How Ohio Has Shaped Toni Morrison’s Fiction

Toni Morrison’s talent cannot be overstated or over-appreciated. But less understood are her deep Ohio roots—and the fundamental role the state plays in her work. Consider, for instance, her Cincinnati masterpiece Beloved.

Illustration by Alessandro Pautasso

*Editor’s Note: Toni Morrison died August 5, 2019 at the age of 88.*

One day, in the summer of 1970, Cheryl Wall did what she’d done many times before: she sat down and opened a book.

Wall had recently graduated from Howard University, the prestigious historically black college; now she was working at one of the best publishers in New York. She had, in other words, read lots of good fiction. But the novel she started that day—a new one, still in galleys, by a new author named Toni Morrison—entranced her. It was called The Bluest Eye, and Wall finished it in one sitting; the only times she slowed down were to read certain stretches aloud. She’d never encountered a novel where the conversations between black women felt so familiar, where the main characters were black girls. “Morrison gave me an insight into my own experience,” Wall says today, “in a way no one had ever done before.”

There’s so much to say about Toni Morrison: Ohio native, multi-time Oprah’s Book Club honoree, and author of 11 novels, including the classic Beloved, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The New York Times once proclaimed Morrison “the closest thing the country has to a national writer”; the next year, she won the Nobel Prize.

Toni Morrison with President Obama in 2012, when he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Photograph: Rena Schild/Shutterstock

Yet the most important measure of Morrison’s talent—and of any good novelist’s, really—may be her effect on individual readers. How exactly did Morrison move a reader like Cheryl Wall? There’s a lot to say here, too, but perhaps the place to start is with place. While Morrison is certainly a “national” writer, she gives each novel a specific and resonant setting. That’s certainly true of Beloved, which is, among other things, the best novel about Cincinnati ever written. Morrison’s masterpiece, even 30 years after its publication, captures our city’s history and its mindset, the ways we’ve changed and even more the ways we haven’t.

She learned how to do that right here in Ohio, and to appreciate her astonishing literary career, it’s worth retracing her years in her home state. In fact, to understand Morrison’s power over readers, you must first understand how Ohio shaped her—and how her fiction has shaped and reshaped Ohio.

Morrison was born in 1931, in the small, steel-making town of Lorain, Ohio. Lorain sits about 25 miles outside of Cleveland, and it was (and is) a diverse and contradictory place. Morrison set her first novel there, and The Bluest Eye captures the town’s contradictions. But Lorain has also inspired her writing in Beloved and beyond. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,” she once told an audience at Oberlin College, “the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.”

Morrison grew up in a noisy, crowded, happy household. On any given night there’d be her parents, her grandparents, and her three siblings, plus aunts and uncles and neighborhood pals—all of them playing music, singing songs, swapping ghost stories, or launching into friendly arguments about who had migrated from the tiniest Southern town. While Morrison loved the hubbub, she also knew she was different. She craved time alone, to read and daydream and think. “She was a very observant person,” her sister Lois said later in life. “She saw things I didn’t see.”

It was also a household that struggled. While her parents worked hard, money remained tight in the post-Depression era; the family moved from rental to rental. Lorain’s steel industry attracted not just African-Americans but Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, and other immigrants, and the workers all lived in the same neighborhoods and attended the same schools. (Even with all the moving, Morrison never lived on a block that didn’t include at least one white family.) What carved up their town was class, and once she turned 12 Morrison started cleaning houses in one of Lorain’s tonier areas, where she had to learn how to use the washing machine and the vacuum—two gadgets her family could never afford.

When she got a bit older, Morrison switched to a new line of work: page at the local library. Lorain boasted one of Ohio’s finest Carnegie libraries, and Morrison spent hour after hour there. She went not just for books but for inspiration, for the kind and cheerful librarians. Fifty years later, Morrison could still remember their names: Miss Lawless and Miss Ambrose.

Once high school ended, Morrison left Lorain for Howard University in Washington, D.C. Next came a master’s from Cornell and a job teaching English, returning to Howard in that role in 1957. It was right around here she took her first steps as a serious writer. While she’d dabbled in fiction in high school and college, Morrison still saw herself as a teacher and a reader. At Howard, though, she joined a writers’ group. It had 10 or 12 people and only one rule: Each month, each member had to bring something to share.

Morrison started with fragments from her past writing, but eventually she had to create something new. She focused on a vivid memory from her childhood in Lorain: She’d been walking along with one of her best friends, a girl named Eunice, when the two started discussing whether God existed. Morrison was sure he did. But Eunice disagreed.

“I have been praying for blue eyes for two years,” she explained, “and I don’t have them.”

Even as an adult, Morrison could remember her feelings from that moment, looking at Eunice and her gorgeous dark skin, trying to imagine her with blue eyes, trying to understand why she didn’t appreciate the beauty she already possessed. So Morrison turned it into a short story—and the first flicker of The Bluest Eye.

