Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 and spent the first years of her life in Ohio. She received an undergraduate degree in English from Howard University and completed a master’s program at Cornell. When many of her classmates had difficulty pronouncing her uncommon first name, she changed it to Toni (a derivative of her middle name). In 1958, she married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica, and the couple had two sons. They divorced six years later. After pursuing an academic career teaching English at Howard, Morrison became an editor at Random House, where she specialized in black fiction. At the same time, she began building a body of creative work that, in 1993, would make her the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye was followed by Sula in 1974, which secured Morrison a nomination for the National Book Award. In 1977, Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Song of Solomon. Her other works include Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), and, of course, Beloved. That novel, considered by many to be her best, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Today, Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, where she conducts undergraduate workshops in creative writing.
Set during the Reconstruction era in 1873, Beloved centers on the powers of memory and history. For the former slaves in the novel, the past is a burden that they desperately and willfully try to forget. Yet for Sethe, the protagonist of the novel, memories of slavery are inescapable. They continue to haunt her, literally, in the spirit of her deceased daughter. Eighteen years earlier, Sethe had murdered this daughter in order to save her from a life of slavery. Morrison borrowed the event from the real story of Margaret Garner, who, like Sethe, escaped from slavery in Kentucky and murdered her child when slave catchers caught up with her in Ohio. Beloved straddles the line between fiction and history; from the experiences of a single family, Morrison creates a powerful commentary on the psychological and historical legacy of slavery.
Part of Morrison’s project in Beloved is to recuperate a history that had been lost to the ravages of forced silences and willed forgetfulness. Morrison writes Sethe’s story with the voices of a people who historically have been denied the power of language. Beloved also contains a didactic element. From Sethe’s experience, we learn that before a stable future can be created, we must confront and understand the “ghosts” of the past. Morrison suggests that, like Sethe, contemporary American readers must confront the history of slavery in order to address its legacy, which manifests itself in ongoing racial discrimination and discord.
Morrison once said that she wanted to help create a canon of black work, noting that black writers too often have to pander to a white audience when they should be able to concentrate on the business of writing instead. Many readers believe Morrison’s novels go a long way toward the establishment of her envisioned tradition. The poetic, elegant style of her writing in Beloved panders to no one. Morrison challenges and requires the reader to accept her on her own terms.
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