the 1st edition cover of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon

  • Author:  Toni Morrison  (b. 1931)
  • Rank:  #58
  • Published:  1977
  • Publisher:  Alfred Knopf
  • Pages:  337
  • First Line:  “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.”
  • Last Line:  “For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  National Book Critics Circle Award
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Spring, 2001

The Novel: 1977 is, in a sense, immortalized as the year about which people learned about the search for identity among black men in America.  On a cultural level, this is because of the original airing of Roots on television in January, a massive event that encompassed most of the television watching households in America.  But on a larger artistic scale, is Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, the novel that announced that she was one of the greatest writers currently at work in America, or indeed, the world.  This is the story of Milkman Macon, who goes from his dismissive nickname (given because he spent too long suckling) to the moment where, facing death, he embraces the potential of his identity.  It takes the mystical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and combines it with the African-American quest for identity from James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and is the rough draft, in a sense, for her masterpiece of perfection: Beloved.

The sense of magic begins from the very first lines.  We learn that the agent has promised to fly and in his note he writes “I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings.”  They are indeed his own wings.  There is nothing about a plane in this moment.  This moment establishes the town, the kind of names such a town has (No Doctor Street), the people who have come to it, populated in the years after the demise of slavery (and named in the strange way that many ex-slaves were – Milkman’s father is named Macon Dead and his two sisters are both named after pinpoints in The Bible), and the lives they are hoping to establish.  Morrison has a perfect grasp of the situation, of the kind of lives these people are living: “But there was nothing you could do with a mooring except acknowledge it, use it for the verification of some idea you wanted to keep alive.  Something else is needed to get from sunup to sundown: a balm, a gentle touch or nuzzling of some sort.”

Milkman, torn between conflicting stories of his family’s history and the strain between his parents, eventually sets off in search for his history and for the man that he will become.  In doing so, his cousin’s daughter falls in love with him and his best friend, Guitar, believes that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold which he wanted to fund his revenge killings against those who have been killing blacks.  As a result both of them constantly try to kill Milkman.  Morrison brilliantly underscores the tensions within the community, torn by both love and hate, and the self-destruction inherent in all of them.  You can feel the rage from the characters, such as when Guitar explains why he will kill white men to make up for the death of black man: “It doesn’t matter who did it.  Each and every one of them could do it . . . You think Hitler surprised them?  You think just because they went to war they thought he was a freak?  Hitler’s the most natural white man in the world.  He killed Jews and Gypsies because he didn’t have us.”

Eventually Milkman’s search brings him back to the town where his family had left and stories come alive for him.  “They talked on and on, using Milkman as the ignition that gunned their memories.”  He learns that his great-grandfather Solomon escaped slavery and his 21 children by flying back to Africa.  He encounters a kind of passion he couldn’t have imagined: “What she did for his sore feet, his cut face, his back, his neck, his thighs, and the palms of his hands was so delicious he couldn’t imagine that the lovemaking to follow would be anything but anticlimactic.”  (I am reminded here of the brilliant scene in Beloved where Amy brings feeling back to Sethe’s feet).

And all of it moves towards those final few pages, where violence and inheritance intertwine, where Milkman must take what he has learned of those who came before him, face the actions that he has brought upon himself and learn what his great-grandfather knew before him and bring the novel to the only true conclusion it could possibly have.

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