Toni Morrison, the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature has died at the age of 88.
Morrison’s death which occurred at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx in New York was announced by her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. A spokeswoman said the cause of death was complications from pneumonia.
Morrison, an African-American who lived in Grand View-on-Hudson, New York won the Nobel Prize in 1993.
The author of 11 novels as well as children’s books and essay collections, she was one of the most eminent American writers whose books were both critically and commercially successful.
Among her books were celebrated works like Song of Solomon which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and Beloved which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
Widely acclaimed by book critics, Beloved was made into a 1998 feature movie directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Ms. Winfrey.
For mid-20th-century readers, one of the most striking things about Ms. Morrison’s works was that they delineated a world in which white people were largely absent, a relatively rare thing in fiction during the period.
Her novels appeared regularly on the New York Times best-seller list. They were also featured multiple times on Oprah Winfrey’s television book club and were the subject of critical studies.
In awarding her the Nobel, the Swedish Academy cited her novels, which they said were characterized by visionary force and poetic import.
In Song of Solomon, a baby girl is named Pilate by her father, who had stumbled upon the Bible and since he could not read a word, chose a group of letters that seemed to him strong and handsome.
Morrison’s writing also made it clear that the past was just as strongly manifest in the bonds of family, community and race and that such bonds let culture, identity and a sense of belonging to be transmitted from parents to children and eventually to grandchildren.
These generational links, her works suggest, form the only salutary chains in human experience.
Morrison’s singular approach to narrative is evident in her first novel, The Bluest Eye published in 1970 and written in stolen moments between her day job as a book editor and her life as the single mother of two young sons.
The daughter of George Wofford and Ella Ramah (Willis) Wofford, she was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio, an integrated working-class community located about 30 miles west of Cleveland.
Young Chloe grew up in a house suffused with narrative and superstition. She adored listening to ghost stories as her grandmother ritually consulted a book on dream interpretation.
At 12, Chloe joined the Roman Catholic Church. She took the baptismal name Anthony, becoming known as Chloe Anthony Wofford.
That name would be the seed from which her nickname would spring a few years later, when she was an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington. There, she began calling herself Toni because according to her, her classmates found the name Chloe bewildering.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Howard with a major in English and a minor in classics in 1953, she earned a master’s in English from Cornell in 1955. She taught English for two years at Texas Southern University.
There, she joined a fiction workshop and began writing in earnest. When she required to bring a sample to a workshop meeting, she began work on a story about a black girl who craved blue eyes, the root of her first novel.
In 1958, she married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. They divorced in 1964. Although she rarely spoke of the marriage, Ms. Morrison intimated that her husband had wanted a traditional 1950s wife and that, she could never be.
After her divorce, Ms. Morrison moved with her sons to Syracuse where she took a job as an editor with a textbook division of Random House. Being a stranger in the city, she found herself lonely and in the intervals between work and motherhood, she began turning her short story into The Bluest Eye.
In the late 1960s, she moved to New York City and took an editorial position with Random House’s trade-book division. Over the nearly two decades she held the post, her authors included Angela Davis, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara and Muhammad Ali.
“I look very hard for black fiction because I want to participate in developing a canon of black work,” Morrison said in an interview quoted in The Dictionary of Literary Biography.
“We’ve had the first rush of black entertainment, where blacks were writing for whites, and whites were encouraging this kind of self-flagellation. Now we can get down to the craft of writing, where black people are talking to black people,” she added.
One of the nonfiction projects on which she worked at Random House was The Black Book published in 1974. Compiled by her, the volume is a lavishly illustrated scrapbook spanning three centuries of African-American history, reproducing newspaper clippings, photographs, advertisements, handbills and the like.
Ms. Morrison’s fourth novel, Tar Baby (1981) deals explicitly with the issues of racial and class prejudice among black people. Set on a Caribbean island, it chronicles the love affair of a cosmopolitan, European-educated black woman with a rough-and-tumble local man.
Her other novels include Jazz (1992) set in 1920s New York, A Mercy (2008) which divorces the institution of slavery from ideas of race and Home (2012), a novel about a black Korean War veteran’s struggles on returning to the Jim Crow South.
Her volumes of nonfiction include Playing In The Dark, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) and What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (2008), edited by Carolyn C. Denard.
She also wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner, an opera by Richard Danielpour which received its world premiere at the Detroit Opera House in 2005 with the mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role.
In 1989 Toni Morrison joined the faculty of Princeton where she taught courses in the humanities and African American studies and was a member of the creative writing program. She went on emeritus status in 2006.
She is survived by her son, Harold Ford Morrison and three grandchildren. Another son, Slade, with whom she collaborated on the texts of many books for children died in 2010.
Her other laurels include the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented in 2012 by President Barack Obama. The Toni Morrison Society, devoted to the study of her life and work was founded in 1993.