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Toni Morrison Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon (1977)

I would like to start by suggesting that the European American experience has been crucially formed historically by two major cultural encounters. The first of these is the encounter with indigenous Americans (aka as native Americans / American Indians) and the second is with Africans shipped to America as slaves: black Americans or African Americans. Frederick Jackson Turner offers the model of the frontier as a line of encounter between westward moving European American pioneers (civilization) and the wilderness inhabited by savages, both of which must be mastered. It is in the mastering of nature and of primitive tribal cultures that the specific and exceptional American character is formed, according to his thesis. In his model the move westward — as it were horizontally across the map of North America from right to left as you look at it — could be turned through a 180 degree angle to be seen as a vertical chart of European Americans’ steady progress towards a higher civilized state, moving beyond the barbarism and savagery of primitive, inferior races. Similarly, the European American popular and scientific conception of African Americans was highly racialized and also involved a strong sense of superiority and a God-given right to mastery; by virtue of our Viking/Norman/Teutonic blood we were the master race. This is merely to reiterate in highly simplified terms some of the themes and preoccupations of the 19th century module. However, it is possible to reconceptualize the frontier, transforming it from a line of encounter between progressives and primitives to a space of mutual cultural influence. Again, it is similarly possible to consider the cultural encounter of European Americans and African Americans as not just a master/slave power relationship, but as a far more complex interaction between different cultures. However, I would argue that it is not possible to think seriously about an American literary canon and not consider the effect of indigenous and Africanist presence on all American authors. Toni Morrison argues the same point in relation to the influence of Africanist presence on American authors in her 1992 critical text, Playing in the Dark: whiteness and the literary imagination. You could certainly do worse than start your secondary reading with that text — although it’s not an easy text to read; or with the edited collection of interviews with Toni Morrison, entitled Conversations with Toni Morrison. I would issue a word of caution thought about secondary materials on Toni Morrison. Her fiction has sparked a phenomenal amount of critical studies, and not all of them are that good. What we always say about using secondary materials is even more important in her case: exercise your own judgement and evaluate the quality of the secondary materials, they may be second-rate, misguided, partial or plain wrong in their interpretations. I myself am particularly wary of critics who start sentences with phrases like: "The fact that Pilate’s navel is missing, means …" (and then they fill in the missing space with one explanation only). I am also alarmed by critics who seem to lack (or have temporarily mislaid) their sense of humour. This can lead to odd literal interpretations of passages which are candescent with wit, irony and a sense of the hilarious in human behaviour. Toni Morrison’s writing is incredibly intelligent, subtle and crafted, and deserves better than one-dimensional interpretations. So I want to raise some areas of complexity in the novel and open the text up for discussion, rather than shut it down with critical finality.

Response and/or Postmodernist Text

I should also say that I’m not going to talk about the rest of her fiction or her writing career as such here, since I have posted on "my naww web site a version of a lecture on Beloved, where I start by offering some more general remarks about her work and its development:

I shall however just mention a couple of issues that I listed on the module handout: text as call and response and as postmodernist. Call and response implies an active and participatory role for the reader. Indeed if you think about the origins of call and response in say Africanist preaching styles, it is probably inaccurate to talk about "the Text". Instead we should be thinking about "the voice" of the book, and indeed the voice of the author. This leads me directly to postmodernism: one of the problems with classic postmodernist theory is it denial of agency to the author. We are told it is naïve to talk about the author of a text, and should rather think about the text as cultural phenomenon produced through an author, rather than by an author. However, I think American ethnic writers might well object to this sophisticated version of cultural marginalization, and might well prefer to have their voices heard. Of course that doesn’t mean that their voices are naïve in any way; and in the case of Morrison her voice is exceptionally complex and rich, the result of that cultural interaction and mutual enrichment I mentioned just now. So, I would want to talk about voice not text here; but also start to define how multi dimensional and many layered that voice is. So, I would then need to come round to acknowledging that her "voice" informs the text but is transformed in the text to become a polyphonic or multi-voiced performance.

