* She changed the face of literature
Toni Morrison, 72
Novelist and Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Princeton University
As a young reader, Toni Morrison was drawn to the novels of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and the great Russian writers. "Those books were not written for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio, but they spoke directly to me out of their specificity," she has said. "I wanted to capture that same specificity about the nature and feeling of the culture I grew up in." With her seven unflinching, lyrical novels, she has added the African American experience to that classical literary tradition—and to the consciousness of the rest of the world. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, the searing tale of an escaped slave who kills her own child to spare her the horror of capture. (She also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.) Critic John Leonard has said of Beloved, "What happened in 1988 was a novel we'd always needed, a book whose absence on the canonical shelf of Wonder Bread white boys left a heart-sized hole in our literature big enough to die from. It's as if we'd never heard the sorrow songs or seen slavery before."
For Morrison, the act of writing, though solitary, is not complete until the work is read. And reading is an intimate act, a "sustained surrender to the company of my own mind while it touches another's," she said in a 1996 speech. With her work as a novelist, critic, and teacher, Morrison opens the whole of American experience to what she calls a dance of two minds.
Join the Toni Morrison Society, an official author society of the American Literature
* He seeks justice by the numbers
Robert Moses, 67
Civil Rights Activist, Math Teacher
As a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the soft-spoken Moses became a bona fide folk hero during 1964's Freedom Summer, when he organized African Americans in rural Mississippi to demand their voting rights. "One rarely runs into such an implacable being," says Moses's longtime friend, the Rev. Dr. James Breeden. Thirty years later, Moses fights on a new front in the civil rights struggle: math literacy. His Algebra Project teaches low-income kids the math skills they need for college. Each week Moses flies from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to teach ninth-grade algebra at a Mississippi high school, and he's training grads to teach their younger peers.
* She celebrates the spirit of the natural world
Mary Oliver, 67
It takes a certain eye to see the miraculous in the commonplace. In Oliver's poems—named for times of day, types of weather, flowers, birds, or even walks she has taken—everyday objects are revealed anew. Oliver's popular and accessible poems have been collected in more than 10 volumes, earning her a Pulitzer Prize (1984), the National Book Award (1992), and many other awards. "I don't know any other American poet who seems as immersed in the beauty of the growing world as she is," says Stanley Kunitz, former U.S. poet laureate.
* He helps dying people move past fear
Frank Ostaseski, 51
Founding Director, The Zen Hospice Project, San Francisco, California
Combining conventional hospice services with 2,500-year-old Buddhist traditions, Ostaseski trains his 100-member volunteer staff to practice meditation and to form deep bonds with patients. His hospice has become a national model. "The word compassion literally means 'suffer with others,' " he has said. "We have to be able to build an empathetic bridge from our own experience."
Ostaseski on fear: "The nature of fear is that it separates us from the people around us, from ourselves. When we can come into contact with this fear without running in the other direction, we can make some peace with it."
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