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A Brief Tribute to Toni Morrison

By Helene Atwan

Toni Morrison

Like so many thousands, hundreds of thousands of others, I was deeply saddened by the news of Toni Morrison’s death. Like others, I had been moved and changed by reading her work over many years. And like hundreds of others, I was fortunate to have worked with her oh so briefly over the years, once as a publicist at Knopf, when Song of Solomon was coming out. She still worked at Random House as an editor in those days and would take the elevator up to visit us at Knopf. The power and mastery of the novel was unlike anything I’d worked on before (and remember, I was working at Knopf, with many masterful writers). I was, I admit, awed by her. But at that time, she had just published a second novel by Gayl Jones (Eva’s Man, which followed Corregidora), and so her skills as an editor and mentor were also on display. Many years later I would become Gayl’s editor and thus all the more aware of how acute Toni’s eye was. The last time I saw Toni was at a tribute for Nikki Giovanni, and I was especially happy to be in company with both of them at that great occasion, and with my daughter, who was, as you can imagine, thrilled to meet these legendary writers. Toni was walking, but with difficulty, and she asked my daughter, Emily, to serve as her crutch. I know she will feel Toni leaning on her shoulder for all the years to come, as we all have been pushed and guided by her will and her work. When my friend Anita Hill reached out to me to add a tribute to the growing swell, she asked me to speak to the literary loss: it’s both incalculable, and it’s illusionary. Her work stands, and though we could have asked for more books, we have a deep trove that will deeply influence writers from all races and ethnicities, all along the gender spectrum, and over the centuries to come. I could go on, but I defer to the many who knew her better, understood her work more intimately, and who will miss her more keenly.


About the Author 

Helene Atwan has been the director of Beacon Press since 1995.