Toni Morrison, who died recently at 88, was a great American novelist who was also a Great American Novelist. This means she had a special form of celebrity, an oracular status, and also that she was embraced by the tradition that regards novels as keys to interpreting America - insisting that you must read Morrison (and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston) to understand the black experience, just as you must read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville to understand the legacy of Puritanism, or William Faulkner or Willa Cather to understand the South or West.
So her passing raises the question: Is she the last of the species? The last American novelist who made novels seem essential to an educated person's understanding of her country?
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