Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The mentor

Published in 2003

When Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Midwest America, received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden, she was hailed as one of the outstanding literary figures of our time.

When Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Midwest America, received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden, she was hailed as one of the outstanding literary figures of our time.

Having been raised in a family of storytellers who revelled in folklore, Morrison has blended this folklore and its rich African-American heritage into her finely wrought novels and essays.

As a girl, Morrison displayed an interest in literature, devouring the works of literary masters such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and wrote a thesis on the quintessential Southern author William Faulkner for her 1955 Master’s in English from New York’s Cornell University. Morrison then held a series of teaching posts at leading universities, including Howard University where, at the time of the civil rights movement, she taught English and humanities.

Morrison also nurtured many writers as senior editor for Random House from 1965 to 1983. While editing textbooks and other manuscripts, she completed the first of her seven major novels, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970. This book, which reveals the devastating impact of racism, launched her career as an author of international stature.

Now aged 72, Morrison has continued producing major works for the past three decades, including Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1987) and Paradise (1998). Among the prestigious literary distinctions she has been awarded for these novels are the National Book Critics Circle Award (1978) for Song of Solomon and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988) for Beloved, a wrenching story about slavery. As the world’s first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Morrison was singled out in 1993 for her “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and her masterful use of language.

Although best known for her writing, Toni Morrison is also a lecturer, scholar and a respected teacher. “I take teaching as seriously as I do my writing,” says Morrison, a professor in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University for the past 13 years. It was at Princeton that she founded, and now directs, an innovative programme called the Princeton Atelier. This unique academic model fosters creative talent by bringing distinguished artists from all fields together with students on campus to collaborate intensively on original performances, productions and exhibitions – works that are then taken to the professional art world.

“Collaborating with artists from different disciplines helps to stretch and freshen one’s own work”, explains Morrison, who has recently expanded her skills by writing lyrics for famous opera singers, including Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. “Our legitimacy as artist is bound up in making art matter,” she says. “Our obligation is to do first-rate work and pass it on.”

Morrison, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1993 and was given the Condorcet Medal in 1994. In 2000, she received the National Humanities medal for her exceptional contributions to the cultural life and thought of her country.