That reputation was enchanced when, in 1993, she became only the fourth woman and second black person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2014, the University announced that her papers would be housed permanently at the Princeton Library. She also was an editor and professor, and had mentored generations of young writers of colour.
Knopf said Morrison passed away at the Montefiore Medical Center in NY.
Most recently, a new documentary on her life was released. "Jazz", published in 1992, was about a love triangle during the Harlem Renaissance in NY in the 1920s, and the third book, "Paradise", published in 1997, told of women in a small, predominantly black town.
The cause of death was not immediately clear, but her family said she had "a short illness".
"I can think of few writers in American letters who wrote with more humanity or with more love for language than Toni", Knopf Editor in Chief Sonny Mehta said.
"I wanted to read this book and no one had written it, so I thought that maybe I would write it in order to read it", Morrison said in 2015.
"And so even as Michelle and I mourn her loss and send our warmest sympathies to her family and friends, we know that her stories - that our stories - will always be with us, and with those who come after, and on and on, for all time".
Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 for "novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import", and she "gives life to an essential aspect of American reality", the Nobel Foundation wrote. Morrison shared those high opinions, repeatedly labeling one of her novels, "Love", as "perfect" and rejecting the idea that artistic achievement called for quiet modesty.
Toni Morrison on September 21, 2012. Holding close those touched by her being & her gift.
She married Harold Morrison in 1958, a Jamaican architect. "There is nothing in the world like ironed sheets", she told a New York Times Magazine writer who dared to admit that she mostly slept on rumpled bedding.
Morrison's other acclaimed novels included Sula (1973), about a black woman who disregards social conventions, and Jazz (1992), a historical novel that was part of a trilogy beginning with Beloved and ending with Paradise (1997). "She is so lyrical, so incredibly well versed", said one.
"The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind", Morrison wrote in Beloved, in which the ghost of the slain daughter returns to haunt and obsess her mother.
Morrison was grounded in the black cultural liberationist art of the 1960s, said Richard Yarborough, who teaches African American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Morrison's stories weave between the familiar and the fantastical: In Song of Solomon, a key element was an ancient folk tale about black people flying away from enslavement and back home to Africa.