One of the most important writers who has ever lived or written, Toni Morrison passed away today at the age of 88. We spoke with professor of English Barbara McCaskill to help articulate the contributions to world literature of this American giant of letters and culture.
“Toni Morrison has made a phenomenal contribution to American and world literature because of how she has told the story of African American history and culture, literally from the days of enslavement to now. And what is distinctive and unique about her work is her literary voice, the way she brings the culture to life. She called herself a culture worker in that she saw her art as not only a form of preservation, but also a way of passing down, to America and the world, and celebrating, the contributions that we African Americans have made in music, in dance, in food, in how we speak, in how we walk and move, and in how we think about ourselves in relationship to the world.
“She also was courageous because she encountered, full-force, America’s history of racism and racial tension, and the lingering stereotypes and perceptions that have swirled around African Americans, as well as the social costs of those tensions and of those stereotypes not only to individuals but to our society as a whole.
“Like our great African American thinkers, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Dr. King to Barbara Jordan, she also offered a different way of being in the world to American readers – an antidote to our consumerism and materialism. And that antidote, for Morrison, is culture and is love: love for oneself and love of other people.
“I can’t begin to express how much we will miss her imaginative voice, her wise take on American society and culture. And her optimism. No matter how dark some of her characters or plots may have been, ultimately Morrison‘s work always offered hope – hope that we could aspire to and become our better selves.
“Toni Morrison was profoundly a mentor and a teacher. I’ve met so many young writers, so many young scholars of African American literature and culture who have met Toni Morrison, attended a talk given by Toni Morrison, or seen Toni Morrison in a documentary, and were inspired by her. My own encounter with Toni Morrison took place when I was a young assistant professor. My very first job was at SUNY Albany, where Toni Morrison had a distinguished position in the creative writing program. Her office was just down the hall. It took me many weeks to muster up the courage to go down and introduce myself. I was so intimidated about being in the presence of someone who was so great. She had already written what I think are her greatest novels, Song of Solomon and Beloved.
“I finally mustered up the courage, went down, knocked on her door, and she didn’t brush me aside, didn’t tell me to go away because she was busy. She clearly was busy! Her desk was covered with papers. But she gave me twenty minutes of her time to talk about African American literature and she was so gracious and so approachable, and that meant so much to me, being a newly minted professor, still unsure of my place in the field and my potential to be an excellent scholar. It was an inspiring moment that I will treasure, and I will always remember her beaming with a big picture window behind her and the sun just shining through. It was a magical moment and I’m so glad that she’s given me and so many other readers countless magical moments in her literature and in her life.”
Morrison achieved critical and commercial success in ways that few writers have been able.
“One reason that she was able to do it was she understood the life of a writer inside-out. She was an editor as well as a writer. And in that role, she nurtured a generation of writers, something we can say is very unique about Toni Morrison. Not only did she soar, in terms of the aesthetic quality of her writing, but she gave back so much to the writing community by identifying and nurturing talent. And she is admired for taking the time to listen, to listen to other writers, to read and critique their work with a fine-toothed comb, and to help them get in front of the right people in the publishing world.
“I think she excelled because she understood writing from so many different sides – the creative side, the business and marketing and publicity side, and the disciplinary side. I mean she understood that writing is work; writing is labor. She modeled that in the disciplined approach she took to her own writing, and to her teaching. Every day, showing up in front of the computer, and putting words to the page: it sounds so easy! I tell my own students – if it were so easy everyone would write a book!
“I really took a lot from her in terms of trying to model my own discipline as a writer after hers. To write every day, no matter what. To sit down and to think. To focus, and to put intensity in front of me and not to be casual about what I am saying and to understand the consequences of what I am saying. She was a very careful writer, and deliberate, and precise. And I know that’s why millions of us admire her work.”