Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who told vivid stories about black life in America, especially the lives of black women, with stark strokes of magical realism, died Monday, the publishing house Penguin Random House confirmed. She was 88.
Morrison died Monday night at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. A specific cause of death was not given, though Morrison’s family said she died following a “short illness.”
In a statement, Morrison’s family said, “It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.
“While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”
Morrison’s death elicited an outpouring of tributes from across the cultural and political spectrum. Beyoncé shared a line from Morrison’s 1987 book Song of Solomon, which she also used in her concert film Homecoming: “If you surrender to the air you can ride it.” And Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, tweeted, “Toni Morrison was a towering intellect, a brilliant scribe of our nation’s complex stories, a heartbreaking journalist of our deepest desires, and a groundbreaking author who destroyed precepts, walls and those who dared underestimate her capacity. Rest well and in peace.”
Toni Morrison was a towering intellect, a brilliant scribe of our nation’s complex stories, a heartbreaking journalist of our deepest desires, and a groundbreaking author who destroyed precepts, walls and those who dared underestimate her capacity. Rest well and in peace. pic.twitter.com/nMkxXRtEoz
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) August 6, 2019
Morrison published 11 novels over the course of her career, along with several books of non-fiction, scattered short stories, children’s books, a couple plays and an opera libretto. Her best known works include her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, 1977’s Song of Solomon and 1987’s Beloved, which is widely considered her masterpiece and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman from any nation to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Upon awarding her the prize, the committee described Morrison as someone “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, said, “She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more.”
As much as she was adored by critics and prize committees, Morrison was also one of the most widely read authors in America. As The New York Times noted, her books regularly appeared on the best-seller list — Beloved stayed there for 25 weeks — while Oprah picked Song of Solomon for her first ever Book Club (she would guide her viewers to three more Morrison books over the next few years).
Despite her prolific and wildly succesful writing career, Morrison notably did not publish her first novel until she was 39. Born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, her parents weaned her on stories and songs from the African-American oral tradition, while as she got older, she turned to authors like Austen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Morrison studied English at Howard University, got a Masters at Cornell and began her career as a professor, first at Texas Southern University then Howard. She eventually moved into publishing and quickly became the first black woman to hold a senior editor position at the fiction department at Random House.
Amidst all this — and while raising two sons as a single mother — Morrison woke up each morning at 4 a.m. to work on The Bluest Eye, which had begun as a piece for a fiction workshop back when she was teaching at Howard. While the book wasn’t a huge hit when it was first published, it did garner the attention of Knopf’s Robert Gottlieb, who would go on to work with Morrison throughout the rest of her career.
Morrison’s next book, 1975’s Sula, would earn her a National Book Award nomination, while her third novel, Song of Solomon, would prove to be her break out. The Book of the Month Club made it their first book by a black author since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940, while it also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
During the Seventies, as Morrison’s own star rose, she continued her work at Random House where she helped usher in a new generation of black writers, including Angela Davis and Gayl Jones. She also helped publish several acclaimed collections featuring black writers, including 1972’s Contemporary African Literature, and brought in Muhammed Ali’s 1975 autobiography The Greatest.
Morrison left the publishing world in the early Eighties to focus more on her writing, while she also began teaching again. With the publication of Beloved in 1987, Morrison cemented her place in the contemporary American canon, to the extent that in January 1988, 48 black writers — including Maya Angelou and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — published an open letter in The New York Times decrying the fact that Morrison had yet to win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award (Morrison won the former a few months later).
Morrison would follow Beloved with two more books that formed a trilogy, 1992’s Jazz and 1997’s Paradise. She would release four more novels over the next two decades, the last of which, God Help the Child, arrived in 2015. In the late Nineties, Morrison also began publishing children’s books with her son, Slade Morrison, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2010. In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
On Twitter, Obama mourned Morrison, writing, “Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
Morrison’s unparalleled body of work made her one of the most distinct and significant figures in 20th century American literature. While her popularity helped her transcend labels, Morrison herself never shied away from called a “black writer.” As she told The Guardian in 2015, “I’m writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio,” she said. “I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] — which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”