Study Guide

Toni Morrison Introduction

Toni Morrison Introduction

In 1931, a little girl named Chloe Wofford was born in Lorain, Ohio. Though her family was poor, her parents did not let their daughter lower her expectations, nor would they allow her to feel demeaned by the racism often directed at African-Americans like themselves. By the time she was a famous writer known by the name of Toni Morrison, she looked at racists as pathetic creatures to be pitied, not threats to her immense intellect. Because she has always refused to compromise, to settle or be silent, Toni Morrison's nine novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, are triumphs of language and imagination. Her lyrical fiction has been recognized with the highest honors in the world, including the 1993 Nobel Prize.

Though her books are some of the greatest of the twentieth century - period - fans and critics alike have been hung up on Morrison's identity as a woman and an African-American. Apparently, it's still hard for some people to realize that the canon of great American authors can include people of - gasp! - different races and genders. She has been asked why she only writes about black people, even though no one seems to have ever asked James Joyce why he only wrote about white guys. Since people are always so quick to box her in as a Black Woman Writer, Morrison says, "I've decided to define that, rather than having it be defined for me." That big world is evident to the legions of readers who have been entranced by her fiction.

Toni Morrison Trivia

Though other novels have received more prizes and sold more copies, Morrison believes her 2003 novel Love is her best book, calling it "perfect."

When Presidential candidate Barack Obama first contacted Morrison to ask for her support in the 2008 Democratic primary, Morrison - then a Hillary supporter - turned him down. In January 2008 she changed her mind and wrote Obama a letter of endorsement.

Prior to the ceremony awarding Morrison her Nobel Prize, she called a member of the Nobel Committee and chastised them for not giving her enough time to get ready. "I said, 'If you're going to keep giving prizes to women - and I hope you do - you're going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes, I have to get a dress.'"

Morrison was upset when she realized that her first novel The Bluest Eye would be published under the name Toni Morrison, instead of her birth name Chloe. The editor who worked on her book knew her by the nickname Toni and used the name without asking.

Morrison watches Court TV and soap operas to chill out.

When Oprah Winfrey chose Morrison's novel Song of Solomon as the second selection of her now-famous Book Club in December 1996, the writer was perplexed. "I'd never heard of such a thing, and when someone called, all excited, with the news, all I could think was, 'Who's going to buy a book because of Oprah?'" Morrison later recalled with a laugh. Many people, as she soon discovered - Song of Solomon sold 1 million copies after the Book Club announcement, and sales of Morrison's other novels jumped 25 percent.

Morrison reads magazines and newspaper clippings from the time and place where her novels are set to give herself a feel for the location.

For a while after she lost her home in a fire, Morrison could only speak to other people who had suffered similar traumas. She and the writer Maxine Hong Kingston, whose home also burned down, spoke on the phone daily.

After Morrison publicly complained that there was not even a "small bench by the road" to memorialize those lost to slavery, the Toni Morrison Society and the National Park Service worked together to fix that. In July 2008, Morrison dedicated the first "Bench by the Road" in Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Plans call for benches to be installed at sites important to African-American history.

Toni Morrison Resources

Books

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
This is Morrison's first novel. The seed of the story was planted in childhood, when she heard an African-American friend complaining that she wanted blue eyes. She started it at Howard University, and completed it in snowy Syracuse, New York, while her children slept at night. The story of Pecola, a young African-American girl desperate for blue eyes, showcases Morrison's power as a writer.

Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (1977)
Song of Solomon was Morrison's third novel, and her first written from a male character's point of view. The hauntingly beautiful story of "Milkman" won the National Book Critics Circle Award and established Morrison as a true vanguard on the American literary scene.

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)
When Beloved appeared in 1987, most reviews hailed it as a work of genius, and also used words like "chilling," "haunting," "terrible beauty." Morrison got the idea for the plot from a news clipping about Margaret Garner, a captured slave who murdered her own child rather than have the child be returned to slavery. The frightening narrative is rendered unforgettable in Morrison's words.

Toni Morrison, Jazz (1992)
The last novel Morrison wrote before the Nobel announcement, Jazz is a journey through 1920s Harlem. It weaves through the lives of its characters like the riffs of a jazz composition, and is equally rewarding. You might want to check out the audio book of this one - Morrison's rich, gorgeous reading of her own words is accompanied by period jazz music.

Toni Morrison, Love (2003)
Despite a shelf full of the world's top literary prizes, Morrison is a writer at heart, and refuses to rest on her laurels. This book, her eighth novel, is her personal favorite. Critics knocked the book when it came out, but Morrison has a Nobel Prize and they don't, so we're going to side with her on this one.

Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie, Ed., Conversations with Toni Morrison (1994)
No truly authoritative biographies of Morrison have yet been published. However, Morrison has given many interviews over the years to allow readers a look into the philosophies that inspire her work. This collection of interviews reveals Morrison's personal side.

Music

Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison, Margaret Garner
The story of Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Morrison's novel Beloved, has been turned into an opera. Morrison wrote the libretto, and the score was composed by Richard Danielpour. The events depicted onstage are as heart-breaking as any classic opera; tragically, they are based on a true story.

Andre Previn, Four Songs
The composer Andre Previn has created a suite of four songs inspired by the poetry of Toni Morrison. The songs - "Mercy," "Stones," "Shelter" and "The Lacemaker" - are written for a cello, a piano and a soprano singer.

