This profile of novelist Toni Morrison was published in the Sept. 27, 1987 edition of Newsday, written by Dan Cryer, the paper's book critic at the time. Morrison, who died Aug. 5, 2019, at age 88, had debuted "Beloved" the month this article ran; that novel won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
She sings, in highly acclaimed prose, the song of her people. Her fifth novel, `Beloved,' tells the story of the slave woman Sethe and the horrific price she pays for rebellion. It's considered the publishing event of autumn.
"I hear America singing, its varied carols I hear . . . "
- Walt Whitman, "Leaves of Grass"
READ a Toni Morrison sentence and you hear America singing. Her acclaimed novels of Afro-American life are fluid and lyrical, as full of sorrow and gusto as the blues, at once eloquent laments for her people and tributes to their staying power.
Toni Morrison is the novelist as conjure woman, creating worlds out of words, whispering into the wind and summoning up characters with the magic wand of black culture. Whether she cares to acknowledge it, Toni Morrison is also, as an elected member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, part of the American literary elite. Her first four novels -
"The Bluest Eye," "Sula," "Song of Solomon" and "Tar Baby" - have been published to high praise; "Song of Solomon" was named the best American novel for 1977 by the National Book Critics Circle. She has been a senior editor at Random House, taught at Yale and is an accomplished and sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. Her new novel, "Beloved," a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, is considered the publishing event of the fall. If it does not turn out to be that rare combination of literary and commercial success, a lot of book people will be astonished.
A portrait of a slave woman, Sethe Suggs, and her family, "Beloved" is set before and after the Civil War in Cincinnati and Kentucky. Without ever preaching or begging for sympathy, it takes the reader into the life of the slaves as few books have. In Sethe's life on a Kentucky farm, her escape across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, her wrestling with the ghosts, real and imagined, of family life and racism, Morrison has created an extraordinary American novel.
Face-to-face with Toni Morrison, one senses, first of all, great strength and dignity. This beguilingly comely woman of 56 is the great lady, the esteemed author.
"She gives that impression, always, of grand and majestic because she is," says Morrison's friend and fellow novelist Toni Cade Bambara. "She courageously tackles the big issues all the time. She's not small."
But it is not long before Morrison's reserves of warmth and humor take over, and she laughs at herself, smiles at other people's foibles. She becomes raconteur and actress and memoirist.
William Kennedy, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Ironweed," notes that she "can get very funky . . . She tells a good story. She's funny, irreverent and occasionally salty." Morrison's play "Dreaming Emmett," commissioned by the Kennedy-founded New York State Writers Institute, was produced in Albany last year.
Writer Mary Gordon, whose daughter is Morrison's godchild, finds in Morrison, the mother of two grown sons, a friend who can advise on both rearing children and writing dialogue. Gordon also stresses that Morrison, who wrote a master's thesis at Cornell on Faulkner and Woolf, is steeped in the classics of English and American literature as well as in black culture.
"She's a very literary person," says Gordon. "It's not that she listens to Ma Rainey all the time . . . To hear her talk about Faulkner or Joyce or James has been an important part of our relationship."
"Beloved," at any rate, had distinctly American origins. It was inspired, Morrison says, by a celebrated mid-19th-Century murder case involving a slave woman who escaped to Cincinnati and later killed her children rather than have them returned to the South by slave catchers.
"It occurred to me that mother love was denied these women," she says. "They were not mothers but breeders.
"I was obsessed with this woman because I found myself writing about love and reality and self-sabotage and nurturing. But I had to put it in a context that included slavery. And I went there with a great deal of protest . . . I didn't think I had the emotional resources."
But the resources came because she felt the story had to be told: "It's amazing to me that treating people like beasts doesn't produce beasts . . . The fact that these people [the slaves] were that powerful and that creative and that insistent and that healthy is what is amazing to me."
