Toni Morrison Biography – American Writer, Novelist, Nobel Laureate, Literature, Legacy

Toni Morrison Biography
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Toni Morrison. From dust jacket: “Photograph: Bert Andrews”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Toni Morrison Biography and Legacy

Toni Morrison was an American writer and Nobel laureate, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most critically acclaimed writers of the late 20th and early 21st century.

She is also considered one of the most important writers in American literature and has been awarded almost every major literary prize such as the Pulitzer Prize, National Books Critics Circle Award, and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Early Life

Toni Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, was born on 18th February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, to Ramah and George Wofford. She was the second child out of four children.

Morrison’s mother was a housewife and a homemaker, and her father worked as a welder for U.S. Steel and did other odd jobs as well.

When she was only 2 years old, a disturbing event took place in the family’s life. The landlord of the land on which their house stood set fire to their house while they were all at home, as the family could not afford to pay rent. Morrison would later reveal that instead of going into despair, her family responded to this cruel incident by laughing at the landlord, demonstrating how to keep one’s integrity and claim one’s own life in the face of such evil acts.

From a very young age, Morrison’s parents told her stories and African-American folktales and even taught her songs, thereby instilling in her a sense of language and pride in her heritage.

She was encouraged to read books and she read widely, her favorite writers being Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen.

Morrison got the nickname Toni when she was 12 years old after she was baptized and given the baptismal name Anthony, named after the Portuguese priest and friar of the Franciscan Order Anthony of Padua.


Toni Morrison attended the local Lorain High School, where she actively participated in the drama club and the debate team.

In 1949, after graduating from high school, Morrison, aged 18, enrolled at Howard University in Washington D.C., with the hope of seeking the company of other African-American intellectuals. But her stay in Washington was not exactly as she had expected it to be. She encountered blatant racism in the capital, experiencing racial segregation in buses, restaurants, and other public places for the first time.

This experience greatly impacted Morrison’s outlook on life and on the American society of the time.

In 1953, Morrison, aged 22, graduated from Howard University with a B.A. in English and then went on to enroll at Cornell University for her M.A., which she obtained in 1955. For her master’s thesis, she wrote a paper titled Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s treatment of the alienated.

Teaching Career

Soon after graduating from Cornell University, Toni Morrison began teaching English at Texas Southern University in Houston and would continue to do so for the next 2 years.

In 1957, she left Texas Southern University to teach at Howard University for the next 7 years. During this period, she met a Jamaican architect named Harold Morrison, whom she would go on to marry in 1958.

The couple had their first son in 1961 and got divorced in 1964 while Morrison was pregnant with their second child. The following year, Morrison, aged 33, found herself as a single mother of two children.

Editing Career

In 1965, Toni Morrison quit her teaching job at Howard University and began working as an editor for L.W. Singer, which was the textbook division of Random House in Syracuse, New York. Two years later, she was transferred to Random House in New York City to work as a senior editor in the fiction department, thereby becoming the first African-American woman to get the job.

In her new capacity, Morrison did some groundbreaking work by bringing African-American and black literature into the limelight. She worked on a collection of the works of great African writers such as Athol Fugard, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka, titled Contemporary African Literature.

She was also involved in the publication of Muhammad Ali’s 1975 autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, and even discovered and promoted African-American writers like Gayl Jones, Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, Huey Newton, and Henry Dumas, whom she referred to as an absolute genius.

But perhaps her most important work as editor was compiling The Black Book, published in 1974, which explores the history and experience of African-Americans in the U.S. through essays, photographs, artworks, documents, illustrations, advertisements, obituaries, facsimiles, etc., from the period of slavery to the 1920s. The book was a success, receiving great praise and acclaim.

The Bluest Eye

Toni Morrison first began writing fiction as part of an informal group of writers and poets at Howard University, who met up regularly to read out and discuss their work. She did this while still working at Random House.

During one such meeting, Morrison showed up with a short story about an African-American girl who longed to have blue eyes. She then proceeded to expand and develop this story into a proper novel.

Being a single mother of two children, Morrison woke up at four in the morning every day to work on the novel, as it was the only quiet time she could find during the entire day. She would later state that her main intention for writing the novel was not to get it published but to read it for herself.

However, in 1970, when Morrison was 39 years old, her first novel The Bluest Eye was published. It received mixed reviews and did not sell well initially. But sales drastically increased after several colleges put the novel on the reading lists of their literary curriculums.

The novel was praised for its beautiful prose and for its references to African-American history, folklore, sociology, etc., making it a staple in the Black Studies departments of several colleges.

As the novel slowly garnered acclaim, it caught the attention of famous editor Robert Adams Gottlieb, who was then the editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and would soon become her editor.


The publication of her first novel and its moderate success prompted Toni Morrison to continue writing fiction.

Two years later, in 1973, her second novel, Sula, was published by Knopf. The novel revolves around the story of a friendship between two black women and deals with the themes of motherhood, defiance against social conventions and structures, etc.

Over the years, Sula came to be regarded by critics as an influential and important work for the formation of black feminist literary criticism.

Twp years after its publication, the novel was nominated for the National Book Award.

Sudden Literary Acclaim

In 1977, Morrison’s third novel, Song of Solomon, was published to great widespread acclaim.

The novel follows the life of Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead III, an African-American man living in Michigan, from birth to adulthood. It deals with the themes of flight and freedom and shows the protagonist’s search for independence from his family and self-realization as he tries to figure out who he is.

The widespread success and acclaim the novel garnered brought Toni Morrison into the literary limelight. The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 and was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, which served to increase its popularity and sales. It was also selected for the Book of the Month Club, making it the first novel by an African-American writer since Richard Wright’s Native Son to be selected.

