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Toni Morrison

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English Literature

Toni Morrison was an acclaimed author, professor, essayist and playwright. As the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1993, she is considered to be both a successful literary and commercially popular author. Her works, often linked to Folklore and Magical Realism, are regarded as having enlarged the American imagination. She classifies herself as a Black woman writer.

Toni Morrison: Biography and Quotes

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Ohio on February 18, 1931, Toni Morrison was one of four children born to George and Ramah Wofford. Her father was a welder who also held down several other jobs to support his family. Her mother, Ramah, was a domestic worker. Morrison credits her parents with introducing her to reading, folklore and music, all of which have informed her works.

Morrison grew up in a relatively integrated neighbourhood and attended a local school where she mentions that:

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.” - Toni Morrison1

At age 12, she converted to Catholicism and took the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. This name, which was given at her baptism, became shortened to Toni, which she became most well known for. A multi-talented student, Morrison studied Latin, was part of the debate team and worked as a secretary for the head librarian of the Lorain Public Library. She graduated with honours from Lorain High School in 1949.

Morrison elected to study Literature and Classics at a historically Black university, Howard University in Washington DC. At Howard, she toured extensively with the Howard University Players. This experience lead her to more fully experience the variety of racial divisions that existed in America. It was also at Howard that Morrison met many of the writers and academics that would influence her future works and style.

After graduating in 1953, Morrison went on to do her Master's at Cornell University. She completed her thesis titled Virginia Woolf’s and William Faulkner’s Treatment of the Alienated in 1955. Themes of the various forms of alienation continued to be found in most of her future works, most prominently in A Mercy (2008).

After graduating, Morrison taught English at Texas Southern University, before returning to Howard University as a lecturer in 1957. It was at Howard that she met her husband, Harold Morrison, an architect originally from Jamacia. After marrying in 1958, they had two children, Harold (1961) and Slade (1964). Morrison left her husband in 1964, moving with her children to Syracuse, New York to work as an editor for Random House.

Her first book, The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and was not well-received critically or commercially. Undeterred, Morrison continued to explore the female African American experience in Sula (1973) which became her breakthrough novel and was nominated for an American Book Award. Song of Solomon (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, solidified her reputation as a popular literary author.

After being elected to the National Council of the Arts in 1980, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987). Continuing her success, she became a professor at Princeton in 1989 and earned an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. She then went on to be the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in 1993 and also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012.

An ongoing champion of the arts, Morrison founded the Princeton Atelier to promote and amplify student work. Having seen many of her works banned at various times, Morrison was also a strong opponent of censorship. As the editor of Burn This Book, she has criticised censorship for erasing important works from being accessed by general audiences.

As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink”. - Toni Morrison2

After a long career as a distinguished professor and a prolific author, Toni Morrison died on August 5, 2019, in New York.

Toni Morrison, Biography, StudySmarter

Toni Morrison, author and Professor, wikicommons.

Toni Morrison's Famous Work: Novels

Morrison has written many famous books of fiction and nonfiction that have established her as a unique contemporary voice. Her works are considered to be postmodern due to their often non-linear plots, elements of Magical Realism and intertextuality. Among her most famous and well-read are her breakthrough novel Song of Solomon (1977) and the award-winning Beloved (1987).

Song of Solomon (1977)

Originally published in 1977, Song of Solomon is the story of Milkman Dead, the son of an upper-middle-class Black family. The novel is set between the North and South, in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia. With interwoven elements of mythology, oral tradition3, Magical Realism and Bildungsroman, the novel turned Morrison into a household name in America.

Bildungsroman loosely translates from German into a 'novel of education'. It is a coming of age novel that follows the psychological or spiritual transformation of a protagonist.

Magical Realism is a sub-genre of Literary Realism that combines elements of reality with the magical or supernatural. Famous authors in this genre include Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and Isabel Allende.

Oral tradition is the type of lore or knowledge that is verbally passed down from generation to generation. This can take the form of songs, plays, verse or prose.

As an ancient type of story sharing and learning, the oral tradition is considered to predate all written works. Examples can be found across many different cultures, some of which still make use of the method today.

In Africa, oral tradition is the oldest form of history sharing and folklore still in use. The sharing of stories is an aesthetic experience for the audience and storyteller and is as much about the performance as it is about the content.

The protagonist is generally considered to be Macon Dead Ⅲ aka Milkman, so named because he was nursed well past infancy. He is Morrison’s first male protagonist. The novel follows him and various related characters, as he tries to establish himself as a man who is independent of his family.

While the non-linear journey or adventure element of the novel would appear to be Milkman’s quest for treasure in the literal form of gold, it is also about personal transformation and the quest for identity through the discovery of family history. Milkman overcomes his self-absorbed start to become more aware of his context and ability to contribute to his community.

There are a variety of themes in Song of Solomon, with key themes including the alienation of racism as well as the various meanings of flight and personal transcendence. Interestingly, Morrison leaves the ending of Song of Solomon open, with the reader unsure of Milkman’s fate.

Why do you think Morrison's Song of Solomon was so popular? What about the story made it appeal to a wide and general audience?

