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||Toni Morrison (1931-2019) - originally Chloe Anthony Wofford|
American author, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. In her work Toni Morrison explored the experience and roles of black women in a racist and male dominated society. In the center of her complex and multilayered narratives is rememorying of the unique social and cultural history of African Americans. Morrison was a member of both the National Council on the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
'"Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company."' (from Nobel Lecture, 1993)
Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, where her parents had moved to escape the problems of southern racism. Her family were migrants, sharecroppers on both sides. Morrison grew up in the black community of Lorain. She spent her childhood in the Midwest and read voraciously, from Jane Austen to Tolstoy. Morrison's father, George Wofford, was a welder, and told her folktales of the black community, transferring his African-American heritage to another generation. In 1949 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., America's most distinguished black college. There she changed her name from "Chloe" to "Toni", explaining once that people found "Chloe" too difficult to pronounce. She continued her studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Morrison wrote her thesis on suicide in the works of William Faulkner and VirginiaWoolf, receiving her M.A. in 1955.
During 1955-57 Morrison was an instructor in English at Texas Southern University, at Houston, and taught in the English department at Howard. In 1964 she moved to Syracuse, New York, working as a textbook editor. After eighteen months she was transferred to the New York headquarters of Random House. There she edited books by such black authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. She also continued to teach at two branches of the State University of New York. In 1984 she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University of New York at Albany, where she nurtured young writers through two-year fellowships.
While teaching at Howard University and caring for her two children, Morrison wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). With its publication, Morrison also established her new identity, which she later in 1992 rejected: "I am really Chloe Anthony Wofford. That's who I am. I have been writing under this other person's name. I write some things now as Chloe Wofford, private things. I regret having called myself Toni Morrison when I published my first novel, The Bluest Eye". The story is set in the community of a small, Midwestern town. Its characters are all black. The book was partly based on Morrison's story written for a writers' group in 1966, which she joined after her six years marriage with the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison broke up.Until 1983, Morrison did not publish short stories. 'Recitatif', about cross-racial friendship, appeared first in Imamu Amiri and Amina Baraka's Confirmation (1983), an anthology consisting of black women's writing.
Pecola Breedlove, the central character of The Bluest Eye,
prays each night for the blue-eyed beauty of Shirley Temple. She
believes everything would be all right if only she had beautiful blue
eyes. The narrator, Claudia MacTeer, tries to understand the
destruction of Pecola. She is raped twice by her father. Traumatized by
the attacks, she visits minister Micah Elihue Whitcom, who gives her
poisoned meat to feed his old, sick dog. Driven to madness, she
invents an imaginary friend, who reassures that her eyes are the
bluest in the world. The novel was removed from the 11th-grade
curriculum at Lathrop High School in 1994, after parents' complaints.
It was also challenged in the West Chester, Pennsylvania, school
district, at Morrisville (Pennsylvania) Borough High School, and in
2003, parents of students attending the Kern High School District in
Bakersfield, California, challenged the use of the novel in the
Morrison's second novel, Sula (1973), depicted two black woman friends and their community of Medallion, Ohio. It follows the lives of Sula, a free spirit, who is considered a threat against the community, and her cherished friend Nel, from their childhood to maturity and to death. The book won the National Book Critics Award. With the publication of Song of Solomon (1977), a family chronicle compared to Alex Haley's Roots, Morrison gained an international attention. It was the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the first novel by a black writer to be chosen since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1949. Written from a male point of view, the story dealt with Milkman Dead's efforts to recover his "ancient properties", a cache of gold.
After the success of Song of Solomon Morrison bought a four-story house near Nyack, N.Y. She was named in 1987 Robert F. Goheen Professor in the council of the humanities at Princeton University. In 1988 Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Beloved (1987), after an open letter, signed by forty-eight prominent black writers, was published in the New York Time Book Review in January. However, the novel failed to win the National Book Award. Writers protested that Morrison had never been honoured with either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize. Morrison also added to her collection of awards France's Legion of Honour, which she received in 2010.
Beloved was inspired by the true story of a black
slave woman, Margaret Garner. She escaped with her husband Robert from
a Kentucky plantation, and sought refuge in Ohio. When the slave
masters overcame them, she killed her baby, in order to save the child
from the slavery she had managed to escape. Morrison later told that "I
thought at first it couldn't be written, but I was annoyed and worried
that such a story was inaccessible to art." The protagonist, Sethe,
tries to kill her children but is successful only in murdering the
unnamed infant, "Beloved." The name is written on the child's
tombstone, Sethe did not have enough money to pay for the text ''Dearly
Beloved.'' Sethe's house, where she lives with her teenage daughter,
Denver, is haunted by the dead baby daughter – but in the tradition of
magic realism there is another alternative: everything is
hallucination. Thus, in the novel, a narrative of African-American
history means bringing back the literary dead and the figuratively dead – the marginalized and silenced.
