Bernstein also made Morrison a trade editor at Random House—effectively his black editor. She produced books by Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton. Her signature achievement was The Black Book, an illustrated coffee-table compendium of documents of the African-American experience: blackface ads, lynching photos, patents filed by black inventors, and news stories—including one about a woman who killed her infant rather than have it sold into slavery. With almost no editorial comment, it achieved something new, presenting African-American history unvarnished—the ugly along with the beautiful.
Morrison the editor had an agenda, as she freely admits. “In my mind, there’s all these people out here marching, talking, writing, or being shot,” she says. “I thought that I was contributing powerfully to the so-called record.” The problem was that the institutions that were elevating her books were still ghettoizing them. A Random House salesman told her he couldn’t sell her books “on both sides of the street.” She learned never to publish three “black” books in a season, because they would all get reviewed together, no matter how different they were. Even John Leonard’s review of The Bluest Eye, the only prestigious rave, grouped it with two other “first novels on race.”
A center island painted in quaint Provençal colors separates Morrison’s kitchen, where a home aide is frying up crab cakes, from the rest of the first floor. Two objects dominate this island. One is a bowl of stones the size of bread loaves. “These rocks are from Thailand,” she says, “and you’re always supposed to know which one is calling to you. So I got three. They looked like they were all calling to me.” Did she ship them in from Thailand? “Oh God, no! They were in some little crappy shop in New York, where they go buy junk and tell you it’s important.”
The other object on the island, which she recently brought in from storage, is her Nobel Prize certificate. “I hadn’t seen it in years,” she says. Mounted on clear plastic, it lies open like a diploma case. Every prize has a different design on the left-hand leaf, and this one is a white U.S. map on a field of black. “I think they were trying to be cute,” she says, chuckling.
When Morrison found out she’d won the prize, in October 1993, she was at Princeton, where she began teaching in 1989. With reporters and hangers-on mobbing her office, she had her assistant call her friend Claudia Brodsky. “Get. Over. Here. Now,” the assistant commanded. Brodsky pushed her way past the throng and was hustled into Morrison’s office. “She closed the door,” Brodsky recalls, “and she just started dancing.” It was coy, silent, and joyous. “I’ll never forget it in my life.”
The Nobel is awarded for an entire body of work; by 1993, Morrison’s was substantial and impressive. The Bluest Eye had been followed by another small-scale work, Sula, at which point Gottlieb—editor of Joseph Heller and John Cheever—encouraged Morrison to go bigger. The result, Song of Solomon, vaulted Morrison into the arms of a broader public. John Leonard declared it “a privilege to review. It may be foolishly fussed over as a Black Novel, or a Woman’s Novel, or an Important New Novel by a Black Woman. It is closer in spirit and style to One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Woman Warrior. It builds, out of history and language and myth, to music. It takes off.” It won the 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gottlieb soon persuaded Morrison to quit her editing job.
Morrison’s last book before the Nobel Prize was the acclaimed Jazz, a sort of polyphonic African-American answer to The Great Gatsby. But it was Beloved, published in 1987, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize and a slot on Stockholm’s short list. Based on that clipping in The Black Book about the slave who killed her baby, Beloved takes place mostly after emancipation, in a house haunted by the ghost of the murdered child. It’s oblique and nonlinear, but also an allegory of America’s shame and a shiver-inducing ghost story. And it came along at an auspicious time. At the height of the culture wars, proponents of broader school curricula were hungry for books that turned “marginal” experiences into art powerful enough to elbow its way in alongside Faulkner and Joyce. Meanwhile, a more liberal public—the children of the seventies—was eager to embrace a heady thriller indicting their nation’s brutal history. (“It’s a stupefying work,” says Brodsky. “It gives you nightmares.”) Beloved was on the best-seller list for 25 weeks and earned a permanent place on school reading lists.