August 6, 2019

Toni Morrison: 1931 – 2019

The Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University mourns the loss of Toni Morrison, and pays tribute to her extraordinary career. The Nobel Laureate, Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, Professor of Creative Writing, and founder of the Princeton Atelier, died on August 5, 2019, at the age of 88.

toni morrison and tracy k smith seated at table

Toni Morrison addresses audience questions during a conversation with Tracy K. Smith in 2017. Photo by Denise Applewhite.

“I know that many of us who have devoted our lives to writing were first led to imagine such a thing was possible by Toni Morrison, whose work shed light upon lives — black lives — that we recognized as unmistakably familiar,” said Tracy K. Smith, Chair of the Lewis Center, Professor of Creative Writing, and recent United States Poet Laureate. “Like James Baldwin, Ms. Morrison insisted that such lives were epic and poetic, and that they held the key to understanding every single thing about America,” Smith told The New York Times.

Teaching at Princeton

Toni Morrison joined the Princeton faculty in 1989 and taught in the University’s creative writing program and in African American studies until she transferred to emeritus status in 2006.

Morrison once noted, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This was the kind of bold encouragement she gave her students. As Professor of Creative Writing, Morrison taught in small writing workshops of 10 to 12 undergraduate students and advised students in the program, one-on-one, on their senior theses – a novel or collection of short stories. Her advisees include the now-published writers David Treuer, Ladee Hubbard, Kate Morgenroth, MacKenzie Bezos and Rachel Kadish, among others.

“Teaching is the second-best thing to writing for me,” Morrison noted in 2012. “What a pleasure it is and how truly intellectually exciting it is to teach at Princeton.”

“She was kind, she was fierce, she was funny,” notes Jhumpa Lahiri, current director of the Program, Professor of Creative Writing, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. “Her words shook the nation, and her voice had the power to heal. Morrison’s passion for art and for social justice served as a beacon for students and colleagues, making our creative writing program, Princeton University, and the broader world a more truthful place.”

Before joining the faculty, Morrison had already received the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon in 1978. In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was the first African American to receive this honor.

Among Morrison’s other books are The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Tar Baby (1981), Jazz (1992), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), The Origin of Others (2012), and God Help the Child (2015). Her latest book, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations, was published in early 2019.

In addition to her novels and works of criticism, Morrison wrote children’s books with her son, Slade Morrison. She also wrote the libretto for a song cycle with Andre Previn commissioned by Carnegie Hall; lyrics for a second song cycle with Previn; and the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner, based on the life of the historical figure who inspired Beloved. Shortly before her death in the summer of 2019, a documentary of her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, was released in theaters.

“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity, and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors. She revised this University, too. Through her scholarly leadership in creative writing and African American studies, and through her mentorship of students and her innovative teaching, she has inscribed her name permanently and beautifully upon the tapestry of Princeton’s campus and history. We are fortunate that this marvelous writer made Princeton her home, and we will miss her dearly.”

Founding the Princeton Atelier

posed group of men and women smiling in dark auditorium

Morrison pictured with Paul Muldoon, Shirley Tilghman, and Peter B. Lewis celebrating the launch of the Lewis Center in November 2007. Photo by Kevin Birch

In 1994 Morrison founded the Princeton Atelier, a unique academic program that brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a semester-long course. A painter might team with a composer, a choreographer might join with an electrical engineer, a company of theater artists might engage with environmental scientists, or a poet might connect with a videographer. Princeton students have an unrivaled opportunity to be directly involved in these collaborations, either as participants in co-development of a new work or in “parallel play.”

Of her own work with musicians and composers Morrison said, “There is a powerful impetus to stretch and freshen one’s work by collaborating with artists in genres other than one’s own.” This was the philosophy that she brought to the creation of the Atelier.

Morrison’s 17-year career at Princeton helped to lay the foundation for the creation of the Lewis Center for the Arts, which now encompasses Princeton’s academic programs in creative writing, dance, theater, music theater, and visual arts, in addition to the Atelier. The year after her retirement from teaching in 2006, Morrison was among the many celebrating the launch the Lewis Center.

Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Professor of Creative Writing, current Director of the Princeton Atelier, and a long-time colleague of Morrison, noted, “At a moment in U.S. history where plain and simple racism is espoused at what used to be thought of as the highest level, we desperately need to keep before us the example of Toni Morrison; forthright without being fevered, nuanced without being knotty, she continues to teach us how to be in the world.”

Inaugural Toni Morrison Prize

The new Toni Morrison Prize was awarded in 2019 to Visual Arts graduate S Sanneh. Photo by Ron Wyatt.

In the spring of 2018, the directors of the Lewis Center established a prize in Morrison’s honor to recognize a graduating senior, one of two highest honors a graduate can receive from the Center. The Toni Morrison Prize is awarded annually to one or more graduating seniors of the Lewis Center for the Arts whose individual or collaborative artistic practice has pushed the boundaries and enlarged the scope of our understanding of issues of race. This prize honors work in any form that, in the spirit of Morrison’s, is “characterized by visionary force and poetic import.”

The inaugural recipient of the Toni Morrison prize was visual arts graduate S Sanneh, whose senior thesis exhibition, Holy, explored, “black subjects first and foremost and blackness in a way that refuses to reach out to stereotypes, instead using religion and the reverence associated with it as a tool to get close to and treat the figure with respect.”

A Continued Legacy

Morrison returned to the Princeton campus a number of times in the years following her retirement. In 2012, she returned to campus to read from her 10th novel, Home. Princeton awarded her an honorary doctoral degree in 2013.

In November 2017 Morrison gave the keynote address for the Princeton & Slavery Project Symposium, a culminating event of a multi-year project to investigate the University’s involvement with the institution of slavery. Smith introduced Morrison at this event noting, “I don’t know if we would have the vocabulary for contemplating the impact of slavery upon contemporary selfhood and nationhood, let alone for speaking publicly about it, were it not for the work of Toni Morrison. Hers was surely the most formidable melding of mind and spirit, of conscience and voice, of intelligence and insight, of justice and reason, of life- and reality-creating logos that America has ever seen.”

That same fall, in honor of Morrison’s career achievements and contributions to Princeton, the University dedicated Morrison Hall, formerly West College. The building houses the Office of the Dean of the College and faces Cannon Green behind Nassau Hall. A portrait of Morrison by Paul Wyse hangs in the building.

Morrison’s papers are part of the Princeton University Library’s permanent collection. The Toni Morrison Papers are housed in the Library’s Special Collections.


Learn more about the life and legacy of Toni Morrison

Princeton University’s Tribute to Toni Morrison

Opinion: Toni Morrison’s Song of America by Tracy K. Smith

Dedication of Morrison Hall

On Twitter: Celebrating the life and legacy of Toni Morrison through her words, career accomplishments and thoughts from around the world

Princeton University Library presents exhibition in honor of Toni Morrison at Firestone Library

The Indelible Substance of a Semester with Toni Morrison

Remembering Toni Morrison’s ‘beautiful human urgency’

Radio Feature: Remembering Toni Morrison

Anne Enright, Bonnie Greer and Paul Muldoon remember the significant work and legacy of Toni Morrison for RTE Radio 1 on August 6, 2019.

Toni Morrison on State of the Arts (2000)

Photo Gallery