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Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison has died at 88

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has died at the age of 88, her publisher confirmed Tuesday on Twitter.

Publisher Alfred A. Knopf confirmed writer's death in a tweet Tuesday

Nobel laureate and novelist Toni Morrison has died. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf says Morrison died Monday at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. She was 88. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in BelovedSong of Solomon and other works transformed American letters by dramatizing the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race, has died at age 88.

Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced that Morrison died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Morrison's family issued a statement through Knopf saying she died after a brief illness.

"Toni Morrison passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," the family announced. "She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing."

Few authors rose in such rapid, spectacular style. She was nearly 40 when her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published. By her early 60s, after just six novels, she had become the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, praised in 1993 by the Swedish Academy for her "visionary force" and for delving into "language itself, a language she wants to liberate" from categories of black and white.

In 2019 she was featured in an acclaimed documentary, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

Morrison helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country's past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call "the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment." In her novels, history — black history — was a trove of poetry, tragedy, love, adventure and good old gossip, whether in small-town Ohio in Sula or big-city Harlem in Jazz

She regarded race as a social construct, and through language founded the better world her characters suffered to attain. Morrison wove everything from African literature and slave folklore to the Bible and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the most diverse, yet harmonious, of literary communities.

"Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me," she said in her Nobel lecture. "It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge."

Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, she was one of the book world's most regal presences, with her expanse of graying dreadlocks; her dark, discerning eyes; and warm, theatrical voice, able to lower itself to a mysterious growl or rise to a humorous falsetto. "That handsome and perceptive lady," James Baldwin called her.

Adored author

Her admirers were countless — from fellow authors, college students and working people to Barack Obama, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and tweeted Tuesday she "was a national treasure," to Oprah Winfrey, who idolized Morrison and helped greatly expand her readership. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labelling one of her novels, Love, as "perfect" and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet acceptance.

"Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it," Morrison told The Associated Press during a 1998 interview. "When she was writing her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was an editor at Random House. She was having such a good time, and she never said, 'Who me? My little book?'

"I decided that … winning the [Nobel] prize was fabulous," Morrison added. "Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time."

From a steel town

The second of four children of a welder and a domestic worker, Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town outside of Cleveland. She was encouraged by her parents to read and to think, and was unimpressed by the white kids in her community. Recalling how she felt like an "aristocrat," Morrison believed she was smarter and took it for granted she was wiser. She was an honours student in high school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of life spent among black intellectuals.

At Howard, she spent much of her free time in the theatre and met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, whom she divorced in 1964. They had two children, Harold and Slade.

But although she went on to teach there, Howard disappointed her. Campus life seemed closer to a finishing school than to an institution of learning. Protesters were demanding equality. Morrison wanted that, too, but wondered what kind.

In 1964, she answered an ad to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years, she would have an impact as a book editor — and as one of the few black women in publishing, that alone would have ensured her legacy.

She championed emerging fiction authors such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, helped introduce U.S. readers to such African writers as Wole Solinka, worked on a memoir by Muhammad Ali and topical books by such activists as Angela Davis and Black Panther Huey Newton. A special project was editing The Black Book, a collection of everything from newspaper advertisements to song lyrics that anticipated her immersion in the everyday lives of the past.

By the late '60s, she was a single mother and a determined writer who had been pushed by her future editor, Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf, into deciding whether she'd write or edit. Seated at her kitchen table, she fleshed out a story based on a childhood memory of a black girl in Lorain — raped by her father — who desired blue eyes. She called the novel The Bluest Eye.

She had no agent and was rejected by several publishers before reaching a deal with Holt, Rhinehart and Winston (now Henry Holt and Company), which released the novel in 1970. Sales were modest, but her book made a deep impression on the New York Times' John Leonard, an early and ongoing champion of her writing, which he called "so precise, so faithful to speech and so charged with pain and wonder that the novel becomes poetry."

Setting her stories in segregated communities, where incest and suicide were no more outrageous than a sign which read "COLORED ONLY," Morrison wrote of dreamers for whom the price was often death, whether the mother's tragic choice to murder her baby girl — and save the child from slavery — in Beloved, or the black community that implodes in Paradise.

Like Faulkner, her characters are burdened by the legacy, and ongoing tragedy, of slavery and separation. For Faulkner's white Southerners, losers of the Civil War, the price is guilt, rage and madness; for Morrison's slaves and their descendants, supposedly liberated, history follows like the most unrelenting posse.

"The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind," Morrison wrote in Beloved, in which the ghost of the slain daughter returns to haunt and obsess her mother.

"And if it didn't stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life — every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem."

Morrison's breakthrough came in 1977 with Song of Solomon, her third novel and the story of young Milkman Dead's sexual, social and ancestral education. It was the first work by a black writer since Richard Wright's Native Son to be a full Book of the Month selection, and won the National Book Critics Circle award. It was also Morrison's first book to centre on a male character, a novel which enabled her "get out of the house, to de-domesticate the landscape."

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