Toni Morrison, Nobel laureate who transfigured American literature, dies at 88

August 8, 2019

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Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist who conjured a Black girl longing for blue eyes, a slave mother who kills her child to save her from bondage and other indelible characters who helped transfigure a literary canon long closed to African Americans, died Monday, August 5, 2019, at a hospital in the Bronx. She was 88.

Ms. Morrison spent an impoverished childhood in Ohio steel country, began writing during what she described as stolen time as a single mother, and became the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Critically acclaimed and widely loved, she received recognitions as diverse as the Pulitzer Prize and the selection of her novels — four of them — for the book club led by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.

Ms. Morrison placed African Americans, particularly women, at the heart of her writing at a time when they were largely relegated to the margins both in literature and in life. With language celebrated for its lyricism, she was credited with conveying as powerfully, or more than perhaps any novelist before her, the nature of Black life in America, from slavery to the inequality that went on more than a century after it ended.

Among her best-known works was “Beloved” (1987), the Pulitzer-winning novel later made into a film starring Winfrey. It introduced millions of readers to Sethe, a slave mother haunted by the memory of the child she had murdered, having judged life in slavery worse than no life at all. Like many of Ms. Morrison’s characters, she was tortured, yet noble — “unavailable to pity,” as the author described them.

Ms. Morrison’s Nobel Prize, bestowed in 1993, made her the first native-born American since John Steinbeck in 1962 to receive that honor.

Beyond her own literature, Ms. Morrison was credited with giving voice to Black stories through her work as a Random House editor beginning in the late 1960s. There was a “terrible price to pay,” she once remarked, for leaving the comfortable familiarity of Lorain, the Ohio town where she had grown up, for a career in an unwelcoming white society.

Survivors include her son Harold Ford Morrison of Princeton, N.J.; and three grandchildren.

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