Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose work focused on African-American life and culture, died on Monday night in a New York hospital. She was 88 years old.
“It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends,” shared the Morrison family in a written statement. “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. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.”
The family will announce plans for a public service to celebrate Morrison’s life at a later date.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued a statement Tuesday afternoon mourning the loss of Morrison.
“Tammy and I are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Toni Morrison, one of New Jersey’s most-celebrated literary talents. All great fiction allows the reader to experience the world through someone else’s perspective, but Toni Morrison’s writing drew us deeper into our common humanity and strengthened our empathy,” Murphy said. “Through her Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning literature, Toni Morrison gave voice to the African-American experience both past and present and reminded us that storytelling is still the most essential way of sharing our histories and creating community. We are grateful that her work will stand as a lasting legacy — one which will live on as future generations of Americans discover her genius.”
Morrison, a teacher and professor emeritus at Princeton University, received numerous awards for her writing, including the Pulitzer Prize. the American Book Award, and the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2012, Barack Obama presented Morrison with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt,” Obama said at the ceremony. “The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.”
Morrison was born in 1931, in Lorain, Ohio as Chloe Ardelia Wofford. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford, were sharecroppers who had migrated north from Alabama. She was the second oldest of four children. She graduated with honors from Lorain High School in 1949 and went on to Howard University, where she majored in English and minored in the classics. She earned a master’s degree in English from Cornell University in 1955. She returned to Howard University in 1957 to teach English, and that is where she met future husband Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. The couple married in 1958 and had two sons, Harold and Slade. Their marriage ended in 1964. Morrison then moved with her children to Syracuse, New York to take a job as a senior editor at a textbook publishing company. She later headed to New York City to become an editor at Random House, where she worked for two decades.
While teaching at Howard University, Morrison joined an informal group of poets and writers. Her first piece was a short story about a young black girl who believed that her impoverished upbringing would be better if she had blue eyes. That story turned into her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” which was published in 1970. Her next work of fiction, “Sula,” told the story of a complex friendship between two women who grew up together in a small Ohio town. The novel was nominated for the American Book Award. Her 1977 novel “Song of Solomon” was a featured selection of the Book of the Month Club. The novel about Milkman Dead’s journey through the South in search of his roots won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 1981 novel “Tar Baby” explored a love affair between two black people from very different worlds. Morrison’s 1987 work “Beloved,” her most well-known novel, told the story of Sethe, a former slave who is haunted by her memories of attempting to kill her children to save them from slavery. Morrison received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1988 for “Beloved,” which was later turned into a movie by Oprah Winfrey. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review named “Beloved” the best novel of the past 25 years. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Morrison taught at Princeton University from 1989 to 2006. At Princeton, she formed a special workshop for writers and performers called the Princeton Atelier that enabled students to collaborate with established artists to produce original works.
“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition,” said Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber in a written statement about her death. “Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors. She revised this University, too. Through her scholarly leadership in creative writing and African American studies, and through her mentorship of students and her innovative teaching, she has inscribed her name permanently and beautifully upon the tapestry of Princeton’s campus and history. We are fortunate that this marvelous writer made Princeton her home, and we will miss her dearly.”