NEW YORK -- Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a pioneer and reigning giant of modern literature whose imaginative power in "Beloved," ''Song of Solomon" and other works transformed American letters by dramatizing the pursuit of freedom within the boundaries of race, has died at age 88.
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf announced that Morrison died Monday night at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Morrison's family issued a statement through Knopf saying she died after a brief illness.
"Toni Morrison passed away peacefully last night surrounded by family and friends," the family announced. "The consummate writer who treasured the written word, whether her own, her students or others, she read voraciously and was most at home when writing."
Few authors rose in such rapid, spectacular style. She was nearly 40 when her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," was published. By her early 60s, after just six novels, she had become the first black woman to receive the Nobel literature prize, praised in 1993 by the Swedish academy for her "visionary force" and for her delving into "language itself, a language she wants to liberate" from categories of black and white. In 2012, Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"Her writing was not just beautiful but meaningful -- a challenge to our conscience and a call to greater empathy," Obama wrote Tuesday on his Facebook page. "She was as good a storyteller, as captivating, in person as she was on the page."
Morrison helped raise American multiculturalism to the world stage and helped uncensor her country's past, unearthing the lives of the unknown and the unwanted, those she would call "the unfree at the heart of the democratic experiment." In her novels, history -- black history -- was a trove of poetry, tragedy, love, adventure and good old gossip, whether in small-town Ohio in "Sula" or big-city Harlem in "Jazz." She regarded race as a social construct and through language founded the better world her characters suffered to attain. Morrison wove everything from African literature and slave folklore to the Bible and Gabriel Garcia Marquez into the most diverse, yet harmonious, of literary communities.
"Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me," she said in her Nobel lecture. "It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge."
Winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for "Beloved," she was one of the book world's most regal presences, with her expanse of graying dreadlocks; her dark, discerning eyes; and warm, theatrical voice, able to lower itself to a mysterious growl or rise to a humorous falsetto. "That handsome and perceptive lady," James Baldwin called her.
Her admirers were countless -- from fellow authors, college students and working people to Obama and fellow former President Bill Clinton; to Oprah Winfrey, who idolized Morrison and helped greatly expand her readership. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labeling one of her novels, "Love," as "perfect" and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet acceptance.
"Maya Angelou helped me without her knowing it," Morrison told The Associated Press during a 1998 interview. "When she was writing her first book, 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,' I was an editor at Random House. She was having such a good time, and she never said, 'Who me? My little book?'
"I decided that ... winning the (Nobel) prize was fabulous," Morrison added. "Nobody was going to take that and make it into something else. I felt representational. I felt American. I felt Ohioan. I felt blacker than ever. I felt more woman than ever. I felt all of that, and put all of that together and went out and had a good time."
The second of four children of a welder and a domestic worker, Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a steel town outside of Cleveland. She was encouraged by her parents to read and to think, and was unimpressed by the white kids in her community. Recalling how she felt like an "aristocrat," Morrison believed she was smarter and took it for granted she was wiser. She was an honors student in high a school, and attended Howard University because she dreamed of life spent among black intellectuals.
At Howard, she spent much of her free time in the theater (she had a laugh that could easily reach the back row), later taught there and also met and married a Jamaican architect, Harold Morrison, whom she divorced in 1964. They had two children, Harold and Slade.
But although she went on to teach there, Howard disappointed her. Campus life seemed closer to a finishing school than to an institution of learning. Protesters, among them former Morrison student Stokely Carmichael, were demanding equality. Morrison wanted that, too, but wondered what kind.
"I thought they wanted to integrate for nefarious purposes," she said. "I thought they should demand money in those black schools. That was the problem -- the resources, the better equipment, the better teachers, the buildings that were falling apart -- not being in some high school next to some white kids."
In 1964, she answered an ad to work in the textbook division of Random House. Over the next 15 years, she would have an impact as a book editor, and as one of the few black women in publishing, that alone would have ensured her legacy. She championed emerging fiction authors such as Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, helped introduce U.S. readers to such African writers as Wole Solinka, worked on a memoir by Muhammad Ali and topical books by such activists as Angela Davis and Black Panther Huey Newton. A special project was editing "The Black Book," a collection of everything from newspaper advertisements to song lyrics that anticipated her immersion in the everyday lives of the past.
By the late '60s, she was a single mother and a determined writer who had been pushed by her future editor, Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf, into deciding whether she'd write or edit. Seated at her kitchen table, she fleshed out a story based on a childhood memory of a black girl in Lorain -- raped by her father -- who desired blue eyes. She called the novel "The Bluest Eye."
Morrison prided herself on the gift of applying "invisible ink," making a point and leaving it to the reader to discover it, such as her decision to withhold the skin color of her characters in "Paradise." Her debut as an author came at the height of the Black Arts Movement and calls for literature as political and social protest. But Morrison criticized by indirection; she was political because of what she didn't say. Racism and sexism were assumed; she wrote about their effects, whether in "The Bluest Eye" or in "Sula," a story of friendship and betrayal between two black women.