Toni Morrison in 1977. The Nobel Prize-winning author of “Beloved” and other novels died on Monday at 88.
Once upon a time in America, Toni Morrison wrote in “Beloved,” her masterpiece, the presence of a black face in a newspaper would induce something close to horror in certain readers.
That face wasn’t there for any happy or noble reason. It wasn’t even there because the black person had been killed or “maimed or caught or burned or jailed or whipped or evicted or stomped or raped or cheated,” because those things didn’t qualify as news. The purpose of the photo had to be more unusual.
Over the course of her long and exceptional literary career, which included the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, Morrison, who died on Monday at 88, brought a freight of news about black life in America (and about life, period) to millions of readers across the globe. Much of this news was of the sort that, in terms of its stark and sensitive awareness of the consequences of racism, opened an abyss at one’s feet and changed the taste of the saliva in one’s mouth.
Morrison had a superfluity of gifts and, like few other writers of her era, bent language to her will. Her prose could be lush, or raw and demotic, or carefree and eccentric, often on a single page. She filtered folklore, biblical rhythms, dreams, choral voices and a steep awareness of history into her work. In the best of her 11 novels — these include “The Bluest Eye” (1970), “Sula” (1973) and “Song of Solomon” (1977) — she transmuted the basic matter of existence into profound works of art.
Her spiritual forebears were many, and they were elite. You sensed in Morrison’s fiction the sweep and brooding power of Ralph Ellison, the complicated warmth and riddling wit of Zora Neale Hurston, the explosive intellect of James Baldwin and the bent-shovel cadences of William Faulkner. Yet Morrison’s idiosyncratic music was her own. She was a colossus of 20th-century fiction.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, where her father was a welder, Morrison wrote her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” while raising two children alone. She woke every morning at 4 a.m. to write.
She composed “The Bluest Eye,” she once said, because it was a book she wanted to read. Set in 1941, the novel concerns the life of a young African-American girl named Pecola who has internalized racism, who considers herself unattractive and unlovable because of her dark skin. The novel probes, as Morrison wrote in the foreword to a later edition, “what it is like to be actually hated — hated for things we have no control over and cannot change.”
Like many of Morrison’s later novels, “The Bluest Eye” is told from a variety of perspectives, including an omniscient third-person narrator. In a 1993 Paris Review interview, conducted by the novelist Elissa Schappell, Morrison spoke to the importance of including more than one voice in her fiction.
“It’s important not to have a totalizing view,” she said. “In American literature we have been so totalized — as though there is only one version. We are not one indistinguishable block of people who always behave the same way.”
In that same interview, Morrison commented on the difficulty of some of her later novels, with their nonlinear structures and dense, super heated language. About people who ask her why she doesn’t write books that everyone can understand, she said: “I don’t think they mean that. I think they mean, Are you ever going to write a book about white people?” She added: “I’m going to stay out here on the margin, and let the center look for me.”
The center found her. Morrison was that rare critical and commercial success, even before Oprah Winfrey became her steady champion. “Song of Solomon” was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1977, the first novel by a black writer to be so chosen since Richard Wright’s “Native Son” in 1940.
In addition to the Nobel, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize (for “Beloved”) and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for “Song of Solomon”). A 2006 New York Times Book Review poll of 124 prominent authors, critics and editors named “Beloved” as the single best work of American fiction published in the previous 25 years.
As a novelist, Morrison understood that some wounds must be reopened in order to heal. She understood better than most the suppurating sores beneath the skin of American life. She also comprehended, in a subcutaneous manner, something that Iris Murdoch put this way: Being nice is not the same as being good.
A great deal of humor floats to the surface in Morrison’s work. (“Laughter,” she remarked, “is a way of taking the reins into your own hands.”) Even more often, she wrote about loneliness. Many of the scenes in her best novels reverberate with desolation. “Pain,” she wrote in her novel “Jazz” (1992). “I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweet tooth for it.”
At the heart of “Beloved” is as indelible a scene as we have had in this country’s literature in the last 50 years. A runaway slave, about to be caught, cuts the throat of her baby daughter with a handsaw rather than have her returned to subjugation.
Morrison was a sensuous, first-rate writer about many things, not only about race. Her novel “Tar Baby” (1981) is about a love affair between African-Americans from separate worlds — Jadine graduated from the Sorbonne and is a fashion model, while Son is impoverished. But it also contains writing like this, about the natural world:
“Bees have no sting on Isle des Chevaliers, nor honey. They are fat and lazy, curious about nothing. Especially at noon. At noon parrots sleep and diamondbacks work down the trees toward the cooler undergrowth. At noon the water in the mouths of orchids left there by the breakfast rain is warm. Children stick their fingers in them and scream as though scalded.”
Morrison had her critics, especially when it came to some of her later novels. There’s no doubt that her prose could veer, at times, toward the pretentious. Her novel “Paradise” (1997) is especially notable for its didactic and purplish patches. Morrison could write a less-than-superb novel without shaking anyone’s sense of her magnitude.
The point of an essay like this one, written in the hours after a writer’s death, is in some regard to blow “Taps” over a meaningful life. It’s a rolling of credits. With Morrison it feels different. The credits are only partial. This writer enlarged the American imagination in ways we are only beginning to understand.