In This Article Toni Morrison

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies

Literary and Critical Theory Toni Morrison
by
Tessa Roynon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0044

Introduction

Toni Morrison (b. 18 February 1931), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, is the author of eleven novels to date. Born in Lorain, Ohio, to working-class parents, and the first member of her family to graduate from college (Howard University in 1953), it is a striking paradox that her own life in some ways embodies the kind of “American dream” that both her novels and she herself call into question. Her best-known work is Beloved (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, but she is also acclaimed for The Bluest Eye (1970) and Song of Solomon (1977), both regularly taught at high schools in the United States. She has been championed in popular spheres such as Oprah’s Book Club, while at the same time attracting a vast following of scholars, who are drawn to the pertinence of her political engagement, the original beauty of her language and narrative technique, and the rewarding difficulty of novels such as Jazz (1992) and A Mercy (2008). She is also a noted literary critic in her own right, and her study of blackness in classic American literature by white authors, Playing in the Dark (1992), has had a lasting influence on the ways texts of all kinds are analyzed and taught. As this article documents, she is also the author of a number of paradigm-shifting essays, a short story, several pieces for performance (both sole- and co-authored), and numerous children’s books. Her Nobel Prize acceptance speech is itself a masterpiece, outlining her belief in the radical power of literature to challenge the dominant culture. Her novels, which together examine African American history through representations of individual lives that are both psychologically detailed and aesthetically experimental, epitomize that radical power. For this reason (among others), they are also valued as a rich site of theoretical exploration; hers is fiction that “does theory.” It has been translated into around thirty languages, and Morrison is studied across the globe from Japan to France, where she was awarded the Legion d’Honneur in 2010. Beloved by Barack Obama, in recent years she has become something of a celebrity public intellectual, often called upon to articulate her always-astute analysis of the realities of racial politics in the United States (and across the world). Scholars increasingly acknowledge the significance of her oeuvre as a major cultural intervention, and as a serious, enduring contribution to global intellectual thought.

General Overviews

The works in this section range from brief but useful assessments within larger studies (Hill 2011, Mobley McKenzie 2004) to more in-depth discussions of Morrison’s life, work, and the critical field (e.g., Goulimari 2011). The drawback to any overview of a living author is that it quickly becomes out of date or incomplete. None of the studies discussed here cover the novel God Help the Child (2015), for example. This does not invalidate the usefulness of relatively early studies, however, such as Matus 1998 or Kubitschek 1998. The second of these two contains a detailed summary of each plot, whereas the first, in its comparatively in-depth discussions, assumes prior knowledge of each novel. Roynon 2013 gives an overview of the critical field, which Smith 2012 does not, but Smith’s perspective on African American culture and her discussion of the writing for children is not replicated anywhere else. Terry 2005 invaluably positions the first twenty-five years of scholarship on Morrison within broader theoretical movements.

  • Goulimari, Pelagia. Toni Morrison. New York: Routledge, 2011.

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    Longest, most detailed overview of Morrison’s novels, up to A Mercy, and the key nonfiction. Useful account of Morrison’s life interspersed with its historical context. Includes detailed close readings of key moments in the novels alongside comparison with other writers across the cultural spectrum. Discusses selected criticism thematically and from a range of theoretical perspectives, in relation to each novel. Useful bibliography.

  • Hill, Michael. “Toni Morrison and the Post–Civil Rights African American Novel.” In The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Edited by Leonard Cassuto, 1064–1083. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521899079.070E-mail Citation »

    Reads Morrison as the preeminent African American novelist since 1970. Eschews comprehensive survey in favor of invaluable analyses of the first five novels in relation to numerous contemporaneous black American novelists and aesthetic/political movements (such as Black Arts). Includes only one sentence on Jazz and nothing on the novels that postdate this.

  • Kubitschek, Missy Denn. Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

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    Standard overview of the first seven novels, including a short but clear discussion of the narrative technique and plot of each novel. Invaluable for its comprehensive list of newspaper and magazine reviews of each novel (from The Bluest Eye to Paradise) on pages 189–192.

  • Matus, Jill. Toni Morrison. Contemporary World Writers. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998.

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    Clear, detailed and highly readable overview of Morrison’s first six novels, with a postscript on Paradise. Chapters present a discussion of themes and technique without any overt summary of the plot. Chronology of Morrison’s life and the bibliography are rigorous and useful up to the year of the book’s publication.

  • Mobley McKenzie, Marilyn. “Spaces for Readers: The Novels of Toni Morrison.” In The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Edited by Maryemma Graham, 221–232. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521815746.014E-mail Citation »

    Overview of the novels from The Bluest Eye to Paradise that emphasizes the texts’ insistence on an active, creative role for the reader in the collaborative construction of meaning.

  • Roynon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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    Clearly written overview of novels from The Bluest Eye to A Mercy, and a discussion of the nonfiction that is extensive relative to comparable works. Includes overview of the main contexts with which Morrison’s work engages, and of the critical field.

  • Smith, Valerie. Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118326732E-mail Citation »

    Relatively brief (136 pages) but engaged survey. Around ten pages of commentary on each of the first nine novels (longer on Beloved); five pages as an epilogue on Home. No discrete section on criticism, but footnotes do cite a range of critics, particularly leading African American scholars such as Wall and Fultz. List of further reading.

  • Terry, Jennifer. “Reading Toni Morrison Critically.” Literature Compass 2.1 (2005).

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2005.00147.xE-mail Citation »

    Succinct overview of critical approaches to Morrison up to the year of this article’s publication, illuminating her position in relation to the shifting parameters of American, African American, postcolonial, and transatlantic studies. Useful for undergraduates and those new to these fields.

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