Morrison later admitted that the success of Song of Solomon allowed her to consider herself and call herself a writer.

In 1998, the novel was ranked as the 25th best English-language novel of the 20th century by the Radcliffe Publishing Course.

With only three novels to her name, Morrison became one of the most influential writers of African-American literature. Her novels were studied and analyzed in schools and colleges.

In 1979, Morrison was awarded the Bernard Medal of Distinction, Bernard College’s highest honor.

Back to Teaching

In 1983, two years after the publication of her fourth novel, Tar Baby, Toni Morrison left her job as a senior editor at Random House in order to dedicate more time to writing.

She began teaching English again at Ruthers University-New Brunswick and at the State University of New York. In 1984, she was appointed to an Albert Schweitzer chair at the University at Albany, SUNY.

In 1986, she became a visiting professor at Bard College.

Morrison’s First Play

In 1985, Toni Morrison was commissioned by the New York State Writers Institute at SUNY-Albany to write a play to commemorate the first celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The play, Dreaming Emmett, was Morrison’s first attempt at playwrighting. It is a historical retelling of the life of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was beaten to death in 1955 by a group of white men, and the ensuing trial and acquittal of the killers.

Morrison uses the play to explore the disproportionately high rate of death by violence among contemporary African-American youths. The play, directed by Gilbert Moses, was first performed in January 1986 at Capital Repertory Company in the Market Theater in Albany to mixed reviews.

Morrison had been nervous to work on the script of the play, later stating that no American novelist had ever successfully transitioned into writing plays. It is said that after the play’s first production, Morrison destroyed all known video recordings of the play and copies of the script as well, because of which all descriptions of the plot are reconstructed from contemporary reviews.

Now, how true is this apparent fact? Well, we may never know for sure.


While Toni Morrison was working on her first play, she had another novel underway. A novel that would become her most important and influential work to date, Beloved.

Beloved was published in 1987 and would go on to become Morrison’s most celebrated novel.

The plot of the novel was inspired by the true story of an enslaved African-American woman named Margaret Garner, whose story Morrison had come across while compiling The Black Book.

The protagonist, like Garner, escapes slavery but is pursued by slave hunters. Facing an imminent return to slavery, the protagonist, like Garner, kills her 2-year-old daughter and is captured before she can kill herself.

The novel imagines the dead baby returning as a ghost named Beloved to haunt the house of her mother and family and deals with a plethora of themes such as pain, manhood, motherhood, family relationships, the psychological effects of slavery, etc.

Beloved was a great critical and commercial success, making Morrison a literary luminary and icon of her time. Its story and prose were praised by audiences and critics alike and it remained a bestseller for around 25 weeks.

But in spite of the buzz around the novel and the acclaim it had garnered, it failed to win the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1987, prompting 48 African-American writers and critics, including Maya Angelou, to publish a statement in the New York Times in protest. Barely two months later, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.

Morrison would go on to publish Jazz in 1992 and Paradise in 1997, which would complete the so-called Beloved Trilogy. In her own words, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise were intended to be read together, all three signifying the search for the beloved, the part of the self that was you and loved you and was always there for you.

Literary Criticism and the Nobel Prize

In 1992, Toni Morrison published her first book of literary criticism titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

The book examines African-American presence in the works of white authors of American literature and it looks at the way their perception of blackness gave defining shape to their works and to the American literary canon.

Morrison examined the works of major white writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Through her examination, she finds that blackness played a significant role in structuring the works of these writers.

The book would go on to become one of Morrison’s most-assigned texts on US College Campuses, along with some of her novels and her Nobel Prize lecture.

In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for being an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Interestingly, she was the first black woman of any nationality to win the prize.

Other Works and Ventures

From 1989 onward until her retirement in 2006, Toni Morrison held the Robert Francis Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University.

Morrison also continued to explore different art forms. She provided texts for original scores of classical music, collaborating with composers like Andre Previn, Richard Danielpour, and Judith Weir.

From 1997 to 2003, Morrison served as an Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large- at Cornell University. In November 2006, she visited the Louvre Museum in Paris after being invited as the second in its Grand Invite program to guest-curate a month-long series of events across the arts on the theme of The Foreigner’s Home, wherein she credits foreigners with enriching the countries where they settle.

Morrison would go on to publish four other novels, Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child, and several children’s books and non-fiction works.


On 5th August 2019, Toni Morrison, aged 88, died from complications of pneumonia.

On 21st November 2029, a memorial tribute was held for Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, New York City. The gathering was attended by influential personalities such as Michael Ondaatje, Oprah Winfrey, David Remnick, Angela Davis, and Edwidge Danticat.


Toni Morrison is now widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of all time and one of the most influential writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Morrison’s novels have made a major, groundbreaking contribution to African-American literature, making her works a staple in the literary curriculums of colleges across America. Her works dealt with the African-American history and experience in America and have given voice to the troubles, problems, and sufferings of a people, and have thrown light on the history of America and racism and the consequences of it.

Within just 20 years since the publication of Beloved, the novel has become a classic of American literature, and Morrison and her works have become a permanent and important part of the American literary canon.

Morrison received several awards and accolades throughout her illustrious writing career, which included almost all major literary prizes, honorary degrees from universities, medals such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Humanities Medal, etc. Documentaries have been made about her life and she has also been inducted into multiple Hall of Fames.

But perhaps the greatest tribute to Morrison was the resolution that was passed in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio to declare her birthday, 18th February, as Toni Morrison Day, which was later adopted throughout the State of Ohio.