I first read Toni Morrison as a junior in college, and once I started “Beloved” I knew I would never look at another book the same way again.
From the first page, my view of literature was fundamentally altered. It was like Morrison had broken down what I thought a novel could be and rebuilt it into something more magnificent than I dreamed possible. As a student of writing and literature, this was a near religious experience. I took in every word, and I was speechless.
I was deeply saddened to learn of Toni Morrison’s recent passing at the age of 88. Morrison’s long list of published work includes “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon,” and “Beloved,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. Morrison was also awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, recognizing the worldwide importance of her words.
Before I continue, I think it’s important to acknowledge that Morrison did not write with me in mind. She penned novels that explored the black community and experience in this country, and she was open about the fact that she wrote for black audiences, especially black women. I simply had the pleasure of hearing what she had to say, and I’m better off for it.
In reflecting on Morrison’s monumental contribution to the world, I reached out to several professors at Middlebury College, where I study English and American literature. Will Nash, an American Studies professor, spoke about why everyone must read Morrison.
“White people need to understand the world that we have made and its impact on our fellow citizens who happen to be black,” Nash said. “African-American history is American history. And both the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans are woven into the fabric of our culture.”
Morrison certainly has something to say to anyone who picks up a copy of one of her novels. Middlebury American Studies Professor J Finley said she thinks of Morrison as the quintessential American author.
“The characters that she creates, the worlds she creates, are just so fundamentally American,” Finley said. “She belongs to everybody.”
For those interested in reading Morrison, Finley recommended “The Bluest Eye.”
The book tells the story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl who believes she is ugly and that blue eyes will make her beautiful.
“That’s one of those books that will help you get free,” Finley said. “If you grew up in this country and you’re trying to understand what it means to be here, that book can offer everybody insight.”
Through her novels, Morrison gave voice to figures we do not often hear from in works of fiction. “Beloved,” widely considered her masterpiece, tells the story of Sethe, a woman who kills her daughter rather than see her taken back into slavery after the family escapes north. Sethe is based on a real person, Margaret Garner, who lived a similar story.
I spoke to Brett Millier, the professor who first assigned me “Beloved” and I asked her about the novel’s importance. Beloved was published in 1987, the year after Millier finished her doctorate in American literature and the spring after she began teaching at Middlebury. She read the book the following summer.
“I understood right then that everything I knew about American literature was wrong,” she said. “Everything I know about American literature is now filtered through Toni Morrison’s idea about race in American culture.”
Millier believes that reading Morrison, like reading all great literature, gives people a deeper sense of their own humanity.
“That’s what literature is — an empathy machine,” she said.
And while many of Morrison’s novels examine historical moments, Nash pointed out that she also critiqued the times she lived in.
“‘Beloved’ comes out when one of the most common images of black women is the welfare queen,” he said. “‘Beloved’ is about enslavement, but it’s also very much speaking to a contemporary image of black womanhood.”
Morrison’s influence expanded beyond her own writing. As an editor at Random House, she published works by other black authors. In this role and in her own creative works, she forever changed the trajectory of American literature.
Toni Morrison gave us an enormous gift. She stepped into the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of the American literary canon to share a different perspective, one our country desperately needed.
Millier said she is sad to lose Morrison’s voice in this moment, when “the world needs her voice so badly,” but she acknowledged Morrison will always be with us.
“She is immortal,” Millier said. “As long as custodians of our literary heritage continue to exist, she will not be lost.”
Nash reflected on a quote from Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech that has been widely shared online since news of her death broke. It’s a quote I have been thinking about, too.
“We die,” Morrison said. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
By that measure, Morrison stands taller than most. May her memory be a blessing.
Sarah Asch is a student at Middlebury College and served as an intern in the Rutland Herald newsroom this summer.