Male protagonist / Quest narrative

With her treatment of Milkman as the protagonist, Morrison offers a more in-depth treatment of the black male character than, with the exception of Shadrack, has been heretofore witnessed in her work. Through her characterization of Milkman, we are given a better rounded view of and careful insights into the complexity of the black male, his aspirations, frustrations, and determination. Morrison confessed that her effort here was intentional; she wanted to look at the world from a man’s point of view: "I’ve never considered looking at the world and looking at women through eyes of men [before]. It fascinated me. It really was, for me, the most incredible thing in the world. I was obsessed by it … I mean trying to feel things that are of no interest to me but I think are of interest to men, like winning, like kicking somebody, like running toward a confrontation; the level of excitement when they are in danger." Morrison accomplishes much of this task through the salient friendship and camaraderie that Milkman and Guitar share, but also through the other men. Here, unlike in Sula, for example, the men are not superficial or immature; Porter, Macon, Milkman, and Guitar are in fact most complex. (Wilfred D. Samuels in Bloom 1999, 21)

(Think about Samuels’ apparent lack of awareness of the archness of this reply.)

A number of critics have discussed the shift to a male protagonist in Song of Solomon; and it’s possible to read this as a conventional novel of education or personal formation, tracing Milkman’s personal development from rather self-centred and self preoccupied young man to an individual more aware of his roots and of the value of his community. The quest is not for the gold by for self-knowledge, and as such the novel has a definite moral tone to it. In particular we can read the novel as a "novel of immersion" in the roots of contemporary African American culture. (Remember Alex Haley’s Roots was published the same year as Song of Solomon.) In order to understand the present, middle class, northern blacks need to find out about their past, not try to obliterate it. That past includes the experience of slavery, an attention to African American folk tales, etc, and a journey in the reverse direction of the Great Migration — i.e. from urban North back down to the rural "backward" South. Reading this simply as a male quest narrative, we could attend to Milkman’s series of discoveries and how he learns to change his value system and becomes a more human and profound character by the end of the novel. However, the actual plotting of the novel is more complicated than that; partly because of the womanist position that the author inhabits, despite her "trying to feel things that are of no interest to [her] but [which she] think[s] are of interest to men."

Womanist disruption of masculinist plot

I don’t recommend he live like Pilate, I thought I would recommend he live like his father, but those two poles of opposition contribute to his education. Pilate is earth. Her brother is property.

Finally, Milkman is able to surrender to the air and ride it at the same time which to me is translatable — no, not translatable, it’s the sexual act, the actual penetration of a woman and having an orgasm; I imagine this is one thing that has the simultaneous feeling that a man at that moment might feel as he is doing both things: a) dominating the woman, b) he’s also surrendering to her at the same time. So that the rhythm of the book has this kind of building up, sort in and out, explosion. There’s the beat in it, in my books there’s always something in the blood, in the body, that’s operating underneath the language, it’s hard for me to get it in there so that you don’t read it. Because I lean very heavily on the reader in the book, I don’t say a lot, I mean you have to rely on the reader to help you to make the images work. But underneath there has to be some other thing, it’s like heartbeat, or it’s like the human responses that are always on the surface in all humans. And you struggle for it, once you know what it is. (Danille Taylor-Guthrie 1994, 76)

Although Milkman is the main narrative focalizer, and although the reader mainly reads the novel through his developing awareness, Morrison complicates the classic version of bildungsroman, by pulling away to focus on women characters. Just as she imagines a man’s feelings in orgasm as "a) dominating the woman, b) he’s also surrendering to her at the same time", so she introduces into the rhythms of the bildungsroman / quest plot a dialectic movement between that and gynocentric narratives. The stories of women’s lives are heard by the reader, despite his obtuseness: his mother, First Corinthians, Hagar etc. Think for example about the way in which Hagar’s shopping trip in search of personal glamour interrupts Milkman’s unravelling the mystery of the children’s song.

Other topics you might consider would be the significance of names. E.g. Hagar might refer to "Hag" or pilgrimage. The inclusion of the children’s rhyme might relate to issues of women and language as well as the fact that the "nonsense" part of the rhyme is probably composed of West African Creole and African names. In this respect also think of Pilate as griotte. (See Morrison’s "The Ancestor as Foundation" speech in Mari Evans).

Ironic tropes: Lincoln’s Heaven — late modernist

Growing up, Toni only knew her maternal grandparents, impoverished sharecroppers from Alabama. Her father’s parents, from Georgia had died by the time her father and mother had met.

Toni Morrison’s great-grandmother was an Indian who’d been given 88 acres of land by the Government during Reconstruction. It was the inspiration for Lincoln’s Heaven, that "little bit a place" she wrote about in Song of Solomon.

