August 7, 2019

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Dies at 88

By Anne Levin

Toni Morrison, a world-renowned writer and Nobel laureate with strong ties to Princeton, died the evening of Monday, August 5 at New York City’s Montefiore Medical Center.

Morrison was the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Princeton University. According to an article on the University’s website, she joined the faculty in 1989 and was a member of the creative writing program until transferring to emeritus status in 2006.

The website published a statement from Morrison’s family.

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published when she was 40. That, and others she wrote, have been translated into at least 20 languages. After The Bluest Eye in 1970, Morrison wrote  Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and God Help the Child (2015). Her latest book, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, was published early this year.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Morrison won a Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1978. In May 2019, she received the gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was awarded the American

Academy of Arts and Sciences Emerson-Thoreau Medal in 2016, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, and the National Humanities Medal in 2000. France honored her with the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur in 2010; and the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993.

Morrison also wrote children’s books with her son Slade Morrison, who predeceased her. This summer, a documentary of her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, was released in theaters.

At Princeton, Morrison taught courses in the humanities and African American studies. One of her courses led to her 1992 book of literary criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, according to the University website.  As a faculty member with the creative writing program, she advised such students as the now-published writers David Treuer, Ladee Hubbard, Kate Morgenroth, MacKenzie Tuttle, and Rachel Kadish.

“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition,” said University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, on the website. “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.”

The University honored Morrison in 2017 by dedicating Morrison Hall, formerly known as West College. The building houses the Office of the Dean of the College and faces Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall. A portrait of her by Paul Wyse hangs inside.

Morrison had key roles in numerous commemorative events at Princeton. In 1996, she gave the keynote address — “The Place of the Idea, The Idea of the Place” — as the University celebrated its 250th anniversary. In 2005, she was the baccalaureate speaker for the graduating class. “Of course I am a storyteller and therefore an optimist, a firm believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s appetite for truth and its disgust with fraud,” she told them. “I’m a believer in the power of knowledge and the ferocity of beauty, so from my point of view your life is already artful — waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.”

In 2012, Morrison returned to the campus to read from her new novel, Home. “Teaching is the second best thing to writing for me,” Morrison told a packed audience on that occasion, according to the website. “What a pleasure it is and how truly intellectually exciting it is to teach at Princeton.”

Morrison spoke at the Princeton and Slavery Symposium in 2017. She described Lorain, Ohio, where she was born Chloe A. Wofford on February 18, 1931, as a mixed neighborhood where “everybody was dirt poor, that was what we had in common,” and where “we gardened because we ate it, not because it was a cute little thing to do.” While her older sister remembered racial slurs by some neighbors, Morrison said she did not. Rather, she first learned about race when she went to the historically black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., according to the website.

Morrison’s arrival at Princeton helped to attract other faculty and students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to the University. She played a major role in expanding Princeton’s commitments both to the creative and performing arts and to African American studies. In 1994 she founded the Princeton Atelier, bringing together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists and performers such as Jacques d’Amboise, A.S. Byatt, Peter Sellars, Yo-Yo Ma, Richard Danielpour, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Anonymous 4, Richard Price, Pig Iron Theatre Company, Maria Tucci, and Allegro Kent, among others.

She earned a B.S. in English at Howard University in 1953 and a M.A. in American literature at Cornell University in 1955. She was an English instructor at Texas Southern University and Howard University before becoming a senior editor in the trade department at Random House publishing in New York, where she spent 20 years. Before joining the Princeton faculty, Morrison held the Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities at the State University of New York-Albany. She also taught at Yale University, Bard College, and Rutgers University.  Princeton awarded Morrison an honorary doctoral degree in 2013, and her papers are part of the Princeton University Library’s permanent collection.

She wrote the libretto for Honey and Rue, commissioned by Carnegie Hall with music by conductor Andre Previn. The opera premiered in 1992. She subsequently wrote lyrics for Four Songs with music by Previn and performed at Carnegie Hall in 1994. The opera Margaret Garner, based on Beloved, premiered in 2005 with music by Richard Danielpour.

Morrison was a founding member of the Académie universelle des cultures; a trustee of the New York Public Library and the National Humanities Center; co-chair of the Schomburg Commission for the Preservation of Black Culture; and a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She also was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the International Parliament of Writers, and the Author’s Guild, where she served on the Guild Council and as foundation treasurer. She also served on the National Council of the Arts. Morrison was a member of the Africa Watch and Helsinki Watch committees of Human Rights Watch.

She is survived by her son Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Morrison’s son Slade died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.

“While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family,” the family wrote.  “We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”