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Toni Morrison's Literary Achievements Essay

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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...


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...ho had brought "vital renewal" to literature, but that by the 70s, "functional and pragmatic viewpoints" took on more importance.13 Now the prize was not meant to be mere decoration, but rather should prove useful, lending support to a developing author, a neglected literary genre, or an "insufficiently recognized linguistic or cultural sphere" (92) as part of the Academy's attempt to address the prize to "the literature of the whole world."14 Despite the risk involved in selecting younger writers, the Academy saw its investment in rising authors, frequently from marginal groups, as part of its attempt to broaden its horizons and influence. The selection of an African-American woman was thus not incidental, but to view Morrison's selection as "patroniz[ing] by race", a mere "gesture of Social Significance" shows deep ignorance of the merits of Morrison's oeuvre. 15


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