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Toni Morrison Receives the 2016 Emerson-Thoreau Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, MA | December 22, 2016 – The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has named Toni Morrison as the recipient of the 2016 Emerson-Thoreau Medal for her distinguished achievement in the field of literature. This award will be presented to Professor Morrison, a member of the Academy, on April 6, 2017, at the House of the Academy in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We recognize Toni Morrison with the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for her excellence in the humanities and for her commitment to the ideals of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which, in the words of our charter, include ‘to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people,’” said Jonathan F. Fanton, President of the American Academy.

Established in 1958, the medal is awarded to an individual for his or her total literary achievement rather than for a specific work.

Previous recipients of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal include: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Katherine Anne Porter, Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth.

“Toni Morrison is an overwhelming figure in American and world literature,” wrote one of her nominators for this prize. “Her novels are already standard texts in high schools (The Bluest Eye) and colleges (Beloved). Playing in the Dark, her work of literary criticism, has been hugely influential in the field of American literary history. We simply do not read our classical American writers, from Poe to Cather to Hemingway, the same way after this seminal book on the ‘Africanist’ presence in our canonical works.”

Toni Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor emerita in the Humanities at Princeton University, where she taught from 1989 to 2006. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. In 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities. She was also honored with the 1996 National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2012, Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, exploration of the black experience, and richly detailed African-American characters. Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic give her stories great strength and texture. Among her best known works are The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Love (2003), and A Mercy (2008). Song of Solomon, whose publication first brought Morrison to national attention, is told by a male narrator in search of his identity. Tar Baby, set on a Caribbean island, explores conflicts of race, class, and sex. The critically acclaimed Beloved, considered by many Morrison’s masterpiece, is based on the true story of a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, kills her infant daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. In 1994, Morrison established the Princeton Atelier, a unique program that brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work. The program has hosted Peter Sellars, Yo-Yo Ma, A.S. Byatt, and American Ballet Theatre among many others. In 2010, she was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor. Morrison received the B.A. degree (1953) in English and classics from Howard University and the M.A. (1955) in English from Cornell University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988.

About the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is among the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from the academic, business, and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world. In its work, the Academy focuses on higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and international affairs; and American institutions and the public good. Academy research has resulted in reports such as The Heart of the Matter, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, Public Research Universities–Recommitting to Lincoln’s Vision: An Educational Compact for the 21st Century, and A Primer on the College Student Journey. The Academy’s work is advanced by its more than 5,000 elected members, who are leaders in the academic disciplines, the arts, business, and public affairs from around the world.

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