RIP Toni Morrison, 1931-2019
The great American writer Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88. Morrsion was a writer, academic, teacher, and playwright (among many other things), but will likely be best remembered for her eleven novels, which include Beloved (1987), The Bluest Eye (1970), and most recently God Help the Child (2015). Morrison’s slim essay collection Playing in the Dark (1992) remains a standard in college classrooms.
Playing in the Dark was probably the first thing I read by Morrison. I read it more than 20 years ago in a college classroom, and it was one of the first works of cultural criticism I’d read. I think I was probably too young to fully appreciate its scope, but I’ve since used elements of it (as well as Morrison’s essay on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) in my own classes many times. Beloved, which I read around the same time, also as an undergraduate, had a more profound, visceral effect on me.
While Beloved, a mature exercise published when the author was in her fifties, is likely to be the book most people associate with Morrison, her early novels are especially compelling. The Bluest Eye is a study in abjection, painful, rich, fertile. The follow up, Sula (1973), centers on a black township in Ohio in the thirties. It’s also a painful and beautifully-written novel. Song of Solomon (1977) is maybe my favorite Morrison novel. Its protagonist Milkman Dead remains one of her most complex and memorable figures. I tend to think of these three early novels as a fecund trilogy, the rich base from which Morrison’s themes of race, memory, location, family, identity, and love continued to grow. These themes continued throughout her works, notably Beloved, of course, as well as Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1997). Morrison’s later works are perhaps underread or understudied compared to her early and middle period, but her 2008 novel A Mercy is a particularly focused and strong exploration of the myth of early America. It remains one of my favorites by Morrison. Morrison published two novels after: Home (2012) and God Help the Child. She also wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner (2005), who was the historical inspiration for Beloved. Days after the 2016 election, Morrison published “Making America White Again” in The New Yorker.
A documentary film about her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is in theaters now.