At Howard, she met an architect named Harold Morrison. They married and had a son, but in 1964, while Morrison was pregnant with their second child, the couple split for reasons she’s never spoken about. (“He’s not here to defend himself,” she once told a reporter.) Morrison moved back to Lorain to live with her parents. After more than a year in Ohio, she and her children relocated to Syracuse, where she’d found a job as a textbook editor.

During that first cold winter, Morrison returned to her short story and began revising it, often at night after her kids had fallen asleep. Perhaps she was lonely; perhaps she was drawing on her recent, year-plus layover in Lorain. Either way, Morrison spent the next five years expanding the story into her first book. (She also moved again, this time to New York City to edit trade books for Random House.) Morrison and her sister became the novel’s primary narrators, Claudia and Frieda Macteer; Eunice became Pecola Breedlove, the girl at the center of the story.

The Bluest Eye came out in 1970, and Morrison’s gifts were immediately clear. In the novel’s first long section, Claudia comes down with a cold. Morrison takes this simple event and makes it overwhelming—the house with not enough heat and not enough lamplight, the mother who is simultaneously spirited and exhausted, the careful representation of a child’s point of view. “We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all of their words,” Claudia says of the adults around her. “So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre.” Morrison switches from small details you can see and touch to bold, oracular statements; her prose slides along the whole plane of human existence. Somehow, when she does this, it never feels jarring. It feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Morrison’s aversion to stereotypes and easy symbols is also apparent in The Bluest Eye. She once noted that she hated when her family was reduced to a tidy timeline. It was true that her grandfather had been born into slavery in Alabama, that her parents had followed the Great Migration to Ohio. But her family was more than that. “My grandfather was a person,” Morrison said, “and what he really was was a musician. He played violin.”

The Bluest Eye treats its characters and their community as complicated and often ugly. The novel includes light touches, many of them drawn from Morrison’s childhood. (Claudia and her sister visit an ice cream shop; their grandfather plays the violin.) But there is sadness, as well. It can be as simple as the “abandoned store” where Pecola and her parents live—a melancholy structure that stands out even among the “gray frame houses” and “leaden sky,” a place locals avoid looking at when they hurry past. It can be as evil as the action that drives the novel’s narrative: “Pecola,” Morrison writes, “was having her father’s baby.”

She builds the novel around specific places and people. She’s often observed that growing up in Lorain, and around white people, empowered her to stop worrying about white readers. Instead, she dedicated herself to depicting the black circle in which she was raised. Race saturates The Bluest Eye, but subtly—in the small degradations and indignities that feel as timely now as when Morrison first penned them. She wrote her first novel about her community in Lorain, but she also wrote it for her community in Lorain.

While The Bluest Eye earned some nice reviews and sold a few thousand copies, it wasn’t a smash hit. Morrison kept working at Random House; she also started working on Sula, which she set in another tiny and flawed Ohio town, though it featured older characters and a more ambitious scope.

Sula appeared in 1973, and soon after its publication was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review—an enormous moment in the life of any writer. The reviewer’s name was Sara Blackburn, and while she praised Morrison’s prose, she thought the novel didn’t reach its potential. Sula and its setting, Blackburn wrote, lacked “the stinging immediacy, the urgency, of [Morrison’s] nonfiction…. Morrison is far too talented,” she continued, “to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”

The condescension in that “only” was hard to miss. The review infuriated Morrison, and a month later she could still quote it from memory. But she also couldn’t understand how someone could dismiss a novel simply because it centered on an intimate black community. “She’s talking about my life,” Morrison told another journalist. “It has ‘stinging immediacy’ for me.”

It can be tempting to divide Morrison’s novels—the early ones more concrete, more rooted in realism, the later ones more abstract and alive to magic and myth. But it’s better to think of each one as belonging on a stylistic continuum. Each novel includes some surrealism. (Recall The Bluest Eye’s character M’Dear, a mysterious and timeless midwife.) And all of them rely on their details and locations—even the experimental and supernatural Beloved.

Morrison first got the idea for Beloved in the late 1970s, a decade before its publication. She was still working at Random House, shepherding a sprawling and important project titled The Black Book, a scrapbook that spanned three centuries of everyday African-American life—letters and poems, transcriptions of gossip and dreams, posters from slave auctions, pictures of enslaved people’s hand-crafted art, and more.

While sifting through this material, Morrison read a periodical clipping from 1856. It told the story of Margaret Garner. Garner had been born on a plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, and spent her entire life within a few miles of Cincinnati. Because she’d been born in Boone County—on what Morrison would describe in Beloved as “the bloody side of the Ohio River”—Garner, her husband, and their children were enslaved. One winter night, however, Garner and her family joined a larger group of African-Americans and fled to Covington, then crossed the frozen river into Cincinnati. While some of their group ultimately made it to Canada, the Garners ended up trapped in a Cincinnati house. As the U.S. Marshals closed in, Margaret decided to cut the throat of her 2-year-old daughter, killing her.

Garner tried to kill her other children before the authorities stopped her. (After a lengthy trial, they returned her south; she died in slavery.) What struck Morrison, though, was not only the brutal narrative but its narrator’s sense of peace. In the clipping, Garner sounded confident she had done the right thing. “I was as cool as I now am,” she said; she “would rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery.”

