Highlights of a Life
For Chloe Anthony Wofford, born in Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931, the outlook for becoming a major literary artist may not have seemed bright. But her parents were steady, hardworking people; and growing up in racially integrated northern Ohio rather than in the segregated south was a good break. The area around Lorain and Oberlin, Ohio, had been staunchly abolitionist and active in delivering escaped slaves to safe harbor in the north via the Underground Railroad.
Growing up in the forties and fifties after the wave of unprecedented progress of the Harlem Renaissance was good, too, because the avante garde of black writers helped clear the way for the young Chloe Wofford, who would later be known as Toni Morrison.
At school in Lorain, she was introduced mainly to “canonical” white, often European authors. But at home, through her parents and grandparents, she heard traditional African stories and learned of the ordeal of slavery in America. Over time, her knowledge of oral narratives, myths, preaching, and legends grew. The rhythms, idiom, and vitality of African-American speech convincingly suffused the novels she would write.
A studious young woman, Morrison worked towards an academic career. After high school in Lorain, she graduated from Howard University in 1953 and went on for an M.A. at Cornell University. She did her thesis on suicide themes in the works of Faulkner and Woolf.
While at Howard, she found the general awareness of the students too focused on physical appearance, upward mobility and financial success. But Howard gave her a chance to travel widely in the South as a member of the university’s theatrical troupe. Here she saw with her own eyes the residual suppression of blacks. The movement toward liberation, equality, and respect for the dignity of women and minorities was gaining momentum. When she returned to teach at Howard (1957 to 1964), she met and married a Jamaican architect, Howard Morrison. The couple had two sons, Harold and Slade, but the marriage did not go well, and, after a period of professional frustration and depression, they divorced.
For a while, Toni worked in publishing in Lorain, then moved on to become a senior editor at Random House in New York. Gradually, through writing, she worked her way to a sense of purpose and independence. The result was her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). From the beginning, her methods were experimental, using leit motif and unconventional background voices. Her theme in this novel was the way popular white values of beauty distorted the self-image of blacks.
Morrison’s career as a novelist launched, she continued to teach while she turned out a steady stream of critically-acclaimed novels. Her teaching took her to Bard College, Yale, and on to Princeton, where after 1988 she held the Robert F. Goheen Chair.
In 1973 came Sula, in which the domestic, settled life of one black woman comes into conflict with the adventurous life of her unconventional friend and rival, Sula. The story is told against the background of a community of African Americans who have been victimized by white opportunists.
The Song of Solomon (1977) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. It tells the story of milkman Dead’s search for identity and of the irony by which he finds it. He goes south looking for material success, but finds that he truly belongs with his more spiritual racial roots.
Beloved (1987), probably her most widely read and admired novel, won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It deals with the black history of post-emancipation stress. The central narrative was suggested to Morrison by the true story of a woman who killed her child rather than let it become a slave.
Each of these books illustrates Morrison’s blending of the real and the mystical, the memory and the dream, the present and the ghosts of the past. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she was cited as one “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Toni Morrison continued to write, publishing Paradise (1998) and Love (2003). In recent years, the Princeton University professor has published a number of children’s books with her son, Slade Morrison. Above all, she is doing what she set out to do – to prove that American literature will always be incomplete until it fully recognizes and embraces its African American art.