Ms Morrison, 62, only learnt of her success from a colleague at Princeton University, where she has been a professor of humanities since 1989. In their citation for the dollars 825,000 ( pounds 540,000) prize, the 18-strong Nobel panel praised the first black American literature laureate for her 'unique narrative technique', and ability to 'liberate us from the fetters of race' in a language possessing 'the lustre of poetry'. It is the second year running the award has gone to a black writer; last year's winner was the West Indian Derek Walcott.
The Nobel prize is the climax of a writing career spanning almost a quarter of a century, since publication of her first book in 1969.
Five novels followed, most famously Beloved (1987), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and prompted a leading critic to write that 'Toni Morrison belongs on the highest shelf of US literature, even if half a dozen canonised white boys have to be elbowed off'.
All her books have examined race problems, sometimes through the prism of history, almost invariably in a setting of small-town black American life. Though her output has been relatively small, her readership and critical esteem have crossed racial boundaries.
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in February 1931, Toni Morrison was the daughter of Alabama sharecroppers who moved north to the Ohio steel town of Lorain.
She became a writer to support her two children after her marriage broke up. Writing, she once said, was something she did 'secretly, compulsively, slyly'.
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