We are born already,” says novelist Toni Morrison, “and we are going to die. You really have to do something you respect in between.”
What she has done is write Song of Solomon, a lyrical tribute to four generations in a black family. But this is no Roots Redux. The principal character, Macon Dead Jr., known as Milkman, is inspired by the example of his great-grandfather, Solomon, who escaped from slavery in Virginia. It is a feat which author Morrison compares to the freedom of a bird in flight.
Few novels in 1977 so excited the critics. It was a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club (the first black writer’s novel so honored since Richard Wright’s Native Son in 1940). And no literary folk hero was more appealing than Solomon the Flying African (“O-o-o-o-o-o Solomon done fly…”). With her third novel, Toni Morrison at 46 “done fly” herself. Her editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, says, “Both as a person and writer, Toni seems to me to have power, charm, poetry and common sense in just about equal parts.”
He might have mentioned courage. Morrison did not wait for the reviews or sales (33,000 in hardcover, with more than $150,000 as her share of paperback rights) before she quit her full-time job as a senior editor at Random House.
“It was not a wise decision,” she admits, “but I wanted to make a genuine commitment to writing and take the knocks. I didn’t want to be safe. I’ve never wanted only to be safe.”
She spent an impoverished but loving childhood in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town near Cleveland. (“The farther I get away, the better I like it there.”) She talks of her feisty mother with obvious affection. “When an eviction notice was put on our house, she tore it off. If there were maggots in our flour, she wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt. My mother believed something should be done about inhuman situations.” Toni’s father, now dead, worked as a welder and car washer, and “his presence was enormous in the house,” she says. “He made it possible for me to write Song of Solomon.” On the novel’s dedication page is one word—”Daddy.”
Her mother took a job as a ladies’ room attendant to send Toni (“the second daughter followed by two males…a very anonymous position”) to Howard University in Washington, D.C. After graduating with an English degree, she received her master’s at Cornell and then taught—at Texas Southern University in Houston and back at Howard, where she met and married a Jamaican architect. They had two sons, Harold and Slade, now 16 and 12, before the marriage broke up in 1965.
After finding a job as a textbook editor in Syracuse, N.Y., Morrison drifted into writing out of loneliness. “It was just a way of filling up the hours that were untaken with anything else,” she recalls. A short story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes grew slowly into a novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). Later came Sula (1974), about an intense friendship between two black women. The critics by then were taking notice, but sales were still not big enough to support her growing sons.
At Random House, where Morrison moved in 1967, she acquired a stable of fine black writers and edited the autobiographies of such celebrities as Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali. “Getting authors to do their best work,” Morrison says, “requires infinite patience. It’s not easy for me.” She’ll continue to part-time edit at home.
She has an apartment in New York City, spends weekends with her sons at her house near Nyack, N.Y. where she grows collard greens, strawberries and cabbages—and works on a new novel, a love story. “Writing a first book about children and then a next book about adult women and a third book about men put me in a better position to deal with a man and a woman,” she says, adding: “I have written 150 pages and may take years to finish, my dear. Then I rewrite all the way to the printer. I’m never satisfied.”