Queen for a day, hero for a lifetime
Collecting her Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1993 was one of the most terrifying moments of Toni Morrison’s entire life, she said later.
Not because Morrison, who died on Monday at the age of 88, felt unworthy. Not because she had to make a speech before a large audience. But because the novelist was wearing a floor-length gown and Manolo Blahnik heels, and her entrance involved a long marble staircase.
“I’m not talking about six stairs,” Morrison, then 62, told friends at a party a few weeks later, which was reported in The New York Times. “There must have been 90.”
Fortunately, the King of Sweden came to her rescue, escorting her down one step at a time.
“The king was very reassuring,” Morrison said. “He told me: ‘We’ll take care of each other. You hold on to me, and I’ll hold on to you’.”
Morrison was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was also the first black woman of any nationality to win a Nobel in any category. The moment she accepted the prize and delivered a stunning Nobel lecture was the culmination, not only of her magnificent career, but of a years-long campaign by black intellectuals to get her the recognition they thought she obviously deserved.
Morrison burst on to the literary scene at the age of 39 with her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye.
In 1977, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award for her third novel, Song of Solomon. Ten years later, she released her fifth novel, Beloved, about an enslaved woman haunted by the child she murdered.
Critics and fans hailed it as a masterpiece; it spent 25 weeks on the bestseller list and remains one of her best-known works. In her review of the book, novelist Margaret Atwood said: “If there were any doubts about [Morrison’s] stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.”
But then awards season started, and the response from the nation’s ivory towers of literature was decidedly muted.
First, in November 1987, the National Book Award prize for fiction went to Larry Heinemann for his novel Paco’s Story, which even he noted was “an interesting surprise”, given the competition.
Then, in January 1988, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction went to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. The Washington Post reported that while Beloved was initially considered a strong contender, it “quickly faded” with the 24-member board, who debated between Roth’s book and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. A week later, a group of 48 black intellectuals expressed their shock at the snub in an open letter published in The New York Times Book Review, calling it an “oversight and harmful whimsy” that Morrison had not yet won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize.
The signatories were a who’s who of African-American writers and critics, among them Maya Angelou, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Amiri and Amina Baraka, John Edgar Wideman and Angela Davis.
Notably, the Pulitzer prizes for that year had not yet been awarded. But Wideman told the Times the letter was “not an order” to Pulitzer judges but “a point of view”.
He said: “It should be seen in the context of democratising, not tyrannising the standards and notions of literary quality.”
Three months later, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for Beloved.
The board chairman said that while judges were aware of the open letter, it did not affect their decision. Gates told the Post he had worried judges would punish Morrison over the controversy. “I’m ecstatic, I’m ecstatic,” he said. “I decided it was more important to deny the evil, and I figured justice would out, and justice did.”
Rather than marking the pinnacle of her career, Morrison’s rise only continued after the Pulitzer win. In 1992, she released Jazz, the second novel in a trilogy with Beloved and Paradise.
The next year, she received the highest honour of all — the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a trailer for the recent documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which will be shown tonight at Speciality Cinema, Morrison described the moment she heard the news: “A friend of mine called me up early in the morning and said, ‘Toni, you won the Nobel Prize.’ And I remember holding the phone, thinking, ‘She must be drunk’.”
Two months later, the Post’s Eugene Robinson reported from the awards ceremony in Stockholm, calling it “the perfect setting for a fairly tale. And Morrison, suddenly, is the princess”.
Fittingly, once she made it down the harrowing staircase to a standing ovation, she began her electrifying Nobel lecture with, “Once upon a time ...”
She told a story of a wise old woman, blind and black, visited by young people, one of whom challenges her to tell him if the bird he holds is alive or dead. The old woman responds that she doesn’t know, “but what I do know is that what you do with it is in your hands”.
Morrison said she understood the bird to be language, and delivered a lyrical meditation on its power.
“The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune, that is was the distraction or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture, that one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached.
“‘Whose heaven,’ [the old woman] wonders, ‘and what kind?’. Perhaps the achievement of paradise was premature, a little hasty, if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes. But a view of heaven as life, not heaven as post-life.”
She continued: “We die. That may be the meaning of our lives. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
Her own measure is boundless.
• Gillian Brockell is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s history blog, Retropolis. She has been at the Post since 2013 and previously worked as a video editor
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