Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature yesterday, the first American woman to win it in 55 years and the first African American ever. The author of six novels was saluted by the Swedish Academy for work "characterized by visionary force and poetic import {that} gives life to an essential aspect of American reality."

A professor at Princeton University, the 62-year-old Morrison endeavored to carry on with her normal life. She declined her publishers' invitation to hold a press conference in New York, unplugged her phone by 10 a.m. so she could finally take a bath, and taught her undergraduate seminar in "American Africanism."

"I feel good about this, really good," Morrison said in an interview in an English department library, still carrying the irises her students had given her. "Part of the pleasure is the fact that it was wholly unexpected. ... It's not a narrow, personal, subjective delight. I feel it on a very large scale."

Referring to other African American writers who "have been calling me all day with heartiest congratulations," she said the prize "feels expanded somehow, like a very large honor, because one can share it with more people than one's neighborhood or one's family. I feel like it's shared among us."

Best known for her novels "Song of Solomon" and "Beloved," Morrison is only the eighth woman to win since the prize was first awarded in 1901. It is worth $825,000 this year. She told journalists she was trying to think of a "creative" way to spend it.

"I'm so glad my mother is alive and I can share this with her," Morrison said. She rejoiced in the gratification felt by her university colleagues, her neighbors, old friends from her previous career in publishing, and her family in Lorain, Ohio.

Arnold Rampersad, the director of the African American Studies program at Princeton, said: "When she says she's enjoying this outrageously, she means it. She's not going to be a blushing violet about this award. She'll enjoy it the way she'd enjoy a glass of cabernet."

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, the second of four children of sharecroppers and the granddaughter of an Alabama slave. She attended Howard University, thought about and rejected the idea of becoming a dancer, got an M.A. in American literature from Cornell, married and had two sons. She began writing fiction after her divorce, when she was working in New York as a book editor.

The Nobel committee specifically mentioned three of her novels. "Song of Solomon" (1977) tells of Macon Dead Jr. and his quest for his past. "Beloved" (1987), set in post-Civil War Ohio, tells of Sethe, a woman of "iron eyes and backbone to match" who killed her daughter rather than have her be a slave. "Jazz," published last year, is a bittersweet, elliptical love story set in the 1920s that never mentions by name the music from which it takes its inspiration and title.

"The book's first lines provide a synopsis," the academy said, "and in reading the novel one becomes aware of a narrator who varies, embellishes and intensifies." Here's how it begins:

"Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church. She ran, then, through all that snow, and when she got back to her apartment she took the birds from their cages and set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said, 'I love you.' "

Said the academy: "One can delight in her unique narrative technique, varying from book to book and developed independently, even though its roots stem from Faulkner and American writers from further south. The lasting impression is nevertheless sympathy, humanity, of the kind which is always based on profound humor."

Morrison learned of the prize when a Princeton colleague heard the announcement on the "Today" show and called her. She initially didn't believe it, thinking at best that her name had shown up on a list of finalists.

If the Nobel was unexpected, that reverses the experience Morrison had when "Beloved" was published. The favorite for the National Book Award, it was upset by Larry Heinemann's "Paco's Story."

Four dozen black writers issued a statement of protest to the New York Times, pointedly noting that Morrison had never won either the NBA or a Pulitzer. "Beloved" promptly proceeded to capture the Pulitzer, sparking more controversy.

Morrison said in 1988 that the statement "was a kind of blessing for me -- to know that irrespective of the formal recognition that is available to a writer, that they appreciated the worth of my work to them. They redeemed me, but I am certain they played no significant role in the judgment."

Yesterday, one of those 48 signatories, Alice Walker, said: "No one writes more beautifully than Toni Morrison. She has consistently explored issues of true complexity and terror and love in the lives of African Americans. Harsh criticism has not dissuaded her. Prizes have not trapped her. She is a writer who well deserves this honor."

"I think she's a wonderful stylist and a terrific thinker," author Jane Smiley told the Associated Press. Smiley won the Pulitzer for the 1991 novel "A Thousand Acres."

Morrison's colleague at Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates, has frequently been mentioned as a possibility for a Nobel. "Oh, she won?" Oates said yesterday. "I didn't know. Well, that's wonderful. She's a wonderful writer. Extraordinary. Well deserved. I have to run out the door. But this is very exciting."

While Morrison's reviews generally have been laudatory, a small but vocal minority has argued that she is not of the very first caliber. Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel of slavery, "Middle Passage," said yesterday his vote would have gone to Oates. "She has a great body of writing to show." He said that Morrison, on the other hand, "has been the beneficiary of goodwill."

Johnson, author of "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970," said Morrison fused two political trends in American culture: black cultural nationalism and feminism. "But when that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh," Johnson said. "Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are." The award, he added, "was a triumph of political correctness."

That was upbeat compared with what the critic Stanley Crouch, author of "Notes of a Hanging Judge," had to say: "I hope this prize inspires her to write better books.

"She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. 'Beloved' was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn't deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. 'The Bluest Eye' was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did."

John A. Williams, often cited as the most under-appreciated black novelist of the last 20 years, correctly anticipated the response to Morrison's Nobel yesterday.

"I'd guess," he said, "all the guys are pissed, and the ladies like it. Quite a number of African American males feel that some of Toni's work portrays males negatively. But people never need a reason to trash anyone."

His own feeling: "I think it's great -- and it's even more fantastic that she made note of the fact that at last an African American had won that prize." (Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel last year, lives in Boston but regards himself as a West Indian poet.)

The literature prize is the first Nobel to be awarded this year. Economics, chemistry, medicine and physics will be announced in Stockholm next week, followed by the 1993 Peace Prize next Friday in Oslo.

Staff writers Marie Arana-Ward in Washington and Paula Span in Princeton contributed to this report.