American Literature Toni Morrison
Justine Tally
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0159


Toni Morrison (b. 1931) was born in Lorrain, Ohio, and christened Cloe Ardelia Wofford by parents whose family roots were in Georgia and Alabama. Educated at Howard University with a major in English and a minor in Classics, she completed her MA at Cornell University with a thesis on Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. After teaching at Texas Southern University, Howard, SUNY Albany, and Princeton, she became heavily involved in her work as a senior editor at Random House, where she ushered the writings of many African Americans into mainstream publication. Although she began to write The Bluest Eye, the first of eleven novels, after her divorce, she chose to use her married name, Morrison; “Toni” she possibly adopted after her saint’s name, Saint Anthony of Padua. Thereafter followed Sula; Song of Solomon; Tar Baby; and the powerful Beloved, winner of the America Book Award for 1987, the Pulitzer Prize for 1988, and the (informal) survey by the New York Times in 2006 for the best novel of the previous twenty-five years. The novel was the first in her trilogy completed with Jazz and Paradise, which were followed by Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child. Each novel arguably is set in a different decade or period of African American life in the United States, a creative choice that has led some critics to affirm that her novels should not be read chronologically according to publication dates but to the era of history that contextualizes the stories. However, it is equally true that each novel is “presentist” in nature, providing philosophical commentary on the time in which it was written. In 1993 Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African American, and only the eighth female recipient. Though most widely known as an award-winning novelist (she published only one short story, the enigmatic “Recitatif,”), Morrison has repeatedly ventured into other fields, both artistic and intellectual, writing the libretto for an opera, the lyrics for a musical, one unpublished play, children’s short stories with her son Slade Morrison, books for younger readers, and a musical performance with Rokia Traoré,Desdemona. As a critic, Morrison has written one of the most influential revisions of American literature in the last decades. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination revisits major “canonical” white authors both from the American Renaissance and from the 20th century. Her influence has, in fact, extended far beyond the literary, shifting the paradigms for scholarship in the fields of religion, history, classical mythology, psychology, folklore, law, and philosophy.

General Overviews

Roynon 2013 is the latest and best introduction to Morrison and includes a wide range of information about both the author and her oeuvre. Smith 2012 was published recently enough to include an “Epilogue” on Morrison’s tenth novel, Home (Morrison 2012, cited under Novels), though curiously not Desdemona (Morrison and Traoré 2012, cited under Theater and Performance), which was also published in 2012; Smith provides a solid introduction and overview of the author’s work and its reception, and lists the wide range of her contributions and achievements. As a comprehensive analysis of Toni Morrison’s oeuvre from The Bluest Eye (Morrison 1970, cited under Novels) through Home, Baillie 2013 is the most mature, erudite overview of the work to date. In fact, even without any discussion of the author’s incursions into stage productions, Baillie’s critique comes closest to providing what one might call an “intellectual biography,” i.e., an understanding of Morrison’s aesthetic “in relation to the historical, political and cultural contexts in which it, and the traditions upon which she draws, have been created and developed” (p. 1). Duvall 2000 is particularly interested in the dynamics and implications of names, including Morrison’s own, arguing that Morrison initially attempts to “authorize” herself, as it were. Duvall then argues for a “psychoanalytically inflected” critique to demonstrate that “Morrison works in the space between a modernist desire for authentic identity and a postmodern understanding of the constructedness of all identity” (p. 18). Ferguson 2007 uses a psychoanalytic approach for her analyses, but also draws on feminist, poststructuralist, and race theory. Fultz 2003 effectively argues that casting the marginal as central and pushing the limits of socially constructed norms, Morrison refigures the ostracized individual as a challenge to her readers to question those and any other “norms.” Furman 2014 is a new and expanded edition of Furman’s 1996 book, now covering all of Morrison’s novels from The Bluest Eye to Home and including Morrison’s short story and her literary criticism Playing in the Dark (Morrison 1992, cited under Compilations of Morrison Essays and Editing and Literary Criticism). Jefferson 2014 is a provocative book that takes issue with the vast majority of Morrison scholars to challenge the idea that her writing is in any way “politically progressive.” To the contrary, Jefferson finds that Morrison’s “racial agenda” is often reactionary, based on racial essentialism even as she engages the political concerns of each era. Though somewhat dated, Page 1995 is a seminal work, much referenced among critics, which examines Morrison’s first six novels as interplay between the aspects contained in Derrida’s différance. Rice 1996, however, draws on Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia to help understand a black writer immersed in a white Western tradition. Two books on Morrison’s work are written in French: Raynaud 1996 (cited under Additional Criticism in Languages Other than English) explores the “Aesthetics of Survival,” while Mielle de Prinsac 1999 (cited under Additional Criticism in Languages Other Than English) examines issues of identity in Morrison’s novels.

