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Nobel Prize Goes to U.S. Author Toni Morrison

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Praising her as “a literary artist of the first rank,” the Swedish Academy awarded Toni Morrison the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature Thursday for accounts of the black experience written “with the luster of poetry.”

Morrison became the first black American woman to win the Nobel Prize and only the second American woman to receive the award, following novelist Pearl S. Buck by 55 years.

“I am outrageously happy,” the 62-year-old author said in a statement before teaching an afternoon writing class at Princeton University, where she is a professor of humanities. “I am, of course, profoundly honored. But what is most wonderful for me, personally, is to know that the prize at last has been awarded to an African-American.”

“Winning as an American is very special, but winning as a black American is a knockout. Most important, my mother is alive to share this delight with me.”

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In announcing the award, the Nobel selection committee praised Morrison’s six novels for their “visionary force and poetic import,” giving life “to an essential aspect of American reality.”

“One can delight in her unique narrative technique, varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from (William) Faulkner and American writers from farther south,” the judges said. “The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy, humanity of the kind that is always based on profound humor.”

”. . . As the motivation of the award implies, Toni Morrison is a literary artist of the first rank. She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race. And she addresses us with the luster of poetry.”

Morrison, whose novels have made black history contemporary and who has brought the black literary experience into the American mainstream, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her book “Beloved,” a haunting and heartbreaking story of slavery and its aftermath, set in rural Ohio.

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Her first work of fiction, “The Bluest Eye,” was published in 1970 and told of a young black girl who prayed at night for blue eyes.

“If I were to describe her writing, I would say that she has the insight of a shaman and the lyricism of a great poet,” said her friend and fellow author Maya Angelou. ". . . She has the courage to concentrate and say what she saw, and it is said lyrically.”

“It’s a great day,” added Angelou, who sent flowers and a congratulatory telegram. “By taking us to the Nobel Prize, she has taken black women writers in particular and all writers to the mountaintop. I have wept in joy about five times today, and I am going to have a Nobel party this weekend that won’t stop!”

Some other authors placed the Nobel committee’s decision in a political context.

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“It’s significant to African-Americans. It breaks down a huge barrier,” said Randall Kenan, whose book “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead” has been widely acclaimed. “Her work is some of the most intimate and important work of our lifetime.”

Morrison, who was born into a black working-class family in Lorain, Ohio, is the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize, which is worth $837,000 this year. She was graduated from Howard University in 1953 and earned a master’s degree in American literature from Cornell University in 1955.

At various times she worked as an editor at Random House, the New York publisher, and served on the faculties of a number of universities, including Yale, Rutgers, the State University of New York in Albany and Bard College. She joined the Princeton faculty in 1989.

Thursday’s announcement followed a precise ritual as Sture Allen, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, emerged from the group’s offices in Stockholm just as a glass-fronted carriage clock chimed 1 p.m. outside.

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Allen stood on the front steps of the academy’s offices and named Morrison the winner--a choice that was greeted with applause from waiting journalists.

Later, at a news conference, he praised Morrison’s work as “amazingly high.”

“She describes aspects of the blacks’ lives and especially of blacks as the people they are,” Allen said.

In New Jersey, Morrison first heard the news from a colleague at Princeton. She said she spoke with her son, architect Ford Morrison, and they laughed and screamed with joy.

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Literary critics over the years have praised Morrison’s lyrical descriptive style, her use of history and the extraordinary power of her writing in translating to white people what black people know.

“Toni is always writing about what’s going on underneath the kind of experience of sexism or racism or class issues . . . that agony, the elation beneath those experiences,” said author Walter Mosley. “She kind of peels back the world and lets you look inside it even if you thought you knew it before.”

The Nobel committee’s announcement contained both a literary critique and a quote from Morrison from her book of essays, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”

“My work requires me to think about how free I can be as an African-American woman writer in my genderized, sexualized, wholly radicalized world,” the author said. “My project rises from delight, not disappointment.”

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The committee lauded her latest novel, “Jazz,” a tale of passion, jealousy, sex, murder and redemption set in Harlem.

“Toni Morrison uses a device that is akin to the way jazz itself is played,” the committee said. “The book’s first lines provide a synopsis, and in reading the novel one becomes aware of a narrator who varies, embellishes and intensifies. The result is a richly complex, sensuously conveyed image of the events, the characters and moods.”

The prize was created under the will of Swedish philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

He also established prizes in medicine, physics, chemistry and peace, to be awarded next week in Stockholm along with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, which was established by the Swedish Central Bank in 1969.

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Prized Words

Toni Morrison has written six novels, assorted essays and a play. Excerpts from three of her novels:

“The right record is on the turntable now; she can hear its preparatory hiss as the needle slides toward its first groove. The brothers smile brilliantly; one leans a fraction of an inch toward the other, and, never losing eye contact with Dorcas, whispers something. The other looks Dorcas up and down as she moves toward them. Then, just as the music, slow and smoky, loads up the air, his smile bright as ever, he wrinkles his nose and turns away."--"Jazz”

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. There is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."--"Beloved

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“The pride, the conceit of these doormat women amazed him. They were always women who had been spoiled children. Whose whims had been taken seriously by adults and who grew up to be the stingiest, greediest people on earth and out of their stinginess grew their stingy little love that ate everything in sight."--"Song of Solomon”

Profile: Toni Morrison

Background on the Nobel winner for literature:

* Age: 62

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* Birthplace: Lorain, Ohio

* Career: Six novels, assorted essays. In her academic career, she is a professor in the humanities at Princeton University.

* Writing style: “One can delight in her unique narrative technique, varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from Faulkner and American writers from farther south. The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy, humanity, of the kind that is always based on profound humor.”

--Nobel committee’s announcement

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* Her novels: “The Bluest Eye” 1970 “Sula” 1973 ‘Song of Solomon” 1977 “Tar Baby” 1981 “Beloved” 1987 “Jazz” 1992

* Essays: Playing in the Dark--Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992; Racing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Others on the Constructing of Social Reality, 1992.

* Play: “Dreaming Emmett,” produced in 1986.

Source: Times staff and wire reports

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