The first American author taken seriously abroad on literary merit was an African young woman who had been brought to Boston a few years earlier and had mastered English as a second language while a slave. Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects" was the literary sensation of London in 1773. Its success proved not only that someone female from Africa could excel within the rigid forms then fashionable in English poetry but that someone educated in America could.
Race and gender and emotion hardly showed in Phillis Wheatley's disciplined verse. They are never absent from the novels of Toni Morrison, who has moved recognition of American literature forward by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first American-educated winner since Saul Bellow (1976) and first native-born American since John Steinbeck (1962).
Ms. Morrison is pre-eminent among African-American woman authors whose works on black female experience may be the dominant school in American letters today. Their frequent portrayals of strong black women and of weak or exploitative black men have drawn negative criticism from some African-American male critics for stereotyping. Yet tempting as it is to think of a class of authors as being honored, the Nobel Prize is supremely individualist. Only Toni Morrison won it.
She was a student of literature long before she was a practitioner. Debts to Nobel laureates William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer and others abound in her literary essays and intricately crafted novels, where precise description, faithful vernacular, myth, music and ghosts chase through the pages. Her themes have always dealt with race and gender, the effects of whites on blacks and of men on women, and have included racial self-hatred ("The Bluest Eye"), the friendship of women ("Sula"), slavery ("Beloved"), liberation ("Song of Solomon"), cultural differences ("Tar Baby") and the Harlem of the '20s ("Jazz").
Ms. Morrison also influenced literature by advancing the careers of African-American authors while working as a publisher's editor, a career she had in common with laureates T. S. Eliot (1948) and Andre Gide (1947). Now, in common with many authors, she teaches at a university, the career she first set out to have and never gave up.
Having done all this, Toni Morrison (nee Chloe Anthony Woffard) is only 62. Phillis Wheatley's muse died with her liberation from slavery and marriage to an exploitative husband (an 18th century situation ripe for a contemporary exploration). At the age when Phillis Wheatley died, perhaps 31, Toni Morrison had not begun to write fiction. Her greatest novel is probably not yet written.