Toni Morrison, who wrote about race, gender, and history with great urgency and tremendous narrative power, died Aug. 5. The author was 88 years old and her family said she died “following a short illness.”
Morrison’s work includes classics such as “Beloved,” “The Bluest Eye,” and “Song of Solomon,” novels that excavated painful chapters of America’s past. She examined the scars left by slavery and Jim Crow, and the ways that a culture of systemic racism warps the country’s moral values, sending out currents of pain across the generations. Her modernist writing style, both lyrical and evocative, drew comparisons to James Joyce and William Faulkner.
“I am interested in the complexity, the vulnerability of an idea,” Morrison told the Paris Review in 1993. “It is not ‘this is what I believe,’ because that would not be a book, just a tract. A book is ‘this may be what I believe, but suppose I am wrong . . . what could it be?’ Or, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I am interested in finding out what it might mean to me, as well as to other people.'”
In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize. The prize committee praised the author for writing novels “characterized by visionary force and poetic import.” Other awards include the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
“Beloved,” the story of a former slave and her young daughter haunted by a ghost, is considered to be Morrison’s masterwork. Published in 1988, it is routinely ranked among the greatest novels of the 20th century. Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover starred in a 1998 movie adaptation that earned strong reviews, but weak box office returns.
In addition to her novels, Morrison wrote literary criticism, children’s books, plays, and even the libretto for an opera, “Margaret Garner.” Morrison also taught at Princeton University, where she held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities.
“She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends,” Morrison’s family said in a statement. “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.”