Becoming Coherent In The World: The Extraordinary Career of Toni Morrison

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Image credit: Britannica

Image credit: Britannica

Today marks the eighty-fourth birthday of the distinguished Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who was born in Lorain, Ohio, a town near Cleveland, Ohio on February 18, 1931. Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford to George and Rahmah Willis Wofford, who had both moved north from the deep south to better their lot. She attended local schools, graduating from Lorain High in 1949, then went on to Howard University, where she became known as Toni and received a B.A. in English literature. Following graduation from Howard she earned a Master of Arts in English at Cornell University. She taught for one year at Texas Southern University in Houston, than went back to Howard to teach. At Howard she met her future husband, an architect named Harold Morrison from Jamaica.

Founders Library at Howard University. Photo by David Monack

Founders Library at Howard University. Photo by David Monack

It may surprise readers to know that during these early years Morrison had no real interest in writing fiction. She was mostly interested in broadening her knowledge of literature and teaching, and was busy raising their two sons, Slade and Kevin. But she felt unfulfilled at some level, and joined a local writing group in 1961. At first she shared old pieces she had written in high school, but decided to write a short story about a young black girl who wanted to have blue eyes. This w story was the basis for her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She had discovered what was missing in her life. She later told Mel Watkins of the New York Times Book Review that writing was “the most extraordinary way of thinking and feeling–it became one thing that I was doing that I had no intention of living without.” She also told the scholar Thomas LeClair (a former professor of mine at the University of Cincinnati) that “Writing became a way to become coherent in the world.”

Toni Morrison as a young woman (Image credit: Colorlines).

Toni Morrison as a young woman (Image credit: Colorlines).

In 1965 she divorced Harold Morrison and left Howard, returned briefly to Ohio, then took a job as an editor for a Random House subsidiary in Syracuse, New York. Two years later she was at Random House headquarters in New York City. She became the firm’s specialist in black fiction, helping to launch the careers of writers such as Toni Cade Bambara and Angela Davis, and editing nonfiction books by noted figures such as former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and boxer Muhammad Ali. Toni Morrison would spend a total of eighteen years with Random House.

Toni Morrison’s work explores a wide variety of themes: the tangled relationships among family members and within communities scarred by the long-festering wounds of racial oppression; issues of identity and self-worth; the search for love and fulfillment; the power of communities to help or hinder the growth and healing of people wounded by life. Elements of mysticism and magic are in her work, along with elements of the literary form known as “magical realism.”

Toni Morrison (far left) at Lorain High School (Photo credit: Lorain Hist. Society).

Toni Morrison (far left) at Lorain High School (Photo credit: Lorain Hist. Society).

But I think it’s also accurate to say that Toni Morrison is a novelist deeply concerned with history and memory, and the devastating effects on both individuals and families from the entire complex of intertwined problems created by racism in the United States. She goes still deeper than that—like any writer she is concerned with the multitudinous dimensions of human behavior, but her work clearly examines the lives of black Americans and the forces of history, family, and community upon them.

Place and community are important parts of her work as well. Three of her best known works have Ohio settings—The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Beloved—and Morrison has spoken of the advantage of Ohio in her work, telling one interviewer that Ohio “offers an escape from stereotyped black settings. It is neither plantation nor ghetto.” Morrison paints vivid pictures of the communities and their inhabitants in her novels, ranging from “The Bottom” in Sula (which is paradoxically and ironically located on a hillside) to the New York City of the 1920s in Jazz to the deserted coastal hotel that carries such significance in her recent novel Love.

Image credit: Indiewire

Image credit: Indiewire

Morrison’s publishing career commenced with The Bluest Eye, which tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an Ohio girl in the early 1940s whose life is marred by sexual abuse, poverty and racism. It was published in 1970 to excellent reviews. She followed it with Sula in 1973. Sula tells the story of a friendship between two women, one wild and rebellious–who longs for the bluest eyes possible–and the other staid and conventional . The story examines issues of good and evil and relations between family and community members in a small town in Ohio, along with questions about black self-image and self-worth. During her time at Random House, Toni Morrison also began teaching courses in creative writing and African-American literature at institutions such as Yale and Bard. Clearly her star was on the rise.

