On August 5th, it was reported that Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author of the classic works Beloved and The Bluest Eye and one of the greatest 20th century American novelists, had died at the age of 88. Although the novelist and essayist had struggled with health issues in recent years, the cause of death was unreported at press time.
The first African American woman to win a Nobel prize, Morrison was known for her unflinching and relentlessly lyrical evocation of the black American experience, in all its brutality and beauty. Born Chloe Ardella Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison was perhaps best known for her master work, Beloved, which is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, books about American slavery, and was later adapted into a film produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. But although Beloved was probably Morrison’s most widely read work, it is not always considered her most stylistically significant or groundbreaking work (that honor usually goes to Song of Solomon) nor is it arguably her most personal (The Bluest Eye). Nor were novels the only books that Morrison wrote: she dabbled in many different genres, writing children’s books and essays well into her later years.
In honor of Morrison’s life and work, here are nine of the most essential works in the Morrison canon.
The Bluest Eye (1970)
Published when Morrison was 40 years old, The Bluest Eye was her debut novel. Though it was not met with instant acclaim, it’s arguably her most intensely personal work, as it was set in Lorain County, where Morrison grew up. The novel tells the story of Pecola, a bullied young black girl who wishes more than anything else for the hallmarks of white American beauty — blue eyes, blond hair, fair skin — and whose childhood rape by her father leads to her unraveling. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one, especially since many have sought to have the book banned in classrooms and libraries.
With her second book, Morrison continued her tradition of showcasing the lives of those who are most often dismissed or rejected in mainstream society: specifically, the two black women from the low-income Ohio neighborhood The Bottom, who form the central relationship at the heart of Sula. While Sula and Nel grow up close friends, a tragic accident causes their relationship to fall apart, and the novel follows the two as they go down wildly divergent life paths. A portrait of black female friendship, as well as a fiercely unconventional black female character, Sula firmly established Morrison as a master of characterization.
Song of Solomon (1977)
This novel was Morrison’s third book, and one of her most ambitious. A stylistic tour de force that stretches across literary genre, creating a dizzying tapestry of historical fiction and magical realism, the book tells the story of Macon “Milkman” Dead, who grows up in the industrial Midwest against the backdrop of the Great Depression and then travels through Pennsylvania and Virginia to forge his own identity. The book is also frequently banned in classrooms, and is one of former President Barack Obama’s favorite works.
Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-known work (which is based on the real story of escaped slave Margaret Garner, which Morrison later adapted into a 2005 opera libretto) tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave living in a house in Cincinnati that is haunted by an angry and vengeful specter. In the novel’s climax, it is revealed that Sethe believes the specter to be the ghost of her eldest daughter, whom she killed when she was two years old while hiding from her master, to spare her from the horrors of slavery. The themes of rape, brutal violence, and infanticide are not for the faint of heart, and have made the classic novel the target of censors’ ire. But Beloved‘s haunting evocation of the true horrors and psychological trauma of slavery and racial violence in America make it a must-read for every American student. Oprah starred in the 1998 movie adaptation (directed by Jonathan Demme) that she also produced and featured Danny Glover.
While not as much of a straightforward narrative as her other works, Jazz — Morrison’s follow-up to Beloved which is composed of vignettes from one troubled couple’s life against the backdrop of 1920s Harlem — is eminently readable, in large part due to Morrison’s masterful command of world-building; it’s hard not to be drawn into the brutal and dizzying world of the two young lovers at the center of Morrison’s tale.
Paradise sets forth with one of the most gripping opening lines in the history of American fiction: “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” Set in a patriarchal community in rural Oklahoma, which finds itself under what it perceives as a threat by a nearby all-female town called the Convent, Paradise is a sprawling work that chillingly explores the process by which victims become victimizers, the demonization of unapologetic women, and how years of oppression smolder to form the embers of violent rage.
A Mercy (2009)
Though one of the later works in Morrison’s oeuvre, A Mercy is in many ways a culmination of the themes Morrison had been exploring since Beloved. Set against the backdrop of colonial-era slavery, it drew many comparisons to Morrison’s earlier work upon publication, largely due to the repetition of one specific plot point. But A Mercy is by no means a retreading: packed with Morrison’s trademark evocative language, the book delivers a rich and rewarding narrative within just 166 pages, proving Morrison a master of her chosen form.
Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
Unlike the other books on this list, this is not a novel; rather, it’s a compilation of three lectures Morrison gave at Harvard in the early 1990s, in which she speaks on the myriad ways the African-American experience was relegated to the background by white writers in an effort to establish a collective American literary identity. But anyone interested in Morrison’s work and its significance in the context of the American literary canon would benefit from reading her lectures, in which Morrison lays bare the white supremacy at the heart of the classics we know and love.
“Mourning for Whiteness“
Though Morrison was not as well known for her essays as she was for her novels, her 2016 New Yorker essay in the wake of Donald Trump’s election proves that she was just as virtuosic as a cultural critic as she was a novelist. “So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified,” she wrote at the time, her words proving chilling in light of recent events.