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Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-Winning Author

February 18, 2011
by Isabel Cowles
Toni Morrison grew up in a house of African-American storytellers and developed a love for books. After earning a masters degree in English and teaching for many years, she felt there was a book she wanted to read but had yet to find—so she wrote it herself. A prolific career ensued, with Morrison winning both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for her fiction.

Toni Morrison’s Early Days

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, the second of four children. Her parents, George and Ramah Wofford, moved to Ohio after growing up in Georgia. Her father was raised in a sharecropping family, but wanted to shield his own family from the segregation that prevailed in the south.

Morrison was raised in a house full of art and culture where fairy tales, ghost stories, myth and music prevailed. Storytelling was a Wofford family tradition among the adults and children. The importance of listening and narration helped form Morrison’s understanding of the world and inspired her love of reading. Her parents encouraged her intellectual curiosity and during her adolescence, Morrison became engrossed by classic literature including the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen.

She graduated from high school with honors and attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. While in college, Morrison changed her name from Chloe to Toni (after her middle name), to make it easier to pronounce. While in college, Morrison was part of the Howard Repertory Theatre, which allowed her to travel throughout the South and witness black America firsthand.

In 1953, Morrison graduated from Howard and enrolled in a graduate program at Cornell University. She graduated with a Master of Arts two years later, having submitted a thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.

Morrison’s Literary Career

Morrison taught for several years after graduation and met her husband, Harold Morrison, with whom she had two sons. The pair divorced in 1964 and Morrison became an editor at Random House.

She pursued her own creative writing in the evenings after her boys went to sleep and eventually produced her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” based on a short story she’d written in a creative writing class.

It took Morrison years to get the work published, but Holt, Rinehart, and Winston finally accepted it in 1970. During the next two years Morrison wrote her second novel, “Sula,” which was published in 1973 and was nominated for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction.

Creativity and success flowed freely afterwards, and Morrison published the novels “Song of Solomon,” “Tar Baby,” “Beloved,” “Jazz,” “Paradise” and “Love” in the years that followed.

Morrison won the National Book Critics Award in 1978 for “Song of Solomon” and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “Beloved” in 1988. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review named “Beloved” as the best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.

In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her body of work. During her Nobel lecture, Morrison addressed the power and importance of language: “Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.”

The Rest of the Story

While Morrison was developing her body of work, she was also creating an impressive teaching resume. She taught at Princeton University from 1989 through 2006 and has also taught at Yale, Bard College and Rutgers, and lectured at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Trinity College, Cambridge; and Harvard University.

The Toni Morrison Society was founded in 1993 by 26 scholars and supporters of her work. The society grew in size after Morrison won the Nobel Prize and today boasts more than 600 members from around the world.

Morrison answered a series of readers’ questions in Time magazine. In the discussion, she offers advice to budding writers, explains her writing process and what inspires her work.

When asked how she discovered her deep passion for writing, Morrison said, “My deepest passion was reading. At some point—not early, I was 35 or 36—I realized there was a book that I wanted very much to read that really hadn't been written, and so I sort of played around with it in trying to construct the kind of book I wanted to read.”

Morrison’s latest book “A Mercy,” was published in 2008. That same year, she was nominated for a grammy for a spoken word album for children.

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