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Her 1993 Nobel Prize for literature merely confirmed what her readers and admirers had known for more than two decades: Toni Morrison is a major American writer. But because she is an African-American woman, her importance to and impact on her times transcend the literary. Her example, both in her powerful novels and in her strong, imposing personality, has inspired a generation of black artists and produced seismic effects on publishing.
Thanks to Morrison's trailblazing success, black women are not only writing more; their books are being bought and read in droves. Bebe Moore Campbell, author of the best-selling Brothers and Sisters and Sweet Summer: Growing Up With and Without My Dad, just out in paperback, vividly remembers coming upon Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye (1969): "When I finished that book, I had all the permission I needed to become a writer. Someone who looked like me had written a masterpiece." The megasuccessful Terry McMillan, author of the current best seller How Stella Got Her Groove Back, remembers being inspired by Morrison's books in school and then sensing, once her own work began to be published, that the elder author was not offering her much encouragement. (They write, to put it mildly, dissimilar fiction; Morrison is about as close to Faulkner as McMillan is to Judith Krantz.) Those feelings have passed. When she meets Morrison now, McMillan says, "we hug each other."
But Morrison, 65, is more than an example and a comforting presence to hopeful writers. Her long experience, beginning in 1965 as an editor at Random House, taught her how to wield influence in predominantly male and white organizations. It was while working on the manuscripts of her writers that she realized she was not seeing the black girls and women, the straitened circumstances of the communities of her childhood, a dearth munificently filled by her own books and those of her proteges. Since 1989 Morrison has held a prestigious chair in the humanities at Princeton University, a bully pulpit from which she has, through her teaching, lectures and academic clout, affected the course of black-studies programs across the U.S. Says Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr., a longtime friend: "There's no question that she's had an enormous influence in literary circles, but in addition she's an intellectual, and that's important as well."
Because Morrison is a writer, her influence will outlive her. As she said in her Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives."
MICHAEL HAMMER Management Consultant
He has, in many ways, enriched our work life, to which a cynic might respond, "Sure, if you're still working." Michael Hammer calls his lifework "undoing the Industrial Revolution." And it has been keeping him busy. Hammer, 48, is the originator and flamekeeper of a business concept called "re-engineering," a term he coined in a book he co-wrote in 1993 called Reengineering the Corporation.