Fame in America tends to attach to few enterprises other than athletics, performance, and politics.
It can occur in business and science, but generally only in admiration for achievement, not with the kind of emotion that can come with celebrity in sports, the arts, and governance.
Although writing is certainly an art, it doesn’t involve public performance like acting or music, and fame doesn’t often come to American writers, at least not those attempting serious literature.
Still, each generation of Americans has a few of renown in their lifetimes: Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Angelou.
The most recent of this order is Toni Morrison, famous in life and now death. Ms. Morrison died this month in New York City at age 88.
Ms. Morrison lived in Ithaca once. Before she was a writer—or before she was published—she was an academic. She was an undergraduate at Howard University in Washington D.C., then a graduate student at Cornell. With a Master of Arts degree from Cornell, she went to Texas Southern University in Houston to teach English. After two years, she joined the faculty at Howard.
Some years later, with the breakup of her marriage, Morrison left Washington and went to Syracuse to work for a textbook division of Random House.
She described it as a lonely time, alone with two children in a remote, unfamiliar city. But she used the time of social isolation to develop her writing.
After two years in Syracuse, Morrison went to New York City for Random House, and became the first African-American woman senior editor in its fiction department.
Morrison’s work gained notice and her reputation grew, and she became a force in bringing African-American writers to mainstream publication.
Within a few years in New York, Morrison became one of those writers herself, with the publication in 1970 of her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye.” It was praised by the New York Times and placed on reading lists of colleges throughout the country.
Morrrison’s second novel, “Sula,” was nominated for the National Book Award. Her third, “Song of Solomon,” was a main selection of the Book of the Month Club, and won the National Book Critics Circle award.
These two distinctions, of extraordinary commercial success and critical acclaim, demonstrate the scope of Morrison’s work. The duality chronicles her career.
In 1987, “Beloved” was a bestseller for over six months. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It also was later adapted for a movie starring Oprah Winfrey.
When Winfrey attained superstar status with her television program, Morrison achieved a measure of stardom herself with many visits to the show. She was a gifted and captivating speaker, and developed an active avocation of public and broadcast appearances.
In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first black woman of any nationality to win it, and the second American woman. (The first, Pearl S. Buck, was also a Cornell graduate.)
While continuing to write, Morrison returned to academics, with a position at Princeton University. She was an Andrew D. White Professor-At-Large at Cornell from 1997 until 2003.
Morrison continued her long connection to Cornell with public addresses at Bailey Hall in 2009 and Statler Auditorium in 2013.
The school has continued its connection with her with a first-year writing seminar called “American Voices: Writing, Memory, and Survival in the Novels of Toni Morrison.”
This fall, Cornell will offer a higher-level course called “Toni Morrison’s Novels.”
The course description says, “Morrison’s novels have placed her at the vanguard of the globalization of the novel itself, and she is, undisputedly, one of the most famous and innovative writers in the world.” It says it will examine “how she has helped to transform world literature, and how she has shaped Cornell’s great legacy.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Morrison the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In memoriam this month he said, “What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”
For a while, that air was here in Ithaca. With gratitude, we honor Toni Morrison’s life and mourn her passing.