Morrison's 'Beloved' named best fiction in the last 25 years

May 12, 2006, 9:05 a.m.

The New York Times Book Review has named "Beloved," a 1987 novel by Princeton Professor Toni Morrison, the best work of American fiction published in the past quarter century.

In an article posted on the Times' Web site and slated for publication in the May 21 edition, Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus reports the results of a survey he conducted of prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary figures. He asked them to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." A total of 124 people are on the list of judges, including Russell Banks, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Nadine Gordimer, Jim Harrison, John Irving, Stephen King, Wole Soyinka, William Styron, Studs Terkel, Anne Tyler and Tom Wolfe as well as Morrison's colleagues on the Princeton faculty, Chang-rae Lee and Edmund White.

"The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance," writes Times film critic A.O. Scott in an accompanying essay. "They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject."

Set in post-Civil War Ohio, "Beloved" tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the spirit of a murdered child. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

"… Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals," Scott writes. "With remarkable speed, 'Beloved' has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic."

Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities at Princeton, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She was the first African-American winner and the first woman to win since 1938. She was honored with the National Humanities Medal in 2000 for her contributions to American cultural life and thought and with the National Book Critics Award in 1977 for "Song of Solomon." Her other novels include "Love," "The Bluest Eye," "Sula," "Tar Baby," "Jazz" and "Paradise." She has served on the Princeton faculty since 1989.