Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her mother’s family had come to Ohio from Alabama via Kentucky, and her father had migrated from Georgia. Morrison grew up with a love of literature and received her undergraduate degree from Howard University. She received a master’s degree from Cornell University, completing a thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. Afterward, she taught at Texas Southern University and then at Howard, in Washington, D.C., where she met Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. The marriage lasted six years, and Morrison gave birth to two sons. She and her husband divorced while she was pregnant with her second son, and she returned to Lorain to give birth. She then moved to New York and became an editor at Random House, specializing in black fiction. During this difficult and somewhat lonely time, she began working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1970.
Morrison’s first novel was not an immediate success, but she continued to write. Sula, which appeared in 1973, was more successful, earning a nomination for the National Book Award. In 1977, Song of Solomon launched Morrison’s national reputation, winning her the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Her most well-known work, Beloved, appeared in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Her other novels include Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998). Meanwhile, Morrison returned to teaching and was a professor at Yale and the State University of New York at Albany. Today, she is the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, where she teaches creative writing. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Bluest Eye contains a number of autobiographical elements. It is set in the town where Morrison grew up, and it is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old, the age Morrison would have been the year the novel takes place (1941). Like the MacTeer family, Morrison’s family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. Morrison grew up listening to her mother singing and her grandfather playing the violin, just as Claudia does. In the novel’s afterword, Morrison explains that the story developed out of a conversation she had had in elementary school with a little girl, who longed for blue eyes. She was still thinking about this conversation in the 1960s, when the Black is Beautiful movement was working to reclaim African-American beauty, and she began her first novel.
While its historical context is clear, the literary context of The Bluest Eye is more complex. Faulkner and Woolf, whose work Morrison knew well, influenced her style. She uses the modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness, multiple perspectives, and deliberate fragmentation. But Morrison understands her work more fundamentally as part of a black cultural tradition and strives to create a distinctively black literature. Her prose is infused with black musical traditions such as the spirituals, gospel, jazz and the blues. She writes in a black vernacular, full of turns of phrase and figures of speech unique to the community in which she grew up, with the hope that if she is true to her own particular experience, it will be universally meaningful. In this way, she attempts to create what she calls a “race-specific yet race-free prose.”
In the afterword to The Bluest Eye, Morrison explains her goal in writing the novel. She wants to make a statement about the damage that internalized racism can do to the most vulnerable member of a community—a young girl. At the same time, she does not want to dehumanize the people who wound this girl, because that would simply repeat their mistake. Also, she wants to protect this girl from “the weight of the novel’s inquiry,” and thus decides to tell the story from multiple perspectives. In this way, as she puts it, she “shape[s] a silence while breaking it,” keeping the girl’s dignity intact.
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