Updated at 7:52pm on August 7, 2019.
This morning, the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf announced that the celebrated writer Toni Morrison had died in New York at the age of 88 following a short illness. Of her inimitable legacy, the Morrison family issued a short statement, which read in part, “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.”
Indeed, the literary titan born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, was a paragon of scholarly dedication: She famously wrote her first novels on her cramped New York City subway commutes, while raising two sons. (“I’ve written on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles,” she once said. “If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down.”) She recorded her own audiobooks, as Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reported in 2015, because she alone knew how the words ought to sound. She wrote sentences as James Baldwin would later exhort writers to do: clean as a bone.
One of Morrison’s greatest contributions to literature was the kaleidoscopic vision with which she saw black people—and the rigorous compassion with which she wrote black characters. Even now, 46 years after the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, this perspective remains a rarity in publishing and in pop culture more broadly. Morrison’s characters, like The Bluest Eye’s young Pecola Breedlove, pulse with a formidable wanting. They yearn for a different world; they pine for one another. They live in Harlem and in fictional midwestern towns, on slave ships and near resorts. Both despite and because of the specificity of their settings, her characters evince fears and desires and pain that then consume the reader. Morrison’s world extends far beyond her pages; it embeds itself in those who witness it.