American author Toni Morrison, whose 1987 novel Beloved about a runaway slave won a Pulitzer Prize and contributed to a body of work that made her the first black woman to be presented the Nobel Prize in Literature, has died at the age of 88, Reuters reports.
Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for the publishing company Alfred A. Knopf, announced the death but did not provide an immediate cause. The Washington Post said she died on Monday at a New York hospital.
Morrison was a commercial as well as critical success, drawing praise for writing in a vivid, lyrical style while assessing issues of race, gender and love in American society.
Beloved was set during the US Civil War and based on a true story of a woman who killed her 2-year-old daughter to spare her from slavery. The character, Sethe, was captured before she could kill herself and the child’s ghost visits her mother.
Morrison told NEA Arts magazine in 2015 that she had already written a third of the book before deciding to bring in the ghost to address the morality of whether the mother was right to kill the child.
The New York Times called the novel’s death scene “an event so brutal and disturbing that it appears to warp time before and after into a single, unwavering line of fate. It will destroy one family’s dream of safety and freedom; it will haunt an entire community for generations and … it will reverberate in readers’ minds long after they have finished this book”.
The book was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey, who co-produced it, and Danny Glover. Winfrey was one of Morrison’s biggest fans and featured four of her books in the influential book club portion of her daytime talk show.
“She was our conscience. Our seer. Our truth-teller,” Winfrey said in an Instagram post. “She was a magician with language, who understood the power of words. She used them to roil us, to wake us, to educate us and help us grapple with our deepest wounds and try to comprehend them.”
Beloved was part of a trilogy that Morrison said looked at love through the perspective of black history. Jazz, published in 1992, was about a love triangle during the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s, and the third book, Paradise, published in 1997, told of women in a small, predominantly black town.
In honoring her with its literature prize in 1993, the Nobel organization said Morrison’s novels were “characterized by visionary force and poetic import” while giving “life to an essential aspect of American reality”.
Morrison was 39 years old when her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), about a black girl who wanted blue eyes, was published. After working as an editor at a publishing house, she told panel discussion in 2016 that she wanted to “write the book that I really and truly wanted to read”.
“I read all the time but I was never in those books,” she said. “Or if I was, it was as a joke, or as some anecdote that explained something about the main character without the main character looking like me.”
She followed that with Song of Solomon (1977), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Tar Baby (1981) and God Help the Child (2015). Her nonfiction works included an essay collection, a book of literary criticism titled Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and editing anthologies.
Her 1986 play Dreaming Emmett was about Emmett Till, whose lynching in Mississippi in 1955 was a key moment in the US civil rights movement.
Morrison was born on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, and grew up in a family with a storytelling tradition. She graduated from Howard University in Washington, and earned a master’s degree from Cornell University.
Morrison, whose only marriage ended in divorce, taught in colleges and was an editor at the publisher Random House before writing her own books. Later she would teach at Princeton University.
In 2012 Morrison was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who called her a national treasure.
“Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful – a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy,” Obama wrote on Facebook in a post accompanied by a picture of him with Morrison in the Oval Office. “She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page.”
“I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni,” Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta said. “… Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works.”
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