• Aka—Chloe Anthony Wofford
• Birth—February 18, 1931
• Where—Lorain, Ohio, USA
• Education—B.A., Howard University; M.A., Cornell
• Awards—Nobel Prize, 1993, National Book Critics' Circle
Award, 1977; Pulitzer Prize, 1988.
• Currently—lives in Princeton, NJ and New York, NY
With her incredible string of lyrical, imaginative, and adventurous modern classics Toni Morrison lays claim to being one of America's best novelists. Race issues are at the heart of many of Morrison's most enduring novels, from the ways that white concepts of beauty affect a girl's self image in The Bluest Eye to themes of segregation in Sulu and slavery in her signature work Beloved. Through it all, Morrison relates her tales with lyrical eloquence and spellbinding mystery.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, Morrison's unique approach to writing stems from a childhood spent steeped in folklore and mythology. Her family reveled in sharing these often tales, and their commingling of the fantastic and the natural would become a key element in her work when she began penning original tales of her own.
The other majorly influential factor in her writing was the racism she experienced firsthand in, as Jet magazine described it, the "mixed and sometimes hostile neighborhood" of Lorain, Ohio. When Morrison was only a toddler, her home was set afire by racists while her family was still inside of it. During times such as these, she found strength in her father, who instilled in her a great sense of dignity. This pride in her cultural background would heavily influence her debut novel.
In The Bluest Eye, an eleven-year old black girl named Pecola prays every night for blue eyes, seeing them as the epitome of feminine beauty. She believes these eyes, symbolizing commonly held white concepts of attractiveness, would put an end to her familial woes, an end to her father's excessive drinking and her brother's meandering. They would give her self-esteem and purpose. The Bluest Eye is the first of Toni Morrison's cries for racial pride and it is an auspicious debut told with an eerie poeticism.
Morrison next tackled segregation in Sulu, which chronicles the friendship between two women who, much like the author, grew up in a small, segregated village in Ohio. Song of Solomon followed. Arguably her first bona fide classic and certainly her most lyrical work, Song of Solomon breathed with the mythology of Morrison's youth, a veritable modern folktale pivoting on an eccentric whimsically named Milkman Dead who spends his life trying to fly. This is one of Morrison's most breathtaking, most accomplished and fully dimensional novels, a story of powerful convictions told in an unmistakably original manner.
In Song of Solomon, Morrison created a distinct world where the supernatural commingles comfortably with the mundane, a setting that would reappear in her masterpiece, Beloved. Beloved is a ghost story quite unlike any other, a tale of guilt and love and the horrendous legacy of slavery. Taking place not long after the end of the Civil War, Beloved finds Sethe, a former slave, being haunted by the daughter she murdered to save the child from being sold into slavery. It is a gut wrenching story that is buoyed by its fantastical plot device and the sheer beauty of Morrison's prose.
Beloved so moved Morrison's literary peers that forty-eight of them signed an open letter published in the New York Times demanding she be recognizing for this major effort. Subsequently, the book won her a Pulitzer Prize. A year after publishing her next novel Jazz in 1992, she would become the very first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Towards the end of the century, Morrison's work became increasingly eclectic. She not only published another finely crafted, incendiary novel in Paradise, which systematically tracks the genesis of an act of mob violence, but she also published her first children's book The Big Box. In 2003, she published Love, her first novel in five years, a complex meditation on family and the way one man fuels the obsessions of several women. The following year she assembled a collection of photographs of school children taken during the era of segregation. What makes Remember: The Journey to School Integration so particularly haunting is that Morrison chose to compose dialogue imagining what the subjects of each photo may have been thinking. In 2008, Morrison published A Mercy.
That imagination, that willingness to take chances, to examine history through a fresh perspective, is such an integral part of Morrison's craft. She is as vital as any contemporary artist, and her stories may focus on the black American experience, but the eloquence, imaginativeness, and meaningfulness of her writing leaps high over any racial boundaries.
• Chloe Anthony Wofford chose to publish her first novel under the name Toni Morrison because she believed that Toni was easier to pronounce than Chloe. Morrison later regretted assuming the nom de plume.
• In 1986, the first production of Morrison's sole play Dreaming Emmett was staged. The play was based on the story of Emmett Till, a black teen murdered by racists in 1955.
• Morrison's prestigious status is not limited to her revered novels or her multitude of awards. She also holds a chair at Princeton University. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
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