She followed Sula with Song of Solomon, which critic Harold Bloom believes is Morrison’s strongest novel. This work won her the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Friends of American Writers Award. Song of Solomon tells the story of a man named Macon Dead III, known to friends and family as “Milkman,” and in doing so explores multiple generations of his family’s history.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Tar Baby (1981) followed Song of Solomon, and in this novel Morrison turned her attention to contemporary times. Tar Baby is the story of a light-skinned young black woman named Jadine who is a successful model with a degree from the Sorbonne. She becomes involved with a man named Son, an American fugitive hiding out on a Caribbean island. Jadine returns to New York with Son, and also visits his family in the rural south. Tar Baby examines different aspects of black experience in America as reflected in these two characters. It also contrasts the African-American experience in rural and city settings.

In 1987 her powerful novel Beloved was published, later made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. Beloved is based on the true story of the slave Margaret Garner, who escaped from a farm in Boone County, Kentucky and killed one of her own children rather than see her enslaved again. Beloved won Toni Morrison the Pulitzer Prize. Beloved is also the first book in a trilogy corresponding to the three famous works of Dante: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. Beloved is clearly her Inferno work–a portrait of the hellish world of slavery.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Morrison followed Beloved with Jazz, published in 1992, which is set in the New York City of the 1920s while also exploring the experiences of a group of people through five generations. This was followed in turn by Paradise, published in 1998 and concerning an attack by a group of men on five women living collectively in a building known as “the Convent.” The novel Love (2003) concerns the legacy of a hotel owner named Bill Cosey and the memories of the women who knew him and their tangled relationships in the years after his death. A Mercy appeared in 2008. A Mercy is Morrison’s foray into early American history. She explores the lives of a Dutch settler in New York along with a black slave, an American Indian woman who labors on his farm, and the Dutchman’s wife. Her most recent novel is Home, published in 2012, concerning a black Korean War veteran struggling to adjust to life in the segregated America of the early 1950s, and revisiting the shadows of his past. Home is dedicated to her son Slade, who died of pancreatic cancer while his mother was writing this novel. The two had collaborated on Toni Morrison’s four children’s books. Slade was only forty-five years old.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's "The Modern Medea" was inspired by the Margaret Garner story.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s “The Modern Medea” was inspired by the Margaret Garner story.

Her next novel, entitled God Help The Child, is scheduled for publication in April of 2015.

In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize. She is the seventh native-born American to win the honor, and only the second woman (the other is Pearl Buck).

She has also written plays and the libretto for Margaret Garner, an opera based on the life of the enslaved woman whose story helped inspire Beloved, and has published nonfiction as well. Her nonfiction works include The Black Book (1974), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004), a book for younger readers. She has also edited a number of works and written children’s books as well.

After her years at Random House, Toni Morrison taught English at branches of the State University of New York and also the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University. She also held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities at Princeton, New Jersey from 1989 to 2006. During that time she created and developed a program called the “Princeton Athelier.” This is an educational experience in which world-renowned artists collaborate with students to create works of art that are unveiled at the semester’s end. Artists in various disciplines, including writing, work with the students. The program is highly respected, proof that Toni Morrison has made a mark as an educator as well as a writer.

Mural in Vitoria, Spain depicting Toni Morrison (photo by Zarateman).

Mural in Vitoria, Spain depicting Toni Morrison (photo by Zarateman).

Toni Morrison has received numerous honors in her lifetime, some of which are mentioned in this post. She was most recently honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. The Tony Morrison Society has been established to study the work and contributions of Toni Morrison. The Society is headquartered at Oberlin University in Oberlin, Ohio, an appropriate place given the university’s long and honorable connection with movements to create social justice. Oberlin was the first institution of higher learning to admit black and female students as well as white men during the 1800s.

Toni Morrison has come a long way from her early days in Lorain, Ohio. She has become not only coherent in the world, but magnificently eloquent—a literary voice recognized and honored across the globe, a novelist exploring the mysteries of human nature and portraying the dignity of people who are vital and alive, struggling for self-definition despite the forces of history, memory, and society that surround them.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins: New York. 1991.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: Volume One—The Authors. Article on Toni Morrison by Marilyn J. Atlas. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Toni Morrison. Edited And With An Introduction By Harold Bloom (Bloom’s Major Novelists). Chelsea House Publishers: Broomall, PA. 2000.

Toni Morrison. Wilfred D. Samuels and Clenora Hudson-Weems. Twayne’s United States Authors Series. Twayne Publishers: Boston. 1990.

