(PM) — Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who conjured a black girl yearning for blue eyes, a slave mother who sacrifices her child to save her from bondage, and other unforgettable characters who helped transfigure a literary canon long blocked to African Americans, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in New York City. She was 88.
Paul Bogaards, a spokesman for the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company, confirmed Morrison’s death but did not give an immediate cause.
Ms. Morrison filled an impoverished childhood in Ohio steel country, began writing throughout what she described as borrowed time as a single mother, and became the first black woman to earn the Nobel Prize in literature. Critically acclaimed and universally loved, she received appreciation as diverse as the Pulitzer Prize and the selection of her novels — four of them — for the book club begun by African-American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
Ms. Morrison arranged African Americans, particularly women, at the center of her writing at a time when they were largely consigned to the boundaries both in literature and in life. With language celebrated for its lyricism, she was recognized with conveying as effectively, or more than perhaps any novelist before her, the reality of black life in America, from slavery to the inequality that went on more than a century after it ended.
Among her best-known works is “Beloved” (1987), the Pulitzer-winning novel later made into a film starring Winfrey. It introduced millions of readers to Sethe, a slave mother possessed by the memory of the child she had murdered, having concluded life in slavery worse than no life at all. Like many of Ms. Morrison’s characters, she was tortured, yet noble — “unavailable to pity,” as the author described them.
“The Bluest Eye” (1970), Ms. Morrison’s debut novel, was published as she approached her 40th birthday, and it became an enduring classic. It centered on Pecola Breedlove, an impoverished black girl of 11 who is despondent at what she regards as her ugliness.
“She had seen this little girl all of her life,” reads a description of Pecola. “Hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and caked with dirt. They had stared at her with great uncomprehending eyes. Eyes that questioned nothing and asked everything. Unblinking and unabashed, they stared up at her. The end of the world lay in their eyes, and the beginning, and all the waste in between.”
Ms. Morrison’s Nobel Prize, presented in 1993, made her the first native-born American since John Steinbeck in 1962 to receive that honor. The citation recognized her for “novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import” and that breathed life into “an essential aspect of American reality.”