'A True Literary Citizen': Remembering Toni Morrison's Time At Bread Loaf

Aug 14, 2019

Toni Morrison died last week at the age of 88. Author of novels including Beloved and Song of Solomon, as well as winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison leaves a lasting impression on the American literary landscape — but she also left an impression on those who attended Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vermont, during her time as a faculty member in the 1970s.

"Just weeks before Toni got to Bread Loaf in 1976, she had finished and sent her manuscript off to Bob Gottlieb, at Knopf, of Song of Solomon," said David Bain, Bread Loaf's historian since 1980. "And so when she was seen here reading her stuff, probably no one outside of her own little family and friends network had actually heard it. So it was first heard here, weeks after she had written 'The End' at the bottom of the last page."

From NPR's All Things Considered: "Remembering Toni Morrison In Her Own Words"

Bain, who retired recently from a 32-year career teaching creative writing at Middlebury College, actually knew Morrison even before she was taken on as a faculty member at Bread Loaf in 1976.

Three years earlier, Bain was working in New York City as an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf, part of the Random House publishing family. Morrison had been at Knopf since 1968, and she was a senior editor at Random House when Bain was there.

"There were parts of my job that took me down to the editorial floor of Random House frequently, so we would always stop and chat," Bain recalled, "and the one thing that I could never figure out about Toni back in those days was that she was not only editing full time, but she was also writing novels. And I wanted to figure out how to do that, too."

From Fresh Air — "Remembering Toni Morrison"

At this time Morrison had only published a couple novels — The Bluest Eye and Sula — and "she wasn't well-known at all," Bain said.

She was divorced and raising her sons on her own, Bain said, commuting into the city to work as an editor — and yet Morrison still found time to write.

"Somehow she would get up at 4 a.m. every morning just to write her novels," Bain said.

Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, making her the first black woman to be awarded that honor. Here she receives the prize in Stockholm on Dec. 10, 1993 from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf.
Credit AP Photo

"She was brave enough and unflinching to talk about people, the black experience, African-American history, in ways that are unparalleled," said Jennifer Grotz, a poet and current director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conferences.

Grotz also described Morrison as "a true literary citizen through her editing, giving to communities like Bread Loaf and mentoring young writers, which she did throughout her life."

Morrison's books are her legacy; her writing has and will continue to influence countless aspiring young authors. For those who come to Bread Loaf to hear writers like Morrison before they become literary household names, the experience is unique — and a new session is just beginning.

The 2019 Bread Loaf Writers' Conference runs through Aug. 24. There are a number of associated events and readings taking place at the Little Theatere that are free and open to the public.