Toni Morrison: A Critical Companion (Critical Companions To Popular Contemporary Writers), Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Greenwood Press; Westport, CT and London, 1998.

Wikipedia entry on Toni Morrison.

Winter in Kentucky, c. 1810

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Photo credit: Ky. Dept of Forestry

Photo credit: Ky. Dept of Forestry

I recently finished reading Robert Penn Warren’s remarkable narrative poem Brother To Dragons: A Tale in Verse and Voices. The poem concerns a real incident that occurred near Paducah, Kentucky—the murder of a slave by Thomas Jefferson’s two nephews in 1811. Robert Penn Warren, who was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905, is the only American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for both Fiction and Poetry. Here is a powerful section of Brother To Dragons describing the winter descending on the Kentucky landscape. Given the powerful wave of winter weather sweeping much of the U.S., this seemed like a good time to share these remarkable lines.

Winter: and from the Dakotas
Wind veers, gathers itself in ice-glitter
And star-gleam of dark, and finds
The long sweep of the valley.
A thousand miles and
The fabulous river is ice in the starlight.
The ice is a foot thick, and beneath,
In the interior of that unpulsing blackness
And thrilled zero, the big channel-cat, eye lidless, hangs
With white belly brushing
The delicious and icy blackness of mud.

But there is no sensation. How can there be
Sensation when there is perfect adjustment? The blood
Of the creature is the temperature of the sustaining flow:
The catfish is in the Mississippi and
The Mississippi is in the catfish and
Under the ice both are at one
With God.

Would that we were!

snowy-winter-field-tree-branches-blanket-snow-falling-free-stock-photo

Wind rises. Even the deep
Intimacy of the thicket shudders. The last burr that clung
On the chestnut bough surrenders, the last haw-fruit,
And what crimson berry of dogwood the possum has spared
Falls now, in the hour past pain, of the relaxed tendon.

snowy-winter-pine-tree-branches-snow-free-stock-photo

Far north the great conifers darkly bend and unburden
Their dignity of snow, and the stridor
Rises to anguish. The oak
Stands on a headland above an enormous curve of the river.
It has stood there two hundred years. The trunk is iron.
The oak’s comment is anguish, but
All night, like Jacob, it wrestles the
Pitiless angel of air. The stars are arctic, and
Their gleam comes earthward down
Uncounted light-years of disdain,
And the continent
Glitters whitely in starlight like the great dead eye of ice.
The wind is unceasing, and the stars likewise.

–Robert Penn Warren, Brother To Dragons: A Tale In Verse and Voices.

Patrick Kerin

New Toni Morrison Novel Set For Spring Publication

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Toni Morrison speaking at a dinner in honor of Chinua Achebe in February of 2008. Photo by Entheta.

Toni Morrison speaking at a dinner in honor of Chinua Achebe in February of 2008. Photo by Entheta.

Nobel Prize winning author and Lorain, Ohio native Toni Morrison has a new novel coming out in April of 2015. The novel is entitled God Help The Child, and it concerns the impact of childhood traumas on several adult characters. This will be Toni Morrison’s eleventh novel. Her last novel, Home, appeared in 2012. She has won numerous honors besides her 1993 Nobel during her career, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2012. Morrison turns eighty-four on February 18, 2015.

Patrick Kerin

President Lincoln: Master of American Prose

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Abraham-Lincoln-12

February 12, 2015 marks the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, who is not only one of our greatest Presidents—perhaps the greatest American President—but one of the great leaders in world history. Lincoln is also arguably the greatest writer among the Presidents.

All of our Presidents have left behind a body of writing, usually consisting of policy statements, speeches, letters, and the like. Some of our Presidents have actually been authors prior to taking office as President. Jefferson was responsible for most of the Declaration of Independence and also wrote one book: Notes on the State of Virginia. Woodrow Wilson was an historian, a Ph.D who authored several books on politics and history. Theodore Roosevelt wrote books on nature and history prior to assuming the Presidency. In the second half of the twentieth century, some of our Presidents have written numerous books during their post-Presidential careers.

Two of the most prolific are men who were trained in the non-literary discipline of engineering: Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Hoover wrote books on politics, policy, history and fishing, and even authored a biography of Woodrow Wilson. Carter has written a variety of books, ranging from commentaries on Middle Eastern politics and reflections on the Scriptures to a historical novel set during the American Revolution. Others have written memoirs and occasional books addressing political issues and history.