Through the process of rememory Sethe understands who Beloved
is. In rememory, time, experiences, memories, and places are really out
there in the world. Paul
D., whom Sethe knew in slavery, comes to visit her, and manages to
drive the ghost out for a while. "For a used-to-be slave woman to love
anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she
had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a
little bit; everything just a little bit, so when they broke its back,
or shoved it in a crocker sack, well, maybe you'd have little love left
over for the next one." Time
passes and Paul D. is seduced by Beloved, who becomes more violent.
Denver leaves the house. Sethe is found at the farm, with the naked
body of a very pregnant Beloved. The spell breaks, and Beloved
disappears. Paul D. returns to take care of Sethe.
The film version of
the book from 1998 was directed by Jonathan Demme, who used much
special effects and was interested in the horror aspects. Oprah Winfrey
portrayed Sethe; she had optioned the book rights immediately after its
publication. Three writers worked on the script: Akosua Busia, Richard
LaGravenese, and Adam Brooks. "If ever a film was burdened under the
strain of its own portentousness, it's Beloved. Even the music
by composer Rachel Portman, dominated by an interminably moaning solo
voice, is mired in its own sincerity. As for Winfrey, it was an
unabashed labor of love, and she threw all the resources of her
television programs and her international celebrity into its promotion." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh, 1999) In spite of a flying dog, madness, and a drooling ghost, in this "Black horror" film the real evil is slavery.
In Jazz (1992) Joe, the unfaithful husband of Violet, kills Dorcas in a fit of passion. The fragmented narrative follows the causes and consequences of the murder. Morrison's first novel since the Nobel Prize was Paradise (1998). Again Morrison set story in a small community, this time in Ruby, Oklahoma. Nine men attack a former girls' school nicknamed "the Convent," now occupied by unconventional women fleeing from abusive husbands or lovers, or otherwise unhappy pasts. Moving freely between eras, Morrison explores the founding of Ruby, an all-black township and the backgrounds of the convent women and the men determined to kill them. "The book coalesced around the idea of where paradise is, who belongs in it," Morrison said in an interview The New York Times (January 8, 1998). "All paradises are described as male enclaves, while the interloper is a woman, defenseless and threatening. When we get ourselves together and get powerful is when we are assaulted." In the novella A Mercy (2008) Morrison transformed America’s 17th century history into into a tale of the world of to be corrupted, an Eden that never existed.
Love (2003), Morrison's eight novel, moves freely in time as Paradise. It portrays Bill Cosey, a charismatic
hotel owner, dead for many years but not forgotten, and two woman, his widow and his granddaughter, who live in his
mansion. Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times (October 31,
2003), that "the story as a whole reads like a gothic soap opera, peopled by
scheming, bitter women and selfish, predatory men: women engaged in cartoon-violent catfights; men catting around and
going to cathouses." Jonathan Yardley complained in the Washington Post (October
26, 2003) that the novel has "Major Statement written all over it" – a
point of view to which the politically conscious author answered
already in an interview in 1974. "I don't believe any real artists have
ever been non-political," she said. "They may have been insensitive to
this particular plight or insensitive to that, but they were political
because that's what an artist is – a politician." Toni Morrison died in
New York City, on August 5, 2019, from complications of pneumonia.
For further reading: The Crime of Innocence in the Fiction of Tony Morrison by T. Otten (1989); Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Tony Morrison by T. Harris (1993); Toni Morrison's World of Fiction by Karen Carmean (1993); Tony Morrison's Fiction by J. Furman (1966); Tony Morrison, ed. by N.J. Peterson (1997); Tony Morrison, ed. by L. Peach (1998); Journey to Beloved by Oprah Winfrey (1998); Understanding Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and "Sula", ed. by Solomon O. Iyasere and Marla W. Iyasere (1999); Toni Morrison by Linden Peach (2000); The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness by John N. Duvall (2000); Religiosity, Cosmology and Folklore: The African Influence in the Novels of Toni Morrison by Therese E. Higgins (2002); Toni Morrison's Beloved and the Apotropaic Imagination by Kathleen Marks (2002); The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia by Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu (2003); Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (2006); Toni Morrison's Style in 'Beloved' by David Wheeler (2011); Slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved by Dedria Bryfonski (2012); Toni Morrison: a Literary Life by Linda Wagner-Martin (2015); Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison's Later Novels by Jean Wyatt (2016)