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Toni Morrison's Literary Achievements Essay

830 words - 3 pages

Toni Morrison's Literary Achievements

In 1993 Toni Morrison joined the illustrious ranks of the Nobel Prize for Literature laureates as the ninetieth recipient, twentieth English-language author, eighth American, eighth woman, third black, and first African-American 1. Her mid-century predecessor William Faulkner (1897-1962) had just received the award in 1950 when Morrison (b. 1931) began writing her Master of Arts thesis on his work.2 Aside from both being Nobel laureates, this unlikely pair has, at first glance, little in common: Morrison, the college-educated daughter of a black Ohio shipyard welder, a key figure in the publishing and academic world; Faulkner, Southern son of "aristocratic" background, autodidact, reclusive loner. Yet, in addition to undeniable similarities in their canons such as taboo-breaking themes, complex prose style combining the oral with the written, and polyphonic narrative techniques, for contemporary readers there is an exciting dialectic between the Morrison and Faulkner oeuvres which shows how, among other things, the Nobel Prize heritage exposes the wounds of a society haunted by racial difference and offers at least narrative possibilities for healing them. In a literary version of the African-American folk technique "call and response,"3 William Faulkner, generally recognized as the greatest American modernist author, interacts—through the reader as interface—with Toni Morrison, whose latest novel Jazz "edges literary experimentation into the 21st century."4

Morrison's winning of the Nobel Prize was greeted by encomiums in many circles. Most newspaper reports quoted with approbation the Academy's criteria of literary skill and political commitment: Morrison's novels are "finely wrought and cohesive, yet at the same time rich in variation," written "with the lustre of poetry"; she "delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race." The author "gives life to an essential aspect of American reality" in her novels which are "characterized by visionary force and poetic import." 5 In a spontaneous reaction to the news of Morrison's triumph, the guru of African-American studies at Harvard University, Henry Gates, Jr., praised Morrison's literary achievement, comparing her to literary pioneers from three continents: Morrison is "a masterful craftsperson, which people tend to overlook. She is as great and as innovative as Faulkner and Garcia Marquez and Woolf." He also pointed to the particularity of her achievement as an African-American: "Just two centuries ago the African-American literary tradition was born in slave narratives. Now our greatest writer has won the Nobel Prize."6 No doubt Morrison was particularly pleased by the joy of the...

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