Nobel Prize-winning novelist and longtime Princeton University creative writing professor Toni Morrison died on Monday evening, at age 88, according to a statement by her longtime publisher Knopf. She died at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, the statement said, though it did not specify a cause of death.
Morrison broke through in 1970 with her debut novel “The Bluest Eye,” which earned praise for its stark portrait of a sexually abused African-American girl who has internalized racism and yearns for blue eyes. Her crowning achievement remains “Beloved,” a devastating 1988 novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, and chronicles the troubled lives of a group of former slaves in post Civil War Ohio.
In 1989, Morrison was appointed the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she continued to teach until 2006. In 2017, the University renamed West Hall, a residential college on the campus, Morrison Hall, in honor of the writer.
The University confirmed her death and released a statement from her family that reads in part: “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. 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.”
Born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, Morrison was an editor at Random House for many years, where he championed such African-American Angela Davis. She wrote “The Bluest Eye” while holding down her editor position and raising two children on her own.
Although “The Bluest Eye” — with its rich use of language and its unflinching consideration of racist systems — bears all the hallmarks of Morrison’s work, it wasn’t until successive novels that her voice truly flowered. In the novels that followed, “Sula” (1973) and “Song of Solomon,” (1977) Morrison incorporated elements of magical realism, as well as a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of American and African history. (“Song of Solomon” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, one of many prizes Morrison would collect during her storied career.)
“Beloved” was published in 1987 and was greeted with universal acclaim. Combining elements of both a traditional ghost story and the slave narrative, the book introduced readers to Sethe, a mother haunted by the brutal choice she once made to spare her child from slavery. The book won the Pulitzer (following a much-reported controversy when Morrison didn’t win the National Book Award) and cemented her reputation as a giant of 20th century American literature. That reputation was only enchanced when, in 1993, she became only the fourth woman and second black person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Until Bob Dylan won in 2016, she was also the only American to receive the Nobel since her win.)
By Christopher Kelly, www.jh.com