‘National treasure’ is an over-used accolade, but former US president Barack Obama can be forgiven for awarding it to Toni Morrison whose death at 88 ends one of America’s most outstanding literary careers.
Given the vast size of her worldwide readership, she was an international treasure.
Of the many tributes paid to her this week, few if any surpass the clarity of the citation that accompanied the Nobel Prize in Literature she received in 1993.
It said Morrison “in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”. That is a reality that embraces not only the horror of slavery in the cotton fields of the southern states but also the hard graft of factory work in the industrial north where emancipation rarely if ever delivered equality.
It took a woman born into a poor, black family in Ohio to put aside her country’s creation myths and open the chapters of its history so rarely visited. “I want to participate in developing a canon of black work, writing about black Americans for black Americans,” she said. It might be said she did not participate in such a project; that, instead, she created it.