Abraham_Lincoln_by_Nicholas_Shepherd,_1846-crop

Lincoln never wrote any books. His life was cut short during his second term. But of all our Presidents he was the greatest writer, a man who could compose the elegant and profound lines of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural as well as robust and fascinating pieces of persuasive writing, such as the “Address at Cooper Institute” (also called the Cooper Union) concerning slavery in the United States.

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Kentucky. He and his family later moved to Indiana, and as a young man Lincoln moved on to Illinois. He knew the rough and tumble frontier world of the early United States. His formal education amounted to a handful of months in country schools, but he read voraciously. On two separate occasions he worked on a flatboat carrying goods down to New Orleans. He worked as a storekeeper and postmaster, a farm hand and railsplitter, and served as a militia officer during the Black Hawk War. He later read law and became a lawyer, and many of Lincoln’s writings show his skill at carefully crafted argumentation. He was steeped in the classics: the Bible, Shakespeare, and John Bunyan’s Puritan classic The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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In his lifetime Lincoln wrote letters, including a number addressed to editors, speeches, some poetry, and his immortal public statements: the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, this last being most likely Lincoln’s greatest work.

Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter showing Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

Painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter showing Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

His writing blends many elements. His language could be lofty and poetic, yet sinewy and trenchant. He could vary his language to the demands of the audience, and there was often a salt-of-the-earth flavor to his anecdotes reflecting his frontier upbringing. There is a marvelous clarity to much of his writing—Lincoln’s capacity for language was an important ingredient in the success he achieved as a lawyer. And his writing can be sonorous, demonstrating also an innate capacity for rhythm, skillful handling of complex ideas, emotional power, expert use of repetition of words and phrases, and highly effective parallelism (“of the people, by the people, for the people”).

800px-Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-crop

There are assorted collections of Lincoln’s writings available. I have a copy of Selected Writings of Abraham Lincoln, published by Bantam Books and selected and edited by author and journalist Herbert Mitgang. It has an excellent selection of Lincoln’s writing, and it makes for fascinating reading. I hope you might consider taking some time to explore President Lincoln’s rich and masterful prose.

Patrick Kerin

Clark Gable, Son of Cadiz, Ohio

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Clark_Gable_-_publicity

Clark Gable, the legendary actor who has been called “The King of Hollywood,” was born in Cadiz, Ohio, a small town in eastern Ohio’s Harrison County, on February 1, 1901. His father, William Henry “Will” Gable was an oil well driller who later attempted farming. Gable’s mother died when he was ten months old, and his father later remarried a woman named Jennie Dunlap and relocated to the nearby town of Hopedale, where Clark received most of his education. The boy’s stepmother gave him music lessons and encouraged him to dress and speak well. Gable enjoyed hunting, fishing, and working on cars with his father, but also showed an interest in language and enjoyed reciting Shakespeare’s sonnets. During his later teenage years his parents moved to Ravenna, Ohio, where his father purchased a farm. Clark began working in one of Akron’s tire factories, but felt the call of the stage. He joined a small theater company and worked his way westward. A long period of toiling in silent films and on the stage followed, but by the early 1930s Gable was on his way.

Gable’s impact on popular culture has been enormous. In addition to his iconic role in Gone With The Wind and other notable screen performances, he is also credited with inspiring a trait of Bug Bunny’s when he talked rapidly to Claudette Colbert and chomped on carrots in a scene from the legendary 1934 classic It Happened One Night. He was married five times, most famously to actress and Fort Wayne, Indiana native Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash in 1942, and Gable later served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, serving as both director of an Army recruiting film on aerial gunners and manning the guns himself on several occasions during bombing missions. He received the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and several other decorations. He ended his service as a major.

Clark Gable with the 8th Air Force in England in 1943.

Clark Gable with the 8th Air Force in England in 1943.

The Clark Gable Foundation in Cadiz, Ohio maintains a reconstructed version of his first home and works to maintain interest in the town’s famous son. I hope to visit there before long and share details here on Buckeyemuse. I also plan on learning more about his time here in Ohio and sharing those with readers. Thank you to all who support this blog, especially those folks who follow it. I appreciate your support and comments.

Here’s a link to the The Clark Gable Foundation site:

http://www.clarkgablefoundation.com/

Clark Gable died on November 16, 1960, shortly after suffering a heart attack. He was only fifty-nine years old.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Wikipedia entry on Clark Gable

The Clark Gable Foundation website