  • Baillie, Justine. Toni Morrison and the Literary Tradition: The Invention of an Aesthetic. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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    Argues that Morrison’s texts “constitute a radical incursion into American literature and politics” (p. 7). Consistently solid, well-researched analyses, substantiated with extensive bibliography; highly readable prose. The opening section on literary backgrounds and relationships is powerful, and the close readings of the first five novels are excellent. Loses steam thereafter and offers no conclusion.

  • Duvall, John N. The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780312299439Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Divides Morrison’s work into two phases: The Bluest Eye (Morrison 1970) through Tar Baby (Morrison 1981) (both cited under Novels) largely focused on the “construction of a usable identity,” while the trilogy is a “postmodern articulation” of identity (p. 18). Justifies a biographically informed criticism and attempts to follow Morrison’s allegorizing of her own development as an author.

  • Ferguson, Rebecca Hope. Rewriting Black Identities: Transition and Exchange in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Berne and Pieterlen, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2007.

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    Discusses Morrison’s first eight novels (The Bluest Eye [Morrison 1970] through Love, [Morrison 2003] (both cited under Novels) through the lens of a psychoanalytic approach, also using relevant areas of feminist, poststructuralist, and race-related theory. Ferguson examines the influences of historical changes and traumatic memory on texts and characters, as well as offering in-depth analyses of an evolving black identity.

  • Fultz, Lucille P. Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

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    Written in a lucid, perceptive prose; examines Morrison’s interrogation of “the aesthetics of difference” (p. 100) and its implications for the breakdown of binaries constructed by gender, “race,” class, etc. Perceptive analyses of Morrison’s first seven novels, through Paradise (Morrison 1998, cited under Novels) and including “Recitatif” (Baraka and Baraka 1983, cited under Short Fiction [“Recitatif”] and Stage Performance [Opera and Theater]) provide a hermeneutics easily and productively applicable to the author’s more recent novels.

  • Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014.

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    Deals with each of Morrison’s texts chronologically and returns to her earlier themes: the struggle between gender and authority, between the individual and community, between race and national identity, etc. although more space is dedicated in the later chapters to questions of form and Morrison’s innovative narrative strategies.

  • Jefferson, William. Toni Morrison and the Limits of a Politics of Recognition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

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    Challenging read that Morrison scholars should look at in order to sharpen their wits and either accept or mount a literary defense. Chapters include “Toni Morrison’s Black Liberal Humanism”; “Toward a Non-transcendental Toni Morrison”; “Stigmatizing Sexualities”; “Who’s Afraid of ‘Judging’ Sethe?”; and “Afterward: Barak Obama and the Politics of Recognition.” Also available online.

  • Page, Philip. Dangerous Freedom: Fusion and Fragmentation in Toni Morrison’s Novels. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

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    Borrowing “fusion and fragmentation” from Bercovitch, Page applies this “plurality-in-unity” (back cover) to unpacking Morrison’s texts. After a highly theoretical introduction, dwells on the differences between African American and Euro-American views of (a) harmony and universal order, (b) concepts of time, and (c) the emphasis on the spoken word (“nommo” as life force).

  • Rice, Herbert William. Toni Morrison and the American Tradition: A Rhetorical Reading. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

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    Reads Morrison’s novels for their capacity for negotiation and locates the author within “a tradition that emphasizes alienation” (p. 15). Also calls on Faulkner, Conrad, and Frederick Douglass and on jazz and the blues as well as the gnostic tradition for Jazz. Rice’s “rhetorical reading” is mostly based on his own close readings.

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

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    Divided into chapters “Life,” “Works,” “Contexts,” and “Reception,” provides easy access for both new students and lay readers who may simply want to consult individual novels or moments in the author’s life and critical reception. Brief overviews pose questions and concerns raised in the novels, and eruditely point out intertextual references to urtexts of Western civilization. A fine read and exquisitely well written, with perceptive analysis included even for the more well-versed reader. Unfortunately, lacks discussion of Home (Morrison 2012, cited under Novels).

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

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118326732Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Good, well-written introduction for newcomers. Provides brief but solid introductions to the novels and how they are situated in the progression of the Morrison oeuvre, but little on the critical apparatus supporting it. Inclusion of some discussion of Morrison’s books for “Young Readers” is a welcome addition to this type of introduction to Morrison.

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