Toni Morrison, one of the most gifted authors, editors and teachers of our time, was remembered fondly by Princeton University — where she taught for nearly two decades — and numerous other New Jersey dignitaries upon her death, Tuesday, at age 88.
“Toni Morrison’s brilliant vision, inspired creativity and unique voice have reshaped American culture and the world’s literary tradition,” Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in a statement. “Her magnificent works will continue to light a path forward for generations of readers and authors.”
Morrison’s career was legendary.
The New York Times called her a “Towering Novelist of the Black Experience.”
Her greatest work, “Beloved,” was honored with the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and helped her earn a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. And, in 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said Morrison was an inspiration to the African American community.
“Toni Morrison didn’t just tell stories about the African American experience. As African American women, she told our stories,” she said in a statement. “She was as fearless as she was brilliant, as ready to teach as she was to ready use her writing to challenge us to think more deeply. Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Humanities Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom — all richly deserved.
“Toni Morrison will stand as one of the greatest writers this country — and this world — ever knew.”
Morrison’s biggest connection to New Jersey came at Princeton. From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, she held the Robert F. Goheen Chair in the Humanities.
Princeton officials said Morrison’s arrival helped to attract other faculty and students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to the school — and that she played a catalytic role in expanding Princeton’s commitments both to the creative and performing arts and to African American studies.
In 1994, she founded the Princeton Atelier, bringing together undergraduate students in interdisciplinary collaborations with acclaimed artists and performers such as Jacques d’Amboise, A.S. Byatt, Peter Sellars, Yo-Yo Ma, Richard Danielpour, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Anonymous 4, Richard Price, Pig Iron Theatre Co., Maria Tucci and Allegro Kent, among others.
“She revised this university, too,” Eisgruber said. “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.”
She also played key roles in numerous commemorative events at the school. In 1996, she gave the keynote address — “The Place of the Idea, The Idea of the Place” — as the school celebrated its 250th anniversary.
In honor of Morrison’s career achievements and contributions to Princeton, the university dedicated Morrison Hall, formerly West College, in 2017.
Gov. Phil Murphy reflected on Morrison’s impact on the state.
“Tammy and I are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Toni Morrison, one of New Jersey’s most-celebrated literary talents,” he said in a statement. “All great fiction allows the reader to experience the world through someone else’s perspective, but Toni Morrison’s writing drew us deeper into our common humanity and strengthened our empathy.
“Through her Pulitzer Prize- and Nobel Prize-winning literature, Toni Morrison gave voice to the African American experience both past and present and reminded us that storytelling is still the most essential way of sharing our histories and creating community. We are grateful that her work will stand as a lasting legacy — one which will live on as future generations of Americans discover her genius.”
Morrison, a member of the inaugural class of the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2008, was recognized by Hall of Fame Chairman Jon Hanson and President Steve Edwards.
“Toni Morrison was a role model for New Jerseyans, and her literary work and its impact on our society speaks for itself. New Jersey is proud to have called Toni Morrison one of its own,” they said in a joint statement.
Obama honored her on Twitter:
“Tony Morrison was a national treasure, as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on her page. Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination. What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
But for all the impact Morrison had on the famous, her legacy may be the lasting impact she had on all others, serving as an inspiration for people of all ages.
Political consultant and commentator Julie Roginsky remembered her this way on Twitter:
“A few words about Toni Morrison, who just sadly passed away. To those of who grew up in Princeton, she was the approachable lady who always spoke to high school kids at the Princeton Shopping Center café. Always warm, always humble, always tolerant of awestruck bookworm teens.”