Born: February 18, 1931
Died: August 5, 2019
Ohio connection: Birth
Toni Morrison, hailed as a “literary artist of the first rank” by the Swedish Academy when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in the small, industrial town of Lorain, Ohio, on February 18, 1931. Raised by nurturing, hard-working, story-telling parents, steeped in the oral traditions of their ancestors, Morrison developed a love of reading. Upon entering the first grade she was the only black student and the only student that knew how to read. She graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949. After high school, Morrison attended Howard University, where she majored in English and minored in the classics. She then earned a master’s degree in English at Cornell University, thus completing her formal education in 1955.
After teaching English at various universities, and editing books for Random House, Morrison turned a story she wrote for a writer’s group into her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which, after several rejections, was published in 1970. Thirty years after publication, in April 2000, the novel was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, a testament to the power of a story about a little black girl who longs to be beautiful and have blue eyes. Morrison’s next novel, Sula, about a woman who chooses to live an “experimental life” rather than conform to societal standards, was published in 1973 and nominated for the 1975 National Book Award. National acclaim and commercial success followed publication of Song of Solomon (1977). The novel won a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1978 and became a paperback bestseller. Tar Baby, an adaptation of the African-American folktale of Tar Baby and Brer Rabbit, made the New York Times bestseller list and earned Morrison the March 30, 1981, cover of Newsweek magazine. In 1987 Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton thus becoming the first black female writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League university. That same year she published her most controversial novel, Beloved, which tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who would rather kill her children than see them recaptured and returned to the plantation and a life of slavery. Made into a feature film and the subject of American Literature classes throughout the United States, Beloved became a bestseller and won Morrison a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. She explored the tumultuous relationship of a couple from Virginia who live in New York during the Harlem Renaissance for her next novel, Jazz
The author received international recognition for her writing in 1993 when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the eighth woman, the first black woman and the first native-born American author since 1962 winner John Steinbeck to win the prestigious award. Since then, Morrison has continued to teach at Princeton and has written two more novels, Paradise and Love. She has also written a book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and Literary Imagination, and a children’s book, The Big Box, a rhyming message about individuality, personal freedom, and parental constraints which her son, Slade, co-authored. Toni Morrison died from complications of pneumonia on August 5, 2019.
National Book Award nomination and Ohioana Book Award, both 1975, both for Sula; National Book Critics Circle Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award, both 1977, both for Song of Solomon; New York State Governor’s Art Award, 1986; National Book Award nomination and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1987, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Robert F. Kennedy Award, and American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), all 1988, all for Beloved; Elizabeth Cady Stanton Award, National Organization for Women; Nobel Prize in Literature, 1993; Pearl Buck Award, Rhegium Julii prize, and Condorcet medal (Paris, France), all 1994; National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 1996; National Humanities Medal, 2001; subject of Biennial Toni Morrison Society conference in Lorain, OH; Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Oxford University (2005); New Jersey Hall of Fame inductee (2008); Norman Mailer Prize, Lifetime Achievement (2009); Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction (2011); Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012); The Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal awarded by Vanderbilt University (2013); 2014 Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award given by the National Book Critics Circle (2014); 2016 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction