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Toni Morrison, 'Beloved' author and Nobel laureate, dies at 88

Toni Morrison, author of seminal works of literature on the black experience such as "Beloved," "Song of Solomon" and "Sula" and the first African-American w...

Posted: Aug 6, 2019 9:00 AM
Updated: Aug 6, 2019 5:00 PM

Toni Morrison, author of seminal works of literature on the black experience such as 'Beloved,' 'Song of Solomon' and 'Sula' and the first African-American woman to win a Nobel Prize, has died, her publisher Knopf confirmed to CNN.

She was 88.

Morrison's novels gazed unflinchingly on the lives of African Americans and told their stories with a singular lyricism, from the post-Civil War maelstrom of 'Beloved' to the colonial setting of 'A Mercy' to the modern yet classic dilemmas depicted in her 11th novel, 'God Help the Child.'

Her talent for intertwining the stark realities of black life with hints of magical realism and breathtaking prose gained Morrison a loyal literary following. She was lauded for her ability to mount complex characters and build historically dense worlds distant in time yet eerily familiar to the modern reader.

Themes such as slavery, misogyny, colorism and supernaturalism came to life in her hands.

A decorated novelist, editor and educator -- among other prestigious academic appointments, she was a professor emeritus at Princeton University -- Morrison said writing was the state in which she found true freedom.

'I know how to write forever. I don't think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It's control. Nobody tells me what to do. It's mine, it's free, and it's a way of thinking. It's pure knowledge,' Morrison said.

The words of others

Morrison, who was nearly 40 when she published her first novel in 1970, wasn't an overnight success.

The author was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, the daughter of George and Ella Ramah Wofford, whom she often credited with instilling in her a love of the arts.

A strong and prolific reader as a child, Morrison studied Latin and devoured European literature.

Growing up in Lorain, Morrison has said, she played and attended school with children of various backgrounds, many of them immigrants. Race and racism were not the overriding concerns in her childhood that they would become in her books.

'When I was in first grade, nobody thought I was inferior. I was the only black in the class and the only child who could read,' she once told the Los Angeles Times.

She encountered segregation for the first time when she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.

It was a policy she found 'theatrical' and hard to take seriously. However, family lore of lynchings, injustice at the hands of white people and midnight flight from the South seem to have informed her later subject matter.

In 1953, she graduated from Howard with a degree in English; she went on to earn a master's from Cornell University in 1955.

She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958 and gave birth to two sons -- Harold Ford in 1961 and Slade Kevin in 1964. She and her husband divorced after six years of marriage.

Morrison began her storied career in letters as a college instructor at Texas Southern University and later at Howard, her alma mater.

In 1963, she took a position as a book editor at Random House based in Syracuse, New York, where she worked for 20 years before leaving in 1983. Morrison was editing the works of others when she published her first novel at age 39.

'I didn't become interested in writing until I was about 30 years old,' she later said. 'I didn't really regard it as writing then, although I was putting words on paper. I thought of it as a very long, sustained reading process -- except that I was the one producing the words.'

'The Bluest Eye,' about an impoverished and abused black girl who longs for blue eyes, was met with middling reviews but gained prestige when it was added to the City University of New York curriculum.

'Required reading,' Morrison has said. 'Therein lies the success.'

The novel has been challenged and called offensive over the years by parents in communities across the country who say the subject matter, which involves incest and violence, is too raw for young readers.

A regal presence

Morrison went on to pen roughly a dozen novels, most lauded among them 1987's 'Beloved,' about a former slave who kills her baby to ensure it is never enslaved. 'Beloved' won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Her non-fiction work included 1974's collection of African-American historical ephemera 'The Black Book,' 1992's 'Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination' and 2004's 'Remember: The Journey to School Integration.'

A regal presence who'd come to be associated with her crown of gray dreadlocks, Morrison had amassed a body of work that rivaled the most decorated American novelists by the late 1980s, though according to some she had not been fully recognized as the literary institution she was. Morrison herself had championed the work of black writers such as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones and Angela Davis while at Random House.

In 1988, a group of 48 black writers and thinkers published a statement in The New York Times in support of Morrison and other black writers and critical of the literary establishment, which seemed to have gone out of its way to pass them over for major writing awards.

'Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize,' read the statement.

She received the Pulitzer for 'Beloved' two months later.

The novel was adapted into a 1998 film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover and Thandie Newton. The movie was not a success.

Morrison encountered personal tragedy in 1993 when her home burned down, and in 2010 with the death of her son Slade at age 45 from pancreatic cancer. She had collaborated with Slade, a visual artist whom she called a 'brilliant writer,' on a series of children's books.

The lows were countered by the highest of heights. The same year her son died, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work to that point.

'One can delight in her unique narrative technique, varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from Faulkner and American writers from further south. The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy, humanity, of the kind which is always based on profound humour,' said the Nobel committee in announcing the award in 1993.

President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 -- the loftiest US honor for a civilian.

The author preferred to let her work speak for her, often appearing publicly as an inscrutable grand dame, reluctant to talk about personal affairs. However, writing, she said, was the one space where she really could be larger than life.

'All of my life is doing something for somebody else,' Morrison told New York magazine in 2012. 'Whether I'm being a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife, a good lover, a good teacher -- and that's all that. The only thing I do for me is writing. That's really the real free place where I don't have to answer.'

Given that independence, it was perhaps ironic that she stuck with her married name on her books. ('Toni' was a high school nickname.) She'd used it for 'The Bluest Eye' and later regretted it, she said.

'Wasn't that stupid?' she said. 'I feel ruined!'

The people who know her best call her Chloe, she added.

'Chloe writes the books.'

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 582576

Reported Deaths: 7284
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1208311715
Ramsey50357867
Dakota45046442
Anoka40774432
Washington26338278
Stearns21901220
St. Louis17502302
Scott16980124
Wright15722135
Olmsted1309797
Sherburne1139484
Carver1031645
Clay807492
Rice7952106
Blue Earth739241
Crow Wing651888
Kandiyohi647282
Chisago581051
Otter Tail567578
Benton560197
Goodhue470872
Mower460332
Douglas459574
Winona448450
Itasca417953
McLeod417258
Morrison413660
Isanti408262
Nobles406748
Beltrami387358
Steele381015
Polk379567
Becker375449
Lyon357650
Carlton340353
Freeborn339529
Pine323521
Nicollet320943
Brown303040
Mille Lacs297152
Le Sueur285322
Todd277431
Cass265528
Meeker250140
Waseca235721
Martin227731
Roseau205019
Wabasha20313
Hubbard183341
Dodge18133
Renville178043
Redwood170836
Houston169215
Cottonwood162721
Fillmore153810
Pennington153319
Wadena152321
Chippewa151338
Faribault149919
Kanabec142424
Sibley140910
Aitkin133136
Watonwan13009
Rock127219
Jackson121211
Pipestone113826
Yellow Medicine113520
Pope10806
Murray10559
Swift103918
Stevens88511
Marshall87417
Clearwater85716
Koochiching81314
Lake80619
Wilkin79812
Lac qui Parle74922
Big Stone5934
Lincoln5733
Grant5648
Mahnomen5408
Norman5379
Unassigned48893
Kittson48122
Red Lake3957
Traverse3685
Lake of the Woods3183
Cook1560

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 364579

Reported Deaths: 5902
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57228619
Linn20701333
Scott19754239
Black Hawk15746307
Woodbury15087228
Johnson1439083
Dubuque13322209
Dallas1109597
Pottawattamie11036166
Story1054248
Warren572988
Clinton551692
Cerro Gordo535689
Sioux512474
Webster510892
Marshall480875
Muscatine473899
Des Moines451466
Wapello4283122
Buena Vista424140
Jasper413070
Plymouth400179
Lee372355
Marion360075
Jones296857
Henry290437
Carroll284752
Bremer282460
Crawford264340
Boone262334
Benton254955
Washington253050
Dickinson247343
Mahaska229250
Jackson220742
Clay214725
Kossuth214764
Tama208871
Delaware208040
Winneshiek196433
Page192121
Buchanan190431
Cedar188823
Fayette184441
Hardin184443
Wright183336
Hamilton179249
Harrison179173
Clayton168756
Butler163834
Mills161321
Madison160319
Floyd159542
Cherokee158338
Lyon157541
Poweshiek154633
Allamakee150351
Iowa147924
Hancock146434
Winnebago140831
Cass137654
Grundy135932
Calhoun135813
Emmet133740
Jefferson132135
Shelby130537
Sac130019
Appanoose128047
Louisa127849
Union127632
Mitchell125642
Chickasaw123615
Guthrie120729
Humboldt118726
Franklin116421
Palo Alto112123
Howard104122
Montgomery102737
Unassigned10070
Clarke99624
Keokuk95331
Monroe95028
Ida90334
Adair86232
Pocahontas85422
Monona82830
Davis81324
Osceola77916
Greene77610
Lucas76823
Worth7348
Taylor65612
Fremont6219
Decatur6059
Van Buren55618
Ringgold54524
Wayne53223
Audubon5069
Adams3374
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