"The land got legally entangled," she tells me, "because of some debts my grandfather, who inherited it, owed — or, rather, didn’t know he owed. It was like the old man in Song of Solomon. Those people didn’t really understand what was happening. All they knew is that at one point they didn’t own the land anymore and had to work for the person who did." (Danille Taylor-Guthrie 1994, 54)

Samuels says of Lincoln’s Heaven: "As the farm’s name suggests, theirs was a Walden Pond-like existence, an Edenic world whose fertile soil enhanced bonding between father and son as well as providing the fulfilling experience, that of seeing the products of their joint nature and of being at one with the earth." (Bloom 1999, 11) As an author Morrison doesn’t want to provide historical or sociological explanation the whole time; however, that doesn’t mean that as reader’s we should be ignorant of history. Surely given the history of the civil war and Reconstruction, the name "Lincoln’s Heaven" is heavily ironic. This is not a simplistic invocation of the Emersonian and Thoreauvian lessons of nature as Samuels suggests, but a much bleaker, more bitter commentary on African American experience since the abolition of slavery. After all, Lincoln’s Heaven is introduced into a text, which starts with the story of Not Doctor Street and No Mercy Hospital. Think about the opening of the novel and about the ways in which Morrison introduces so many of the important themes; and also educates her readers into African American cultural attitudes and methods of civil disobedience through the practices of vernacular language and naming.

Diversity of source materials — postmodern after all?

Flying Africans and how to read the ending.

Well, in Song of Solomon I really did not mean to suggest that they kill each other, but out of a commitment and love and selflessness they are willing to risk the one thing that we have, life, and that’s the positive nature of the action. I never really believed that those two men would kill each other. I thought they would, like antelopes, lock horns, but it is important that Guitar put his gun down and does not blow Milkman out of the air, as he could. It’s important that he look at everything with his new eyes and say, "My man, my main man." It’s important that the metaphor be in the killing of this brother, that the two men who love each other nevertheless have no area in which they can talk, so they exercise some dominion over and demolition of the other. I wanted the language to be placid enough to suggest he was suspended in the air in the leap towards this thing, both loved and despised, and that he was willing to die for that idea, but not necessarily to die. (Danille Taylor-Guthrie 1994, 111)

Read flying Africans story — again the Norton Anthology of African American Literature is an invaluable resource. As well as the North / South cultural geography, we need to be aware of the metaphorical / or literal possibility of flight back across the Atlantic to West Africa.

In some ways this is more like a modernist novel; in that there seems to be a moral position. Despite the complexity of the narrative the reader senses that the author voices a vision of an underlying ethic; that notions of the transforming power of brotherly love, and of social justice can be invoked. The irony and humour of the text works because there is a stable sense of justice to work with (or against).

Yet one could argue that this is postmodernist in its juxtaposing different and potentially conflictual narratives. Pilate is depicted as a griotte, Circe could have been described in the same manner, but instead is apparently situated as the witch in a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel. One could argue that Hansel and Gretel is a diversionary tactic, indicating how Milkman misreads the scenario, since Circe turns out to be a benign and informative elder. Nevertheless, the novel not only draws on the myth of the flying Africans, but also the Brothers Grimm’s folk tale, on the story of Icarus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and also on the Classical Greek story of Odysseus. One could also see further classical Greek influence in the repetition of an Oedipal plot. 

Flawed Narrative?

A further difficulty arises therefore: are we prepared as readers to accept Toni Morrison’s sense of how we should read the ending? Her interpretation of her ending seems to involve a double twist: we are asked to accept the conventions of magic realism, and then we are asked to read the narrative of descent / immersion as a metaphor. As a National Book Critics Circle winner, (for Song of Solomon) Pulitzer Prize winner (for Beloved) and Nobel prize winner (1993) she has received substantial recognition. This doesn’t mean that she is incapable of writing a flawed narrative. In fact a flaw in the construction might have its own merits: if the notion of Paradise is posited on exclusion then surely it’s best to keep some flaws if that also means inclusion. (p. 327) Similarly, I have some problems with the uncompromising use of flying Africans. Despite her dislike of the label, I think Morrison does use magic realism techniques in this novel. As he discovers more about his roots, as all the parts of the pattern start to fall into place Milkman dreams of flying (297). The implication is that this is a true revelation of his tribal origins, not just a Freudian dream image. Yet at the start of the novel Robert Smith’s attempt at flight has predictably resulted in suicide. What has really changed by the end of the novel to favour the alternative reading that Milkman’s leap is not suicidal, but rather a moment of brotherly reconciliation?

Helen M Dennis