Books

Toni Morrison Was So Much More Than a Novelist

As a critic, teacher, and editor, she carved out the space for a whole new kind of black writing.

Photo illustration of Toni Morrison surrounded by a stylized border
Toni Morrison
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images by Evan Agostini/Getty Images and Surovtseva/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In remarks she delivered to the National Council of the Arts in 1981, Toni Morrison bemoaned the fact that literary culture had atomized, resulting in the role of the writer splintering into three separate professions: the artist, the critic, and the teacher. How different this was, she thought, from “fourteenth-century Germany [and] eleventh-century Italy, when the great translators were the poets, when the great critics were the writers; they did both. Now it is separate; the creative artist goes one route and the critic goes another.” This fracture was antithetical to Morrison’s own literary philosophy, which was premised on the unity of these functions. In a 2003 profile, she told the New Yorker’s Hilton Als she did one thing: “I read books. I teach books. I write books. I think about books. It’s one job.”

Every writer of color working today must be thankful for Morrison’s sense of her wide-ranging calling. It was from this posture that Morrison not only wrote the books she wanted to see in the world, but imagined into being a more expansive sense of what “black” literature could be and do. Even as we celebrate her as a novelist, we should remember her also as a titan of criticism and a shepherd of an entire generation of black writers.

For Morrison, writing and editing were always entangled. When Holt, Rinehart and Winston published Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, she was working as an editor at a scholastic imprint of Random House. Her fiction came to the attention of Robert Gottlieb, who was then the editor-in-chief of Knopf, and Jason Epstein, the company’s editorial director; soon, Morrison was working as a trade editor at Random House. She took on the job with something of an agenda. In her mind, publishing houses’ handling of black books was inept, with sloppy editing and bad publicity. She used her position to rectify that problem.

At Random House, she used her position to identify, publish, and promote authors who might not have otherwise found their way into the literary marketplace, while also finding audiences for ideas that Random House feared would never gain traction. One example was 1974’s The Black Bookan anthology of black history that used photographs, songs, and quotidian texts like letters and drawings to tell a story of the black experience from slavery to the 20th century. Published at a time when the field of African American studies was finding purchase in academia, The Black Book was a landmark: It taught audiences new ways to think about black history, as something that could be studied from the ground up, through the actions of black people themselves, rather than through the social forces that surrounded them. Morrison remembered the book as a “genuine Black history book—one that simply recollected Black Life as lived.” It turned out that others had wanted such a book as badly as Morrison had: It was a critical and commercial success.

This focus on the plurality of black experience guided Morrison’s engagement with black fiction and nonfiction. She was responsible for an explosion of black voices and stories during the 1970s. One of the first books she undertook was 1972’s Contemporary African Literature, a volume that helped introduce American audiences to towering talents like Chinua Achebe. Morrison’s roster of authors included luminaries like Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, and the elusive Gayl Jones, whose landmark 1975 neo–slave-narrative Corregidora prefigured Morrison’s own Beloved.

Jones’ novel shows the way that Morrison’s eye for talent was also an eye for new ideas. A novel about the way that the history of slavery reverberates down through multiple generations of black American women in the South, Corregidora told a new kind of story. At a time when the range of representation in black fiction was restricted, Jones’ novel dared to tell a dark story of how history impacts relationships between black people, rather than a story of black people’s relationship to whiteness. What’s more, it did not shy from sex and violence. In that sense, it echoed Morrison’s interests as a fiction writer. After all, her second novel, 1973’s Sula, dealt with similar themes. Together, these books—the ones she wrote and the ones she edited—heralded a new literary tradition.

By 1992, Morrison had left her job at Random House, but she hadn’t stopped reading and teaching. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, an adaptation of lectures she had given at Harvard, made it clear that she was as formidable a critic as she was an editor and novelist. Casting her eye upon 19th-century American literature, Morrison identified what she called an “Africanist presence” throughout the nation’s canon. For her, that presence was not the presence of black people, but of a series of caricatures that white authors used to shore up white racial identity. The book’s subtitle said it all: Such caricatures were less reflective of blackness than of what whiteness needed in order to secure its own existence. Playing in the Dark might have been directed at literary history, but it also exemplified Morrison’s determination to root out static representations of black American life in order to exchange them for ones that were both more truthful and more capacious. It was work she continued for decades more, and it wasn’t until earlier this year that the full range of Morrison’s criticism came into focus—when Knopf published The Source of Self-Regard, an anthology of her critical essays.

It was in these ways that her work as a critic, editor, and teacher came together with her work as a novelist as integral to her larger literary project, one that that helped shift and expand the ground on which black writers stood. Her criticism and editing pushed new voices to the fore, illuminated the relationship between contemporary literature and buried literary traditions, and forced audiences and marketplaces into new literary sensibilities. Viewed together, as Morrison would like us to view it, her life’s work is a monumental achievement: the construction of an entirely new foundation for how we think and write about blackness.