Beloved (1987)

Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, Beloved is considered an award-winning modern classic. A novel with elements of Historical Fiction, Literary Horror and Magical Realism, Beloved’s protagonist is Sethe, an escaped former slave. The ghost of her eldest child, whom she killed rather than have her taken into slavery, haunts Sethe.

Set in 1870s Cincinnati, Ohio with frequent flashbacks to earlier times at Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky and prison in Georgia, Beloved also has a non-linear plot structure. In one key example, Historical Realism is seamlessly mixed with magical elements when the epitaph on Sethe’s child's tombstone becomes the name of an actual woman who moves into Sethe’s home after the baby’s ghost is exorcised.

With key themes including slavery’s impact on identity, history and community, Beloved can be seen as an uplifting story, despite some of its more controversial content. Ultimately, Sethe is able to overcome her history.

Although banned in some instances, the novel was a critical and commercial success, winning the Pulitzer and being made into a Hollywood film starring Thandi Newton and Danny Glover.

Why do you think Toni Morrison mixes the real with the magical in her books? What effect does this create for you as a reader?

Toni Morrison: Contribution to Literature

As a pioneering Black, female author, Toni Morrison has left a lasting literary legacy. She added a unique perspective to contemporary mainstream American literature that expressed empathy for themes that historically were often not handled with experience-based knowledge or understanding.

Her blending of folklore and oral traditions with Historical and Magical Realism created a postmodern literary combination that appealed to many different audiences - from the readers who focused on the bestseller lists to the academic community. This ensured that Black stories were available to and able to be appreciated by a larger audience base.

Her work had a long-lasting, beneficial impact on the arts, such as by setting up a studio at Princeton to promote student art and addressing censorship.

Toni Morrison - Key Takeaways

  • Toni Morrison is a Black woman author of fiction and nonfiction, a playwright, as well as a professor who lectured at Howard and Princeton Universities.
  • Her numerous awards include the Pulitzer Prize (1987), the Nobel Prize (1993) and The Presidential Medal of Freedom (2012).
  • Her key themes include alienation, community, racism and sexism.
  • Toni Morrison’s work often blends a mix of genres and styles from oral tradition, Magical Realism, Historical Realism and folklore.
  • Morrison’s most famous novels include Beloved (1987) and Song of Solomon (1977).

1 Monet Fields-White, 'Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison, One of America’s Greatest Writers, Has Died at 88', The Root, 2019, theroot.com.

2 Toni Morrison (1931-2019), Biography.com, 2022.

3 Joyce Irene Middleton, Orality, Literacy, and Memory in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, College English, 1994.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is famous for her award winning novels that include Beloved (1987) and Song of Solomon (1977).


She is also known for being the first Black female winner of the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize is a general award that is not awarded for a particular novel. Toni Morrison did win the Pulitzer for Beloved (1987).

Toni Morrison writes novels about African American themes and characters. Her books are often a mix of Literary or Historical Realism, with aspects of Magical Realism. 


She writes modern novels that make use of ancient methods such as Oral tradition styles.

Song of Solomon (1977) is about the protagonist Milkman's journey of self-discovery and transformation.

You could start with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970) or her most famous work, Beloved (1987).

Final Toni Morrison Quiz

Question

What is the novel Beloved's genre?

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Answer

The novel Beloved is an example of magical realism.

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What is the novel Beloved about?

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The novel tells the story of former slave Sethe and her struggle to deal with her past trauma

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What is the main idea of Beloved?

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The novel Beloved explores the traumatic effects of slavery after the American Civil War.

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Who is the author of the novel Beloved?

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Toni Morrison is the author of the novel Beloved.

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Is Beloved a good book?

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When is the novel Beloved set?

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The novel is set in 1873, it also features flashback to the year 1853.

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What is the main theme of Beloved?

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The main theme of Beloved is the destructive nature of slavery.

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The novel Beloved is based on the real-life story of which former slave. 

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The novel Beloved is based on the real-life story of former slave Magaret Garner.

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The novel won which prestigious award in 1988?

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The novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.


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What is the name of Sethe and Denver's strange visitor?

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The name of Sethe and Denver's strange visitor is Beloved

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Which universities did Toni Morrison attend?

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Howard University and Cornell University.

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What are some of Toni Morrison's most well known novels?

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Beloved

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What genre or movement does Toni Morrison belong to?

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Postmodernism

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What is a key theme that Toni Morrison addresses from her thesis to her novels?

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Alienation

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What is a name for the type of coming of age novel that the novel Song of Solomon can be considered to fit into?

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A Bildungsroman.

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What is Oral tradition?

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Oral tradition is the type of stories or knowledge that is verbally passed down from generation to generation. 


This can take the form of songs, plays, verse or prose.

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Where was Toni Morrison born?

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Toni Morrison was born in Ohio on February 18, 1931.

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Who is Toni Morrison's first male protagonist?

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Macon Dead Ⅲ aka Milkman from Song of Solomon.

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What are some of the themes in Beloved?

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Beloved's key themes include slavery’s impact on identity, history and community.

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What are Toni Morrison's views on censorship?

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Answer

She was an outspoken  in her opposition to censorship.

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