Morrison was familiar with the history of slavery but she supplemented that knowledge by reading slave narratives, newspapers and other documents of the period. She also hired a research assistant, Michael Blitz, a doctoral student in history at SUNY-Albany, who supplied the details - about clothing, prices, Cincinnati's river-based economy and so on - that lend authenticity to a historical novel.
In her personal history, Morrison finds the same theme of triumph over adversity. She was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second child of George and Ramah Wofford, in 1931. Home was Lorain, Ohio, a steel town west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. Her father weathered the Depression by working at various times as a car washer, welder in a steel mill and road construction worker. When his daughter went off to Howard University in 1949, George Wofford had to hold three jobs to pay for tuition.
Although Lorain's neighborhoods and schools mixed blacks and working-class whites almost at random, "integration" did not guarantee the absence of rac- ism. Once when the rent was overdue, a white landlord tried, literally, to burn the Woffords out of their apartment. In response to outrages such as this, Morrison has written, her father distrusted "every word and every gesture of every white man on earth." Her mother held out more hope for better race relations, but only through vigorous protest.
Despite everyday racism, Morrison remembers an extended family life characterized by nothing less than hard-earned joy: "The most memorable moments were at the dinner table. There was so much laughter. It was never bitter, small, petty laughter . . . [but about] some mistake someone had made . . . They were laughing at themselves. That's what I remember - and the music. It was so extraordinary to me as an observer. All my [writing] seems to begin there. It's the place you go back to in order to move ahead."
People sang the blues, spirituals and popular songs everywhere -- on the streets, at work, after supper around a piano. Morrison sang, too, but claims not to have a good voice.
She sang, even then, through the printed word. In first grade Toni Wofford was the only student in her class already reading. She became a diligent student, she says, doing what was required to get excellent grades. She wrote stories, and in high school an English teacher encouraged her by giving her books of poetry. Even so, her aim at the time was to become a ballerina, like Maria Tallchief.
At home, people delighted in telling stories: Funny stories, sad stories, ghost stories. "And so much of it depended," she recalls, "on the dialogue, and the repetitions, because there were lots of them, sing-song things . . . So there was a great deal of performance involved."
Black slang, more than standard American English, was the key to storytelling virtuosity. Colorful black speech patterns and turns of phrase, often picked up from traveling musicians, Morrison found "more gleaming to me somehow, more poetic. It was more picturesque, it had the sound. Which is why I always come back to that place where I heard the singing . . . and the rolling around of words on the tongue."
AT PRIMARILY black Howard University, Morrison found that same reverence for the word only among the theater crowd and a few dedicated professors. Some of the faculty wrote plays, and she acted in student productions. Otherwise, she found the student body the very embodiment of what black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier once derided as "the black bourgeoisie." Says Morrison: "People really made judgments based on your clothes or your skin color."
After college, Morrison got a master's degree at Cornell and taught at several other colleges before returning to teach at Howard. Meanwhile, she married a Jamaican architect, Howard Morrison, and had two sons, Ford, now 25, and Slade, 21. After six years of marriage the couple divorced and she raised the children by herself. She now lives in a converted boat house on the Hudson River near Nyack in Rockland County.
From 1965 through 1983 Morrison was an editor at Random House. She was responsible for a wide variety of books, but had a special mandate to seek out black authors. Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara were among the authors whose books came out under the Random House imprint.
Wesley Brown, another of those writers, remembers Morrison's "care and generosity" in encouraging him with his novel "Tragic Magic." She became his editor in 1977, shortly after "Song of Solomon" had received hosannas of praise. "She had no pretensions of being this great writer," he says. "I could just see her as Toni who was a friend of mine."
Morrison's own writing began in earnest relatively late, just before she joined Random House. She had to learn to write early in the morning before work and to revise in the evening after her sons were asleep. Later, she would add part-time teaching to this already demanding regimen.
MOST important, she had to make the writing speak with her own distinctive voice. She had to avoid the ghosts of a William Faulkner or a Richard Wright insisting that she express herself this way or that.
