Morrison, Toni (1931- ), American writer, whose works deal with the black experience and celebrate the black community. Morrison’s work features mythic elements, sharp observation, compassion, and poetic language and is often concerned with the relationship between the individual and society. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize in literature.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison was christened Chloe Anthony Wofford and grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s in a poor and close-knit family. In 1949 she entered Howard University, where she became interested in theater and joined a drama group, the Howard University Players. Morrison went on to earn an M.A. degree in English at Cornell University in 1955. She subsequently taught at Texas Southern University from 1955 to 1957 and then at Howard University from 1957 to 1964. While at Howard she met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architect. The couple had two children and then divorced in 1964.
While teaching at Howard, Morrison began to write fiction. After leaving teaching she worked as an editor at Random House, first in Syracuse, New York, then in New York City. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, an expansion of an earlier short story, was published in 1970, and she attracted immediate attention as a promising writer. This was followed by the novel Sula (1973), about a woman who refuses to conform to community mores. Morrison’s next novel, Song of Solomon (1977), was hailed by critics as a major literary achievement. It tells the story of a character named Milkman Dead, who in his search for his family’s lost fortune discovers instead his family history. Tar Baby (1981), about a tense romance between a man and a woman, was equally well received.
Beloved (1987; Pulitzer Prize, 1988) is regarded by many as Morrison’s most successful novel. It is the story of Sethe, a mother who kills her daughter Beloved rather than have her grow up as a slave. The book explores many complex themes, including black Americans’ relationship to slavery. Morrison’s use of multiple time frames and fantastic occurrences (such as the reappearance of Beloved) demonstrate her lyric storytelling abilities. The novels Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998) and the nonfiction book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) were also well received. Morrison’s seventh novel, Paradise (1998), focuses on an all-black town called Ruby, and a violent attack that a group of men make on a small, all-female community at the edge of town. In Love (2003), she describes life and love in a black seaside resort during the 1940s and 1950s.