Ralph Ellison: Living With Music
Toni Morrison is an admirer of the writer Ralph Ellison. As a trumpet player and lifelong jazz aficionado, Ralph Ellison saw music as an integral part of his life and wrote about it frequently. When Modern Library published an anthology of his music writing, the publisher also arranged for this companion disc that features the artists he wrote about.

Louis Armstrong, "Black and Blue"
It has been said that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is structured more like a jazz composition than a novel. Armstrong's classic "Black and Blue" figures prominently in the book, with the song lulling the narrator into a nearly-hallucinatory state.

N**** Spirituals
Enslaved African-Americans such as the fictional Sethe in Beloved used songs to express comfort, faith and protest. Some spirituals were sung by slaves as they worked. Others such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" and "Wade In the Water" were about the Underground Railroad. This site explores the genre in depth.

Images

Toni Morrison
A portrait of the celebrated author.

The Writer Speaking
Morrison delivering a talk at the lectern.

The Writer Listening
Morrison at a 2005 literary conference in Guadalajara.

Morrison in the 1970s
Toni Morrison around the time that her novel Sula was published.

Chloe Wofford
Toni Morrison's high school yearbook picture (remember, Chloe Wofford is her real name!).

Nobel Prize
A photograph of Morrison accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Bluest Eye
The original proofs of Morrison's first novel.

Beloved
The first edition dust jacket of Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Movies & TV

Beloved (1998)
Oprah Winfrey is a huge Morrison fan, having selected two of her books for Oprah Book Club. Winfrey produced and starred in this filmed version of Morrison's haunting novel. While much of the power of Beloved comes from Morrison's writing, this film brings to life the raw pain and powerful love among its characters.

The Black List (2008)
This documentary series by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell interviews black trailblazers in fields from music to sports to politics. Toni Morrison features prominently among the interviewees, a diverse group that includes Chris Rock, Serena Williams and Slash.

Legends Ball (2006)
When you are as rich and famous as Oprah Winfrey, not only can you afford to throw a party for the greatest living African-American women, but they will also all respond to your invitation. Morrison was among the 25 honorees at Oprah's famous Legends Ball, which feted black women leaders in the arts and civil rights. This documentary shows the extensive work that went into the planning of the event.

Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (2002)
Toni Morrison is interviewed in this documentary about the African American novelist Ralph Ellison. Ellison, the author of the classic Invisible Man, was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance. Invisible Man is seen as something of a literary ancestor to Beloved.

Margaret Garner (2006)
The story of Margaret Garner, the inspiration behind Morrison's novel Beloved, has been turned into an opera. Toni Morrison wrote the libretto. A filmed performance of the opera is available on DVD.

Websites

The Toni Morrison Society
The Toni Morrison Society is an organization of academics and Morrison fans who arrange conferences and other events based on her career and values. The website isn't too active, but it does contain a biography of Morrison and information on joining the society.

The Nobel Foundation
The announcement of Morrison's Nobel win in 1993 came as a joyful surprise to those who had long admired Morrison's uniquely poetic voice. Her page on the official Nobel Foundation website contains the text of her acceptance speeches, as well as a biography, excerpts of her work and other useful links.

African American Literature Book Club
This site celebrates Morrison's place in the pantheon of great African-American writers. It has a detailed biography of the writer, as well as information on all of her books. Users of the site voted her their favorite author of the 20th century.

The Toni Morrison Anchor
This interesting site from the University at Buffalo is sort of an Internet hub for all Toni Morrison-related pages. From here you can click on a wealth of links related to each of her books. Not all of them are live, but the ones that are lead to interesting essays, reviews and websites related to her writing.

Voices from the Gaps
Voices from the Gaps is a program at the University of Minnesota that brings together information on women artists of color. Toni Morrison's page offers a thoughtfully written critical biography as well as a bibliography and other information.

Margaret Garner: A New American Opera
The true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who murdered her own child to save her from a life of servitude, was Morrison's inspiration for Beloved. Her story was also made into an opera. The website for the opera offers historical insights into one of Morrison's most celebrated books.

Video & Audio

The Black List
Toni Morrison talks about The Bluest Eye for the HBO special.

A Conversation With Toni Morrison
A New York Times video interview in which Morrison discusses her latest novel and Barack Obama's election.

Motivation for Writing
Morrison discusses the reasons why she writes.

On Censorship
Morrison talks about the evils of censorship.

Time interview
Time magazine interviews Toni Morrison.

Beloved Trailer
A preview of the movie version of Morrison's novel.

A Mercy
A four-part series of Morrison reading from her 2008 novel A Mercy.

Don Swaim Interview
Morrison talks to the radio host Don Swaim about Beloved in this 1987 interview.

Primary Sources

On to Disneyland and Real Unreality
A 1973 essay by Morrison on race relations.

On the Backs of Blacks
A 1993 essay by Morrison on race.

Nobel Lecture
Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel lecture.

Nobel Banquet Speech
The speech Morrison gave at the banquet honoring her prize.

"First Black President"
Morrison's widely misquoted essay about former President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial.

The Day, and its Splendid Parts
An essay by Morrison about the joys of outdoor cooking.

Beloved
An excerpt from Morrison's 1987 novel.

Review of Beloved
A 1987 review of the novel by the author Margaret Atwood.