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Published:February 18th, 2007 08:11 EST
Toni Morrison - celebrity among writers

Toni Morrison - celebrity among writers

By Krzys Wasilewski

Toni Morrison " the writer who has it all: fortune, fame, and talent. She has been dubbed the Great American Storyteller by Time Magazine, and The New York Times has named one of her books the best American novel of the last quarter of the century. Even this intellectually ossified Europe acknowledged her brilliant talent when awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature. The world is at her feet. Looking at her, you would never guess that this kind faced older lady is one of the most respected writers in the contemporary world. Her image hardly fits the stereotype of the intellectual - no thick-lensed spectacles, no glassy eyes, no worn out face. In other words, nothing what would give you a hint about Morrison`s true nature. Instead, her magenta lips, everlasting radiant smile, pearly white teeth, and the faultless silver hair create the impression of an older Oprah Winfrey, waiting to comfort her troubled guests and listen patiently to their problems. Even her clothes " fashionable dresses and haute couture suits " rather resemble the wardrobe of a celebrity, not a Nobel Prize winner. A true American, as Europeans would say.

But garments put aside, Toni Morrison is a prolific and gifted writer. She debuted in 1970, with The Bluest Eyes " a touching story of Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year old African American girl, who thinks that the perfect remedy for all the problems ravaging her home would be the eponymous blue eyes. Shirley Temple looks so gorgeous on television that for Pecola the young actress with her diamond-like eyes becomes a synonym for happiness. But with blue eyes, she thought, everything would be different. She would be so pretty that her parents would stop fighting. Her father would stop drinking. Her brother would stop running away. " The book was praised for its naturalism and authenticity, and simultaneously criticized for the lack of chronology as well as for its chaotic narration. What was perceived as freshman inexperience at that time, received enthusiastic applause in literary circles few years later.

Three years after her debut, Morrison published her second novel, Sula. Contrary to what the title may suggest, this is a story of two black women: Sula Peace and her best friend and alter ego, Nel Wright. Although they have been very close since the early childhood, the two heroines could not be more different from each other. While Nel is a paragon of the family woman " her dreams are restricted to marrying a good husband and raising his children; Sula is more restless. She leaves her small town when the first occasion arises, graduates from a university and comes back home a fully independent and liberated woman. Morrison remains objective in her storytelling, naggingly steering away from judging the two women`s choices, and letting them learn from their own mistakes. Even though Morrison`s specific style left critics as divided as before, most reviewers marveled over this black woman`s epic, " a study of female friendship, " an antiwar novel, " a fable, " an exploration of the feminine psyche, " and, last but not least, a prime postmodernist text. "

If, in the early 1970s the name of Toni Morrison was known only to a small circle of readers, by the end of the decade, she became a nationally recognized writer. The breakthrough novel was Song of Solomon, a stunningly beautiful book, " as Anne Tyler of Washington Post stated in her review in December 1977. This time there was no doubt: Toni Morrison had produced a book that would change the face of America for ever; the black and white America, one should add. In Song of Solomon, Morrison sets off the main character, Macon Dead III (or Milkman, as his friends and neighbors call him) on a journey, not so much to his ancestor`s home in the south, as into the core of his being. The result of this one-man trip will not only affect Milkman`s mental stabilization, but the well-being of the entire community. In 1996, Oprah Winfrey selected Song of Solomon for her Oprah`s Book Club. Shortly afterwards, people descended upon stores in pursuit of the novel, and, with over one million copies of the book sold, Morrison joined the ranks of America`s top celebrities.

Then came Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), and Paradise (1998) " the famous Morrison`s trilogy. Despite the considerable period of time that splits the books, all the three share the same subject: love. Beloved is the name of a two-year old girl whose mother, having narrowly escaped slavery, is trying to protect her little daughter from suffering the same fate. The book won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was later adapted into a movie with Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Jazz, on the other hand, shows how difficult and complicated may be love between a man and a woman when born in the harsh conditions of Harlem. The last book of the trilogy, Paradise, raises the questions as to whether a perfect society can really exist and what price must be paid for living in the eponymous Paradise.

Toni Morrison has come a long way from a provincial city to the literary top. She was born to a working-class family on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. As she admitted in one of interviews, as the second of four children she had to make her presence felt by being the nosiest of them all. " The live character notwithstanding, Toni soon became the apple of her parents` eyes. Both George and Ramah Wills Wofford remembered their little daughter sitting peacefully in the corner and devouring fat volumes of books. Among her favorites were such classics as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy with his pompous War and Peace. This passion for books has prevailed throughout all the years " even now, a respected writer herself; she spends her every free minute on reading whatever finds a way to her hands.

Despite financial problems, Toni Morrison managed to finish her humanities studies at Howard University in 1953. Two years later, she did Masters of Arts in English at Cornell University and moved to Houston, Texas, where she became an English instructor at the local university. Passion for literature won over university life, so Morrison moved once again, this time to New York City and took up the job of an editor at Random House. There, she worked for almost thirty years, passionately editing books by various authors and successfully introducing black African American literature to the mainstream. When her own books began to yield visible earnings, Morrison devoted her entire time to writing. She did not have to wait long for the first results " in 1977 Song of Solomon won her several prizes, inter alia, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. For a real success, however, Toni Morrison had to wait another 11 years, until in 1988 her fourth novel, Beloved, earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. In 1993, the Swedish Academy decided to award Toni Morrison the Nobel Price for Literature for her delving into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. "

If Morrison`s career was a path from one success to another, her personal life was not so one-dimensional. It began like a dream though: she " a young editor and prospective writer, and he " a gifted architect from Jamaica. Harold Morrison seemed to have had all the qualities Toni was looking for: he was handsome, charming and intelligent. They got married in 1958. Three years later when their first son, Harold Ford was born, they thought the dream would continue forever. However, in 1964, their marriage fell to pieces and Toni Morrison was left alone with her two sons. It is hard to believe that such a beautiful and sociable woman has remained single ever since. Often does she joke that she is married to literature, her only true love. In addition, judging from the quality and quantity of the books she has written, this feeling is mutual.

On February 18, 2007, Toni Morrison will mark her 67 years on this earth. One could wonder how a woman who has won the greatest awards and met the most distinguished of personas can still find appeal in life. She apparently can. Regardless the titles and acquaintances, behind the perfect smile and fashionable clothes, Toni Morrison is still a little girl who would rather sit in the corner and read Pride and Prejudice for the tenth time. She has nothing to hurry after " after all " the world is at her feet.

Please send comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com