"I was very iconoclastic," she says. "I really wanted to wipe all those people out." And then her metaphor, quite naturally, turns to the sound of great jazz artists. "You always recognize Cannonball Adderly. You always recognize John Coltrane . . . It doesn't sound like anybody else. That's my desire in my work."
Out of that conviction came "The Bluest Eye," the story of an ugly, poor black girl whose ideas of beauty and self-esteem are warped by white racism. The critics raved, and the praise has continued with each book. Reviewers may quibble, but the nearly unanimous verdict has been glowingly positive.
As Morrison's literary reputation grew, some observers note, she became somewhat imperious. Some time after "Song of Solomon" was published, she simply informed her supervisors at Random House that she was going to take Fridays off to teach at Yale.
But according to Anne Freedgood, a senior editor at Random House, taking work home on Fridays is quite common in publishing. She grants that her friend "can get huffy at times. But it's only because she doesn't like to be bothered by things she doesn't think are important."
Morrison's eminence certainly has not made her invulnerable to racial insult. And that provokes not huffiness, but wrath. Mary Gordon recalls a party at which Morrison was upset by a group of people singing. Since the music was so loud she couldn't hear herself talking, she complained to the singers.
"Someone like you," a drunken man blurted out, "should want to sing all the time."
Breaking into a withering scowl, she replied "Just what is it about me that makes you think that?"
Confrontation, however, is not her accustomed strategy for maintaining selfrespect. Morrison once told an interviewer, "I probably spend 60 percent of my time hiding. I teach my children that there is a part of yourself that you keep from white people -- always."
Self-concealment has no doubt served Morrison well in the largely white world in which she has worked. But with close friends the barriers come down and she sometimes becomes an actress again, mimicking friend and foe with gleeful abandon.
"She has a repertoire of voices," Bambara says, "for her in-the-kitchen performances, the kind of thing girlfriends tell to girlfriends."
Freedgood observes: "She can certainly do the Jamaica accent perfectly. I've seen her do people we both know. She just has their mannerisms down cold."
In her fiction, Morrison has chosen to focus almost exclusively on the black world. "Tar Baby" is the major exception. And despite her widespread acceptance by readers of all kinds, her books are aimed without apology at a black audience.
Her work, she says, "has nothing to do with editorializing and educating white people. It has something to do with talking to oneself. . . It has none of that `Let me tell you how terrible you've been to me.' It has none of that `Let me tell you how perfect and wonderful I am.' "
"Wonderful" may be absent but a sense of wonder is always there. Ghosts are prominent in "Beloved." In "Tar Baby," palms sway in sympathetic resonance with a character's distress. A conjure woman works her magic in "Song of Solomon."
"I think everybody knows about the possibility of enchantment," Morrison says.
"I have just tried to make it as forthright as possible . . . You have a house that is really haunted, not a house in which you feel uncomfortable because terrible things happened there. I find my magic much tamer and much more pedestrian than reality."
Morrison's magic, we have been assured, will continue. She expects to write at least one more and perhaps two novels based on the characters found in "Beloved." Her work will continue to explore with uncommon vigor and eloquence the many worlds of black America.
Toni Morrison does not resent being labeled a black writer. She delights in it. She finds it absolutely necessary:
"A Russian doesn't say, `What are the French going to think [of my writing]?' And an Englishman doesn't say, `Oh my God, I wonder if the Scandinavians are going to be upset if I do it this way?' . . .
"But for black people, as artists, we've been . . . abused over and over again about whether or not we were `universal.' That's just a euphemism for saying, `Don't be black. Don't make it political.'
"And it was the wrong message because it doesn't work in art. The more specific one is, the more regional, the more parochial, the better. . .
"You'd never have blues or jazz or any of it unless people began to make it so special, so closed in that sense . . .
"The reason we have so-called great literature is because it's . . .simply playing to itself. The moment you try to write `mankind's novel,' you're sunk."