Her death was confirmed by her publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Named Nobel laureate in Literature in 1993, Morrison died at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center.
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Beloved was perhaps the most celebrated and famous of her great canon of work, but novels such as 1992’s Jazz, 1997’s Paradise and 2015’s God Help the Child secured her status as one of her generations leading lights of both literature and civil rights.
“She was a great woman and a great writer, and I don’t know which I will miss more,” said Robert Gottlieb, Morrison’s longtime editor at Knopf, in a statement.
The first female African-American editor (1967-1983) in Random House history, Morrison published such groundbreaking writers of color as Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Dumas, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, and Angela Davis, among others. Her teaching career included positions at Howard University, Yale University, SUNY Purchase, Bard College, Rutgers University, SUNY Albany, and Princeton University, where she retired as Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities in 2006.
The Morrison family released the following statement: “It is with profound sadness we share that, following a short illness, our adored mother and grandmother, Toni Morrison, passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends. She was an extremely devoted mother, grandmother, and aunt who reveled in being with her family and friends. The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing. Although her passing represents a tremendous loss, we are grateful she had a long, well lived life.
“While we would like to thank everyone who knew and loved her, personally or through her work, for their support at this difficult time, we ask for privacy as we mourn this loss to our family. We will share information in the near future about how we will celebrate Toni’s incredible life.”
Sonny Mehta, Chairman of Knopf, said in a statement: “Toni Morrison’s working life was spent in the service of literature: writing books, reading books, editing books, teaching books. I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni. Her narratives and mesmerizing prose have made an indelible mark on our culture. Her novels command and demand our attention. They are canonical works, and more importantly, they are books that remain beloved by readers.”
Just last February, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am was acquired by Magnolia Pictures. The documentary, now in release, chronicles the life and works of the legendary storyteller who in 1993 became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize.
In the documentary, Morrison describes emerging from the steel town of Lorain, Ohio, as a “little black girl” who no one took seriously, the source and motivation for an ambitious and creative mind.
Morrison’s other achievements include the novels The Bluest Eye, Sula, and Song of Solomon, seminal work as an editor working with iconic African-American literature and professor emeritus at Princeton University.
Beloved was adapted for the screen in 1998 by Jonathan Demme, with Oprah Winfrey as co-producer and star. Winfrey, a devoted admirer and supporter of the author, had spent a decade trying to get the film made, and in 1996 selected Morrison’s Song of Solomon for her influential Book Club. Winfrey later boosted the profile of Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye by choosing the older work for the Book Club in 2000. Winfrey would eventually choose four Morrison novels, broadening Morrison’s profile and giving rise to what the African American Review would term “The Oprah Effect.”
Among Morrison’s many accolades was the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President Barack Obama.
In all, she wrote 11 novels, as well as a wide selection of children’s books, nonfiction and short fiction works, two plays and, in 2005, the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner.