Toni Morrison, one of the great voices of 20th-century American literature and the only African-American laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, died at Montefiore Medical Center in New York on August 5, her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has confirmed. She was 88.
The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970.(In its review, PW wrote of The Bluest Eye: "In her first novel, Miss Morrison writes with compassion but unstinting realism of the cruel emotional and physical poverty of black life in Middle America.") Morrison followed with Sula in 1973, when she moved over to Alfred A. Knopf, which would publish her novels for the remainder of her career. Her nine subsequent novels were Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981) Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015).
"She was a great woman and a great writer," Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, said in a statement, "and I don’t know which I will miss more.”
In addition to her novels, Morrison wrote a number of books of nonfiction: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004), The Origin of Others (2017), and The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (2019). She was the editor of the anthologies Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (1992) and Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (2009). She was also the author, with her late son Slade, of a number of books for children.
"Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books," Sonny Mehta, Knopf chairman, said in a statement. “I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers."
Morrison’s novels in particular are celebrated and embraced by the worlds of literature and publishing, even as they have set off a fair share of controversy, particularly in school districts that worked to ban her books. She was among the most decorated authors in American letters, having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1996, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. The Swedish Academy, in its citation for the Nobel, called Morrison an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Morrison's career in books included more than 15 years working as an editor, starting at L. W. Singer in 1965 and moving to Random House in 1967, where she continued to edit until 1983. She was the editor of works by Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others, and she was a committed advocate for writers of color with a reputation for eloquently addressing hard truths. She also edited, with Middleton A. Harris, The Black Book (1974), which is considered one of the most consequential anthologies in the history of African-American literature.
For more than 50 years, Morrison also taught creative writing and literature part-time at Howard University, Yale University, SUNY Purchase, Bard College, Rutgers University, SUNY Albany, and Princeton University. She retired from Princeton as Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities in 2006.
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, and graduated from Howard University in 1953 with a B.A. in English. She earned a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. She converted to Roman Catholicism at age 12 and took the baptismal name Anthony, after Saint Anthony, which led to a nickname: Toni.
"It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," the Morrison family said in a statement. "She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life."
Morrison herself had something to say about her inevitable passing. “We die," she said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”