Toni Morrison, who chronicled the African American experience in fiction over five decades, has died aged 88.
In a statement on Tuesday, her family and publisher Knopf confirmed that the author died in Montefiore Medical Center in New York on Monday night after a short illness.
Describing her as “our adored mother and grandmother”, Morrison’s family said: “Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life. While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family.”
Born in an Ohio steel town in the depths of the Great Depression, Morrison carved out a literary home for the voices of African Americans, first as an acclaimed editor and then with novels such as The Bluest Eye, The Song of Solomon and Beloved. Over the course of a career that garnered honours including the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, the Légion d’Honneur and a Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to her in 2012 by her friend Barack Obama, her work became part of the fabric of American life as it was woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country.
The house where Morrison was born in 1931 stands about a mile from the gates of the Lorain steel factory in Ohio – the first of a series of apartments the family lived in while her father added odd jobs to his shifts at the plant to make the rent. He defied his supervisor and took a second unionised job so he could send his daughter to college. After studying English at Howard University and Cornell, she returned to Washington DC to teach, marrying the architect Howard Morrison and giving birth to two sons.
Toni Morrison: ‘I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness’
In 1965, her marriage over after six years, she moved to upstate New York and began working as an editor. It was in Syracuse that she realised the novel she wanted to read didn’t exist, and started writing it herself.
“I had two small children in a small place,” she told the New York Times in 1979, “and I was very lonely. Writing was something for me to do in the evenings, after the children were asleep.”
The book she was missing took Morrison back to Lorain and a conversation she had had at elementary school. Writing in 1993, she remembered how she “got mad” when her friend told her she wanted blue eyes.
“Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing,” Morrison wrote. “And 20 years later I was still wondering how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her.”
During the five years it took her to write The Bluest Eye she moved to New York City and started publishing books by Angela Davis, Henry Dumas and Muhammad Ali, but she didn’t tell her colleagues about her own fiction. Speaking to the Paris Review in 1993, Morrison explained that writing was a “private thing”.
“I wanted to own it myself,” she said. “Because once you say it, then other people become involved.”
Published in 1970 with an initial run of 2,000 copies, The Bluest Eye made no bones about its difficult material, wrapping the novel’s hard-hitting opening around the cover: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”
The New York Times hailed how Morrison charted the workings of “a cultural engine that seems to have been designed specifically to murder possibilities” in prose “so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry” – a description that dogged the writer for the rest of her career.
Speaking to the New Republic in 1981 , she explained she wanted to write books that were “not … only, even merely, literary” or she would “defeat [her] purposes, defeat [her] audience”.
“That’s why I don’t like to have someone call my books ‘poetic’,” she said, “because it has the connotation of luxuriating richness. I wanted to restore the language that black people spoke to its original power. That calls for a language that is rich but not ornate.”
Morrison’s reputation gradually built as she forged the language of her family and neighbours into three more novels, resigning from Random House in 1983 to devote herself to writing full-time. The publication in 1987 of Beloved, a powerful story set in the middle of the 19th century of a slave who kills her own baby, cemented her status as a national figure. When the novel failed to improve on its shortlisting for the National Book Award, 48 writers signed a letter of protest accusing the publishing industry of “oversight and harmful whimsy”.
“Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” they wrote. “She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer prize.”
Five months later Beloved won the Pulitzer, unleashing a tide of awards including the Nobel prize for literature in 1993, a National Book Foundation medal in 1996 and a National Humanities medal four years later.
Morrison continued exploring the African American experience – a project she described to the New York Times in 2015 as “writing without the white gaze” – in novels stretching from the 17th century to the present day. She was never afraid to speak up on issues confronting the US, defending president Bill Clinton from criticism in 1998 by calling him the nation’s “first black president”, or reacting to the shooting of Travyon Martin by outlining the “two things I want to see in life. One is a white kid shot in the back by a cop. Never happened. The second thing I want to see: a record of any white man in the entire history of the world who has been convicted of raping a black woman. Just one.”
Speaking after winning her Nobel prize in 1993, Morrison spelled out the dangers of “oppressive language [that] does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge” and offered instead a positive vision of “word-work” which “makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life”.
“We die,” she said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”