In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Toni Morrison

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Bluest Eye Criticism
  • Sula Criticism
  • Song of Solomon Criticism
  • Tar Baby Criticism
  • Beloved Criticism
  • Jazz Criticism
  • Paradise Criticism
  • Love Criticism
  • A Mercy Criticism
  • Home Criticism
  • God Help the Child Criticism
  • Trilogy Criticism
  • “Recitatif” Criticism

African American Studies Toni Morrison
by
jan furman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0086

Introduction

Novelist, essayist, librettist, book editor, teacher, scholar, and public intellectual, Toni Morrison was a major contributor to contemporary understandings of the enduring and complex roles of race, sexuality, gender, and class in shaping American experience and identity. Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, where she grew up with parents, George and Ramah Wofford, an older sister, and two younger brothers. After high school she attended Howard University, where she took on the name Toni. In 1953 she was graduated with a BA in English and two years later earned an MA from Cornell. In the nine years that followed, Morrison spent two teaching English at Texas Southern University before returning to Howard as an instructor. During this period, she married Harold Morrison and gave birth to two sons. In 1964 the marriage ended in divorce, and Morrison moved to New York to begin a nearly twenty-year tenure at Random House, first at the textbook subsidiary in Syracuse and then at the trade division in New York City. There she published Angela Davis, Henry Dumas, Toni Cade Bambara, Mohammad Ali, Gayle Jones, and other writers whose time had come, she thought. “I made it my business,” she once said of her work as an editor, “to collect African Americans who were vocal, either politically, or just writing wonderful fiction.” At Random House, Morrison also began publishing her own stories, writing the kind of books she says she wanted to read. The Bluest Eye appeared in 1970, although she began it much earlier as a young wife and mother in a writing group. It was out of print by 1974 but has since been reprinted and is now considered a masterwork. Ten novels followed: Sula (1973); Song of Solomon (1977); Tar Baby (1981); a trilogy, Beloved 1987, Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998); Love (2003); A Mercy (2008); Home (2012); and God Help the Child (2015). Morrison spoke of her early stories as “evolutionary. One comes out of the other.” Later novels, too, have evolved from and toward a continuing (de)construction of America’s story of race. Over the years, as Morrison’s fiction unfolded, so did her involvement in the academy and civil conversations. She held several visiting professorships, and in 1989 she joined Princeton’s faculty as the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Humanities where she continued until 2006. Her essays and lectures on critical theory and culture are morally imaginative, encouraging new thinking about social power and public narrative in America. For her many contributions Morrison received high praise and a number of awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, and for her collective achievements the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993. The Swedish Academy recognized her as one who, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” In 2010, Morrison was inducted into the Legion of Honour, France’s highest order of merit. Two years later, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s top civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom; the following year she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for achievement in American Fiction. Morrison died on 5 August 2019 at Montefiore Medical Center in New York from complications of pneumonia. She was eight-eight.

General Overviews

Morrison’s novels invite diverse and distinct theoretical, thematic, and narrative critical emphases. That scholarly breadth is reflected in the selections here. The readings do have in common, however, comprehensiveness; each treats all novels in print when the critical work was published. Included are essay collections and single author books. Tally 2007 is an early and important collection, which examines the full range of Morrison’s literary contributions. Gillespie 2008, an almanac, of sorts, at nearly five hundred pages, was all-inclusive at the time of its publication; its story of Morrison’s literary life as told in images and critical narrative remains a useful resource. Stein 2009 is illustrative of the expansive body of literature on research-based approaches to teaching Morrison in the classroom. Furman 2014, a helpful and accessible guide to understanding, offers beginning Morrison scholars a thoughtful and thorough interpretation of all but the final novel. Wagner-Martin 2015 is the latest of those studies, which seek to cast Morrison’s contributions in the broadest of philosophical, intellectual, and literary contexts. Published in the same year as Wagner-Martin, Gillespie 2015 is a unique and innovative exploration of Morrison’s literary and cultural impact through contributors’ original art and criticism.

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

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    First published in 1996, this second edition offers a close reading of ten of Morrison’s eleven novels. Also includes a discussion of Morrison’s only short story, “Recitatif,” her Nobel lecture, and her major critical work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992).

  • Gillespie, Carmen. Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2008.

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    Includes a biography of the author with photographs; extended entries on Morrison’s fiction and non-fiction (children’s books, essays, theatrical works, and interviews). Each entry features synopses, critical commentaries, major themes, characters, and a glossary of relevant terms and places. Also includes a bibliography and chronologies of Morrison’s life, career, and significant events. Comprehensive through 2007.

  • Gillespie, Carmen, ed. Toni Morrison: Forty Years in the Clearing. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2015.

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    Published as part of the Griot Project Book Series. A multi-genre collection of tributes to Morrison’s life and art. Includes scholarly essays, contributions by poets, photographs, interviews, and other facets of the author’s work. Allows and encourages a review of Morrison’s cultural and literary impact.

  • Stein, Karen F. Reading, Learning, Teaching Toni Morrison. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.

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    A rich pedagogical resource for teachers. Chapters treat individual novels, and each chapter discusses critical reception, themes, motifs, and other elements of literary analysis. Assignments, questions, and further reading are also offered. Interpretations for nine of eleven novels.

  • Tally, Justine, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Features thirteen essays arranged into three sections covering individual novels, Morrison’s literary and social criticism, and her integrated body of work. Especially useful is the 1850–2006 chronology, which interweaves relevant dates in American history, African American history, and historical events from the novels.

  • Wagner-Martin, Linda. Toni Morrison: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a volume in the publisher’s Literary Lives Series. Describes and assesses Morrison’s work from The Bluest Eye (1970) through Home (2012). A literary biography, which looks at Morrison’s life and career.

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