'Toni Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.' – Barack Obama
A true titan of twentieth-century American literature, Toni Morrison, who died in August 2019 at the age of 88, was a pioneering author, editor and global icon. Over a long and distinguished career, her trailblazing novels became a mainstay of school syllabuses, making her a household name and earning her a slew of awards, including the Pulitzer prize, the Légion d’Honneur and a Presidential Medal of Freedom - presented to her in 2012 by Barack Obama. In one of a lifetime of barrier-breaking moments, she was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
It is the mid-1800s and as slavery looks to be coming to an end, Sethe is haunted by the violent trauma it wrought on her former enslaved life at Sweet Home, Kentucky. Her dead baby daughter, whose tombstone bears the single word, Beloved, returns as a spectre to punish her mother, but also to elicit her love.
Told with heart-stopping clarity, melding horror and beauty, Beloved is Toni Morrison's enduring masterpiece.
Fiction by Toni Morrison
Other Works by Toni Morrison
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in 1931 in Ohio, Morrison worked in academia before starting a career in publishing with Random House, becoming their first black female senior editor. Morrison used her influence to make important inroads in the representation and promotion of African and African American authors, helping to kick-start the careers of writers including Wole Soyinka, Athol Fugard and Angela Davies.
As a single mother, she wrote her first novel, The Bluest Eye, late into the night and in the early mornings whilst her children were asleep. Exploring the punitive effects of racial ‘othering’ in post-depression era Ohio, the New York Times called The Bluest Eye, ‘so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry’. It was a label Morrison spent her career attempting to rebuff, insisting on the need for her fiction to speak to ordinary readers, not just the literary elite. She followed The Bluest Eye with Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby before, in 1987, publishing the book that would make her name: Beloved.
Now considered a modern classic, Beloved was a huge commercial success, winning the Pulitzer prize for fiction and Morrison a host of new readers. Set in mid-nineteenth-century Alabama, Beloved’s depiction of a woman haunted by her experiences as a slave remains her crowning achievement. Writing in the Guardian, the novelist Jane Smiley sums up its appeal: ‘dense but not long, dramatic but not melodramatic, particular and universal, shocking but reassuring, new but at the same time closely connected to the tradition of the novel, and likely to mould or change a reader's sense of the world.’ Two later novels, Jazz and Paradise, developed Beloved’s themes and setting into a trilogy and the original novel was later adapted for a popular film in 1998.
Toni Morrison’s cultural status was cemented when The Song of Solomon was chosen by Oprah Winfrey to launch her new book club. The now coveted ‘Oprah effect’ led to the novel selling a further 800,000 copies, bringing Morrison’s work squarely into the mainstream. A popular speaker and regularly outspoken commentator on current affairs, Morrison continued to work well into her last years, publishing novels including A Mercy and Home – written for and dedicated to her youngest son and sometime collaborator, Slade Morrison, who died of pancreatic cancer when the work was in progress.
Frequently appearing on lists of reader’s favourite fiction, today Toni Morrison’s works are amongst those rare novels that are as well-loved as they are critically recognised.
Incorporating a mesmeric style – redolent of the traditions of Magic Realism – with sharp dialogue and unflinching acuity, her fiction holds up a mirror to the heart of black lives and experience whilst confronting the endemic legacy of slavery, racism and segregation. In a world still bitterly divided along lines of class, gender, religion and race, her work remains essential reading. “I know the world is bruised and bleeding,” she wrote, “and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom.”