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Toni Morrison: Writing

Now a single mother with two young sons to support, Morrison moved to Syracuse, New York, and took a job as a textbook editor. It was in Syracuse that her writing career began in earnest. "I had two small children in a strange place and I was very lonely," she said. "Writing was something for me to do in the evenings, after the children were asleep." Morrison began working on a story that she had conceived at Howard, about a young black girl desperate to have blue eyes.

In 1968, while still working on The Bluest Eye, she moved to New York City to take a job as an editor at Random House. Morrison was now a part of the literary scene. She specialized in works by female African-American writers, and was instrumental in bringing authors like Toni Cade Bambera to print. In 1970, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. The debut novel was praised for its unique voice. In 1973, she published her second novel, Sula. She followed that book with Song of Solomon in 1977, and Tar Baby in 1981. In 1983, she left Random House to concentrate on her fiction and her frequent teaching positions, and the following year she accepted a chair at New York University.

With each successive novel that she published, Morrison attracted more attention as a writer. Her style was distinctive and musical. Her books were like long poems or musical compositions, with haunting, lyrical language.

"Then there is loneliness that roams," began Morrison's next novel, the 1987 book Beloved. "No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."7 The chilling language set the town for Morrison's most harrowing book. The plot was inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave woman who murdered her children to spare them from a life of slavery.

Beloved was met with overwhelming critical praise, as well as shock from people who could not fathom the choice its main character had made. "It was absolutely the right thing to do," Morrison said of her character Sethe's decision to kill her daughter, "but she had no right to do it. I think if I had seen what she had seen, and knew what was in store, and I felt that there was an afterlife - or even if I felt that there wasn't - I think I would have done the same thing. But it's also the thing you have no right to do."8

When Beloved did not win the National Book Award, a group of 48 black writers and literary critics submitted an open letter to the New York Times protesting the fact that Morrison had been overlooked, and that she had so far been snubbed for the Pulitzer Prize.9 They did not have to wait much longer. In 1988, Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In 1989, Morrison was appointed the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University. She began a teaching career at Princeton that would last nearly two decades. She soon began work on her next book, a novel that followed the lives of a black couple in Harlem. Jazz was published in 1992.

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