“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
There is no shortage of poignant quotes to choose from to top an obituary for Toni Morrison, the celebrated author who died last night in New York at the age of 88. Perhaps the one above is most fitting.
Morrison’s novels were celebrated and embraced by booksellers, critics, educators, readers, and librarians. Her work also ignited controversy, notably in school districts that tried to ban her books.
Few American writers won more awards for their books and writing. Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy recognizing her as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity,” she has said.
In 1996, she was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and in 2012, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Morrison also worked as an editor at Random House – the first female African-American editor in company history – from 1967 to 1983. There, she published Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others. Her work as an editor and publisher at Random House demonstrated a unique commitment to writers of color, and helped in opening industry doors to them.
And for over five decades, Morrison was also a part-time teacher of creative writing and literature, often bringing students together with other writers, at Howard University (from which she graduated in 1953), Yale University, SUNY Purchase, Bard College, Rutgers University, SUNY Albany, and Princeton University, where she retired as Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities in 2006.
The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, was published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1970. Morrison followed with Sula in 1973, and nine subsequent novels, all of them published with Alfred A. Knopf.
The Morrison family said in a statement: “It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing.”
Sonny Mehta, Chairman of Knopf, said: “Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni.”