature is not awarded for gender or race,” says Nadine Gordimer, the last woman to win the prize in 1991. “If it were, many thousands of mediocre writers might qualify. The significance of Toni Morrison’s winning the prize is simply that she is recognized internationally as an outstandingly fine writer.”
Often the controversy surrounding such prizes are due in part to fierce competition for the money and prestige that are guaranteed to the recipients. Morrison has been hailed by experts for her ability to “re-imagine the lost history of her people. Others have recognized the Faulknerian influences in her work or that her plots have the sorrow of Greek tragedies. Along with the honor of winning the the Nobel Prize comes a cash award of $825,000. Morrison is currently the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.
Toni Morrison was born Chole Anthony Wofford in Lorrain, Ohio in 1931 during the Great Depression. (Toni is her nickname; Morrison is the name of her ex-husband.) Her grandparents were former sharecroppers who migrated north from Alabama in 1910 to find a better life. Her family’s life was not without economic and racial hardships.
They lived in a largely all-white town. Unpleasant memories of growing up there include being looked down upon because she was black. The only part-time job she could get at age 13 was cleaning people’s homes. In spite of these humble origins, Morrison received a B.A. from Howard University and a M.A. in English from Cornell University. Her master’s thesis was on writer William Faulkner, another Nobel Prize winner, whose work focused on life in the South.
Upon graduation, one of her first round of jobs was teaching at Howard University. One of her students included writer Claude Brown who asked her to look at his 800 page manuscript. His book went on to become the classic urban autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land. Another one of her students who went on to fame was Stokely Carmichael, a student activist and leader in the Black Power Movement of the sixties. In fact, the idea for her first book, The Bluest Eye, came from the popular slogan “Black is Beautiful.” Morrison placed a twist on that theme by focusing on a little black girl who did not think she was beautiful. After her teaching stints and the end of her marriage, she raised two sons as a single parent and wrote in her spare time. Morrison was hired by Random House, where...
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