For years Morrison kept thinking about Garner—about her choice to murder her own child and the forces that drove her to it. Eventually, the author knew she had to put this choice at the heart of her next novel. Morrison chose not to learn anything else about Garner. She knew the story, the mother’s manner, the child’s gender. “The rest,” Morrison has said, “was novel writing.”

Still, Morrison did lots of research on the novel’s location. She’d finally left her job at Random House, but even with the extra time, Beloved took nearly four years of hard work. With the help of an assistant, Morrison immersed herself in history: of Ohio’s abolitionists, of Cincinnati’s economy, of its treatment of black citizens in the years after the Civil War. She studied everyday details like the price of household goods and the names of local streets. She read the journals of slave owners. She visited museums to see the barbaric cages those owners had put on their slaves’ heads, complete with metal, horse-like bits, just in case they got any ideas about taking a bite while they were preparing meals.

Beloved opens in 1873, at a home on Cincinnati’s rural fringe: 124 Bluestone Road. Garner has morphed into a character named Sethe, who lives with her teenaged daughter, Denver. But the house is haunted—presumably by the ghost of the daughter Sethe murdered long ago—and the plot grows only stranger from there, moving from character to character and memory to memory, the house serving as an unpleasant anchor.

Morrison also anchors the novel, as she always does, with specifics. Some are pleasant; characters stepping into the relentless Ohio sun look down and glimpse their “hand-holding shadows.” Some are gruesome; Sethe’s back is shockingly scarred, “the skin buckled like a washboard.” Many relate to Cincinnati itself. Morrison describes the workflow of the city’s slaughterhouses, the way the pigs are “pushed and prodded . . . from canal to shore to chute to slaughterhouse.” She also understands the perverse pride Cincinnatians feel in being a leading “pig port.”

One reason Morrison included these details (and researched them so diligently) was to root her novel in accuracy. “I was dealing with the supernatural and some very sensational material,” she once told an interviewer, “and didn’t want it to be sensational in the bad sense.”

But a bigger reason, perhaps, is Ohio itself. “Ohio,” Morrison once observed, “is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base.” At the top, the state shares a body of water with Canada, which made it crucial to the Underground Railroad; at the bottom it shares a body of water with Kentucky, which made it fertile for the Klan. Across the state—and across the centuries—you’ll find an unstable mix of both elements.

That mix must have appealed to Morrison’s artistic sensibility. When she finally describes Sethe’s murderous choice, it is gutting and wrenching and heartbreaking in its logic. (The authorities find Sethe calmly “holding a blood-soaked child to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other.”) It doesn’t feel like an accident that Morrison sandwiches the moment between two of her most Cincinnati-centric chapters: one on a freed slave arriving at the city, the other on the messy work of pig processing. Those chapters provide both a respite from and a realistic grounding to the violence. But in truth that violence suffuses every part of our city and every page in this book. Ohio has always been good and bad, ugly and beautiful, and that’s what makes it the ideal state for Morrison’s masterpiece. She has never been one for clear and simple boundaries—between people, between emotions, and certainly not between states.

Cheryl Wall has reread The Bluest Eye many times since her first awestruck encounter in 1970. In fact, after Wall left her job in publishing, she got a Ph.D. and became an influential English professor at Rutgers University, where she’s frequently taught and written about Morrison’s work. “Readers know places in Morrison’s fiction better than they know places in their real lives,” Wall says.

Wall experienced this herself a few years back, when she went to Lorain for a literary conference celebrating Morrison’s life. At the conference, academics talked with townies who remembered Morrison from high school; there was a lunch at the church where Morrison’s mother had sung in the choir. The author even attended a few events herself, one of the many ways in which she’s stayed connected to her hometown. But the real star of the conference was Lorain. “Riding around,” Wall says, “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the ice cream shop, and that’s the storefront where the Breedlove family lived.’ I felt like I already knew Lorain.”

That tangible sense of place permeates each of Morrison’s novels. “She really tries to give you the texture of the way people live their lives,” Wall says, “almost mapping the setting.” And those settings create the foundation for her political statements and supernatural set pieces. In the end, it’s not just that Morrison is from Ohio, it’s that each of her books is from somewhere—a technique she mastered by writing about her home state. Morrison’s communities can be real, like the 1920s Harlem she describes in Jazz; they can be fictional, like the unnamed Michigan town in Song of Solomon. But they all depend on her gift for depicting locations, and taken together these locations form her most important, career-spanning idea: that every one of these ordinary black communities deserves attention and dignity, on its own terms.

We’ve been talking a lot lately about monuments in America. But in truth this is an old and ongoing conversation. Back in 1856, one of Cincinnati’s newspapers called on residents to support the construction of a monument for Margaret Garner—“the heroic woman,” the paper noted, “who spared not her own child.” It’s a noble sentiment, even today. But here’s the thing: Garner’s life has already been commemorated, just like the lives of black people in Lorain and Cincinnati and so many other places. Margaret Garner has a monument made not of copper or stone but something more lasting: the pages of one of Toni Morrison’s books.

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