IN THE obituaries, Toni Morrison is always referred to as the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. That she certainly was, but the label is far too narrow.
She is one of only a dozen Americans of any race or sex to achieve literature’s highest honor since it was first accorded 118 years ago. She was not one of the greatest American writers of a certain category. She was one of the greatest American writers ever.
Morrison, who passed on Monday at the age of 88, wrote about the black experience with a combination of unsparing depictions (her characters are just as capable of moral deformities as they are of grace) and magical realism that has made many critics compare her to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another Nobel laureate.
In “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1988, an escaped slave who is captured and is about to be brought back into bondage chooses to murder her 2-year-old daughter rather than see the girl subjugated.
This kind of unsparing look at the human experience gained her a devoted following from the time her first book, “The Bluest Eye,” was published in 1970 when Morrison was almost 40. That story centers on a black girl whose father impregnates her, and whose heart-breaking wish is to have blue eyes.
Morrison achieved that most rare of feats for a modern-day novelist. She became both critically acclaimed and beloved by millions of readers. One of her biggest backers was Oprah Winfrey.
In a 1994 interview, she said that she tried to escape stereotypical black settings in her writing. “It is neither plantation nor ghetto,” she explained. Much of her writing is set in small towns and cities, often in the Midwest, where her roots were.
Chloe Ardelia Wofford was born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. When she was baptized as a Catholic, her baptismal name was Anthony, which got shortened to Toni when she went away to college at Howard University. By the time “The Bluest Eye” was published, she had gone through a marriage (she kept her ex-husband’s name) and was raising two boys on her own while working as a book editor.
Her reputation was secured when “Song of Solomon” won the National Book Award and when “Beloved” won the Pulitzer. Then, in 1993, came the Nobel Prize.
Toni Morrison wrote about the African American experience in a way that any reader with an appreciation of good writing could love.
In a 2003 interview for the New Yorker, she said of her life: “I really only do one thing. I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.”
Few, if any, have done that job better.