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Toni Morrison ‘has done for the modern novel what Shakespeare did for theater’

The Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison was the keynote speaker at a 2013 event honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that was sponsored by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of the Northeastern University School of Law in collaboration with the Northeastern University Humanities Center. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill/Northeastern University

When world-renowned author Toni Morrison visited Northeastern University’s Boston campus in 2013, she told the audience of nearly 1,000 people that the quiet force of goodness—a force often overlooked—was more powerful than violence or hatred.

“Evil and violence take the stage—all of it. It needs so much to call our attention,” Morrison said. “But goodness doesn’t need anything. If it says anything at all, it’s a whisper.” 

The Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist died on Monday, Aug. 5, leaving behind whole generations that were inspired by her work—a legacy of goodness.

Nicole Aljoe is the director of the African and African American Studies Program and an associate professor of English at Northeastern. Courtesy Nicole Aljoe

“I know myself, as a scholar, as a black woman in the academy, I looked to her as a model,” said Nicole Aljoe, who is the director of the African and African American Studies Program and an associate professor of English at Northeastern. “I hope that I’m able to be a bridge for others the way she was for so many.”

Morrison’s work centered on black history and identity in the United States, particularly the experience of black women. She was the author of 11 novels, including Song of Solomon, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In 1993 she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Morrison also received the National Humanities Medal in 2000 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented in 2012 by President Barack Obama. The Toni Morrison Society, devoted to the study of her life and work, was founded in 1993.

“There’s almost no degree of hyperbole one could offer for the effect of her writing career that would be an overstatement,” said Carla Kaplan, who is the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature and a scholar of modern, African-American, and women’s history and culture. 

Carla Kaplan is the Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature and a scholar of modern, African-American, and women’s history and culture. Courtesy photo of Carla Kaplan

“She has done for the modern novel what Shakespeare did for theatre,” Kaplan said. “Almost no one rises to her stature; her work is in a world of its own. Toni Morrison’s particular genius about history, large and small, is unmatched.”

Morrison’s work is wrenching in its examination of “how deeply and profoundly we hurt each other,” while still remaining “almost unspeakably funny at surprising moments,” Kaplan said. 

Kaplan highlighted a moment in Morrison’s Song of Solomon: A street that had long been known among the local community as “Doctor Street” (because that’s where the local doctor once lived), is being renamed by authorities as “Main Street.” Government officials put up signs to warn people that it was not Doctor Street, but Main Street, so locals start calling it “Not Doctor Street.”

“In that little moment, Morrison captures the way in which the past is always our propulsion forward,” Kaplan said. “I don’t know any writer so incredibly sensitive to that, in the language she uses, as she was.” 

Though Morrison was a giant in her field, she was warm and approachable to those she met, Aljoe said, and was dedicated to uplifting people whenever she could.

When the author came to Northeastern in 2013, she taught a workshop with undergraduate students in which she was “lovely,” and generous with her time and knowledge, Aljoe said.

Morrison was warm toward Aljoe herself, when Aljoe met her after a reading.

“She waited for everyone in line to reach her; she waited for everyone who wanted to see her,” Aljoe said. “I was probably in line for 45 minutes, and by the time I got to her, I was completely tongue-tied, but she was lovely and warm.” 

In addition to her robust archive of written work, recorded lectures, and talks, this is the legacy Morrison leaves behind, Aljoe said. 

“She was an inspiration for so many people,” Aljoe said. “Although she’s not here physically anymore, she’ll always be here in the generations of people she’s inspired.”

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718. 

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