Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorrain, Ohio, a steel town on the banks of Lake Erie. Morrison’s parents, George and Rahmah, were children of sharecroppers who migrated from rural Georgia and Alabama. The second of four children, Morrison excelled in high school, graduated from Howard University, and received her master’s degree from Cornell. Initially opting for a career as a teacher and editor, Morrison became an instructor at several historically black universities and worked for Random House. She brought writers such as Angela Davis and Toni Cade Bambara to national prominence. Morrison married and later divorced a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison. The couple had two sons.
Morrison began her first novel, The Bluest Eye, while she taught at Howard University. It was published to critical acclaim in 1970. Morrison’s second novel, Sula, brought the young author national recognition as well as a nomination for the 1975 National Book Award in fiction. Song of Solomon, Morrison’s third novel, was popular with both critics and readers. In 1978, the novel won the National Critics Circle Award and the Letters Award. 570,000 paperback copies are currently in print. Morrison’s carreer continued its meteoric rise, and in 1988 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved. In 1993, Toni Morrison joined the exclusive ranks of the world’s premier writers when she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
Morrison’s fiction does not fit well into a single category. It blends themes of race and class, coming-of-age stories, and mythical and realistic genres. Some critics classify Morrison as magical realist in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez. However, others claim that she is a black classicist, an heir to nineteenth century European novelists such as Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Finally, other scholars argue that African-American oral narratives, rather than European traditions, provide the raw material for her work. Morrison draws on all of these styles to create a rich tapestry of backgrounds and experiences for her distinctive characters.
Morrison’s biography serves as rich source material for the literary characters in Song of Solomon. Jake (also known as Macon Dead I) has experiences similar to those of Morrison’s beloved grandfather, John Solomon Willis. After losing his land and being forced to become a sharecropper, Willis became disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 document freeing black slaves. The character Heddy may have been modeled after Morrison’s Native American great-grandmother. Guitar is a composite character, made up of Morrison’s family and friends whose lives were destroyed by racism. Milkman’s journey to uncover his roots can be compared to Morrison’s own. Like Milkman’s, Morrison’s creative life began after age thirty and has been grounded in the African-American experience.
Toni Morrison has said in interviews that she opposed desegregation in the early 1960s despite being aware of its terrible effects. She worried that the excellent historically black schools and universities would disappear. Morrison wondered if the treasures of folklore, art, music, and literature created by the relatively insular African-American community would disappear once that community became more porous. Accordingly, while Song of Solomon explores the different experiences of white people and black people, almost all of the action occurs within an African-American world, drawing on its vitality for inspiration.
Although the black community provides the setting of Song of Solomon, the novel’s themes are universal. Milkman’s quest toward self-discovery, Macon Jr.’s obsession with wealth, Pilate’s boundless love for others, Ryna’s and Hagar’s madness from broken hearts, and Guitar’s destructive thirst for revenge are classic stories that have been told countless times in literatures of all traditions.